Diana Diamond: Big changes afoot in City Hall in 2008 | December 19, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 19, 2007

Diana Diamond: Big changes afoot in City Hall in 2008

by Diana Diamond

Lots of changes at our little City Hall in Palo Alto. At the end of December, four members will leave the City Council, and they will be missed — not only for all the good things they have done, for the thousands of hours they have given to the city, but also for their accumulated experience.

La Doris Cordell spent four years on the council. Bern Beecham, Judy Kleinberg and Dena Mossar have been on the council for eight years; Mossar served on the Planning and Transportation Commission, as did Beecham whose official involvement with the city now totals 18 years — more time than most people spend at one company.

Come January we will have four newcomers, three of whom (Sid Espinosa, Greg Schmid and Yiawey Yeh) have no real city government experience. Council member Pat Burt has been on the city's planning commission for several years. I suspect the learning "curve" for the three neophytes will be more like a perpendicular line they will find themselves climbing as they try to reach the "knowledgeable council member" plateau.

We'll also have a new mayor, current vice mayor Larry Klein. Still undecided is who will be the new vice mayor. Rumors say it will be John Barton, who has only been on the council two years. Jack Morton, who has served six, could never quite garner up enough votes for the vice mayoral slot.

The retiring council members are finally confident in their roles, and the past several months more direct and intriguingly outspoken. To that I respond, "Hooray!". I think honest dialogue is great, and council members shouldn't always play nice with each other when underneath they strongly disagree on a number of issues.

Case in point: At last week's meeting, Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto tried an end-run around the council majority when it was voting on creating a new Environmental Commission (or committee) that could cost the city $150,000 a year or so to staff. First, Kishimoto and Councilman Peter Drekmeier wanted to postpone voting on the commission until January, knowing that chances for passage were better because three of four newcomers seem to be environmentally green.

The lame ducks exploded, saying the mayor had no right to postpone the vote because they were still elected council members and they wanted to vote now. So a vote was held, and the commission was turned down. Kishimoto then announced that she would appoint a citizen's committee to work with city staff on environmental issues.

Kleinberg was the first to call her on this, and I sat there internally applauding. The mayor had no right to appoint a committee, Kleinberg said, because the council had not discussed the committee idea. Indeed, it had not.

There are several other differences for 2008.

In mid-December, we learned that our city coffers will be $11 million fuller than expected. That's good news because the council had to spend a lot of time trying to decide what to cut when we had a $5 million deficit projected.

And guess what — the council, in lickety-split fashion, has already earmarked the $11 million. It's amazing how fast they can get some things done. First, the council decided to assure its $27 million reserve fund is at the right level so that it can use some of the money to pay for the $6.5 million purchase of the remaining half of the old Los Altos sewage treatment plant site at the end of San Antonio Road (approved earlier) to pay for land near Page Mill Road and Park Boulevard for a new public safety building.

It also decided to invest $3 million to improve the city's infrastructure, and the remaining $2.5 million, to nobody's surprise I am sure, will go to pay for city retirees' medical expenses.

Come June 2008 City Manager Frank Benest will be gone. He announced his retirement Nov. 27. Benest, who has managed to cut himself some nice deals with the council over the years, got the council to agree on Dec. 10 to pay up to $60,000 in repairs for his Bryant Street house when he decides to sell it, although it is Benest who is living in the house, not the council.

Benest bought it in 2001 for $1.59 million and worked a good deal for himself. He put in about $195,000 of his own money, the city gave him a low-interest $500,000 loan, and the city paid $900,000 toward the purchase. The city now owns 56.8 percent and Benest owns 43.2 percent.

But wait, there is more. A couple of years ago Benest went to the council and said it isn't fair that he pay all the property taxes, since he doesn't own the whole house, and the council agreed to pay its 56.8 percent — and it agreed to let Benest live in the house, if he so desires, until 2017. The house is now worth about $2.5 million, I would guess, and Benest and the city will split the profits after a sale.

Benest points out that the house is the "best performing" item in the city's investment portfolio. That's fine, unless housing prices start dropping.

Palo Alto will get a new city manager. I bet the council will have to buy him or her a house, too. I hope the council doesn't do "nice deals" again.

Finally, last week I saw that the plaza in front of city hall actually had some lights on the lower limbs of the eight trees there. They are the politically correct low-energy lights, of course, but they are real lights and they make the plaza look good. I understand the funds came from downtown businesses. Thank you to those who made this happen!

Have a great holiday, Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah.

Diana Diamond is a long-time Palo Alto resident. Her e-mail is Diana@DianaDiamond.com.


Posted by Been Here, Done This, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 24, 2007 at 8:43 am

I'm not sure if Benest had a parachute in his contract, but I bet he did.

One possible explanation for giving a "retiring" City Manager such a nice benefit, is that the City Council got him to "retire" voluntarily in exchange for a severance package that is probably worth something close to the value of the parachute in his contract.

The City Council could publicly "fire" the City Manager, but that kind of thing is usually avoided by both parties.

It's hard to compute the value of the deal, but the City is not coming out of pocket with a wad of cash, and it's also somewhat humane not to boot the guy out of his house just to liquidate the asset.

Posted by Palo Alto Charity Fund, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 26, 2007 at 1:53 pm

So .. We ARE a charity...!!! Yippie...!!!

Please let the new would be city manager know.....!!!!!!!

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 26, 2007 at 11:06 pm

PACF, Palo Alto is ANYTHING but a charity fund. People here have to work for their income.

Posted by Roy, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 28, 2007 at 3:20 am

PACF is right, Palo Alto is a charity fund. City officials who don't work competently receive their compensation package too.

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