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An Alternative View: Is the city keeping information from the public?

In late July, the Palo Alto City Council's Council Appointed Officers Committee interviewed four firms to operate as the City's Auditor's Office. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Eighteen-plus months — that's how long it's taken so far for Palo Alto to choose a new auditor, a position required in the city charter. Residents still haven't been told officially whether there has been a selection, or when it will be announced, and that bothers me.

I do know one firm was chosen more than a month ago in a closed session of the City Council — at least that's what I was told by two of my sources.

Why should we care at all if it takes a long time? Why is an auditor so important?

I'll answer my own question: We should care because the auditor's job is to try to keep the city honest. And if there is no auditor around to check on what city staff, including city managers, are doing, then they don't have to worry much.

And if one is hired? Then they have to worry more.

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I think the council made the wrong decision to hire a firm from outside rather than an individual to serve as a full-time auditor inside city hall, as has occurred in the past. Council members talked about saving money by using an outside firm — and yes, a full-time employee does cost more, but a good auditor can save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, if the right person is on board.

Diana Diamond is a longtime Palo Alto journalist, editor and author of the blog "An Alternative View" on Palo Alto Online. Courtesy Diana Diamond.

An inside auditor, as former Auditor Sharon Erickson has described, can get into interesting conversations with employees in the coffee room or at a lunch table. And her door was always open for an employee to drop in — oftentimes, she said, because the employee felt something was amiss in his or her department. An inside auditor can build up trust and confidence with city employees.

But if an outside firm is around doing the auditing, the representative is not poking around all day. And few employees will dare venture to make an appointment with some auditor they don't even know.

Secrets and silence

Keeping the hiring process secret for months is not the only example of lack of transparency in this city. There's a whole series recently of keeping things under wraps so the public doesn't know what's happening, especially in investigating police problems, and keeping many findings quiet.

And this whole "keep the public unaware" practice is getting worse.

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The council has hired lobbyists in Sacramento, and when some members ask for a progress update, they are told, "We are working on it," said Council member Lydia Kou.

"So we don't know what's happening, and residents are kept in the dark," she added.

The council, she said, was also promised a report in October or January as to whether companies are staying in town or moving elsewhere because of the coronavirus. And there has been no update since May on the economic effects of businesses downtown and on California Avenue on the city budget.

Some $40 million has already been cut from the $238 million general fund budget, and as I see businesses close downtown, I know things are getting worse in terms of future city revenues. Why not monthly reports? Why are we not being told what's happening?

Then there were the Police Department problems that were kept quiet. In 2014, Capt. Zach Perron allegedly used a "racial slur" in discussing an incident in which another officer, Marcus Barbour (who has since left the department) jumped into a creek and rescued a suspect. In 2017, public interest in this case arose.

The city's police auditor, the prominent OIR Group from southern California, has been regularly issuing semi-annual reports to the council and public for years that were detailed, specific and well-received.

OIR investigated the Perron case, and its assessment was included in a mid-year report. But OIR was asked by the city manager not to release the completed report so that city officials would have time to devise a policy that shields public cases that involve officer-to-officer incidents.

The city staff devised a policy of sending all internal police department matters to the city's HR department, not to OIR. Why is that bad? Because once something goes into HR, it never comes out. It is declared a "personnel matter" and information cannot be released to the public, the HR department declares.

When OIR's contract was reapproved in late 2019, it disallowed the auditing firm from conducting investigations on internal police matters — allowing only those involving the public. The council finally learned about this when in late 2019 City Manager Ed Shikada told the council of the plan. The council was told this was a minor change and everything would be the same, and the council went along with it.

It wasn't a minor change. Michael Gennaco of OIR described this as a major change.

The public loses again.

There's always a delicate control line between the city manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city, and the City Council, who is elected by residents to oversee the city and oversee what is going on.

