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.