News

Palo Alto prepares for smaller council

With loss of two members from the City Council, will new size be more efficient?

The Palo Alto City Council will see its number of members go down from nine to seven next month under a 2014 measure approved by voters. Photo by Veronica Weber.

On Oct. 3, 1924, a small item in the Santa Cruz Evening News offered a headline that to today's reader would surely be a chin-scratcher: "Palo Alto One of the Most Efficiently Run of American Cities, says speaker."

The speaker was M. E. Malcolm, Palo Alto's city attorney, and one of his talking points was the virtue of having a 15-member council, which even then was uniquely large for a city of Palo Alto's size.

"The speaker, in explaining the provision in the charter calling for a council of 15 members, showed that by having on the city board such a larger number of officials, the city was enabled to run its government with a perpetual smoothness, entirely obviating the unsettlement attendant upon the complete changing of an administration," the article stated. "This was made possible, he said, by having five members of the council elected every two years, thus always keeping on the board 10 holdover members."

Few observers today would use the word "efficient" to describe the Palo Alto City Council, which routinely debates issues well past midnight and still somehow fails to get through its agenda, pushing already outstanding items further into the future. This week's discussion of zoning revisions, for example, began at 5:30 p.m. and concluded seven hours later with frayed tempers, procedural squabbles and a confusing outcome. One council member — Tom DuBois — tapped out shortly after 11 p.m., noting that he couldn't think clearly anymore. The rest slogged on for another hour and a half and adopted a motion that Councilwoman Karen Holman described as "clear as mud."

By the time Mayor Liz Kniss called for the vote, over Holman's objections, it was evident that the rest of the zoning changes on the table would be deferred to a future date. With all the other meeting agendas in December already filled with items that have been carried over from prior months, it could be months before those changes return to the council.

The Dec. 3 discussion also perfectly encapsulates Palo Alto's civic culture, which is big on data collection, community involvement and council debate. On the one hand, this overabundance of democracy is a safeguard against the city doing anything drastic without proper outreach or analysis. On the other, it ensures that issues that take months to act upon elsewhere, here take years, if not decades.

Palo Alto's quest to build a "fiber to the premise" network, for instance, has been studied since the late 1990s, with little to show for all the work other than a stack of outdated studies. The city spent nearly a decade updating its Comprehensive Plan, a process that finally concluded in November 2017 (eight months later, the council had already amended the new document). It took the city close to two years to negotiate a contract with the nonprofit Pets In Need to take over operations of the local animal shelter.

Though few would attribute the slow pace exclusively to the council's large size, having more council members asking questions, requesting information and proposing amendments every week certainly doesn't help speed matters along.

But would a svelter seven-member council improve efficiency? The city will find out next month when the 2014 voter-approved new council size becomes a reality. With the era of the large council officially coming to an end, those who support the shift from nine to seven predict it will bring some much-needed efficiency to City Hall. Others, including most members in the council's "residentialist" minority, fear the change will make it harder for council members to have meaningful relationships with both their constituents and with regional agencies.

Regardless of who is right, the move is already forcing city staff and council members to grapple with the changes that the smaller council will necessitate, including slimmer council committees, lower thresholds for proposing new legislation and, perhaps positively, new opportunities for residents to get involved in governance.

First there were 15

The reasons for Palo Alto's long meetings are both cultural and structural. On the one hand, most council members like to comment on most items most of the time — a habit that members always vow to shake during their annual retreats but that they never get around to shaking. It doesn't help, however, that Palo Alto, a city with 67,000 residents, has a larger City Council than any city of comparable size — an anomaly that became a fixed reality 109 years ago, when voters approved the first City Charter, calling for a 15-member council.

The decision led to a 15-member council called the Board of Freeholders, who over a series of meetings in 1908 crafted the city's first charter. The city's first governing body, the Board of Trustees, voted 4-1 in January 1909 to place the charter on the January 1909 ballot and voters adopted it by a 355-225 vote. The only trustee to oppose the new charter was attorney Joseph Hutchinson, the president of the Board of Trustees and a big-government skeptic. (Hutchinson's story did not have a happy ending; the city's "first mayor" killed himself in September 1910 by inhaling gas in his Professorville home, according to newspaper accounts.)

For the Board of Freeholders, which included civic leaders, attorneys and Stanford University professors and which was operating in a growing town run largely by volunteers, bigger was clearly better when it came to council size. C.W. Charles, an attorney and a freeholder, was among the proponents of this view. In January 1909, weeks before the charter vote, Charles gave a talk at Mullen's Hall espousing the advantages of a large city council, according to the Daily Palo Alto Times. (Charles' story also did not have a happy ending; the judge who helped frame the city's charter was killed at a rail crossing in December 1916 when an automatic gate struck him, according to newspaper accounts.)

So the group came up with a system that Malcolm described as "unique in formation," in which different non-salaried commissions — including public works, safety and library — handled most administrative functions with the help of a bare-bones staff. Fifteen council members, all spurred by "public spirit" and working without a salary, handled the legislative functions.

