Citing widespread confusion about the roles and rules of local commissions, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to explore a series of reforms to the longstanding commission system.
The council agreed by a 5-2 vote to launch the reform effort, which will be guided by council members Tom DuBois and Alison Cormack, and which is scheduled to be completed by February. Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Councilman Greg Tanaka both dissented, even as they agreed that the commission system would benefit from some changes.
Kniss broke away from her colleagues because she wanted the council's Policy and Services Committee — rather than the two-member ad hoc committee — to lead the effort. The committee currently includes Kniss, Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Tanaka, though it will likely see its membership change next year, when the new mayor issues committee assignments. Kniss noted that Policy and Services, as a standing committee, holds its meeting in public, while an ad hoc committee isn't bound by the same transparency rules.
"I'm troubled that it won't be out in public, whereas Policy and Services is," Kniss said.
Tanaka for his part argued that the city should consider a much broader overhaul to the commission system, including a revamp of how the city appoints commissioners. He argued that the city should delegate more work to its boards and commissions. Rather than having the same arguments repeated at commission and council hearings, he recommended having some land-use items go on the council's "consent calendar" after a commission reviews it, obviating the need for a council discussion.
"We have people who have more time than we do and perhaps more expertise than we do," Tanaka said.
Tanaka's most radical proposal pertained to appointments. Rather than having the whole council vote on each commission appointment, he recommended having every council member appoint a commissioner who reflects his or her views.
Such a system would allow council members to feel like they can trust their boards and commissioners to represent their views.
"Or if they're not representing our views, we get rid of them," said Tanaka, who served on the Planning and Transportation Commission before getting elected to the council in 2016.
While the council didn't endorse Tanaka's proposals, members generally agreed on a range of broad topics that the ad hoc committee should evaluate. Ad hoc committees will be one topic for exploration. Currently, some commissions make frequent use of ad hoc committees (the Parks and Recreation Commission has taken the maximalist approach with committees devoted to topics such as dog parks, pickleball courts and access to Foothills Park). Other commissions don't use ad hoc committees at all.
Council members and residents pinpointed other problems with the commission system, including confusion over whether the advisory bodies are allowed to create their own subcommittees and concerns about a lack of a clear process for removing a commissioner. Numerous residents have expressed concerns about the actions of Michael Alcheck, vice chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, who in 2015 did not recuse himself from public hearings on making changes to numerous provisions to the city's zoning code, which included a provision on carports.
He did not disclose that he had received permits for two carports nine months before the meeting, based on the prior code -- carports that he would later convert to garages at his two properties in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood despite the city's determination that garage conversion would be illegal. The city later granted the permits for the garages after Alcheck's attorney submitted a letter demanding approval (Alcheck declined to speak publicly about the case but had previously noted that the city attorney had told him that his participation in the public hearing does not constitute a conflict of interest).
While Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilman Tom DuBois have raised concerns in the past about Alcheck's behavior, particularly during their re-election campaigns last year, council members refrained from directly mentioning Alcheck's case. Councilwoman Liz Kniss alluded to it, however, when she brought up the recent calls from residents for Alcheck's removal from the planning commission.
"How do you get rid of someone on the commission who you don't like or who doesn't align with you?" she asked, noting that the city currently has such a situation. "If we were to vote to remove someone from the commission, what are the rights of the person who would perhaps be removed?"
Filseth and Cormack both stressed the reform effort is "not about any one particular individual," but rather about the need to make broader changes to the city's policies on boards and commissions.
Even so, they generally agreed that the city should establish a clear process for removing commissioners. Local law clearly empowers the council to remove commissioners, but it does not establish a process for doing so.
While Kniss strongly opposed empowering an ad hoc committee to work on this topic, Filseth argued that sending it through the regular city process would take a very long time. The council's policies empower a mayor to establish ad hoc committees.
"There was a compelling need to move more quickly on it," Filseth said.
Cormack presented a list of areas for the city to tackle when it comes to boards and commissions. This includes creating guidelines for ad hoc committees; considering the roles of council liaisons (currently, some council members attend all or most meetings of the commission they are assigned to, while others don't go to any); and appropriate behavior for commissioners in dealing with their colleagues and with staff. She also said the very first task the committee will endeavor is to interview current and former board members and commissioners to gain a better understanding of what their work is like.
"In all the time I've been watching this, we really haven't paid enough attention to this," said Cormack, who regularly attends commission meetings.
Vice Mayor Adrian Fine pointed to wide discrepancies between how much support various commissions receive from staff and how council members manage their liaison assignments with commissions. He also said the city should adopt a statement spelling out the city's goals for boards and commissions.
For City Manager Ed Shikada, the biggest issue was what he called "inherent friction between staff and commissioners," which he attributed to a lack of clarity on how issues are raised by commissioners and brought to the council.
City staff, he said, is often "caught in the middle" over whether to do the work that commissioners request, recognizing that it is generally the council — and not its advisory bodies — that assign work to city employees.
"A number of commissioners has identified issues that they want to tackle and, in some cases, have undertaken some work without real indication of whether this is a topic that the council is interested in taking on. ... It's an issue that's come up unfortunately fairly frequently," he said.
Correction: The article had incorrectly stated that Michael Alcheck relied on the new rules for carports to get a permit for his carports, which were later converted to the garage. Alcheck had received his permits for carports before the 2015 consideration of "contextual garage placement" rules. He then converted the carports to garages in 2017 after challenging the city's determination that this would conflict with the city's code. Palo Alto Online regrets the error.
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