For decades, Palo Alto's boards and commissions have fulfilled a variety of disparate functions: advising the City Council, gathering public input, serving as stepping stones for the politically ambitious and, at times, pushing back against council policies.
Now, the council is preparing to push back. After nearly a year of exploration, the council plans to approve on Monday a new set of rules for boards and commissions that will, among other things, establish term limits, lay out a process for removing commissioners, restrict interactions between commissioners and the media and give the council more power to shape the commissions' agendas.
The proposed changes follow a period in which the council has found itself at odds with several of its volunteer advisers. In June, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission resigned in frustration after the council repeatedly delayed action on the commission's proposal to expand access to Foothills Park to nonresidents on a trial basis. The former commissioner, Ryan McCauley, wrote in his letter of resignation that he "cannot abide the Council majority's deliberate and politically calculated inaction."
The council has also been heavily criticized by former Human Relations Commission member Steven Lee, who concluded his term in August and who is now running for a council seat. Lee suggested in a June opinion piece that the council's decision to cut the number of seats on his commission from seven to five was an act of retaliation against him by the council "for speaking out against their status quo."
The council has also struggled in recent years to find answers to such questions as: How does one remove a commissioner? What kind of training should be provided to new members? Should subcommittees be allowed?
The council's new handbook will answer these, and other, questions. But as the handbook makes clear, the new rules will also create a system in which commissioners have less autonomy to defy council wishes or to pursue projects that don't have explicit City Hall approval.
If adopted, the new rules would effectively end the current system in which each board and commission operates by its own rules and has a distinct identity. The Parks and Recreation Commission, for instance, has been relying heavily in recent years on ad hoc committees to proactively push particular projects, whether constructing new dog parks or expanding Foothills Park access. The Human Relations Commission has also emerged as a persistent advocate for more aggressive action, whether in revising police policies pertaining to excessive force or promoting projects that focus on diversity and inclusion.
The Planning and Transportation Commission has been more careful about hewing to council directions. It has also historically mirrored the council by splitting into two camps and engaging in lengthy, internal squabbles between those who tend to support more growth and those who favor more restrictions on development.
The council has been exploring changes to the commission system since last December, when then-Mayor Eric Filseth appointed an ad hoc committee to explore potential changes. The committee, which consists of Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Alison Cormack, has since surveyed past and present commissioners, looked at examples from other cities and issued a set of recommendations, which the council plans to approve on Oct. 19.
Over the course of the survey, Cormack and DuBois found that the city has no clear procedures for creating work plans for commissions and defining the roles of city staff that support boards and commissions. In a February memo that summed up their findings, Cormack and DuBois noted that some respondents have expressed concern about the "lack of clarity or involvement from the City Council." They also pointed to concern about how "a few board members and commissioners have treated staff and their colleagues over the years."
"While this behavior appears to be quite rare, the ad hoc committee is concerned about the impact on our professional staff and the important work that they do with the boards and commissions," Cormack and DuBois wrote.
While the council currently doesn't have an established process for removing a commissioner, the new handbook makes it clear that the council can do so "at any time, for any reason" and that commissioners "are not entitled to any process in the event Council removes them from service."
"The City Council may remove a member by a majority vote of the City Council without cause, notice or hearing," the handbook states.
Absence from meetings would now constitute grounds for removal. Under a proposed policy, if a commissioner misses more than a third of the commission's meetings during a calendar year, the absences will be reported to the council. This may result in the commissioner's removal, the policy states.
"When reviewing commissioners for reappointment, attendance at commission meetings will be given significant consideration," the policy states.
The new rules also require each board and commission to submit an annual plan to the council, which would then vote to approve it. If a commission wants to add another priority, its chair would have to make a request to the council. Boards and commissions, the new policy states, "should refrain from expending their time and that of the staff liaison on items that have not been approved by the City Council."
Another proposed policy would limit board and commission members to two successive four-year terms. After that, the individual would not be eligible for appointment to the same board for at least two years after the last term's expiration.
The handbook also includes rules that restrict — though not entirely eliminate — the ability of commissioners to speak to the media. Even though commissioners are not employees of the city, the rulebook asks them to "route questions through the Chair in collaboration with the City's Chief Communications Officer." This will effectively give City Manager Ed Shikada's office a role in shaping how commissioners respond to media inquiries.
To justify this policy, the handbook states with no evidence that a commissioner's actions and comments are "often interpreted to be that of the entire (commission), the staff, or the City." But while the handbook suggests that statements to the media "should generally be avoided," it also provides guidelines for commissioners to use when addressing them. This includes clarifying when someone is speaking as a private resident (rather than in their capacity as a commissioner); not making promises that are binding on the commission, staff or the council; and avoiding speculations.
In addition to establishing new rules, the council also plans to continue its ongoing effort to pare down commission seats. Having recently disbanded the Library Advisory Commission and reduced the number of seats on both the Public Art Commission and the Human Relations Commission from five to seven, the council now plans to do the same to the Parks and Recreation Commission.
At the same time, the latest recommendations from staff and the ad hoc committee veer away from some of the most dramatic changes that the city had considered earlier this year. These include proposals to establish a Senior Commission; to split the Planning and Transportation Commission into two; and to adopt a system in which every council appoints one commissioner to the planning commission to represent his or her views.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who supports having each council member appoint a planning commissioner, said at a Feb. 24 council meeting that doing so will increase the trust between the council and its most influential advisory panel. The council would then feel more comfortable adopting the commission's recommendations without rehashing all the issues that the panel had already debated.
"Until we are able to trust our commissions and board members, we will not necessarily take their recommendations," Tanaka said at the February meeting.
Cormack suggested at the time that adopting the new handbook would go a long way to addressing the problems that the council has experienced with its commissions. She noted, however, that these problems are relatively "small" and that most of the respondents to the ad hoc committee's survey reflected "how much pride people take in serving and how well most of our boards and commissions function."
"But that doesn't mean that just because we have norms, that we don't need some rules," Cormack said.