Palo Alto swiftly approves Council Chambers upgrades

Once controversial $2-million project could be completed in July 2020

In its final meetings of 2018, the Palo Alto City Council approved a nearly $2 million project that could significantly change how local democracy looks and sounds in the future: a major upgrade of the Council Chambers at City Hall.

By a vote of 8-1, with Greg Tanaka dissenting, the council swiftly approved on Dec. 17 a project that includes — among other features — the replacement of the council's dais, its voting equipment and its voting system; a height-adjustable lectern for public speakers; an upgraded broadcast system, with modern digital cameras and closed-captioning capabilities; a new electrical system and control booth for broadcast; a new audio system with wireless microphones; a dual-screen and projection system capable of displaying three different sources; glare reduction film at windows; and motorized blackout shades.

The project is nearly identical to the one that the council considered in March but stopped short of fully endorsing. Instead, the council directed staff to look for ways to reduce costs and to prioritize the most critical portions of the project.

Staff subsequently trimmed the costs by about $290,000 and proposed rolling out the project in four phases. On Dec. 4, however, the council's Finance Committee voted to move ahead with all the work at once, a process that supporters argued would save money. (According to the city's consultant, The Shalleck Collaborative Inc., multiyear projects typically add 15 to 20 percent to the price tag.)

The committee also reinserted into the work plan the "phase four" items that staff had recommended putting off for a future year, including an upgrade to the radio desk system for Stanford University's KZSU, the blackout shades and the glare-reduction film.

The only substantive item that the committee decided not to pursue was an audio-video link that would establish a network between three local libraries and the Midpeninsula Media Center, allowing all four facilities to broadcast events simultaneously.

The council approved the project with almost no discussion on its consent calendar — a marked departure from the March meeting, where council members generally acknowledged the need to upgrade its obsolete audiovisual equipment and make the chambers compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act but took issue with the high cost and broad scope of the proposed upgrade. The only council member who commented on this project was Tanaka, who frequently votes against major expenditures.

"I think this is an incredible waste of money," Tanaka said.

In explaining his vote, Tanaka said he believes there are more cost-efficient ways of improving the city's broadcasting capabilities. He argued that with TV viewership dropping, the city should use Facebook Live to stream meetings, a solution that could save money but would effectively exclude residents who don't have Facebook accounts from watching the proceedings.

While Tanaka had in the past dismissed the proposed upgrade as a "vanity project," others see it as critical for both complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act and for encouraging democratic participation. City Clerk Beth Minor told the Finance Committee on Dec. 4 that the existing system does not give the public a good experience. Residents with hearing disabilities or poor vision often have a hard time following staff presentations or seeing the images that are also on the council's screens.

Assistant City Manager Michelle Poche Flaherty also stressed at the Dec. 4 meeting that the proposed improvements are intended to benefit the community at large, not just the council. The Council Chambers, she said, get used by many different regional groups. And the current broadcast system, she argued, is "at the point where it's being held together by chewing gum."

She also noted that the current equipment setup requires technicians to crawl along a sloped floor in the rear-projection room to make needed repairs. There are wires dangling behind the dais and city staff are "working on hands and knees, doing repairs when things go wrong."

"The situation is what I would describe as dire," Flaherty told the committee.

The project will be funded through the Technology Fund, which collects money from all city departments for citywide technological improvements. With the council's approval secured, city officials and Shalleck consultants will refine the design of the project this spring. The city would then solicit bids in the summer, approve a contract in the fall and launch construction in February 2020.

If things go as planned, the construction will conclude in July 2020 and the project will cost about $1.9 million, according to staff from the city manager's office.


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42 people like this
Posted by Marj
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 2, 2019 at 10:40 am

Here we go again. The City says it needs to cut 4 million from the budget but let's spend 2 million on the Council Chambers. This definitely is NOT fiscally responsible.

37 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 2, 2019 at 12:01 pm

Unbelievably poor fiscal management.

I recently attended a meeting in council chambers to speak, and the chambers felt clean and modern with minimal wear. The chambers look practically new!

What is $4M going to, and how can it be justified? A modern voting system, really? Here's how we could accomplish the same result at a tiny fraction of the cost:

iPads or chromebooks, going for the most expensive models on the market and rounding up (let's throw in some warranties or whatever): $2k each.
Council members + staff + one at the lecturn, say 10 devices.
$20K for tablets.

