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Is an Environment Commission a good thing for PA?

Original post made by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online, on Apr 24, 2007

On a close vote, the City Council decided last night to consider forming a new city "Environment Commission" to oversee city policies affecting the environment. See story at Web Link
What do you think of this idea?

Comments (36)

Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2007 at 8:32 am

I am against the idea of another commission. It is unfortunate that our mayor is so wrapped up in her "climate change" agenda, that she has neglected the many other pressing problems facing our city (budget, infratsucture etc). Now she is dragging the entire city council into the mess also.
All we see in the papers is our mayor engaged in "climate change" photo ops--we do not hear anything about her doing her job as mayor of palo alto and providing leadership for our city as it faces many difficult decisions in the near future.
We have enough blue-ribbon, green ribbon and other assorted commissions in this city. Enough is enough.
Anyway, how much will this cost the city (or should I say the taxpayers)????

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2007 at 8:35 am

C'est la vie, a la Palo Alto.

Just what we need, another commission to study something that will take too long and tell us what we know already.

Posted by Kate
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2007 at 9:41 am

No more commissions, PLEASE! We have more urgent problems to focus on as a city than environmental issues. Let's begin with emergency preparedness, something our city is clearly behind the eight ball on. Just look at how Palo Alto reacted to the recent Redwood City smoke scare. The phone dialer didn't even work. What if that had been a life threatening situation? What about the growth in the homeless population downtown? That's a current problem that needs to be confronted and dealt with intelligently so that the citizens of Palo Alto do not face harassment on a daily basis. Cutting deals with local Judges so that homeless offenders do not spend time in jail is not the solution. The mayor is too focused on one of her pet projects....environmental issues. Stop focusing on the environment. It's important, but other issues hold a higher priority with the majority of the residents of Palo Alto.

Posted by Joanna
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2007 at 9:56 am

The environmental commission is a good plan, and I'm glad council member Drekmeier kept it alive. Climate change is a reality and the city needs to take a proactive look at how to address the changes that are going to be affecting Palo Alto more and more. (Many of these changes are summarized in the PA Online article.) This is not about lip service or photo ops or politics, it's about taking action to address a very real and serious challenge that we're all going to feel at a personal level.

If you haven't read this morning's article about the commission on the PA Online home page, I strongly recommend that you do so; it will help you understand why this commission is going to be a valuable asset in the coming months/years.

Posted by Watcher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2007 at 10:08 am

Kate is right on! Last night, when Judy Kleinberg asked our city mamager what happened to the phone dialer, he didn't have an answer even though she had asked the same question the week before. It is apparent Mr. Benest has already retired on the job. It's time for the City Council to make a change before spending time on global issues.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2007 at 10:28 am

I agree with Kate, No so Fast, and other posters who've said that the last thing Palo Alto needs is an environmental commission. It's a complete waste of time, energy and money that could be applied to solve the many pressing problems facing Palo Alto.

Posted by Serious
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2007 at 10:56 am

It would be ok with me if it would be like most commissions, dignified and serious. Not like the library commission which giggles and interrupts and is dismissive to anyone who doesn't go along with the program. Not everyone, of course.
And amazing to anyone who has seen how other commissions operate, one of the commissioners brings FOOD cookies I think, to the meeting so it starts with people chewing and laughing and chatting.

Posted by Jeremy Loski
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 24, 2007 at 12:14 pm

I'm a strong environmental advocate, but it's hard to say whether this commission will be a good thing for our city, or not. Commissions tend to further politicize issues - are we ready for that in a city where everything is politicized to the max? Are we prepared to have an environmental commission that will hold regular public meetings, with actions taken at those meetings further coalescing into pressure on Council to make policy?

Frankly, I think such a commission will further polarize Palo Altans, as the environment goes to the heart of lifestyle. What are we aiming for with this commission?

Sure, a commission will bring another point of focus to environmental policy in Palo Alto, but how does a constant, scheduled, advisory commission dealing with the environment tell us anything we don't already know about what needs to be done at a local level about the environment?