Accounts from the era suggest that the system functioned pretty well until mid-century, when it suddenly didn't. The city's population exploded after World War II, most of south Palo Alto was annexed in 1951 and demand for services surged. To meet growing demands, Palo Alto approved a charter change in 1950 to create a city-manager form of government.

By that time, residents were also questioning whether Palo Alto really needed to have more council members than any other California city save Los Angeles. The council considered a reduction in council seats in 1950 but put off the idea so that it could focus on the other charter reforms.

"I think back in 1919, there was a justification for the larger council because the council had to do everything," said Steve Staiger, Palo Alto's city historian. "You had this new streetcar system, you had this little library, you had a lot of things in the city that other towns of its size didn't have. Then there was a reality check in the 1960s. Times have changed and people figured, 'We don't need it anymore.'"

The move to reduce the council began in February 1963, when the City Council appointed a panel called the Mayor's Charter Review Committee to study the size reduction and other possible reforms. Nine months later, the committee recommended gradually reducing council from 15 seats to nine in three two-seat increments, starting in 1966.

Joseph S. Lawry, who chaired the committee, wrote in his argument that the reduction of the council from 15 seats to nine was a "compromise between the views of those who experienced great satisfaction with the 15-member council that has existed for 54 years and those who see a changing situation brought about by area growth."

"It was therefore the recommendation of the committee that the effectiveness of the council would be improved and its work expedited by a reduction in size to nine," Lawry wrote.

Not everyone shared this view. Former mayors Frances Dias and J. Pearce Mitchell both opposed the change and called the move "an unnecessary and unwise concession to certain minority groups in an attempt to upset our present efficient and well-balanced city government." A 15-member council, they wrote on the opposing argument, "represents all the people and gives every segment of the electorate a chance at direct representation."

"To cut it to nine is illogical. How can nine be more representative than 15? The fallacy of that argument is apparent on the face of it. We have a fine, well-proven and well-functioning city government. To tamper with it is dangerous."

It's easy to see why the majority of the voters in 1963 didn't buy this argument. At the time, the council at war with itself as members of the pro-growth "establishment" feuded with slow-growth "residentialists" over everything from development proposals to meeting minutes.

Jay Thorwaldson, who began covering the council for the Palo Alto Times in 1966, said the political climate was epitomized by Halloween night in 1966, when all six residentialists boycotted the meeting, depriving the establishment of the votes it would need for routine actions (two council members, Robert Debs and Bob Cooley, almost got into a fistfight and had to be separated by the city manager). The boycott, Thorwaldson said, was emblematic of the type of obstruction and inefficiency that characterized the council of the 1960s. Thorwaldson recalled staying at City Hall until 4 a.m. during some meeting nights.

"That became a real problem. For example, you were supposed to pass a budget by June 30 but the council on June 30 might still be dealing with things from the May 21 meeting or something," Thorwaldson said.

And then there were seven

There is no clear-cut consensus in Palo Alto today on whether a smaller council is a good thing. When the Palo Alto council placed the seat-reduction measure on the ballot in 2014, it did so by a 5-4 vote, with one supporter, Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, saying she was "51-to-49" on the issue. Voters approved the switch by a solid but unemphatic majority, with 10,495 voters supporting Measure D (53.7 percent) and 9,048 opposing it (46.3 percent).

Much like their predecessors 50 years ago, supporters of the reduction (including Kniss and former mayors Betsy Bechtel and Mike Cobb) framed the move as a way to introduce some efficiency to a council where it's been sorely lacking. Roger Smith, the founder Silicon Valley Bank, led the drive for the 2014 measure. His reason, as he told the Weekly at the time, was simple: Time is money.

"I've never talked to someone who prefers to have nine bosses to seven bosses," Smith told the Weekly shortly after the election.

Others, particularly those who consider themselves residentialists, have been skeptical about the switch. Opponents of Measure D, including former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and current council members Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou, maintain that fewer seats will result in less representation and less citizen participation. Palo Alto, they say, is unlike any other city in the area because it operates its own utilities and has to deal with a giant and complex entity called Stanford University. Reducing the council size, they wrote in the argument, would "put power in the hands of fewer people."

"On one extreme, a one-member council would be highly efficient, but no one wants a dictator," the opposition argument stated.

There is, of course, plenty of room between a lonely dictator and a nine-member council — a space large enough to accommodate every city in Santa Clara County except San Jose. Nine out of 15 municipalities in the county function with five-member councils (Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Milpitas, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill and Saratoga); four have seven (Gilroy, Mountain View, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale). The only two cities with more than seven are Palo Alto and San Jose, which has 10 council members (and an elected mayor) and a population of more than 1 million.

The City Council began to grapple with the new reality in late October, when it voted to reduce the size of its standing committees from four to three members and changed the rules for "colleagues memos" — a common tool used by council members to introduce new legislation. The maximum number of colleagues who can co-sign such a memo was reduced from four to three, though City Attorney Molly Stump suggested that two would be a legally safer choice.

Both rule changes were required to ensure that the city complies with California's Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires subcommittees to have fewer members than the majority of the primary body.

