Palo Alto may toss out City Council term limits | June 7, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 7, 2013

Palo Alto may toss out City Council term limits

City to consider extending term limits from two to three — or eliminating them entirely

by Gennady Sheyner

Days after three members of the Palo Alto City Council proposed extending the council's term limits from two to three, the nine-member body on Monday, June 3, threw another idea on the table: eliminating term limits entirely.

In the final action of its longest meeting so far this year, the council voted 7-2 — with Pat Burt and Greg Schmid dissenting — to have the Office of the City Attorney draft language for two potential City Charter amendments pertaining to council terms. One change, which was first proposed last week by Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Gail Price, would extend the number of four-year council terms from two to three. Another one, proposed by Mayor Greg Scharff shortly before the meeting concluded at 11:30 p.m., would eliminate term limits entirely.

Council members didn't make any decisions about changing the rules for terms (decisions that in any event would be subject to voter approval), but several voiced support for eliminating term limits. Chief among them was Councilman Larry Klein, who served on the council for much of the 1980s before returning to the council in 2005. He is currently in his second term.

Klein called term limits "basically undemocratic" and "insulting for electorates," who always have the option of voting out an incumbent if they don't like how he or she is performing.

"You are depriving voters of their right to choose or not choose that person," Klein said.

(In fact, since 1979, three Palo Alto incumbents have been voted out of office — Roy Clay, Sandy Eakins and Nancy Lytle.)

Shepherd, Kniss and Price argued that extending term limits would benefit the city because it would allow council members to build up seniority and obtain leadership positions on various regional boards, including ones pertaining to air quality, water, utilities, transportation and housing mandates. Kniss said Monday that it takes time for local officials to make an impact on county, state or federal levels and to obtain high positions on boards such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which doles out grants for transportation projects throughout the Bay Area.

"There are positions at the local, state and national level ... where unless you're there for a certain period of time, you're not going to rise to a leadership role that you might aspire to or that we hope you'd be able to serve," Kniss said.

Shepherd concurred and gave the example of Mountain View City Councilman Michael Kasperzak, who termed out in 2007 and lost his position as president of the League of California Cities. He later ran again for office and, after being re-elected to the Mountain View council, reclaimed his position in the League.

"Cities like ours that have term limits just never rise to the top in order to help work through some of the major policy issues that are facing cities of our size," Shepherd said.

Their colleagues had some concerns. Councilman Greg Schmid was the only member who said he would oppose extending or eliminating term limits. Incumbency is valuable, he acknowledged, but so is diversity. Bringing new people to serve in the government is as valuable as the knowledge that comes with incumbency.

"Maybe it's advantageous when you go to regional bodies, but our prime role isn't to regional bodies but to the people in the city and to reflect the people in the city."

Councilman Marc Berman said that while he supports having the language drafted for further consideration, his mind is far from made up. Opportunities for incumbents to stay in office longer, Berman said, "inherently inhibit new people from getting elected to the council."

"Something I support is diversity of all sorts — age, gender, ethnicity — on the council," Berman said. "Something like this (extending terms limits) doesn't help."

The conversation about democracy and representation had a tinge of irony, occurring as it did shortly after 11 p.m., in the sixth hour of the council's meeting and in front of a nearly empty Council Chambers. Burt and Holman both said that while they are open to deliberating on the topic further, the discussion should be held at a future date.

"It would be appropriate to have this discussion with the public having ample opportunity to weigh in and participate in it," Burt said. "I think this is a community decision, not just a council decision."

Holman concurred.

"I don't think it's the time to bring it up," Holman said. "There's no one here."

Their proposal to continue the discussion in the early fall died by a 3-6 vote, with only Schmid joining them.

City Attorney Molly Stump said that the earliest date that a charter change could be brought to the voters under state law would be in June 2014.

Palo Alto voters initially approved limiting council members to two four-year terms in 1992.

