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Complaint Driven City?

Original post made by aw, Old Palo Alto, on Jun 10, 2007

Do we live in a complaint-driven City? Couple examples: City approves demo of Briones house. Three people sue and work stops. School board votes no on MI. Ten people threaten charter and MI resumes. Just on a day-to-day basis leaf blowers, construction, redevelopment, panhandling, parking, etc are all enforced by complaint. It's almost as if we've abandoned policy-driven priorities, fairness and consistency. Any thoughts on whether strictly complaint-driven enforcement is a good thing?

Comments (20)

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2007 at 5:55 pm

This is not a good thing in my opinion. It is part of the Palo Alto disease. It seems that, as said in the spoilt kids thread, we are not just raising selfish spoilt kids, but we have many selfish and spoiled adults with a government that can't handle it. We need to get back to making rules and then sticking to them. If a few don't like something, there should be no way that they can change things to suit themselves. Now, if there is a great majority who don't like something, then of course that is a different matter.

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Posted by Logical
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2007 at 6:23 pm

Parent, I like the way you put it. The "Palo Alto Disease". The PC crowd calls it the "Palo Alto Process". Glad you clarified that for them. Just wish City Hall would wake up to that reality, but I'm not holding my breath....

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 10, 2007 at 6:57 pm

This is a good topic, thanks for raising it, aw.

I would slightly modify your working - it isn't by "complaint" as much as by interest group. Prof. Theodore Lowi described this rather nasty form of populist democracy as "interest group liberalism" in his 1969 classic "The End of Liberalism." It seems like a good thing at the start - minority groups are heard, the system allows anybody a voice; but it turns into government by the most committed, with single-issue groups getting what they want as the majority watches with increasing disenchantment (think Great Society circa 1969). Good book if you like that sort of thing.

I would agree it describes Palo Alto in some respects. Lowi (if I remember right) looked to political parties to aggregate popular sentiment (vs. narrow interest groups) and drive policy for the common good. In PA, I would would say we need good old LEADERSHIP, either in the form of an elected Mayor, strong appointed Superintendent, or some small coalition of council members focused on getting things done. It doesn't take a lot in a small town to change things. But I agree that the path we are on is not an especially attractive one and it isn't a lot of fun to watch.

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Posted by tired of bickering
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 10, 2007 at 9:21 pm

Part of the issue is $$. There's not enough money to pro-actively enforce many laws such as noise, construction, etc. so the city enforces many thing only when people complain.

There is also the "vocal minority" which can apply to the "we need every branch library because I want it" the "my child needs (insert subject of the day) so the district must fund it", people drive too fast on my street, that house is old and even though its not mine I want to keep it, I don't want a grocery store, I want a bigger/smaller/specialized/exclusive/inexpensive/ethnic grocery store ...even the historic review board - I get to pick the color of your house because you live in "historic" professorville? Unfortunately we seem to be in a time where he who is the loudest wins...

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Posted by enough already
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 10, 2007 at 9:48 pm

Adding to tired of bickering's thought, part of the issue is also too much money. It's often the folks with too much money or time on their hands (they frequently go together) who stir up a commotion over "minor" or special-interest issues. In a dual-income working class community, leaf blowers, sidewalk sitters, home preservation and paint selection would never gain such attention. Most communities have bigger problems to worry about. For that matter, don't we?? Makes you wonder how they have the discipline to focus on meat & potato issues while we're all caught up in gravy.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 11, 2007 at 12:11 pm

I will get on my soapbox about the "Character of Palo Alto" again here. We really do not have a clear understanding as a community of what things overall are important to us, where we are in this time and place, and what things can be reasonably expected to look like in the next 20-30 years around here.

Instead, much thinking, however well intended, lapses into points of view grounded in perceptions based on how things used to be around here when Palo Alto was a magnet for retail, culture and employment in the mid-Peninsula, as well as a great place to raise families and provide good public school education. Layer on top of that the parochial tendencies that people take on matters that have both benefits and costs, and for them to focus on their particular point of view on the matter, up or down, and dismiss other perspectives on matters as lacking merit or validity.