Other changes may soon be on the way. Early next year, the council will move ahead with revisions to its policies and procedures, a process that the Policy and Services Committee kicked off on Nov. 14. As part of this revision process, council members are weighing new reforms, some of which are almost certain to revive the tension between democracy and efficiency.

One area on which there is currently no clear consensus surrounds the "consent calendar," a list of agenda items that get approved simultaneously, with no council discussion. Today, it takes three council members to remove an item from consent and schedule a full hearing on it. But with a smaller council, some members would like to see the threshold to remove an item drop to two council members — or even one.

Council members who tend to be most cautious and skeptical about new development have tended to also be more wary about streamlining the approval process or limiting public debate. Kou and Holman, who both lean toward slow city growth, support making it easier to remove items from the consent calendar. Holman argued that requiring three votes to pull an item from the consent is a higher hurdle for a seven-member council than it is for the current council.

Councilman Adrian Fine, who has regularly talked about the need for the council to be more efficient, pushed back against a proposal to make it easier to pull items off the consent calendar. Over the past two years, he said, the council has taken many items off consent and ultimately passed all of them except the renovation of the Council Chambers, Fine said.

"There is a cost to staff, the city and to residents both in terms of policy, in terms of council time and in terms of dollars spent," Fine said about pulling items off consent. "I think it's an important consideration."

DuBois, who also tends to lean toward slower city growth, suggested that the council adopt a new policy that would allow any member to effectively continue any item to the next meeting, thus giving members more time to consider the item's implication. Councilman Cory Wolbach, who favors more city growth, rejected the idea and suggested that it would allow the council minority to engage in obstructionism.

"It's like a filibuster, but you don't even have to keep talking," Wolbach said.

The council members did agree on one thing: A smaller council will make it harder for members, and the city, to maintain a regional presence. DuBois said the council members currently serve in 37 "liaisons" roles with local organizations (including nonprofit Palo Alto Housing and Avenidas) and regional organizations (such as the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which operates Caltrain, and the Association of Bay Area Governments, which sets housing targets for Bay Area municipalities). In recent interviews, both Fine and DuBois brought that up as one of their major concerns when it comes to the seat reduction.

"When they are spread out among seven members, it means each of us has to do a little more," Fine told the Weekly.

To deal with the increasing workload, DuBois recommended that the city allow non-elected residents to serve in some of these liaison roles to ensure that the city doesn't lose its voice — an idea to which no one objected.

DuBois said he is also concerned that the smaller council will increase the role of money in local politics by making it easier for wealthy donors to target one or two candidates with their contributions. When that happens, money will have a greater influence on decisions, DuBois said. Some cities, including Mountain View, have voluntary campaign limits to prevent large campaign contributions. Palo Alto does not, though DuBois believes it should.

"Some kind of campaign-finance limits should really be considered once we get down to seven seats," DuBois told the Weekly.

Fewer members, more talk?

Government watchers often point out that fewer seats won't, in of itself, make the council more efficient and effective. It will also take discipline from the people filling these seats. Thorwaldson, who is also the former editor of the Palo Alto Weekly, said he believes council conversations "expand according to the time available." Under his theory, members of the smaller council will simply talk for longer because — all of a sudden — they will be able to.

Longtime council observer Herb Borock agreed. Reducing the council size may make things more efficient for developers and employers who want to see their projects encounter less questioning and opposition, he said. But it might not do much to constrain council meetings.

"Each member will just talk more," Borock said.

Council members themselves have publicly acknowledged on many occasions that they need to do a better job limiting their comments.

"If we want to have more efficient and more engaged meetings, that's up to each of us as council members," Fine told the Weekly.

Earlier this year, at the council's annual retreat, Fine urged his colleagues to "figure out where we can be a little more quick and a little bit more efficient in terms of using our time on council and staff's time and the public process to reach efficient, sustainable and transparent decisions." Fine also challenged Kniss, who as mayor presides over meetings, to "keep us on a time clock and make sure that we do our meetings efficiently and rapidly and crisply."

Kniss agreed that council members should be more "succinct" but suggested that requiring members to talk less may be an exercise in futility. The time restrictions, she said, have been suggested every year that she's been on the council but never pursued.

"Apparently it doesn't seem to be part of our process to limit our comments," Kniss said.

That idea is now once again resurfacing. During the Policy and Services' Nov. 14 discussion, several council members said they would support having a digital timer tracking how long every council member has spoken. Wolbach proposed having a chess clock at meetings to nudge members to wrap it up.

"Not binding, but just a little bit of public shaming," Wolbach said.

Another idea that some members believe will make the council more efficient and effective is prohibiting council members from making new legislative proposals during council meetings without first vetting them with staff. Holman cited the infamous January 2017 meeting in which the council's five-member pro-growth majority approved a series of changes to the Comprehensive Plan by a 5-4 vote. These included the removal of every policy from the plan, which staff had neither analyzed nor recommended. That action was widely criticized and ultimately rolled back.

