Facing community backlash, the Palo Alto City Council reversed course Monday and nixed contentious proposals that would have restricted the ability of local commissioners to talk to the media while giving the council more power to remove these volunteers at any time and for any reason.
The council also pulled back from its prior plan to reduce the Parks and Recreation Commission from seven seats to five after members generally agreed that the commission's broad scope and overwhelming opposition to the proposed seat reduction warrants retaining the status quo.
The council opted to shift gears after two public hearings in which residents and numerous commissioners voiced objections to a new handbook that council members were scheduled to adopt. The handbook, which was crafted by Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Council member Alison Cormack, seeks to address inconsistencies in how the various boards function and to better align the commissions' work with council directions.
Proposed policies in the new handbook include requiring the council to approve the work plan of each commission, instituting annual ethics training for each member and requiring commissioners not to miss more than a third of meetings.
The most controversial proposals, however, had to do with the removal of commissioners and limiting their abilities to speak to the media. While the handbook did not expressly forbid commissioners from speaking to the media, it advised members that "statements to the media should generally be avoided" and that inquiries should be routed through the city's chief communications officer.
Several past and present volunteers, including Planning and Transportation Commissioner Michael Alcheck and former Architectural Review Board Chair Randy Popp objected to the proposed policy for removing commissioners. At the council's Oct. 19 meeting, Popp argued that the move can be "permanently damaging to an individual's professional reputation" and told the council that if the rule passes, he would no longer be able to recommend to residents that they volunteer for a local board.
Alcheck, who has long stood out as the planning commission's staunchest advocate for more growth, suggested that the policy would damage the independence of the advisory bodies and further politicize the appointment process.
Former Mayor Pat Burt, who is now running for a council seat, echoed that sentiment on Monday and urged the council to "really avoid the politicization of the appointment and removal process." While a removal may be appropriate, it should not be arbitrary, he suggested.
"It should be based upon ethical or legal violations or patterns of absences or misconduct to staff or a colleague or the public, or other things that undermine the trust of the council or the commission, but not arbitrary reasons," Burt said.
The majority of the council agreed. Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she was troubled by the proposal to allow removal of commissioners for "no reason," as the handbook allowed. Such a policy, she suggested, would inject more politics into the commission appointment process.
"I can imagine a time when … a new council sits down, takes a look at the planning commission and says, 'Two or three people don't work for us. Here's a way to get rid of them,' and just vote them off without reason. I'd really object to that," Kniss said.
Mayor Adrian Fine similarly opposed the new policy on the removal of commissioners and argued that this would stifle their independence.
"I think we can all acknowledge that these appointees and the process for them is political, but I really want us to have board and commission members who serve independently, who have different opinions and can push back and challenge council," Fine said. "I think that's extraordinarily important and I'd be really, really disappointed if we allow removal without a reason or without a hearing," Fine said.
The council stopped short, however, of requiring a public hearing to remove commissioners. Some members suggested that while removing a commissioner shouldn't be an arbitrary process, it also shouldn't be a difficult one. Council member Eric Filseth suggested that requiring a hearing would curb the council's power to staff its advisory bodies however it wants to.
"Does the council have the power to remove commissioners or not? If it goes to a public hearing and so forth, maybe the council doesn't have that power. If the council does have that power, why are you constraining the council to jump through hoops for it?" Filseth asked.
DuBois agreed with the suggestion that removal should be based on legal or ethical violations, or on patterns of absences. But like Filseth, he said he would not support requiring public hearings for removing members.
"We should have a reason to remove somebody, but it should be a council decision and not a long, drawn-out process," DuBois said.
The council also agreed to reconsider the proposed media policy, which several commissioners suggested infringes on their First Amendment rights. Council member Greg Tanaka shared that view and called the proposal to discourage media responses "a little bit weird." If anything, the city should be encouraging commissioners to do more community outreach, he said.
"I don't think we want to muzzle our commissioners," Tanaka said.
DuBois said the intent of the policy wasn't to "muzzle" commissioners but rather to make sure that when they're speaking, they are making it clear that they are representing themselves and not the commission or the city. Commissioners, he said, should not serve as "opposition" to the council or a "shadow cabinet."
While his colleagues agreed with that objective, they directed DuBois and Cormack to revise the proposed policy and make it less restrictive.
"I think board and commission members should feel free to speak with the press," Fine said. "They should just be explicit about who they are representing."
The council also generally agreed that it would like to standardize the recruitment process so that all commission seats are filled early in the year and that it would like to see more youth voices represented on local boards. Cormack and Kniss each supported having a student representative on some of the commissions, with Cormack pointing at a recent surge of support among local teenagers for a new skatepark in Palo Alto as a good example of local youths providing useful feedback.
The council also agreed to retain seven seats on the Parks and Recreation Commission, with several members pointing to the commission's broad purview and heavy workload. Councilwoman Lydia Kou suggested that reducing the number of seats to five — as the council had recently done with the Human Relations Commission and the Public Art Commission — would spread the commission too thin.
While the council did not formally enact any of the proposed changes on Monday, Cormack and DuBois confirmed in response to Kou that they will not advance the prior proposal to pare down the Parks and Recreation Commission.