Citing a critical need for improved connection and collaboration as Palo Alto recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Tom DuBois used his "State of the City" address on Thursday night to advocate for expanding the city's fiber network, improving public discourse and launching a new "sister city" program that would bridge the gap between blue and red sections of America.
In a virtual event that featured musical performances by Palo Alto students, the mayor recapped for the viewers some highlights from one of the most bizarre and disruptive years in Palo Alto's history and presented his plans for the rest of 2021, as the city continues to cope with the pandemic's devastating impacts.
He focused particularly on four areas in which he said he wants to make progress in the coming months: transparent and productive discourse, responsive government, speedy recovery and real progress on climate change. He also decried growing extremism in political discourse and made a plea for moderation and compromise.
Civility at public meetings has plunged over the course of the pandemic, he said, as COVID-19 has "made people cranky."
"We need everybody on the same team and can't afford to create sides by attacking each other, particularly in this year of recovery," DuBois said.
Economic recovery, he said, is and will remain the council's top priority and the topic that will take up the majority of staff and council time. Last spring, as the city's hotel- and sales-tax revenues began to plummet, the city reduced its budget by $40 million. Many of those cuts, DuBois said, "won't be felt by residents until we end the shelter-in-place."
"It's going to take a long time to recover and restore many of the services our residents expect and appreciate," DuBois said.
Even so, DuBois highlighted several ambitious new initiatives this year and urged residents to embrace the changes that the pandemic has shown are possible. Citing the spike in telecommuting over the past year, DuBois voiced support for Fiber to the Premises, a proposal to expand the municipal fiber ring to all residences and businesses in the city. While the city has been considering expanding the fiber network for more than 20 years, DuBois argued that now is the ideal time to finally advance the project and, in doing so, reduce driving in the city.
"Everyone knows the person with the bad uplink on Zoom," DuBois said. "We have the opportunity to create a new city utility and deliver superior service to our residents."
In discussing the city's plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, DuBois also advocated for the launch of a pilot program this year that would provide incentives for residents to switch from gas water heaters to electric alternatives. The program is among those that the council has been considering as part of its broad plan to reduce emissions by 80% from the 1990 level by 2030.
"Cities and states have led on staying in the Paris Accord, and Palo Alto has the opportunity to lead on the Green New Deal to provide an example of how to leave less of a footprint in the sand," DuBois said.
DuBois cited in his speech the four priorities that the council adopted in January, which in addition to economic recovery and climate change include housing and social justice. On the housing front, he cited the council's recent efforts to change zoning to encourage more residential construction and pointed to the housing developments that are now in the works, including the Wilton Court development for low-income families and adults with disabilities and the "workforce housing" development at 2755 El Camino Real.
At the same time, he said he was concerned about regional housing mandates, including the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process that has assigned Palo Alto to accommodate more than 6,000 housing units by 2031.
"It's an unprecedented pace of development and an unfunded mandate by the state," DuBois said. "We do need to produce more houses, but we also need to preserve and protect the ones that are here to ensure affordability."
As part of his effort to promote unity as mayor, DuBois said he is hoping to launch a "sister city" program that would forge relationships between Palo Alto and cities in other parts of the U.S. The city already has "sister city" programs with eight cities throughout the world, including, most recently, Tsuchiura, Japan; Heidelberg, Germany; and Shanghai's Yangpu District. DuBois said he has been having conversations with like-minded people to jump-start such a program between American cities.
"The divide within our own country seems larger than without," DuBois said. "A U.S. sister city program can enable us to forge connections, encourage business collaboration, share ideas and understand each other better."
He also made a pitch for restoring local connections after a year of social isolation by bringing back popular community events, including a socially distant May Fête celebration, art events on Friday nights and neighborhood town halls. He also said he wants to hold an "End of the Pandemic" celebration, hopefully in September, to commemorate the "unsung heroes," including those who helped their neighbors in need and the researchers who developed the coronavirus vaccine in record time.
In recapping Palo Alto's past year, DuBois noted that the city has done relatively well at managing the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the rest of Santa Clara County.
"We had lower rates of infection and more people getting tested, and I'm proud to say we now have over 80% of our people 65 and older vaccinated, which is top in the county," he said.
At the same time, the event also served as a reminder that the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. Normally a community celebration with food, live music, socializing and mingling, this year's "State of the City" event was conducted like all other public meetings: over Zoom. Unlike other government meetings, it featured several musical performances, including a song performed by 400 students from choirs at Fletcher, Greene and JLS middle schools and Palo Alto and Gunn high schools.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt alluded to the unusual circumstances early in the ceremony, when he thanked the viewers for attending "what we hope will be the first — and only — virtual 'State of the City' address ever."
"This is one of the few days when a number of us get to find out whether we still fit into our business suits. With this informality, it looks like we won't get to know that this year, but we'll find out soon enough, when we hopefully start to normalize," Burt said.
Watch a recording of the "State of the City" address below.