At the Nov. 14 meeting of the Policy and Services Committee, Holman made a push to adopt a policy preventing the council from making significant changes to proposals in the 11th hour, a habit that both extends meetings and breeds citizen mistrust. Her suggestion prompted a debate over what exactly constitutes a "significant" change. Holman herself won't be around to see whether such a policy will be implemented; she, Wolbach and Greg Scharff will all be off the council next year. But the council's newest member, Alison Cormack, seems to share her view about late-night surprises. When asked at an October debate what she would do about last-minute legislative proposals, her answer was simple: Vote no.

Whether the seven-member size will usher in a new era of efficacy for the city and council is yet to be seen. But those favoring the council reduction are hoping the upcoming change will help Palo Alto to succeed in 2019 in meeting its two key goals: increasing the city's housing supply and making a decision on grade separations, the physical separation of Caltrain tracks from local streets at four rail crossings. The latter issue is particularly urgent, given that the city is competing for county funds with Mountain View and Sunnyvale, cities that are well ahead of Palo Alto in their design plans.

During the council's February retreat, City Manager James Keene cited the "ticking clock" on the grade-separation issue and noted his concern about the speed of the city's decision-making.

"Our beloved 'Palo Alto Process' is not well-aligned with the crisis aspect of this issue," Keene said at the retreat.

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Comments

22 people like this
Posted by A Call For Improved Representation
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 7, 2018 at 9:03 am

Given recent developments (no pun intended), a 7 member PACC may not be representative of the entire Palo Alto community or its best interests.

Campaign promises are often disregarded and councilmember decisions not reflective of the constituency.

The PACC needs to be kept 'in check' and perhaps the only way to ensure that is to have a secondary council consisting of volunteer representatives from neighborhood 'districts' who have veto power over PACC decisions.

Essentially a 'House of Council' and a 'House of Residency'. While the House of Residency would naturally have more members, a majority vote among themselves would serve to either counter or support various PACC leanings and proposals.

While this concept may sound complex, most Palo Altans tend to be somewhat civic-minded and their voices need to be heard on a far larger scale as PACC members often turn a deaf ear and proceed in any which manner they choose.

Think of it as a Senate (PACC) and a House of Representatives (based on PA residencies).





18 people like this
Posted by Resign tom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 7, 2018 at 9:08 am

Does anyone else see a problem with a council member just leaving in the middle of a meeting? According to this story Tom Dubois walked out at 11pm because he was fatigued. Some excuse. Maybe tom should resign if he cannot handle the meetings.


27 people like this
Posted by Ares
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2018 at 9:28 am

Better to have an honest clear thinking council member that leaves than the council who stay and vote based on a majority pack anyway. Would have been nicer to hear that leaving was in protest.

The voters are the one who are leaving a minority to handle the pro-growth overrun.


18 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 7, 2018 at 11:24 am

Annette is a registered user.

"Wolbach proposed having a chess clock at meetings to nudge members to wrap it up." Followed by: "Not binding, but just a little bit of public shaming," Wolbach said.

Anyone who has attended CC in the last 4 years has got to see the humor in the above.


88 people like this
Posted by Reader X
a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2018 at 11:30 am

@A Call For Improved Representation:

For comparison, neighboring Mountain View has a seven member city council.

For reference, here are the estimated populations of both cities:

Mountain View: 74,000
Palo Alto: 67,000

Both Menlo Park and Los Altos are about half the population of Palo Alto. Both cities have five member city councils.


8 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2018 at 11:52 am

> Both Menlo Park and Los Altos are about half the population
> of Palo Alto. Both cities have five member city councils.

While this is true—such a comparison does not provide much in the way of understanding the differences in local government size.

For instance—Menlo Park and Los Altos do not have their own fire departments. Fire services are provided by other agencies. Menlo Park does not provide sewer services—it is a member of a “sewer district”. Palo Alto provides utilities—which hires 300 employees (about 1/3rd of the total City FTE headcount). Palo Alto operates an airport (mostly for non-Palo Alto residents). Palo Alto has over 4,000 acres of park land. Palo Alto operates a golf course (again utilized heavily by non-residents). Los Altos does not operate its own library.

There are so many differences between Palo Alto and these two cities to quickly recognize that population is not a good metric to size a council.

Presumably, with larger budgets and more government assets to be managed—a larger council is required. Interestingly, Santa Clara County, with a budget in the billions, operates with only five supervisors.


3 people like this
Posted by Frankie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 7, 2018 at 1:10 pm

WHY is their nothing about Pearl Harbor today.??????? Its Dec7 people.. shame on you guys.


5 people like this
Posted by 7 Of 9
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2018 at 1:29 pm

9 or 7 PACC members = no big difference one way or the other.

Results still the same.


13 people like this
Posted by Covering those regional agency seats is critical.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 7, 2018 at 1:30 pm

Covering those regional agency seats is critical. is a registered user.

I am VERY concerned about the challenges related to maintaining coverage on regional agency committees. These agencies are the gatekeepers who control flow of state, county and federal dollars to cities. Palo Alto must be represented at those tables.

