On Tuesday night, the City Council added to the tally when it voted to support four bills pertaining to police accountability: SB 2, which creates a mechanism for decertifying police officers who engage in serious misconduct; SB 16, which expands the categories of police documents that are subject to public disclosure; AB 26, which requires police departments to immediately report excessive force by an officer; and AB 718, which requires departments to release the findings of investigations into officer misconduct even if the officer leaves the department.
The city's propensity for taking public positions, particularly when it comes to opposing housing mandates, has won it plenty of friends and foes throughout the state. Council member Lydia Kou, who chairs the council's Policy and Services Committee, has been the city's most fervent opponent of SB 9 and SB 10. In recent months, she has participated in community meetings and distributed newsletters where these bills are characterized as an attack on local government control. Her recent petition in opposition to SB 9 bears the title, "Goodbye, single-family neighborhoods."
Kou suggested Tuesday that the city should do more to influence Sacramento lawmakers.
"My main concern is that the state Legislature has been inundating cities with so many bills, which impact the cities on many levels," Kou said during the council's discussion of the city's lobbying efforts. "And so, I kind of felt like we needed more exposure to some of these bills so that we can learn more about their impacts."
It's not clear, however, how effective the city's lobbying efforts have been. Palo Alto was one of many cities and organizations that opposed SB 50, a bill from Sen. Scott Wiener that would have increased housing density near transit corridors and in jobs-rich areas and that fizzled in 2020. Yet SB 9 and SB 10 face better odds. Both have already sailed through the state Senate and both cleared on Tuesday the Assembly's Housing and Community Development Committee.
To determine which bills to weigh in on, the city generally relies on its legislative guidelines, which prioritize issues such as public transportation, improvements to the rail corridor and environmental sustainability. On housing, the guidelines call for "supporting reasonable housing and land use policies that recognize local autonomy and create reasonable ratios between jobs and housing" and "opposing attempts to remove from localities the ability to determine their own land use policies or stymie the local political process."
Deputy City Manager Chantal Gaines said city staff had identified 179 state bills in the current legislative session that are related to issues in the city's guidelines. Of those, 159 have cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee and are in various stages of the legislative process. Staff and the city's lobbyist, Townsend Public Affairs, has also narrowed the pile of bills down to about 25 that warrant special attention. On those, Gaines said, staff is preparing to work with bill sponsors and others involved in the legislative process to make sure Palo Alto's position is heard.
While Kou and some of her colleagues supported increasing the city's advocacy efforts in Sacramento, most council members also agreed that when it comes to lobbying, less may achieve more. Niccolo De Luca, senior director at Townsend Public Affairs, referred to the practice of some cities to engage in widespread commenting as "papering the capital" and suggested that it may not be the best way to achieve legislative goals.
"When you paper up the capital, it's good to get your thoughts out there. But what I've seen more effective for cities is to weigh in thoughtfully and thoroughly," De Luca said Tuesday. "If there is a piece of legislation we don't like, we express that we have opposition, but we also like to propose amendments or propose suggestions or highlight what has been done successfully in Palo Alto.
"If we're going after so many bills, it would spread everyone so thin that it would be a challenge to weigh in with some of those thoughtful comments."
De Luca also emphasized the importance of face-to-face meetings with key lawmakers in Sacramento and encouraged council members to partake in an "advocacy day" in the Capitol, where they can meet lawmakers and discuss issues of local importance.
Council member Alison Cormack, who had participated in an advocacy day before the pandemic, concurred and suggested that if the city wants to have an impact on Sacramento, "active advocacy" would be required.
"I'd like to see us collectively spend more time advocating for what we want, as opposed to opposing things that we're concerned about," Cormack said.
Others felt more comfortable in the role of the opposition. Vice Mayor Pat Burt said he believes it is "entirely appropriate" for the city to advocate both for and against bills. Opposing a bill, he said, can be very important to Palo Alto's interests.
"It's not a one track of only saying what we're for," Burt said. "Otherwise, we and other cities end up with things we oppose."
All seven council members agreed, however, that the city should gradually move from the model of weighing in on a wide range of bills to a model of deeper engagement with fewer bills.
"We don't want to drop the ball and miss important bills," council member Greer Stone said. "But I also think it's important for us to be nimble and react in a timely fashion and be able to address bills that are concerning the city and individual council members."
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