In my view, Shikada tends to assume too much authority for making city decisions — in all sorts of matters. He is overstepping his bounds because I've talked to several council members about a variety of issues, and many say, "I'm not sure what is going on." Or, "I haven't been updated on that matter. The city manager doesn't act like it's important to let council know what is going on."

It's time for the council members to exert their rightful authority. Public knowledge of what is happening in their city is at stake.

Diana Diamond is a longtime Palo Alto journalist, editor and author of the blog "An Alternative View," which can be found here. You can email her at [email protected].

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An Alternative View: Is the city keeping information from the public?

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Sep 11, 2020, 6:56 am

Eighteen-plus months — that's how long it's taken so far for Palo Alto to choose a new auditor, a position required in the city charter. Residents still haven't been told officially whether there has been a selection, or when it will be announced, and that bothers me.

I do know one firm was chosen more than a month ago in a closed session of the City Council — at least that's what I was told by two of my sources.

Why should we care at all if it takes a long time? Why is an auditor so important?

I'll answer my own question: We should care because the auditor's job is to try to keep the city honest. And if there is no auditor around to check on what city staff, including city managers, are doing, then they don't have to worry much.

And if one is hired? Then they have to worry more.

I think the council made the wrong decision to hire a firm from outside rather than an individual to serve as a full-time auditor inside city hall, as has occurred in the past. Council members talked about saving money by using an outside firm — and yes, a full-time employee does cost more, but a good auditor can save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, if the right person is on board.

An inside auditor, as former Auditor Sharon Erickson has described, can get into interesting conversations with employees in the coffee room or at a lunch table. And her door was always open for an employee to drop in — oftentimes, she said, because the employee felt something was amiss in his or her department. An inside auditor can build up trust and confidence with city employees.

But if an outside firm is around doing the auditing, the representative is not poking around all day. And few employees will dare venture to make an appointment with some auditor they don't even know.

Keeping the hiring process secret for months is not the only example of lack of transparency in this city. There's a whole series recently of keeping things under wraps so the public doesn't know what's happening, especially in investigating police problems, and keeping many findings quiet.

And this whole "keep the public unaware" practice is getting worse.

The council has hired lobbyists in Sacramento, and when some members ask for a progress update, they are told, "We are working on it," said Council member Lydia Kou.

"So we don't know what's happening, and residents are kept in the dark," she added.

The council, she said, was also promised a report in October or January as to whether companies are staying in town or moving elsewhere because of the coronavirus. And there has been no update since May on the economic effects of businesses downtown and on California Avenue on the city budget.

Some $40 million has already been cut from the $238 million general fund budget, and as I see businesses close downtown, I know things are getting worse in terms of future city revenues. Why not monthly reports? Why are we not being told what's happening?

Then there were the Police Department problems that were kept quiet. In 2014, Capt. Zach Perron allegedly used a "racial slur" in discussing an incident in which another officer, Marcus Barbour (who has since left the department) jumped into a creek and rescued a suspect. In 2017, public interest in this case arose.

The city's police auditor, the prominent OIR Group from southern California, has been regularly issuing semi-annual reports to the council and public for years that were detailed, specific and well-received.

OIR investigated the Perron case, and its assessment was included in a mid-year report. But OIR was asked by the city manager not to release the completed report so that city officials would have time to devise a policy that shields public cases that involve officer-to-officer incidents.

The city staff devised a policy of sending all internal police department matters to the city's HR department, not to OIR. Why is that bad? Because once something goes into HR, it never comes out. It is declared a "personnel matter" and information cannot be released to the public, the HR department declares.

When OIR's contract was reapproved in late 2019, it disallowed the auditing firm from conducting investigations on internal police matters — allowing only those involving the public. The council finally learned about this when in late 2019 City Manager Ed Shikada told the council of the plan. The council was told this was a minor change and everything would be the same, and the council went along with it.

It wasn't a minor change. Michael Gennaco of OIR described this as a major change.

The public loses again.

There's always a delicate control line between the city manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city, and the City Council, who is elected by residents to oversee the city and oversee what is going on.