For big money issues like funding: grade separation or transit or affordable housing, etc. it is critical to be represented.

If we snooze, we lose. What is the plan to cover those seats? Figuring this out should be a very high priority.


1 person likes this
Posted by roger
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 7, 2018 at 3:23 pm

san mateo has a population of 104,748 palo alto has a population of 67,178----san mateo has 5 city council members---maybe someone should call them


6 people like this
Posted by Alvin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2018 at 4:51 pm

They can replace the entire city council and all the departments, except Police and Fire, with an AI computer trained in the philosophies of Adam Smith, Friedrick Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and Palo Alto would instantly have more housing and jobs, less abuse, and overall happier residents.


3 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2018 at 5:02 pm

> San Mateo

The following is from the San Mateo 2017-18 budget book:

"This modification to the originally proposed budget brought the overall spending plan for fiscal year 2017-18 to $293.5 million, with $159.1 million appropriated to the operating budget and $134.4 million appropriated to the capital budget."

Palo Alto's operating budget is about $200M for this same time frame. San Mateo employees about 685 FTEs, which is about the same number as Palo Alto, with the Utilities not counted.

City of San Mateo does not have as many "moving parts" as Palo Alto. Also, Stanford issues also take up some City of Palo Alto's time.


7 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 7, 2018 at 5:27 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@Annette
Yes, I do see the humor in that. That timer would have gone off a lot if it had been used at current CC meetings and by certain individuals...and 'shame' on them.
@Wayne Martin
You made very good points about the comparisons of cities. A smaller CC might require a bigger staff, and they get paid pretty well, and have a good pension plan also, that's sinking us. CC members get paid but it's below minimum wage I'm sure.

And my friend, Jay Thorwaldson, got it right. Fewer members allows them to talk longer. Eloquent speechmakers aren't what we need at the local level. Let them make their way to D.C. where that skill/art is necessary.

Our new CC could be a good one (I'm hopeful) and actually get something done. A lot hinges on our new CC member. Hopefully, Alison will be a calm, thoughtful, and independent voice on council. That, however, was our expectation from the past from other candidates and it didn't work out so well. A lot of flipping happened after candidates were elected, and even before, when a couple switched political parties. Yes, you better be a registered Democrat if you ever hope to be elected to any office in the area.

The priorities: CC members are true warriors (maybe self injurers) to tackle the housing and grade separation issues. I've followed the track record of our current CC. Not good. On housing...we'll lose 75 residents in Hotel President, and gain none this year. Oh, don't get your knickers all bunched up...I know about the approval of the VTA site project, but construction hasn't started and probably won't until well into next year. And that serves mostly market rate housing folks, the one's who can pay $3,000/mo for a 1 bdrm apartment, and an untested challenge of how well 'lite parking' will work out. The latest changes to attract developers to build housing is in an experimental...wait and see...stage. If the latest bait isn't enough, then just forget about talking about more housing in PA. Scratch that off as a priority and a time waster at CC meetings.

Grade separation: A formidable and maybe impossible task for our Rail Committee, chaired by several of our hard working members on CC. Thanks to their efforts the options have been narrowed down, but still a long ways to go before one is chosen. The cost range of options is huge and the funding for the best one is probably an unachievable task. And now we hear our neighboring cities have beat us to the punch for funding. Were we asleep at the switch because of our sloth speed decision making process based on staff studies and consultants?


12 people like this
Posted by Control the PACC
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 7, 2018 at 5:41 pm

Council size in relation to Palo Alto's population is irrelevant because...
>...a 7 member PACC may not be representative of the entire Palo Alto community or its best interests.

>Campaign promises are often disregarded and councilmember decisions not reflective of the constituency.

The PACC needs to be held accountable for its past actions and kept in check to prevent measures that do not reflect the bests interests of the community.

Just because they are councilmembers doesn't make them experts on anything...they are strictly small-time politicians.


10 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2018 at 7:54 pm

> A smaller CC might require a bigger staff,

Not really—the Council is restricted by Charter from being involved in the management of the City. At the moment, other than creating the mysterious “colleagues memo”, voting on the budget and hiring/firing City Managers—the Council is pretty much restricted to approving “policy”.

There are so many issues here. When a previous Auditor, Sharon Erickson, appeared on the scene several years ago, one of her first audits was to track contracts through the City Hall as a function of time. If memory serves, she found that it took about 190 days for most contracts to work their way from beginning to final sign-off.

Don’t think that there was ever a follow-up audit to see if this number came down—but it was clear at that time that moving contracts though City Hall with the greatest alacrity was not high on Staff’s agenda.

Here in Palo Alto, the City Manager runs the City. And, as everyone knows, management—both good and bad—starts at the top of the organization. If the City Manager is satisfied with six+ months to get a contract signed, then staff is going to be satisfied with business as usual. Everything revolves around what the City Manager is capable of doing with the organization under him.

In this town, based on the Charter, the Council, no matter what its size, has much to say about how things operate outside the Council Chambers. Yes, they can nudge, if they dare, but they just don’t have the “juice” to buck the City Manager if they are not willing to fire him/her.


