Last month, the Palo Alto City Council wrestled with a problem that prior councils could only dream about: what to do about a surge of applications from residents looking to serve on advisory commissions.
The city had recently restructured its commission terms to consolidate recruiting and appointments, a move that was designed in part to make the process more efficient. No longer scattered throughout the year, the recruitment season took place in February, when the city solicited applications for critical commissions, a list that includes the Planning and Transportation Commission, the Utilities Advisory Commission, the Historic Review Board, the Human Relations Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission.
The effect was dramatic. Whereas past council members had occasionally found themselves reopening recruiting periods because of lack of applications, current council members confronted in early March a 410-page packet with 56 applications, which City Clerk Lesley Milton said was a record.
Undeterred by long meetings, technical subject matter, nonexistent pay and purely advisory roles, dozens of residents submitted applications for various commission seats. This includes 19 who applied for the Utilities Advisory Commission (including incumbent Commissioner Greg Scharff), 18 who sought to join the Parks and Recreation Commission (including incumbent commissioners Amanda Brown, Jeff LaMere, Joy Oche and Shani Kleinhaus) and 11 who wanted to fill seats on the Planning and Transportation Commission (including incumbent Commissioner Cari Templeton).
The list of applicants was so large that the council adopted in March 13 a procedure just to figure out whom to interview. After settling on a process in which each council member chose a certain number of applicants for the interview list (with numbers based on commission), the council spent more than four hours on March 31 interviewing about two dozen candidates for the Planning and Transportation Commission, the Utilities Advisory Commission and the Historic Resources Board. On Monday, the council at last finalized their appointments.
So who are the new commissioners? On the Planning and Transportation Commission, which is widely viewed as the city's most influential advisory board which often serves as a stepping stone for would-be council members, the top two vote-getters were Templeton and Allen Akin, a Professorville resident who made headlines in 2010 when his home renovation project in the historic district turned into a three-year ordeal that required an environmental impact review and had cost his family about $500,000.
Templeton, a former Google employee who currently serves as district representative for state Sen. Josh Becker, said in her interview that one of the realities that she had come to accept and recognize as a sitting commissioner is how long it takes to get things done.
"The pace of government is not the pace of business," Templeton said. "It's very hard to understand that in your bones until you've been up there trying to work on a project that's not necessarily going to be complete in your lifetime."
She also said that an important part of serving on the commission is learning to be patient and learning to understand and value perspectives that may be different from one's own.
"These are all residents and citizens of our city and they have a perspective and you need to hear it," Templeton said. "Learning how to do that is something that takes time and experience."
Akin, while new to commission duties, has long been involved as a citizen in reviewing and commenting on the city's transportation efforts. Among his positions is a belief that employees will eventually return downtown and the city's plans should reflect that. He said in his interview that he is not seeking to implement any "all-encompassing vision" but is dedicated to "just getting some work done that's needed for practical and economic implementation with the vision we all have."
Templeton and Akin both won seats in the first round of voting on Monday, with five council members voting for Templeton (Vice Mayor Greer Stone and council members Pat Burt, Ed Lauing, Julie Lythcott-Haims and Vicki Veenker) and four voting for Akin (Mayor Lydia Kou, Burt, Lauing and Stone).
Joining them on the commission will be George Lu, a product manager at Meta who won a seat in the second round with four votes (Burt, Lythcott-Haims, Greg Tanaka and Veenker). In his interview, Lu said he wants to see a more dynamic Palo Alto that is capable of supporting small businesses like the recently departed Antonio's Nuthouse and other cherished community institutions. Lu, who had previously worked for the scooter company Bird, championed filling parking lots in major commercial areas in Stanford Shopping Center, downtown, California Avenue and Stanford Research Park with mixed-use buildings that fulfill the city's housing goals and connecting these areas with bike lanes.
"This vision of having our major commercial, retail areas, connectable with basically a 25-minute bike ride from any particular part, where we can actually fulfill our Housing Element with potentially room to spare, where we can really control our development, where we can build affordable housing and promote diversity, and we can also do it in a politically feasible way — with human scale development, community benefits and hopefully reduced car traffic and reduced climate impact per resident," Lu said during his interview.
Akin and Lu will take over seats that were previously held by Giselle Roohparvar, whose term expired, and Ed Lauing, who left the commission to join the council in January.
The Utilities Advisory Commission will welcome three new members, who will replace John Bowie, Loren Smith and A.C. Johnston. Meagan Mauter, an associate professor at Stanford University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and research director for the National Alliance for Water Innovation, easily won a seat after securing five votes (Burt, Kou, Lauing, Lythcott-Haims and Veenker). Robert Phillips, who holds a doctorate in engineering economic systems from Stanford and who according to his application had served as an adviser on energy policy to the U.S. Department of Energy and South Korea, was selected in the next round with four votes (Burt, Kou, Lauing and Stone). And after four rounds of voting, Scharff secured the four votes he needed for a fresh term (Kou, Lauing, Stone and Tanaka).
The council then chose Rachel Croft, a consultant at Pivot Health Technologies, to fill Bowie's unexpired term, which concludes on March 31, 2025.
The Historic Resources Board vote was far simpler, with three candidates — incumbent Christian Pease and new applicants Alisa Eagleston-Cieslewic and Samantha Joy Rohman — each getting seven votes. They were the only applicants who applied for the three positions.