In my view, Shikada tends to assume too much authority for making city decisions — in all sorts of matters. He is overstepping his bounds because I've talked to several council members about a variety of issues, and many say, "I'm not sure what is going on." Or, "I haven't been updated on that matter. The city manager doesn't act like it's important to let council know what is going on."

It's time for the council members to exert their rightful authority. Public knowledge of what is happening in their city is at stake.

Diana Diamond is a longtime Palo Alto journalist, editor and author of the blog "An Alternative View," which can be found here. You can email her at [email protected].

Comments

Reign Him In
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2020 at 8:54 am
Reign Him In, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Sep 11, 2020 at 8:54 am
19 people like this

Exactly. Shikada has gone far beyond his remit as City Manager. Controlling, compartmentalizing, expanding his staff - even absorbing our Library Director into his already bloated staff leaving us without anyone to head our library system.

He is to answer to our elected city council, not the other way around, yet staff more and more takes advantage of them and residents. Information is withheld or made useless by only given at thee last moment as seen at the PTC this week.

Council must reclaim its power and we must insist it does so. Every candidate for council must be clear that they don’t work for Shikada.


hkatrs
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 11, 2020 at 10:55 am
hkatrs, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Sep 11, 2020 at 10:55 am
7 people like this

Thank you Diane Diammond for your article, again. Why has the City Manager and City Council 'not' responded to your inquiries?

I agree:
"The city's police auditor, the prominent OIR Group from southern California, has been regularly issuing semi-annual reports to the council and public for years that were detailed, specific and well-received.

OIR investigated the Perron case, and its assessment was included in a mid-year report. But OIR was asked by the city manager not to release the completed report so that city officials would have time to devise a policy that shields public cases that involve officer-to-officer incidents.

The city staff devised a policy of sending all internal police department matters to the city's HR department, not to OIR. Why is that bad? Because once something goes into HR, it never comes out. It is declared a "personnel matter" and information cannot be released to the public, the HR department declares.

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The City Auditor's Office has been under a tense and toxic atmosphere, which was fueled by a staffing shortage, low morale, leadership vacuums and complaints from staff.
When OIR's contract was reapproved in late 2019, it disallowed the auditing firm from conducting investigations on internal police matters — allowing only those involving the public. The council finally learned about this when in late 2019 City Manager Ed Shikada told the council of the plan. The council was told this was a minor change and everything would be the same, and the council went along with it.

It wasn't a minor change. Michael Gennaco of OIR described this as a major change.

The public loses again.

There's always a delicate control line between the city manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city, and the City Council, who is elected by residents to oversee the city and oversee what is going on.

In my view, Shikada tends to assume too much authority for making city decisions — in all sorts of matters. He is overstepping his bounds because I've talked to several council members about a variety of issues, and many say, "I'm not sure what is going on." Or, "I haven't been updated on that matter. The city manager doesn't act like it's important to let council know what is going on."

It's time for the council members to exert their rightful authority. Public knowledge of what is happening in their city is at stake."

All Palo Alto citizens need to demand that we hear from the City Manager and City Council (Please send emails to [email protected]) about the lack of transperancy. Where has all of the City's Money been spent? Where are the performance reviews of the entire City Staff; especially the Administrative Office which takes care of Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Administrative Services, and Budget Office - email to [email protected]

I am so thankful that this year is an Election Year for four (4) City Council Members who have Termed Out. Please see below about who is running. When will there be a zoom meeting to hear all of the candidates speak? I hope Palo Alto Online will publish the information soon.

Voting Information for Palo Alto:
In Palo Alto, voters can submit their ballots in King Plaza in front of City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., the outside drop box at Mitchell Park Library, 3700 Middlefield Rd., or any time of the day at Rinconada Library's outside drop box at 1213 Newell Rd., among other 24/7 drop-off locations across the county. When? -- Starting October 6, 2020?