I'm not hopeful for a positive outcome for this commission, and sense that it will create more political turmoil in a city that has commissions in place that probably shouldn't have been formed in the first place, because commissions tend to defuse pressure on City Council to get things done, and all-too-often result in the politicization of private commerce and interior city management operational issues. We need leadership and action, not more commissions.

Further, is a staff position funded to the tune of up to $150K necessary for carry out Council-mandated environmental policies? This latter element is something that I am categorically opposed to.

There is simply no reason that "green" positions cannot be mandated at City Hall by current management. There is also no reason why Council cannot create green policy with current knkowledge in hand, with further inputs made from forming occasional Green task Force Committees of a temporary nature.

The environment is _very_ important; it's vital to begin to find ways to change attitudes toward the environment. We MUST do that, but a public commission in a city like Palo Alto - already brimming with green advocates - is probably not the way to go.

If = against this advice - a commission is formed, let's hope that local business persons are placed on that body, with strong representation (at least 50% of commission members shuold be from the private sector).

Lets also hope that the other members are not radical environmentalists. We need balance for something like this, because an environmental commission will deal with issues that go to the fundamental underpinnings of how our city - and larger culture in general - operate. Environmental policy often goes to the heart of deep personal philosophy. Do we need a commission that will be _further_ politicizing an area that is already heavily politicized, and about which we already know much of what must be accomplished? The Council had better thhink deeply about this, because once a commission is formed it would be an embarrassment to retract its existence.

I'm a strong (in fact, almost compulsive) green advocate, but I have seen first hand the costly (and often uinnecessary) overzealous "feel-good" environmental policies have brought to businesses (large and small). Is this the place for a commission; or is iit a place for thoughtful policy-making that doesn't result from public squabbles in front of a monthly or bi-monthly environmental commission?

Palo Alto has a very strong liberal and green history. Shouldn't that be enoughg to drive policy? I'm not opposed to commissions in general, but this one appears too "feel-good".
What more can a commission like this do - over time - than an occasional Green Task Force can accomplish?

Posted by Proactive
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 24, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Looking at most of these posts (above), I'm having a hard time understanding why so many of you apparently think that somehow our city, which is bumped right up next to the Bay, and which relies heavily on hydro-power for our electricity (to name two examples of things that climate change will impact), is not going to be affected by global warming.

Or do I misinterpret? Do you posters acknowledge the threat, but feel there's some other way the city should address it?

Posted by Mary
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2007 at 12:43 pm

I am absolutely opposed to hiring another top administrator at $150K with benefits!!! at a time when our budget is strapped and there was talk of cutting out or reducing non-profit services and increasing fees on almost everything.. This enviromental czar will need a secretary who will need a secretary and on an on and they all will probably want a PR person. Enough of this. Palo Altans are leading the charge in recycling, bicycling, and more. Pay attention to basics.

Recent credible scientific studies published in the local press have concluded that the major effect on climate changes along the West Coast is coming from Asia and India, much of which, if any, is not part of the Kyoto Treaty. Settle has measurble 'acid raid' coming from China and Korea.

"Our" environment is under our feet - like our crumbling streets and around us - our infrastructure.. Almost undrivable Guinda was scheduled for resufacing in 2011. The mayor must concentrate on finances, public safety, the CREEK, the homeless, and the day-to-day issues which are becoming increasingly irritating. Is anyone at City Hall even listening? Hiring another top administrator for $150K is irresponsible. Larry Klein, a signer on this idea, ran on a platform of fiscal prudance. Council members: put a halt to this idea now.

Posted by Resdient
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 24, 2007 at 12:59 pm

We have just had another armed robbery, this time of a neighborhood markekt. When are we going to get a commission set up to discuss crime in Palo Alto? Isn't crime just as important and doesn't it affect us all? Environmental issues are one thing, but crime in our environment i.e. Palo Alto, is one I am also very converned about.