1 person likes this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 7, 2018 at 8:28 pm

Ooops:

> has much

doesn't have much


6 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2018 at 9:16 am

Annette is a registered user.

I don't think of this as smaller so much as right-sized. Seven capable people ought to be sufficient for a city the size of Palo Alto. And, logically, more efficient than nine. Unless the nonsense continues. When there's nonsense and shenanigans, there's distrust. And the public engages more and dissension grows. And there are more questions for the City Attorney. All this results in long meetings and late night decisions by exhausted people. So if the seven maintain a level playing field, reject hidden agendas, treat the public respectfully, and represent the best interests of the residents they ostensibly serve, a smaller Council should work.

On the flip side, if hidden agendas and other such nonsense continue, it is easier to persuade 3 others than it is 4 others. And therein lies the rub; success depends on the character of those who serve.


16 people like this
Posted by R.Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2018 at 9:22 am

R.Davis is a registered user.

QUOTE: Here in Palo Alto, the City Manager runs the City. And, as everyone knows, management...
QUOTE: In this town, based on the Charter, the Council, no matter what its size, has much to say about how things operate outside the Council Chambers...they just don’t have the “juice” to buck the City Manager if they are not willing to fire him/her.

Well said Mr. Martin. Apparently some disgruntled PA residents are unfamiliar with the City Manager model of local government.



4 people like this
Posted by The City Manager Calls the Shots
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2018 at 2:38 pm

> the Council, no matter what its size...they just don’t have the “juice” to buck the City Manager if they are not willing to fire him/her.

You make the PACC sound like a bunch of ineffectual local politicians who cater to the City Manager.

What's the point of even being a council member...to create a false inner impression of status/prestige and/or community admiration?


2 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 8, 2018 at 2:59 pm

jh is a registered user.

For those with a professional interest in council decisions, either direct or indirect, this can justify the huge amount of time away from their professions to be on the council, as it also does for those with political ambitions. There are fewer qualified and serious council candidates who do not have a professional stake in the outcome to justify the time taken away from their professional and personal lives willing to make the considerable sacrifice involved. Perhaps a five rather than seven council member will, at some point in the future, give residents better odds of representation on the council. There have only been two years, in the many I have lived here, where the commercial and the residential interests were more evenly represented, plus one swing vote.


10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 8, 2018 at 3:45 pm

@jh, good point. Overall, city size doesn't call for a bigger council; neither the size of the organization nor the number of residents require more than a small number at the governance level. But there is an issue of the quality of the members and who they actually represent. We now have several CC members who mostly represent developers or unions - resident interests are secondary for them.

I expect soon someone will launch a California Voting Rights Act challenge to the City, just as they have to PAUSD, Menlo Park, Santa Clara, etc. This challenge always wins - Santa Monica and Santa Clara both spent millions fighting it and lost hands-down. That will force the Council to go to district elections vs. at-large, which will dramatically change campaigning. With 7 districts, the cost of campaigning will plummet and door-to-door strategies will be effective - candidates can meet every household (about 40K voters / 7 districts = 5700 voters or about 3000 households per district. This could be very good for residents.


2 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2018 at 8:13 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@Resident. Right about now I'm thinking that can't happen soon enough. District elections might shift things back towards representative government.


3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 8, 2018 at 10:49 pm

^ A representative government is in the eyes of the beholder.


16 people like this
Posted by Sounds Good In Theory But...
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 9, 2018 at 2:18 pm

> That will force the Council to go to district elections vs. at-large, which will dramatically change campaigning. With 7 districts, the cost of campaigning will plummet and door-to-door strategies will be effective - - candidates can meet every household (about 40K voters / 7 districts = 5700 voters or about 3000 households per district. This could be very good for residents.

A good concept in theory but it could create infighting among council members based on different socio-economic wealth factors and demographics.

Can't picture the folks (or their representatives) from the wealthier PA neighborhoods fully understanding or vicariously experiencing what some of the the poorer residents are going through. This includes the homeless, RV transients and residents on rent subsidies + the notorious NIMBY factor many PA 'progressives' are known for.

The changing demographics will also reflect cultural biases as the uproar over a proposed renaming of Terman Middle School clearly indicated.

The various catfights will provide plenty of editorial fodder and reportage opportunities for the PA Weekly staff. Stay tuned...


4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 9, 2018 at 5:42 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


23 people like this
Posted by A Change Is Gonna Come
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 9, 2018 at 6:29 pm

"That will force the Council to go to district elections vs. at-large, which will dramatically change campaigning."

Though the election system in PA is far from perfect, having district representatives could drive a wedge between neighborhoods when it comes to certain city issues/decisions.

It would also open the door for 'one hand washes the other' kind of backroom dealings between councilmembers. If you think certain decisions are stealth' now, just wait.

It's called big-city politicking and Palo Alto will be entering into an entirely new realm of wheeling and dealing. Be careful what you wish for.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2018 at 7:59 pm

@Change, it doesn't matter whether you wish for it or not. When the legal challenge comes, Palo Alto will have to change to district elections - nobody beats a CVRA challenge.