The council Monday was also scheduled to consider proposals to reduce the size of the council from nine to seven members and to have an earlier swearing-in date for newly elected members earlier. But recognizing the lateness of the hour, the council decided to discuss these changes at a later date.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Dont They Have Anything More Important?, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 4, 2013 at 6:59 am

Lets get this straight. The city still does not have a decent infrastructure plan. The pension issue remains unfunded. Mitchell Park library remains unfinished as a public exhibit of how constituent money is being wasted. The city manager is allowed to add layer upon layer of bureaucratic fat with no objections from the council.
And somehow this council now wants to sit there forever saying term limits are insulting to voters! I think what is insulting to voters is the fact that the council feels entitled to spend its time (and voter money) discussing things like this that are of little consequence to voters. I despair for our city and wonder what if anything can save us from the disaster that is the current leadership. At least term limits serve the function of getting ride of these people after some fixed period of time. Imagine what they would be doing without term limits.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 4, 2013 at 7:10 am

Many of the council members support special interests or city staff over the concerns of residents - and if the reason these same council members want to change term limits for "regional boards", guess who they will represent - not us the residents.

Here are just a few examples of where council represented special interests or city staff versus the residents:

the Maybell Ave project - wanting to grant high density variances for special interests over the traffic & safety issues of the residents.

Lytton Gateway is another example, where high density variance was granted, while severely under sizing the parking in an already aggravated parking situation for the residents.

Alma Plaza & the high density variance given, for the "grocery store" - what a farce.

The cut back in animal services & police staffing so the city manager can hire a "Chief PR" hack and a "Chief Sustainability" evangelist.

It's more important that the council focus on Palo Alto, getting the pension liabilities under control, reducing the property crimes & robberies, improving the traffic congestion, making sure the Mitchell Park library gets completed.

What we see instead are some council members who aren't in office to help the residents, but instead to self-aggrandize themselves. If they have such an interest in "regional issues", run for state legislature.

Posted by for pete's sake, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 4, 2013 at 7:19 am

because this council is such a crackerjack team that it would be horrible for us if they couldn't "rise to the top." Yes, Nancy the whole state is waiting for you to share your wisdom on "Why Curb Appeal Is Overrated in Neighborhoods: The Great Success of Alma Plaza," and "Homeless People Smell Funny: How We Banned Them From Sitting, Lying, or Sleeping in Cars," and "John Arrillaga is a Billionaire and I GOT TO SIT NEXT TO HIM SO I MUST BE IMPORTANT: The Greg Scharf Story." Or "How to Eliminate Term Limits, Just Say That Incumbency Doesn't Afford Any Advantages: Wink, Wink, Wink."

Posted by And the point is...., a resident of Stanford
on Jun 4, 2013 at 7:43 am

No, Larry, your comments are insulting to the electorate. As for undemocratic--term limits are the will of the people--isn't that democratic????
Figures that our career council members, Klein and Kniss, are besides themsleves in wanting to get rid of term limits.
As for the claims of seniority on regional boards--what exactly do our representatives do on these regional boards? Does the public ever hear from our council about that?? Which national level appointments is Kniss talking about.
And Nancy--aren't all the cities in this area about the same size? And don't they all have term limits? On which boards have we not been allowed to "rise to the top" because of term limits???
Do the council members actually think about what they say before they say it??
If these are the arguments against term limits, then we need stricter term limits to rid ourselves of these self-serving council members.
BTW, very funny, for pete's sake.

Let's say no to this latest power grab by our council

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 8:49 am

No Way - please, no way.

Posted by Adrian, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:27 am

How about not?

Posted by Katie, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:28 am

Heading the way of our esteem Congress! Yikes. Throw the bums out if they can't get it done in the required amount of time.

Posted by goodjob, a resident of another community
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:51 am

These are the honorable positions that no one can touch --- The Palo Alto Empire

Posted by jerry99, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:07 am

absolutely not, we have enough of these far left leaning people on the Council and more year = more damage to Palo Alto. ONE four year term is enough. Then these people can move to Berkeley and join that nutty city council.

Posted by JohnGalt, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

No, no a thousand times NO!!

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

This is unbelievable. Why not just declare yourselves as “City Governors for Life”? Why should the little people of Palo Alto be expected to have any say in the way government works—when the SIEU, and the other Unions have so much at stake in the continuation of the status quo? Certainly having the same people sitting on the Council for decades at a time makes for a great “democracy”.

> "Cities like ours that have term limits just
> never rise to the top in order to help work
> through some of the major policy issues
> that are facing cities of our size," Shepherd said.

And what would those issues be? What makes Ms. Shepard think that Palo Alto, with a population of 64,000 should have more input than San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland—with a combined population of over 2.5M?