Large, ultra-high-definition screens are currently $600-2k. Let's go for a giant $2k model and add $1k for install (family recently got a quote for $2500 for a 70 inch+ installed). So that's $3k. Let's go crazy and say 4x displays, for a total price of $12K installed.

Need some computers to drive those displays? You can get tiny intel NUC computers, or otherwise, for less than $500. Let's say $1k due to incompetence, and 5x computers (4 for displays, 1 backup!), for a total of $5k.

So now we have all new hardware for the staff, four giant 70+ inch ultra high def displays with computers, all for an exorbitant retail++ price of $37k. This is 0.925% of this proposal!!!

Now, I work hard at my job, and can *guarantee* that I could install this hardware (or sub-contract it out) in a month of time. Will the city pay me $4M to do so? Nope! This is going to go to a local developer who BRIBED the CC (oops, I mean donated).

This is a SCAM, and one that the CC should be embarrassed by.

20 people like this
Posted by yes, its a SCAM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 2, 2019 at 1:26 pm

The only mike that doesn't produce good sound is the _public_ mike. The staff is very audible, as are the council members who speak into the mike.

Height adjustable lectern? You've got to be kidding.
The mike is height-adjustable.

This is a juicy payoff to his friends by both the departing city manager and IT manager.

As Anon says, it is a SCAM.

18 people like this
Posted by PACC Is Raising the Bar
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 2, 2019 at 3:37 pm

Wow. Attending a PACC meeting will now be like going to a high-tech movie theater!

Will there also be a refreshment stand or perhaps a coffee bar with various pastries?

Palo Alto is really taking things to a higher level.

18 people like this
Posted by Compare to PAUSD
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 2, 2019 at 4:12 pm

I compare this to PAUSD. They are a governing body, with a $250M budget, a couple of thousand employees, and represent slightly more people than the PA City Council.

The PAUSD "board room" hasn't had $2M spent on it over its lifetime. They put out folding chairs. The dais is cracking laminate. They count the votes by asking for "ayes" and "naes." There's no "technology" beyond microphones and a projector. There's a big screen in the front that everyone can see, and a couple of bonus screens (smaller than most people's home TVs) around the room. But the meetings are on cable TV and live internet streaming, same as with the PACC meetings. It all seems to work pretty smoothly and I don't think people find the school board meetings inaccessible or otherwise unsuitable.

It's an interesting contrast - one body spends $2M on an upgrade, and the other you could easily replicate for $50K.

9 people like this
Posted by mahsm
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 2, 2019 at 8:08 pm

mahsm is a registered user.

thank you council member Tanaka for representing me.

6 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 2, 2019 at 11:45 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Can PAUSD also use Council Chambers for its meetings? Shouldn't the space be used as much as possible?

Like this comment
Posted by Worker
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 4, 2019 at 9:05 pm

One of the last contractors that did the remodel job used undocumented workers. I do not have a problem with that, except the city did not do a proper background check. I guess lowest bid rules. This was around eight to ten years ago.

6 people like this
Posted by R.Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2019 at 8:42 am

R.Davis is a registered user.

QUOTE: Wow. Attending a PACC meeting will now be like going to a high-tech movie theater!

Yes. This costly undertaking should be promoted as 'The PACC Experience' in order to generate additional civic interest.

QUOTE: Will there also be a refreshment stand or perhaps a coffee bar with various pastries?

Probably not...but a full buffet would add a nice touch. That way, people could come directly to PACC meetings from either work or school without having to rush home first to prepare dinner. Catering could easily be provided by any one of Palo Alto's fine dining establishments.

8 people like this
Posted by Fiscal Restraint
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 5, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Sounds like an added and unnecessary expense just to listen to drivel.

8 people like this
Posted by yes, its a SCAM
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2019 at 1:01 pm

Not long ago the Manager spent $4.5 MILLION remodeling the lobby and installing really ugly carpet and upholstery in the Council Chambers.
And useless BIG screens all around the lobby. Expensive and Useless. Our money.
Same mentality at work here.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 8, 2019 at 11:46 am

Posted by Anon, a resident of Ventura

>> This is a SCAM, and one that the CC should be embarrassed by.

Well, if we are going to spend this money, I want PACC meetings to be broadcast via the internet in 4K @ 60 fps. I want to see every pore, every bead of sweat, and, especially, see the eyes, and watch the CC flinch when asked uncomfortable questions. Let's make this high-tech chamber work for us citizens.

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

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