10 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 10, 2018 at 11:38 am

Annette is a registered user.

Responding to Sounds Good in Theory But . . . you wrote "A good concept in theory but it could create infighting among council members based on different socio-economic wealth factors and demographics."

I think we are there already. I've long thought that part of this city's problem is that many of the council members are wealthy and therefore comfortably isolated from the impact of their decisions. District elections might even that out some.

I recently read a guest opinion about the housing shortage in the SVBJ. The author places the blame for the shortage on residents. I disagree with that. With the exception of those residents who serve on CC, residents do not approve commercial development. The majority on our CC does and they have approved office development over and over and over again. Those votes repeatedly ignored the jobs:housing imbalance. But it worked for them. When the imbalance was in the 2:1 territory, a CC that was genuinely aiming to strike a balance would have at least started to apply the brakes. Ours did not. And the imbalance blew straight through 2:1 and we are now in 3:1 territory. And still the Majority ignores the obvious. Even tonight they are poised to make changes that simultaneously ADD commercial and ELIMINATE housing.

We are expected to acquiesce and quietly accept ALL the commercial development and its impacts PLUS an enormous amount of new housing and its impacts. Further, most of what's talked about is workforce housing, not housing for those who arguably need it most. Those members of our community apparently are overlooked. Some even say "too bad, if you cannot afford to live here, leave". Of course it is advisable to live where you can afford to live but in this instance CONTEXT matters. No amount of belt-tightening works in this sort of market and our majority nurtured the problem that is driving people out. That is irresponsible government at work. And residents are supposed to be quiet about all this? That's nuts.

Our governance model is failing us. Even if district elections aren't a panacea, I doubt they will make us worse off than we are presently.


6 people like this
Posted by Homeless & RV Voter Districts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2018 at 12:38 pm

Will those without fixed addresses be required to register within a specific neighborhood in order to vote?

Is it OK to request an absentee ballot and have it sent to one specific mailing address (e.g. another RV dweller who happens to have a PO Box in town)?

Some of us will be demanding equal representation (by way of voting rights) in Palo Alto and our needs should be heard as well.

Palo Alto should not just be for the rich folks who can afford to buy a house in the better parts of town. The PACC should be reflective of the entire community regardless of their personal wealth and/or personal possessions.


6 people like this
Posted by Ray
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 10, 2018 at 3:20 pm

"+ the notorious NIMBY factor..." Didn't have to add characterizing a segment of Palo Alto residents as if it is limited. NIMBY works well with most people, progressive or conservative.

Want a goat farm and cement plant next door?


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Posted by P
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 12, 2018 at 6:19 am

Slightly related but kudos to Emeryville for their prooosed 54 story mixed use (mostly residential tower) and to Google for their plan to add 8,000 residential units as part of their HQ expansion.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto has tiny buildings and a growing crisis. We need bold leaders and several skyscrapers of our own.


8 people like this
Posted by The RV Vote?
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 12, 2018 at 8:26 am

> Some of us will be demanding equal representation (by way of voting rights) in Palo Alto and our needs should be heard as well.

Outside of the right to vote in national, state and county elections, should transient RV dwellers have a legal voice regarding Palo Alto politics and/or its various propositions?

Since many are squatters and do not pay rent or property taxes does a 'no representation with no taxation' concept apply?


15 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2018 at 9:47 am

Posted by P, a resident of Stanford

>> Slightly related but kudos to Emeryville for their prooosed 54 story mixed use (mostly residential tower)

"Mostly residential"? I've heard that before. What is the actual ratio of jobs to housing going to be?

>> and to Google for their plan to add 8,000 residential units as part of their HQ expansion.

Less housing than jobs, as usual.

>> Meanwhile, Palo Alto has tiny buildings and a growing crisis. We need bold leaders and several skyscrapers of our own.

No, "we" don't need skyscrapers. Speak for yourself. -I- don't need skyscrapers. They are a solution looking for a problem. Skyscrapers are buildings that externalize as many costs as possible to other taxpayers.


12 people like this
Posted by RV Sympathies? Hardly
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 12, 2018 at 3:08 pm

> Some of us will be demanding equal representation (by way of voting rights) in Palo Alto and our needs should be heard as well.

@Homeless & RV Voter Districts
Think again. it's not going to happen on my watch.

> Outside of the right to vote in national, state and county elections, should transient RV dwellers have a legal voice regarding Palo Alto politics and/or its various propositions?

These individuals have absolutely no say in regards to any Palo Alto-related decisions. When they start paying some property taxes (or rent), then we'll talk. In the meantime, they are only entitled to the minimal protections and services under the law (i.e. police/fire/EMT/food stamps) but that's about it.

>> Since many are squatters and do not pay rent or property taxes does a 'no representation with no taxation' concept apply?

Absolutely. No one rides for free.


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Posted by Sea Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 13, 2018 at 3:58 pm

Sea Seelam Reddy is a registered user.

We are going to miss two great citizens of Palo Alto Greg Scharff and Karen Holman on the council in 2019 and forward.