Ms. Shepard—Palo Alto’s government is not your personal to !

The insanity just never ends in this town.

Posted by joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:16 am

Ms. Shepard—Palo Alto’s government is not your personal toy !

Posted by Josh, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:34 am

NO! Term limits work.

Posted by Inspector Gadget, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:40 am

I find it humorous and highly ironic that the same night the council removed dollars from the budget for possible employee raises that they also directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would eliminate the Council's current 2 term limit(8 years total) and allow unlimited terms. The Weekly missed that this Charter amendment, if passed, will guarantee LIFETIME healthcare benefits to council members who serve more than 2 terms. Currently newer council members are now prohibited from receiving retiree healthcare because the minimimum years of service for retiree healthcare is currently 10 years. Kniss and Klein already have this time in the system. But the others do not. By allowing the Mayor and others to run beyond 2 terms allows them access to lifetime benefits for them AND their families. A sneaky way for the Mayor to get the retiree healthcare he can't get on his own as a sole practitioner. I guess benefit cuts are ok with Scharff as long as his own benefits are increasing.

Posted by mutti, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:52 am

Liz Kniss got term-limited out of her County Seat, which was taken over by Joe Simitian after he was term-limited out of his state senate seat. Career politicians will find ways to go up the ladder and back down again.
At least this has to be passed by the voters as a charter amendment. Unlikely to happen!

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Why not just bounce the rascals out at the polls with a good public drubbing?

Seems to me term limiters have no faith in the American electorate and are personally lazy to boot.

Posted by Nothing else for them to do, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Obviously, they cannot find anything of real importance to do!

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Is anyone surprised by this?
We already had one current council member convince the city to change the year we have council elections to ensure an election for the year thatbthierosn was termed out their last post. This is a logical extension-- get rid of term limits and make it a lifetime position.
I would also like to know what our council members accomplish on these regional boards-- in fact it would be nice to know who serves on which boards and what they do.
It will be interesting to see what the weekly' s position on this matter will be.

Posted by Voter, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Career politicians are good at getting reelected (selling their votes to unions, developers, and other special interests), and not so good at governing.

How about a mass recall instead?

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Just think, if we would not have term limits we would still have the" too much traffic- lets turn the main thoroughfare i live on to one lane in each direction" and " Stanford treats us like a duchy and I was barely chosen as vice mayor " members on the council. See why we need term limits?

Posted by Charles , a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 4, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Retain term limits. I do not want to fund council members for life time health benefits. Pensions/health care is a reason PA has a severe budget shortfall. Adding council members to the system adds to the problem.

Voting a council member out of office is no cure-all. If a lemon is elected, it may take up to 4 years to vote him/her out.

I am in favor of a 7 term council. Most cities survive well with that number. 5 is too few.

Posted by not keen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Hasn't Mr. Klein studied the BASICS of American history, to understand that term limits at any and all levels of gocvernment have EVERYTHING to do with democracy???

Ye gods . . .

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Not keen-- don't you know that the council knows what is best for us? We, the unwashed masses, should just sit quietly and listen to what they have to say. And, of course, the weekly will tell us how to vote during election time ( based on instructions from the council)

Posted by 35 year resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm

I hope council members read the comments posted here today, though I suspect they would just ignore the opinions of Palo Altans anyway. Get them out after 2 terms, period. These career leeches need to go locally and nationally.

Posted by Upset, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Please- NO NO NO

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 4, 2013 at 8:41 pm

A smaller Council is a great idea; the elimination of term limits is a terrible idea. It is critical that *they* not bundle these issues so that the only way to achieve the good thing (smaller Council) is to accept the bad thing (no limits). Even though incumbents would have to be re-elected that's not much of a hurdle for the "innies". One need only look at the election materials of one of the innies to see that they all support one another over and over and over again. And then there's the union support. And special interest support. Why do something that makes a problem worse? Seems to me that if endless years in service were a good thing for achieving effective government, our national government would be running like a charm. This is a self-serving proposal if ever there was one. Council Members: serve your term or two and MOVE ON. Please.

Posted by getting weirder, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Can this get any weirder?

so power hungry and it would not be so bad if they were at least capable.

Who allowed 27 University to get so out of hand? Council.

Post reported that 27 University will undergo a process where Council will "appoint" the stakeholders involved in the public planning for this site?