Posted by Ribbons and Confetti
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 24, 2007 at 1:18 pm

We need a "green" ribbon task force to decide this issue of creating a new commission.

We also badly need a blue ribbon task force to address the issue of "loud" noise polluting citizens.

May the force be with you while I scavange for city roads, undergrounding cables or is that all against environmental "green" policies.

-Ribbons and Confetti
(member Confetti Task Force)

Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Jeremy--thanks for you well thought out, well written commentary on this issue. Unfortunately your concerns, as those of others, will fall on deaf ears in the City Council. They will go on their merry way setting up a new commission.
But this is the Palo Alto way of doing things--hire consultants, appoint committees, set up study groups etc etc etc.
Who knows how much it will cost the taxpayers and what will it accomplish exceptto feed the ego of our on-issue mayor.

Posted by Draw the Line
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 24, 2007 at 1:37 pm

Jeremy, I have to say how much I appreciate your tone and your ideas. I think someone like you and someone like me (someone who likes the idea of keeping our earth as clean as possible but wants real science and real cost-benefit analyses to rule over emotion). Sounds like, if we could get people like you and me in a room, we might come up with a reasonable plan.

But, in any case, I agree the most that this is not the right way for PA to spend its resources. We have much higher priority concerns right now, and need to look at MV to learn from our neighbor how to pull ourselves up.

Posted by Draw the Line
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 24, 2007 at 1:38 pm

Sorry for the cut off sentence above..bad edit on my part!

Posted by Serious
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2007 at 2:39 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Serious Needs to Get Serious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2007 at 3:26 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2007 at 5:21 pm

Thank you Jeremy and Mary and Not so Fast and others for your rational comments. I agree that one employee would lead to many employees would lead to an entire environmental department before very long.

I agree that global warming puts us in a risky position here in the baylands. But why do we need new staff and a commission to figure out what to do about it? Why can’t each department be responsible for environmental issues in its bailiwick?

Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 24, 2007 at 6:18 pm

We don't need another city commissar to order us how to live. I'd like to be able to make my own choices of what kind of light bulb to use and what to cook my french fries in.

Posted by dott31
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 24, 2007 at 7:08 pm

When we moved to P. A. forty-two years ago, we observed disputes among our neighbors about having council members representing "residentialists" and those representing "business interests." These conflicts (even involving a recall) were unpleasant, but at least they were focused on the problems and challenges unique to the community the councilpeople had been elected to represent and the problems of which they'd been elected to ponder and perhaps even resolve. I am stunned when I watch councilmembers now cogitate in their meetings about national and international situations. Do I believe these larger orbits are most important? Of course, I do. Nevertheless, there are local problems that we've elected you to deal with, and they need attention. While I think the failure in communication about the RC fire is an urgent local problem that you should carefully scrutenize, many of your preoccupations seem to me and some of my neighbors as beyond your scope. We elect national, state, and county officials to study and act on those. We have a community here that, having voted for you, we need you to take care of.

Posted by Mary
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2007 at 8:27 pm

Bravo, dott31. I remember those years. We did it before and we can do it again. To the Council: take care of local issues and come back down to earth. Joe Simitian and Ira Ruskin are handling our concerns in Sacramento very well; Anna Eshoo is doing a good job in Washinton along with Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Spending big money on this issue, an environmental czar, and appointing this commission may prove to be the final backlash at the polls in 2008. And if you are running again for office, don't bet the farm on it.

Posted by Art
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 24, 2007 at 8:27 pm

An Environmental Commission is needed but it must have the charter beyond energy efficiency and reduction of green house gases.
For example, it should also be given the objective of limiting the amounts and the exposure of individuals to hazardous materials and reducing its damage to our environment.
It would have the responsibility of reviewing requests by companies who seek to significantly expand their inventories of hazardous substances or to use acutely hazardous materials, to ask applicants to find ways of reducing their hazardous substances, to suggest alternative strategies or materials and publicize more sustainable and environmentally conscious technologies, to review applications to use high level biosafety etiological agents by biotechnology companies and propose standards and registration for this industry (which do not now exist in Palo Alto). The Environmental Commission could also ask large generators of hazardous waste to present reports on the progress they are making in following the hazardous waste reduction program mandated in SB14.
Can someone tell me where these functions are now carried out in our city? These are some of the important areas of responsibility that could be fulfilled by an Environmental Commission.

