Palo Alto's elected leaders will devote extra energy in 2019 toward addressing the city's transportation challenges, getting local finances in order, picking new designs for the rail crossings and take more aggressive action on addressing climate change, the City Council decided at its annual retreat Saturday.
The council also agreed to put more effort this year into engaging the community and regaining public trust, which a new survey shows has been gradually eroding.
After a spirited discussion, the council voted unanimously to adopt four priorities for 2019: the climate action plan, grade separations, transportation and traffic, and fiscal sustainability. The four were chosen from a list of 11 that were submitted by council members -- a list that also included the reconstruction of Cubberley Community Center, improving communications with the public and pursuing a business tax.
The most popular idea that did not make the list of official priorities was "regaining public trust," an item that was championed by Councilwoman Lydia Kou and that all her colleagues generally agreed is an important goal. The idea grew out of a new National Citizens Survey, which showed that only 42 percent of the residents gave the city a rating of "excellent" or "good" when asked about the "overall direction that the city is taking."
The survey also showed the percentage of people who reported that they believe the city is "generally acting in the best interests of the community" slipped from 51 percent in 2017 to 45 percent in 2018.
The council did, however, add "climate change" to its official list of priorities, a move that was urged by a raft of public letters and comments. One letter, co-signed by more than a dozen residents including former Mayors Pat Burt and Peter Drekmeier and representatives of various nonprofits (including Acterra, Palo Alto Forward, Sierra Club, and Cool Block Palo Alto), urged the council to keep climate-change goals "front and center" in the coming year. The city should incorporate greenhouse-gas impacts into all discussion of new policies and developments under consideration, the letter stated.
"The climate crisis is ever more present, and we're feeling its effects here in Palo Alto already (drought, smoke from fires and even a drastic reduction in Monarchs and beneficial insects)," the letter states.
The city, according to the letter, has already committed to reducing greenhouse gases (GHG's) 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 -- and approved a Sustainability Implementation Plan in 2016 to spur the effort forward.
"We need to redouble our efforts in delivering a robust transit system and deal with our affordable-housing inventory, get serious about electrification of our homes and businesses and promote EV (electric vehicle) uptake among other pro-sustainability measures," the letter stated.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss wholeheartedly agreed and formally proposed that the city prioritize climate change, a topic that she argued is growing increasingly urgent.
"I very much am in favor of attacking the climate issue. Not only do I think it's incredibly important for us in this community, but I'm also very concerned about our current president and his literal discounting that this even exists in this country today," Kniss said. "This is a dramatic problem. Whether you live in a seacoast community or a mountain town, you are going to be affected."
While climate change is a new priority, transportation and grade separation are both carry-overs from the prior year. In the National Citizens Survey, traffic solicited more comments than any other topic (housing was a close second) when residents were asked to name an area in which the city could do a better job. Some of the ideas that council members proposed on this topic included expanding the city's small shuttle system and promoting alternatives to solo driving.
In choosing grade separation as a priority, the council underscored the urgency of separating the rail corridor from local streets to account for an expected increase in Caltrain service.
The council set a goal a year ago of reaching a decision on preferred grade-separation designs at the four crossings by the end of 2018. Since then, it has winnowed down its list of alternatives for Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road from 34 to six.
"This is the year we're going make all the hard decisions on grade separation and figure out how to pay for it," Mayor Eric Filseth said during the discussion of priorities.
While the council ultimately reached a consensus on its annual priorities, members had slightly different ideas about what these priorities should focus on specifically. Councilman Greg Tanaka, the council's leading fiscal hawk, said the city should prioritize its infrastructure projects. Filseth focused on attaining long-term financial sustainability, wherein revenues and costs are aligned.
Vice Mayor Adrian Fine said the city should work on "economic diversity," which includes ensuring that local retailers aren't unduly burdened by regulations.
Filseth also emphasized that many of the issues that were brought up by the public and by his colleagues -- including airplane noise and improving communication with the public -- will remain important areas of attention, even if they're not official council priorities.
The priority list, he said, "doesn't mean everything else is not important."
"Most of the things that are important will not make our list," Filseth said.