After balking earlier this year, Palo Alto officials are preparing to move ahead with significant technological upgrades to the Council Chambers, a project that aims to both boost the city's broadcasting capabilities and make the City Council's main meeting room more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The new proposal to upgrade the Council Chambers is a minimally scaled-down version of the $2-million-plus plan that staff had presented in March.
The goals of the new project, which still carries a price tag of about $2 million, is to replace obsolete technology, comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and make it easier for members of the community to follow the proceedings, both live and remotely. The council's Finance Committee endorsed the plan on Tuesday afternoon, when it voted 2-1, with Vice Chair Eric Filseth dissenting and Councilman Greg Tanaka absent, to move the proposal forward.
In voting against the motion, Filseth acknowledged that some repairs and upgrades would need to be made but said he favored splitting the project up into phases so that the council can consider each phase in the context of other priorities. Committee Chair Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Lydia Kou both voted to move ahead with improvements all at once to avoid the prospect of cost escalation.
The committee vote means that the council will have another chance in the coming weeks to consider a project that came under considerable criticism in late March, when council members and residents questioned the need for spending more than $2 million on renovations. At that time, the council urged staff to return with options for reducing the scope — and the cost — of the project.
The revised plan, which the committee considered Tuesday, is about $80,000 cheaper than the prior proposal. It includes the replacement of the council dais, a new height-adjustable lectern for public speakers and technological upgrades to allow the audience to use wireless-assisted listening devices — improvements that staff estimates will cost about $250,000 to implement.
Staff is also proposing to upgrade the broadcasting system by installing modern digital cameras, a switcher and technology that allows closed captions. The city would also replace the control booth, which would be equipped with a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. These broadcasting upgrades have a price tag of about $750,000.
Another $750,000 would be spent to upgrade the audio system in the Council Chambers with new speakers, wireless microphones and other supporting infrastructure; to install a dual-screen and projector system that could televise three simultaneous sources; improve lighting; and add a new audio-visual control system.
The committee also favored moving ahead with a few items that staff deemed to be less essential, including glare-reduction film at windows and motorized blackout shades. These items are expected to cost about $270,000.
Most of the funds for the projects would come from the Technology Fund, which collects revenues from other city departments for technological upgrades.
In explaining the need for the project, city staff pointed out that existing equipment is out of warranty and broken parts cannot be replaced. In one recent case, the city's contractor had to shop on eBay to get the parts he needed for the broadcasting equipment, Deputy City Manager Michelle Flaherty told the committee. The system, she said, is "at the point where it's being held together by chewing gum."
While some council members had dismissed the project earlier this year as an unneeded luxury (Tanaka called it a "vanity project"), Flaherty argued that the improvements are meant to benefit the community — not the council. She noted that the Council Chambers also get used by regional and community organizations.
"It touches a lot of different partners in the community," Flaherty said. "The functionality of equipment becomes an important issue for a lot of different folks in the community."
She also pointed to the difficulty contractors and employees have in maintaining the equipment under the present setup, which requires them to traverse sloped surfaces and climb a ladder behind the projection wall.
City Clerk Beth Minor also said that the current broadcast system is not user-friendly. Her staff is unable to help members of the public with hearing disabilities, she said. And some members of the public have trouble clearly seeing visuals on the screen and following staff presentations.
"It does not give them a good experience," Beth said.
Scharff concurred by recounting his recent experience in watching a recording of council members interviewing candidates for local commissions — an experience he described as "horrible" and "miserable."
"I was assuming we'd have better quality," Scharff said.
He also suggested that the council move ahead with all the changes at once, rather than pursue the more cautious phased approach that staff was recommending (under that recommendation, the improvements to the audio system would be deferred to fiscal year 2021).
"By phasing it, we run the risk of cost escalation and we don't get the benefits of having it now," Scharff said.
Filseth and Kou largely agreed that the project is worth pursuing, though there was some disagreement over the phasing. While Kou sided with Scharff and echoed his concerns about cost escalation, Filseth suggested that the city move ahead with some of the more urgent items — including ADA compliance and repairs to the obsolete voting system — and save some of the more discretionary items for later.
If the city had no competing priorities, it would make sense to make all these changes at once, Filseth said. In the real world, Filseth said, the council has to "balance all this stuff."
"It's not obvious (that we should) do it all at once," Filseth said. "That doesn't seem conservative to me."
City staff had also considered abolishing the KZSU radio booth as part of the Council Chambers renovations, with Flaherty stating that community members already have the option of streaming meetings on the internet. Minor called the equipment — both the furnishings and the radio equipment — "old and antiquated."
The committee was loath to pull the plug on the radio booth and excluded this change from its motion. Kou said she would support keeping the radio booth. She also agreed with staff's recommendation to improve the broadcast control room, where temperatures get so low that workers have to wear coats in the summertime.
"We have to be empathetic to the people who work to make sure these broadcasts go out well," Kou said.