News

Commission system up for an overhaul in Palo Alto

City Council cites inconsistencies in how boards operate, lack of clear guidance for removing members

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.

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"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.

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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.

Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our podcast page.

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Commission system up for an overhaul in Palo Alto

City Council cites inconsistencies in how boards operate, lack of clear guidance for removing members

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Dec 10, 2019, 5:03 pm

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.

Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our podcast page.

Comments

Becky Sanders
Registered user
Ventura
on Dec 11, 2019 at 10:42 am
Becky Sanders, Ventura
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2019 at 10:42 am
22 people like this

"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?"

This is Liz Kniss speaking. And Liz is right, we don't want to get rid of people we don't like just because we don't like them, like the KGB. Perhaps some clarification is in order:

What we are talking about here is ethics, not personal disagreements on matters of tastes, likes and dislikes. There is a glaring difference between not wanting to go out to dinner with someone and allowing that person to game the system, abuse colleagues, neighbors and speakers before the commission.

Nancy Pelosi isn't leading the impeachment against Trump because he's a jerk. She's leading the impeachment because she, like most of her colleagues on the Hill, believes Trump is in violation of the Constitution and the law.

At our level of engagement, we realize that hating and baiting people has no place in public discourse. Our goal is for our public servants to maintain the highest standards, ethical and respectful conduct and serving the public interest, not personal gain. There is nothing personal about asking that Michael Alcheck be investigated and if found lacking, which any fifth grader could point out at this point, removed in due process.

Thank you.


Becky Sanders
Registered user
Ventura
on Dec 11, 2019 at 11:35 am
Becky Sanders, Ventura
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2019 at 11:35 am
4 people like this

PS In case any one is in doubt, I would be delighted at any time to have dinner with Liz. I've know Liz for years in connection with my former job as Program Manager at Midpen Media. She appeared regularly on our election coverage shows as a commentator. I don't always agree with Liz, but that has nothing to do with my admiration for and appreciation of her years of public service. Just trying to keep it professional over here in beautiful Ventura!


Updated article....
Barron Park
on Dec 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm
Updated article...., Barron Park
on Dec 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm
7 people like this

Interesting that this article has been amended without indication. The paragraph about Alcheck has substantially changed. I wonder how this came about? Before Alcheck had relied on rules he participated in making now the article states otherwise. What gives?


Gennady Sheyner
Registered user
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Dec 11, 2019 at 1:00 pm
Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2019 at 1:00 pm
Like this comment

@Updated Article. The prior version of the article erroneously stated that he relied on the new rules for the carport. Even though various council members and residents have questioned Alcheck's conduct for not recusing himself or disclosing his project, he received his initial permits for carports before the 2015 meeting (the permits for converting them to garages came later) and I modified the story to correct the error and clarify the sequence. I appreciate your comment, which was posted before I made the correction note at the bottom of the story. Sorry for the error.


Updated article....
Barron Park
on Dec 11, 2019 at 1:09 pm
Updated article...., Barron Park
on Dec 11, 2019 at 1:09 pm
4 people like this

What does this mean? Gennady are you saying that he didn't actually have a conflict of interest? What did the changes to the zoning do for Alcheck?


Make it public..
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 11, 2019 at 1:44 pm
Make it public.., Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2019 at 1:44 pm
2 people like this

I agree that this discussion should happen in noticed, agendized public meetings of the existing P&S Committee, NOT in closed door sessions of a two-person ad hoc committee. It is too important.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2019 at 4:48 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2019 at 4:48 pm
7 people like this

@Make It Public “It is too important” is living in some kind of fantasy world with no idea how Palo Alto government works in reality. If it goes to P&S nothing will happen. P&S meets once a month, except when they cancel because somebody’s busy, which is almost half their meetings. 7 total P&S meetings all last year, and when they do meet they don’t do much except listen to city staff. Cormack and DuBois are smart and effective and will do actual work, and have an intelligent proposal back to the council, in public, before P&S even gets around to having a meeting next year. Asking for P&S wasn’t transparency, it was to kill it just in case it might affect Alcheck.


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