But I won't carp. Here are in my opinion the six pillars that make Palo Alto a special place to live. I believe that we must be doing everything we can to keep this pillars robust and thriving, or we must be prepared for the character of Palo Alto going forward to be something other than what it has been and can be (in a different way) going forward. There are some things about Palo Alto that always will be unique, some that can continue to be unique if we wish them to be, and some that once were unique, and we have to let go of the notion that we can bring them back. In no particular order, My Six Pillars:

--Our relationship with Stanford
--Our excellent public schools system
--Our business environment
--Our infrastruture and physical assests
--Our community services
--Our volunteer ethic

These six pillars are not found in every suburban community. In my opinion these are what make us special. Note that I do not view neighborhoods or housing as key pillars, although perhaps they once were. Note that I do not comment on how healthy or unhealthy the current state of any of these pillars is, nor do I get more specific about what goes into any one of the pillars at a given time. These are my pillars, and I would love to get thoughts from others about what I may not have included but that could be considered as pillars.

We must get more collective understanding of what the character of Palo Alto is and should be, and what the key things are that contribute to that. Unless and until that conversation has taken place and gets to a decent level of understanding, I am afriad that a culture of complaint will prevail on many issues we face in Palo Alto.

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Posted by aw
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 11, 2007 at 1:46 pm

When our Police, responding to a complaint drive past nine leaf blowers to ticket the tenth, has justice been served?

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Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 11, 2007 at 2:50 pm


I have lived in College Terrace for about 40 years. When I first arrived, I did not think of it as anything special. It was just a place to get some cheap rent - it was cheap in those days! The commute traffic raced through here. There were very few families with kids, and those kids were advised to stay off the streets. Many cats were killed by cars. It was in a state of slow decay. Then, about five years after I had arrived, and I was ready to move on, a neighborhood movement started that turned this place into a real neighborhood. The streets were blocked off to stop the commute traffic. That single act was crucial. In fact, I decided to stay and buy a house. I even got a cat. Then I had three kids, and they all played out in the street. It was music to my ears to hear the sound of kids outside. My kids walked down the street to their neighborhood school. They were part of neighborhood scout groups, and volunteer activities. Today, College Terrace has taken on the issue of cut-through traffic in a very creative way, with roundabouts and speed bumps. The CTRA is a very active and influential neighborhood association.

College Terrace is now a highly sought after place to live.

"Note that I do not view neighborhoods or housing as key pillars, although perhaps they once were"

Paul, I think you have a tin ear. Neighborhoods ARE the essence of residential Palo Alto. Neighborhood schools are key to maintaining these neighborhoods. These schools are where we meet our neighbors and work through common problems. We even aruge about language instruction models!

As true neighborhoods develop, they begin to take on their own identities. For instance, the traffic calming in College Terrace was a welcome thing, while North PA had a real problem with it. Barron Park has, for a long time, had a certain rural identity. Downtown neighborhoods have their own flair (and their own issues).

Neighborhoods are a GREAT aspect of Palo Alto. In fact, they are the strongest and most important pillar.

The negative aspect of neighborhood identity is that it can become a NIMBY with respect to overall city development. An example is the Alma Plaza deal, as well as the library issue. That is where City Council leadership needs to step up and make a decision (and probably not get re-elected). However, these negatives, in no way, outweigh the immense positives of our neighborhoods. Your dog don't hunt, Paul.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 11, 2007 at 3:25 pm


You have a point of view about neighborhoods being a key pillar to Palo Alto, and I think it's great that you are of that opinion, and you provide some thoughts behind why you believe that to be the case.