Posted by Jeremy Loski
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 24, 2007 at 10:20 pm

Art, Good ideas, but everyting you suggest is already in EPA or other guidelines. We do not need an environmental commission to reinvent the wheel, and/or cause needless community dissention over issues that most Palo Altans are prenently _in agreement_ on.

An environmental commission is going to look for "things to do" beyond the already good information we all have access to. 'Trouble' will brew if we form this commission. Why cause needless community strife in an area that is already replete with useful information, with more being provided, in reams, by the hour.

If there are gaps in the above guidelines, a Green Task Force can be appointed annually to discuss and suggest policy.

Posted by local issues
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2007 at 11:26 pm

Let's see what's already on the plate:

a) $28 million in infrastructure maintenance updates
b) $50 million for a new public safety building
c) $50 million for renovating libraries
d) previous storm drain will now only cover 57% of what was told to the voters
e) airport negotiations needed with county
f) agressive panhandling in downtown
g) an assistant city manager who's been abusive
h) $3 million in general fund cuts to try make some headway on the infratructure maintenance

but creating an environmental commision, and allocating $150,000 for a staff position is high priority. So next June, when the city wants to institute an tax on businesses, a tax to fund bonds for the public safety building, and libraries, I know to vote "NO" - environmental issues are more important.

Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2007 at 9:18 am

I am glad to see that in today's PA Weekly editorial, the editors have come out against setting up another commission in Palo Alto

Web Link

Of interest is that they pointed out one of the major problems of our current selection of mayor--each mayor has their own little agenda/pet project they want to see pushed--last year Kleinberg was big on emergency preparedness, this year yoriko's big on climate change. Unfortunately, the way things work in PA, 1 year is never enough time for anything to get done satisfactorily--so last year's priority is pushed aside this year because of our new "single issue" mayor.

The point I am trying to make is that maybe it is time for PA to have direct elections of a mayor for a 2-4 year term, that will provide leadership, be answerable to the taxpayers of this city and be expected to guide the city council in addressing ALL the problems of the city and not just the single issue that is of interest to him/her.

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2007 at 9:55 am

Thank you, Not so fast! You’ve described the problem perfectly! How do we change the system so we can have an elected mayor – and fewer council members?

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2007 at 10:15 am

This sounds like a very good idea. Not only will it make a mayor accountable, it will mean that we can start crossing things off the lists and at last we will feel that we are getting somewhere. Please let us know how to change the system and whether it be an elected mayor or just a longer term in office, let us make the changes.

Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2007 at 10:52 am

I know that in the past , this issue has been brought up (not in my time in PA, but I have read that years ago there was a call to have a directly elected mayor), but apparently it was shot down by the city council.
I am not sure whether this can be accomplished by a vote of the city council or if it needs to be bought to vote by the public following a petition drive?
Anyone out there familiar with this issue??

Posted by Proactive
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 25, 2007 at 10:59 am

Actually, for point of reference to Not so fast's post, last year's PA mayor Kleinberg was not a "single-issue" mayor. If you recall, she identified two top areas of concern for the city: Emergency preparedness =and= global warming. The latter is clearly important to Yoriko Kishimoto, but please don't look at it as "the mayor's issue of the year." It's been on the agenda for quite some time now and it's my understanding that Kishimoto is providing continuity for the work Kleinberg initiated.

Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2007 at 11:18 am

I believe in my post that I only referred to yoriko as a single issue mayor. While climate change may have been on the agenda for a while, from my point of view is that this is the only issue that is important to yoriko. I think there is a total lack of interest in the MAJOR issues facing our city (infrastructure, budget problems, tax revenue decline etc) on her part. But let me ask this was the emergency preparedness issue that Kleinberg pushed resolved to the satisfaction of the city council and the public???
But I think my point is valid, that with our system of choosing a mayor there is no real accountability to the public and each mayor gets to push a "vanity" project that they have a special interest in.

