A new push by the Palo Alto City Council to strengthen its control over the city's system of boards and commission is facing backlash from some of the volunteers who serve on these advisory bodies and who argued Monday the rules will chill free speech and deter residents from applying.
The council was scheduled to approve on Monday night a proposed handbook for boards and commissions, which includes guidelines that discourage commissioners from talking to the media and require every board to submit a work plan for council approval. The new handbook also specifies that the council can remove any commissioner at any time and for any reason.
While the council delayed adoption of the new handbook until next Monday, Oct. 26, some current and past commissioners argued that it should scrap some of the rules altogether. Architect Randy Popp, a past chair of the Architectural Review Board, told the council Monday that some of the changes, if adopted, would "drastically adjust my perspective regarding the value of serving on a board" and deter him from urging other professionals from participating in the process.
Popp called the rule granting the council the authority to remove a member for any reason "dictatorial and unmanageable."
"To be removed without cause could be permanently damaging to an individual's professional reputation," Popp said. "Media and other coverage of removal could have lasting negative impact, even if the reason is a political and professional disagreement."
Michael Alcheck, a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, similarly requested that the council reconsider the rule. As the commission's staunchest advocate for growth, Alcheck has frequently faced criticism from residents. He has also been subject to conflict-of-interest accusations for failing to disclose his efforts to convert two carports to garages while participating in the commission's revision of policies that govern these conversions (the Office of the City Attorney had indicated that his actions did not constitute a conflict).
Alcheck told the council that there may be many valid reasons to remove a commissioner from an advisory board and said that there needs to be a clear process for doing so. He also argued, however, that allowing removal of a commissioner without cause, notice or hearing is "very concerning." The rule, he noted, will allow the council to remove commissioners for political reasons.
"Planning commissioners are appointed by the City Council instead of elected by the residents so that their recommendations can be made independent of their popularity," Alcheck said. "Over the past decade, our political bodies have become subject to great polarization and partisanship and we must not ignore the real threat that commissioners can be removed solely in an effort to stifle diverse perspectives in our community."
Others pushed back against the city's effort to discourage media communications and encourage commissioners to direct inquiries from reporters to the city's chief communications officer.
Patricia Regehr, who serves on the Human Relations Commission, also criticized the council's proposals to restrict commissioners' power to speak freely to the press and to grant itself the power to remove any volunteer without cause.
"I think that's a horrible way to manage someone," she said.
Regehr also suggested the new rule on speaking to the media infringes on the First Amendment rights of volunteers. Her former commission colleague, Steven Lee, shared the view and requested in a letter that the council remove the "draconian and Trumpian policies" that restrict a commissioner's rights to speak freely.
"You can dress this up any way you want, and while I'm sure no one on staff or council will admit this publicly, but I know and the public knows that this proposal is nothing less than an attempt to silence minority voices, minority opinions, expert opinions and progressive views that staff and council disagrees with," wrote Lee, who is running for a council seat.
The council also heard from three members of the Parks and Recreation Commission, all of whom spoke out against a new proposal to reduce the number of commission seats from seven to five. Chair Jeff Greenfield and Commissioners David Moss and Keith Reckdahl all suggested that cutting seats on the commission would reduce its capability to conduct public outreach and make it more difficult to manage a large workload.
The commission, Moss said, has a very broad scope that includes, among other areas, Foothills Park access, Cubberley Community Center uses and the reopening of recreation facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also has 10 different liaison positions that monitor everything from the school district and climate change issues, to community gardens, aquatics and golf.
Reducing membership, Moss said, "will probably double our load."
The proposal to revise commission rules followed a nearly yearlong review of commission operations. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Alison Cormack surveyed past and current commissioners earlier this year and proposed the new rules to address what they perceive to be shortcomings in the current system.