But the "unprecedented" applied to it might be too big a term to fit the year's challenges. The desperate year after the 1978 Proposition 13 tax-reform initiative comes to mind. And there were several rough years of stalled leadership at the council and staff level in the early part of the past decade.
Yet that quibble should not detract from a real sense of accomplishment for City Manager James Keene and his administrative team, backed by a council that has tried hard to guide the city despite a large number of relative newcomers with individual differences of opinion and style.
"I was impressed with what staff has been able to get done in an era of huge transitions and fewer resources," Mayor Pat Burt said in assessing the year's wrap-up discussion Tuesday night — his final meeting as mayor.
He specifically cited a turnaround of the erosion of auto dealerships — a major source of sales-tax revenue and of concern in recent years. He noted a major expansion of the Magnussen's Toyota dealership on San Antonio Road and a new high-end hybrid-vehicle and sports-car dealer, McLaren & Fisker, moving into a former Volvo dealership on El Camino Real.
Financially, the city closed a $6.3 million mid-year budget gap and eliminated a $7.3 million 2011 "structural deficit" (the kind that would otherwise return year after year). It cut 40 full-time positions, adding to 20 cut in 2009.
While Palo Alto will always have critics who say the city hasn't done enough, and we're often among them, it might help to review the gloom-and-doom feeling at the end of 2009, which Keene enumerated in a PowerPoint presentation.
There was an "economic free fall" and city fiscal crisis, high commercial vacancies in downtown, tension with city unions, aggressive but unmet "sustainability" goals, an angry public reaction to felling 63 street trees on California Avenue and continued problems with city processing building approvals and permits.
A huge review process for the massive Stanford Medical Center rebuilding and expansion loomed over the city, now about to be wrapped up early in 2011. There were deep concerns about impacts of high-speed rail through Palo Alto, which remain.
But the city failed to tackle an estimated $500 million in identified "infrastructure needs," buildings and other city facilities.
Keene demonstrated decisiveness in making some personnel changes that should result in improved city operations.
The city made real progress in a new field: seeking to improve the well-being of our young people, with a collaborative, community-wide effort involving schools, organizations and individuals in a "Project Safety Net," and youth forums.
The city made substantial progress in preparing for a major emergency or disaster, with a wake-up call when a small plane hit an incoming electrical-transmission tower and crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, killing the three Tesla engineers aboard. A day without electrical power stopped Palo Alto cold.
Yet the city has failed to solve a perennial problem: delayed public information about significant police, fire or other emergency situations — an important component of an effective response to a disaster.
The city negotiated lower pension and health-care costs with employee unions, becoming a statewide leader, while generally improving labor relations.
There were internal staff-efficiency initiatives. There was unheralded behind-the-scenes work on economic health, largely through a restructured "economic development" office. Perhaps coincidentally, vacancy rates declined in downtown Palo Alto, and the Stanford Research Park — parts of which were termed a big-building "ghost town" a few years ago — currently boasts a 3 percent vacancy rate.
These successes are real, and are at least in part due to staff initiatives — a fact of which critics who scoff at the accomplishments seem to be unaware.
Yes, there are major tasks left undone and serious issues to be addressed. But this is a good season to appreciate what has been achieved and those who helped achieve it.
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