Residents can also send their ballots in the mail with prepaid postage included with each ballot. Ballots submitted by mail must be postmarked on or before Election Day. Physically submitted ballots are due by 8 p.m. on Election Day, November 3, 2020. (Please don't wait until November 3rd to vote. It would be best to VOTE EARLY, VOTE SAFE & DELIVER YOUR BALLOT!

Four City Council Seats - (MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL) - (Adrian Fine, Lydia Kou, Greg Tanaka, and Liz Kniss (Termed out))

Candidates Qualified for the Ballot (in ballot order per Randomized Alphabet Drawing)

Pat Burt [email protected]
Rebecca Eisenberg [email protected]
Greg Tanaka [email protected]
Cari Templeton [email protected]
Ed Lauing [email protected]
Steven Lee [email protected]
Greer Stone [email protected]
Raven Malone [email protected]
Ajit Varma [email protected]
Lydia Kou [email protected]


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 11, 2020 at 10:55 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Sep 11, 2020 at 10:55 am
2 people like this

Reading up on San Jose it noted that the city manager of that city is the one who is doing the hiring and firing. The Mayor is the public face of the city. Believe that Mr. Shikada was hired from that location. So we have a quandary here in the county as to who is in charge of our cities. The Mayor was looking for more control of the city but then somehow backed down. A lot of very strange politics going on here in the country cities. This all needs to be mapped out as to who reports to who. And who hires who. We need a blue print of the chain of command.


hkatrs
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 11, 2020 at 11:03 am
hkatrs, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Sep 11, 2020 at 11:03 am
2 people like this

To be heard, hopefully listened to, email your inquiries before every City Council Meeting to be put on the Council's Agenda. However, it seems clear from the following paragraph from the City of Palo Alto's Contact website Web Link that an answer won't necessarily be given at the City Council Meeting; but that a response should be emailed by the City Manager at a later date! See attached paragraph below:

"Citizen Participation
The Council encourages citizen participation. The Council agenda includes a period of Oral Communications, at which time the public may comment on any subject within the subject matter jurisdiction of the City that is not included on the agenda. Council Members do not enter into discussion or debate with speakers under Oral Communications. The presiding officer may ask the City Manager to respond at a later date. Citizens' comments on an agenda item are heard at the time Council is considering the item. Lengthy testimony should be submitted in writing prior to the meeting."


Rebecca Eisenberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 12, 2020 at 8:11 pm
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 12, 2020 at 8:11 pm
2 people like this

Dear Diana,

Once again, I strongly agree with the points you raised in your insightful, articulate, well-researched column. In fact, most of these are points I have raised at City Council meetings, and even with Ed Shikada himself. The fact that the current City Council clings to its failed traditions is frustrating and entirely harmful to the community. While I agree with all of your examples of dysfunction in the approaches taken by the current city council, a few are worthy of particular attention:

1. Abuse of Exceptions to the Brown Act to withhold information to which the community is entitled: this is the case with the selection of the auditing firm. Although names of individual people are *sometimes* (not always) entitled to privacy in the context of a hiring decision by a governing body, companies NEVER are entitled to that protection. Yet, the city continues to hide their deliberation over the auditing firm from the public.

I brought up this violation of the Brown Act during the public comment time during the last meeting that the CC discussed which firm to hire during closed session, and also emailed about it, but did not hear back.

The purpose of the Brown Act is to SHARE information with the public, not to hide it from the public, but you would not know that, given the huge amounts of highly consequential information and deliberations that the CC hides from use, using the Brown Act as its ironic tool. Note, requesting the documents through a public records request (which I have done often) creates the same unsatisfying, potentially illegal, results.

The most frustrating aspect of this potentially illegal concealment is that many of us, including you and and including me, believe that this essential job should be done by a city employee, not by a firm whose economic incentive will lead it to creating the work product most likely to please the party who pays it (the CC), even if the truth it is bound to uncover may make the CC unhappy. Truly, hiring a firm -- even if not hiring a firm in such a secretive manner -- is a terrible idea.