The "appointed" public will now have a voice, gee thanks

PA Weekly,

Please investigate what "APPOINTED" Stakeholders means?

Would an "appointed" stakeholder be Theaterworks? or the former (appointed) planning commissioner/ turned architect of 27 University, also on the board of Theaterworks?

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

Please, no more "Blue Ribbon Committees" - now called "stakeholders". These committees have gotten us into so much planning trouble - and they are the same inner circle recycled over and over again. Do the residents trust this council or the staff? Not anymore!! Not after the devious handling of 27 University from the beginning. Some of the 'inner circle' left to work for Arrillaga.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 5, 2013 at 10:36 am

"Hasn't Mr. Klein studied the BASICS of American history, to understand that term limits at any and all levels of gocvernment have EVERYTHING to do with democracy???"

Obviously Klein has done his homework and this poster has not. The Founding Fathers did not set term limits. Unlike proponents of term limits, they had a strong faith in the power of the vote.

Posted by Don, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Career politicians think their entitled to cushy life style.

Politicians should ONLY be able sit on counsel for 4 years and that’s it. They should be barred for sitting on counsel ever again for which city they resided in. if They want to work, they can applied for job like everyone else. Feel the pain like everyone else.

Politicians need to STOP changing the RULES to satisfy their own needs and wants.

Posted by Coucnil Members Are Volunteers, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 5, 2013 at 1:55 pm


City Council Members are not paid. They get a stipend to cover their expenses and health insurance. None of this amounts to enough money to live on in Palo Alto...though they donate hundreds of hours to community service. You may not agree with them, but it would be appropriate to properly state the facts.

Posted by local both north and south, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 5, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Whenever lawmakers want to get rid of term limits, it's up to citizens to figure out where they are up to no good.

If they are going to extend term limits, they need to make it easier for us to toss the bad ones out. They should also make a district-representative policy, as current council tends to come mostly from and represent the north end of town -- witness the decision to target the south for densification and willy nilly rezoning they'd never allow in any northern neighborhoods.

Posted by Jana, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2013 at 3:14 pm

This is what Palo Alto's arrogant career politicians think of the citizens of this town...."let them eat cake."
We need a recall, not abolishing term limits.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 5, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Term limits are democracy n action. The voters decided they do not want career politicians. They enacted laws to serve that purpose. Obviously these laws are constitutional. Not sure why people like Larry Klein have problems with following the will of the people, unless that interests self serving in order to make sure they can hold office ad infinitum. Note also that mayor Greg Scharf made this suggestion in the dead of night, before an almost empty hamber and without any public input. Maybe he should work o n his big words fron his staff te city address instead of working to ensure himself a permanent seat on the council .

Posted by No Term Limits equals same old people elected over, and over again, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 6, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Getting rid of term limits is just a way to ensure that the same circle of people get elected, and set their respective agenda and policies for the city. This is how and why we get 27 Univesity Avenue; Palo Alto Housing Corporation building a dense proprety in a traffic nigthmare area; elimination of two lanes on all the busy roads in the city; a city with half re-paved streets, and half underground electrical wiring; traffic mess on all those one lane busy streets; unresolved neighborhood parking problems; the same stop sign on Maybell being constantly run over, and replaced; an unrealistic focus on increasing bicycle lanes and paths; and an overfocus on people who cannot afford to rent or buy a home, and have to sleep in their cars. Obviously, Palo Alto plays spin to wanting diverse ideas/thoughts and representation, but in reality, there is no diversity on the PACC or the City of Palo Alto Key Management staff.

What an arrogant city leadership staff, with ineffective ideas and policies. Obviously, they simply want to rule their little world of Palo Alto, forever, and forever.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 6, 2013 at 9:42 pm

This reminds me of George Orwell's novel "Animal Farm", and we know who the pigs are.

Posted by lazlo, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 10, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Good Grief! What arrogance! Career politicians Klein and Kniss have deemed term limits undemocratic and therefore determined that majority vote (voter inacted term limits) in a democratic system is unfair and/or illegal as voters are uninformed and not capable of making informed decisions! What a strange and dysfuntional world politicians such as these two career politicians must live in. It is truly unfortunate that many career politicians lack the skills necessary to enter the job market and find it necessary to attempt to circumvent majority vote and democracy.

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