While they often have differences on how to address city issues, I like their passion. We will miss them.

Best wishes to both and Jim Keene on his retirement.


6 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2018 at 4:20 pm

Posted by Sea Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace

>> Best wishes to both and Jim Keene on his retirement.

I have a different wish. I wish the new CC will set -policy- transparently, and, through the City Manager, who works for the CC and the voters, implement that policy through designated city staff. We don't need the CC engaging in direct negotiations with individual property owners who are seeking special privileges.

Instead, we need a -level playing field- in which all property owners abide by the rules without favoritism.

That is the key concept of good government: the -level playing field-.


6 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 15, 2018 at 1:50 pm

While the article above is all technically correct, it does not delve into the political history of the Council in any meaningful way. For a town founded in 1894, this would take more than a simple article to do justice to the Council’s history.

Moreover, it’s a certain bet that most people living in Palo Alto today did not grow up here, so their knowledge of local history might not be as complete as where they grew up. As such, it’s understandable that most don’t really have a clear view of the current structure and workings of the Palo Alto City government. It’s doubtful that most have not read the current Charter. Sadly, the City does not seem to have created and maintained a legislative history for the Charter and its amendments, so we're left with tidbits that flush out from time-to-time in discussions and blog articles.

Many of the comments about the Council/City Manager relationship don’t seem to be couched in the reality of its history, and the restraints put on it when the 1909 Charter was gutted in 1949/50. The 1909 Charter gave the Council the power to run the town, with the help of selected residents. This form of government was called a Council/Commission form of government. At the time, no City Manager was seen as needed—all of the decision making was to be done by the Council and the commissions.

By the mid-late 1940s, most of the people who have designed and brought this form of government into being had passed away or moved away. The public did not seem to want to continue these commissions, so the entire 1909 Charter was replaced with the current Charter that introduced the role of a City Manager. In the process, the Council lost all of its managerial power—which was transferred to the City Manager. This form of government is called: Weak City Council/Strong City Manager.

The following section from the Palo Alto City Charter, added in the 1970s, makes it quite clear as to the role of the Council relative to having any direct control of the City Manager, or City business:

Sec. 10. Coercion by council members - Campaign funds.

No member of the council shall in any manner, directly or indirectly, by suggestion or otherwise, attempt to influence or coerce the city manager in the making of any appointment or removal, or in the purchase of supplies, or attempt to exact any promise relative to any appointment from any candidate for city manager, or discuss, directly or indirectly, with any such candidate, the matter of appointments to any city office or employment. Any violation of the foregoing provisions of this section shall constitute a misdemeanor and shall work a forfeiture of the office of the offending member of the council, who may be removed therefrom by the council or by any court of competent jurisdiction. Neither the city manager nor any person in the employ of the city shall take part in securing or shall contribute any money toward the nomination or election of any candidate for a municipal office.

(Amended by Stats. 1972, Ch. 71, 7-7-72)

------
The 1949/50 Charter is not particularly well written (in my opinion) when it comes to detailing the structure of the post-1950 government, as well as the Council/City Manager relationship. The 1909 Charter did at least call out the activities of the government. The current Charter only mentions these activities of the government, more in passing than in defining their role with any level of detail so as to not require resorting to a court to understand what the language means.

It’s been a long time since Palo Alto has had a look at its Charter. Having a Charter Commission meet every ten years, or so, would be in everyone’s interests.


10 people like this
Posted by Mr. Martin Rides Again!
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 15, 2018 at 2:21 pm







> ...the entire 1909 Charter was replaced with the current Charter that introduced the role of a City Manager. In the process, the Council lost all of its managerial power—which was transferred to the City Manager. This form of government is called: Weak City Council/Strong City Manager.

Weak City Council = minimal PACC power/control over city management.

So why bother buying into anything that these PACC members/candidates expound?

They are in essence, talking out of their ***.


8 people like this
Posted by The Realist
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 15, 2018 at 6:54 pm

> So why bother buying into anything that these PACC members/candidates expound?

Because some people still want to believe in tooth fairies, leprechauns and unicorns.

It happens every election year.


8 people like this
Posted by Power to the PACC
a resident of University South
on Dec 16, 2018 at 2:44 pm

> Weak City Council = minimal PACC power/control over city management.

But PACC has: (1) maximum power controlling resident/speaker time limits, and (2) maximum control pounding gavels for theatrical effect.


2 people like this
Posted by humor explanation
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 22, 2018 at 1:03 pm

>"Wolbach proposed having a chess clock at meetings to nudge members to wrap it up."

For those who didn't get the humor, Wolbach is arguably the longest-winded, empty content, council member. He rambles on explaining his thought process, his feelings, and other irrelevancies about himself.

Mayor Kniss protects him because he has been a reliable vote for developers.


4 people like this
Posted by Checkmate
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 22, 2018 at 1:33 pm

> "Wolbach proposed having a chess clock at meetings
>> For those who didn't get the humor...

PA residents are the pawns & the Mayor is the Queen.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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