I also think that the auditor should report to an Ombudsperson, as is done in the best run cities, rather than to the CC, for the same reasons.

2. City Manager Management / Bad Decisions that Fail to Reflect Public Interest:
It seems clear that the PACC's current system of reviewing applications leads to results that almost always fail to reflect community interest. The PACC virtually admitted this, when they apologized for the fact that their existing system of evaluating developer applications gave them "no choice" but to allow an out of state billionaire real estate prospector to convert its investment of a residential building to a commercial building (worth twice as much), even though that conversion went against public interest. The PACC bemoaned this result as if it were inevitable. Rather, that result was the consequence of dysfunctional rules that the PACC put in place, and thus that the PACC has full authority to fix.

Here is the PACC's counterproductive system of evaluating applications: currently, hearings for variances, exceptions, and CUPs give ample time for the applicant's attorneys to speak, but do not provide equal time for a representative on behalf of community interest. In many recent hearings, neighbors have pooled funds to hire attorneys, but their attorneys are restricted to time limits expanded through community members donating their time, and the arguments are sandwiched in between supporters of the applicant, who often live out of town.

Other cities use a more balanced approach: they give equal time to a community representative, such as a Parliamentarian, Ombudsperson, Community Spokesperson, city attorney, or city planner, to give context to current rules and laws. For example, a Parliamentarian would explain why commercial construction is banned in residential neighborhoods, including risk to safety of pedestrians and young cyclists, as well as the strain that commercial construction can place on limited resources like first responders.

A Parliamentarian also can explain, for example, why it is that underground construction beyond the footprint of a building is rarely allowed - how underground structures can transform a small project into an enormous undertaking. It helps decision-makers to have context about why these laws exist when they evaluate if an exception should be given.

A community representative is particularly essential when applicants rely on legal argument, as was formerly the case with President Hotel, and is currently the case, for example, with the meetings discussing Castilleja. No matter who is the applicant, it always will be the case that the applicants' attorneys will give a biased interpretation of the law, because lawyers are bound by rules of professional conduct to do just that: to interpret the law as vigorously as possible on behalf of their clients' best interests (I have been bound by these same rules on behalf of clients for almost 30 years as an attorney myself).

That is why it is essential to allow a lawyer on behalf of the community an equal opportunity to present an interpretation of the law in the community's interest. Although neighbors have been pooling funds to hire private lawyers for that purpose, those lawyers are bound by time limits and rules that do not apply to applicant attorneys. That is a non-optimal approach which often results in additional appeals and even more meetings, rather than the efficient disposition of a matter that either clearly does, or does not, serve the public interest.

The PACC created its procedural rules that govern its meetings, and the PACC, subject to applicable law like the Brown Act, has the authority to modify these procedures as well - a fact I confirmed with the City Manager a couple weeks ago.

Given how many decisions - virtually every decision made by the city -- appear to be made without the governing value of best interest of the public, improvement of the PACC processes is long overdue. Fortunately, the PACC is fully empowered to make those changes.

Those processes must include better management of our City Manager, Ed Shikada. Having spoken with Ed directly recently, I believe he is operating under very challenging circumstances. His manager - the PACC - often fails to provide a consistent framework, with a set of values and goals, when he receives assignments. To the extent that guiding principles are given, they often change.

That's not right. Our city manager should know at all times what goals and values each project is intended to further. The fact that that guidance is missing is not the fault of the City Manager; rather, it is the fault of the people whose job it is to manage him.

Managing other people is a rare but extremely important skill. Often politicians fear management aspects of their job because those responsibilities sometimes require the manager to say unpopular things, or to be extremely explicit about context and goals while politicians often prefer to stay loose and keep options open. But in a local government like our City Council, there is no one else to do the management but the City Council.

I wonder if many unpopular results could have been avoided had the PACC embraced more responsible, responsive systems, and had the skills and will to lead - and manage - with courage and integrity.

Thanks again, Diana, for your fantastic column, which always inspires so much food for thought!


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