Posted by Proactive
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 25, 2007 at 12:47 pm

OK, Not so fast, point taken, and I agree that maybe it would help to have mayors elected into 2-year terms. Yoriko, for instance, has massive public support in this town, and in an election today she would probably be the voters' choice, from what I've seen. I certainly would like to see her get an extra year or two to implement her plans.

By the way, it saddens me to hear you refer to projects such as emergency preparedness and global warming as "vanity projects." The mayors choose these projects not for their own personal benefit, but for the dire need to focus on these areas -- that's their "special interest." And yes, it is a matter of opinion, but of course we elected these council members/mayors because we respected their opinions.

Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2007 at 1:03 pm

Well I call these "vanity" projects because the respective mayors focus on them as a priority. The problems with infrastructure, budget deficits, loss of tax revenue etc. are not new issues, they have been percolating for years. In my opinion, they have been ignored by a string of mayors and the city council. Part of that I blame on allowing the mayor to focus on a single issue for a year.
Maybe I am used to living in cities where we have an elected mayor that is answerable to the general population and not the PA method of selecting a mayor (back room negotiations among the city council based on seniority and whether the member has "played nice" during the years--as an aside that is probably why (not playing nice) the reason that Morton was passed over for vice-mayor this year).
I actually would like to see an election with yoriko running for mayor. personally I think she is the worst mayor this city has had in my 11+ years in PA.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2007 at 4:13 pm

Being green isn't always that obvious. I have been reminded today of the green choice I made when my son was born. Back in 1992 when I was pregnant, I was originally convinced that I would use cloth diapers rather than fill the landfill with unsanitary waste. I looked into the cost of diapers and the cost of laundering them myself v the cost of a diaper service, which I used to see running around the roads on their deliveries. The more I looked into it the more I discovered it did not make sense either way. The fact was in 1992 California was in the middle of a drought. Now we did not have rationing per se, but there was a great deal of talk about water conservation. When I realised how much water I would be using over the time my son would be in diapers, I realised that my water consumption, or the consumption of the diaper service, would be a drain on our water supply (quite literally). The green solution was disposable as I was told there was plenty of room in California landfills. At that stage, using disposalble plates, etc. was also considered the right thing to do.

Times change. We still try to be green conscious. There is once again talk about voluntarily cutting back on our water consumption. I have not heard the argument recently about disposable v cloth, or paper products, but the question remains. The greenest way to do things is often not the greenest way to do things.

Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2007 at 4:43 pm

The cloth diaper vs. the paper diaper controversy can be eliminated if the new Green commission decrees that all new babies coming home from the hospital are toilet trained. If Palo Alto can find a way and patent that, it will reap such profits that the budget deficit will be a thing of the past.

I foresee countless public hearings on this issue with expert consultants hired for mega $$$,
unhappy mothers with any decision picketing City Hall, more hearings - and the beat goes on.

Posted by civic responsibility
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2007 at 10:45 pm

pat, Resident, It will take at least 6000 signatures to get the a change in the charter for an elected mayor, or a decision by Council to do that. It would not be easy, but it should be done.

btw, this has nothing to do with the current mayor; it has everything to do with a structural deficit in policy-making, in a time when we need pure leadership, laser focus on business development, and aggressive intermunicipal cooperation.

Posted by local issues
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2007 at 5:55 am

Did you read this article about the city no longer using General Funds to help pay for Storm Drain needs, and instead using the Storm Drain tax, which I thought was for specific improvements:

Web Link

The total amount involved is around $200,000, which is pretty much the cost of hiring the environment staff position.

Since it is now known that the storm drain tax can't cover what is sold to the voters, I think taking general fund money that used to be devoted to storm drains to fund this position is wrong.

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