Editorial: A Palo Alto mandate for open communication | January 8, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 8, 2010

Editorial: A Palo Alto mandate for open communication

New City Council needs to tackle a decades-old issue of more timely release of staff reports before council meetings to build community trust

For decades, residents, neighborhood groups and local newspapers have pushed for earlier release of city staff reports relating to City Council agenda items, without success.

The city is still stuck on releasing the "council packet" at 5 p.m. Thursday for meetings the following Monday night — a schedule dating from the 1950s when print was the only alternative.

A good effort in 2001 and 2002 to get staff reports out sooner faltered in the face of departmental difficulties in meeting earlier deadlines, but it suffered from inadequate council and administrative support and was abandoned.

As we have said before, issuing staff reports on significant topics just days before a meeting where they are to be considered is unfair to the public. It invites suspicion on the part of the many Palo Altans who follow city business — especially when items affect their homes, neighborhoods or community services. The media and neighborhood groups just don't have time to get the word out when important policy issues are to be discussed or decided.

Even worse is a practice by some developers of coming in at the last minute with significant changes to projects before the council, even hand-delivered on the night of the council meeting.

New Mayor Pat Burt Monday night made earlier notification a specific priority "to establish trust" in the council and city. Other council members, including four new members who were sworn in Monday night, have listed early notification as a priority.

Burt's overall goal is to "try to achiever greater transparency and accessibility of government. In addition to earlier release of council packets, he said the council should "have our meetings at a time when the public is still awake and the council is still awake."

At long last, a "wake-up call" on the need for better, more timely communication.

With electronic distribution, staff reports should be available online at least seven to 10 days before the meeting where the matter covered is to be considered, with reports available as soon as they are completed rather than a big, multi-pound lump of information.

When, for whatever reason, reports of significant matters can't be out a week beforehand, then the matter should automatically be postponed a week, except perhaps in rare "emergency" situations where a tight deadline is involved. Each agenda should have some time for "spillover" items from a prior agenda if reports aren't ready.

When a developer comes in with substantial last-minute changes to a plan, the same policy should apply: an automatic postponement of the entire item. This would be an important incentive to developers to share information about changes in their projects in a timely manner, not "game the system" to try to avoid or minimize criticism.

Burt's second point about doing city business when everyone is awake is a great one. He is not the first to raise that issue: As far back as the 1960s, former Councilman Kirke Comstock would gather up his papers at 11 p.m. and bid his colleague's goodnight, in a polite protest that after that time council members' brains turn to pumpkin seeds.

This "efficiency" of council meetings is an important but separate issue. It may relate to the size of the large nine-member council, but it definitely relates to how long each council member speaks to each item. Sometimes, well-edited brief comments are more effective than lengthy commentaries.

But earlier information release should be the first priority of this council and administration. It is a vital component of the city's "civic engagement" priority of recent years, as if that were really needed in activism-rich Palo Alto. It is especially important if the city wants to increase the level of constructive engagement rather than the often negative criticisms heaped on city leaders.

It is encouraging to see the unanimity in the election of Mayor Pat Burt and Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa, both of whom have demonstrated solid leadership skills and a broad base of knowledge about the community, its serious budget problems, energy needs and land-use and demographic patterns.

The council and community face huge economic challenges this year, and improved, more timely communication will be a key tool in dealing with those challenges.


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