While I may not totally agree with your point of view, what you are saying is part of the larger point I am attempting to make, which is that we need to be clear what the key pillars are to the character of Palo Alto, and make sure that we are doing all we can to make sure those pillars thrive. I teed up my six, you offer the neighborhods as one. The community needs to figure out what the key pillars are, and I believe the sooner we do that the better. That dog hunts, don't you agree?

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Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 11, 2007 at 3:50 pm


I appreciate your point of view, but still don't think your dog hunts. Your model, at least to me, suggests some kind of systematic plan for our city. It works on paper, but not in reality. For instance, College Terrace, prior to the street closings, was thought to be a very efficient thing by city leaders and Stanford - cars could enter Stanford quickly (very quickly!). When the move came by our neighborhood to try to make it a livable place, Stanford and the City Council were NOT supportive (at first).

I think the pillars are figured out in the trenches. Five- and 10- or 20- year plans won't be any more effective here than they were in the Soviet Union. Free people have crazy notions, and we need to adapt to them. I don't think we need to establish, a priori, a set of pillars - they will establish themselves.

I admire the work you did on the Mayfield deal, Paul, but I think your 'plans' are too generic. Take 'em one at a time, and fight it out!

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 11, 2007 at 4:40 pm


Thanks for the reply, I do hope others provide some thoughts, as I do believe this is an important topic--that is, what is the character of Palo Alto, what do we want it to be going forward?

You may not think that the "pillar" approach has merit, and that's fine for you to have that perspective. Obviously, the way I think leads me to believe it is worthwhile to articulate a few key things that are at the foundation of what the City is all about. And we take it from there. A little bit of bottoms up and a little bit more top down both can make for a good recipe.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 11, 2007 at 8:37 pm

The neighborhood discussion is very interesting. I agree that neighborhood identify and character is an important feature of a place; in a city our size, you want an area where you know the people and feel you are part of the place. Of course, we also need city identity and values - otherwise it is hard for us to move forward as a group.

I tend to think we are weak on the city values side, and could use some leadership in that area. I'm not sure if I agree with Paul's list (haven't thought much about it), but have serious city leadership would do this place some good.

So I think you are both right - city values and neighborhood identities both an important roles in making this a good place to live.


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2007 at 8:51 pm

I agree that neighborhood/community are very important to what makes Palo Alto so good.

I never really thought about feeling part of the neighborhood until my first child started kindergarten. It was here that I suddenly felt part of a community. I could go to the library, the supermarket, the gas station (when there was one) and I would bump into people I knew. I chatted to parents at school and discovered many things about Palo Alto I did not know or even dream about before, e.g. the duck pond. Walking to school everyday became one of my favorite times of day, I always found someone to walk back with. We arranged play dates and even our younger children became friends.

The point is, neighborhood schools build community and this is done in a way that is so different from any forced community building project, e.g. block parties, etc. If your children go to a commuter school, then you just miss out on all this. Granted, you may get other advantages, but this is something you miss out on. Consequently, it is really important to stop overcrowding our schools. We do not want this continual overflowing to schools across town. It is imperative that children can go to their neighborhood schools and preserve the community atmosphere that these create.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 11, 2007 at 9:44 pm

I will be mindful to not chime in excessively, but it's great to see people take a position that a key pillar to PA is neighborhoods. That it was not one of the pillars I suggested is unimportant. My reason for suggesting pillars was to get some community thinking around what they are and should be. Getting to some common understanding of what the "foundation" of Palo Alto should be going forward has many important implications for the choices we make for the city in the coming months and years.

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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 12, 2007 at 3:14 pm

What foundation do the seven pillars stand on? Answer: shifting sands of change.

We are in a time - as in the latter days of many empires past (empires far more weighty than Palo Alto) - when the "pillars" - all interdependant on each other - have been rendered weaker, as they shift in ways that at times make it appear that the roof may fall in.

That said, I don't think the roof is going to give way, nor will the sky fall.

With respect, I think we have to begin thinking about what it is that enables community - socially AND commercially (in ways that halp make each understand the other); that compels governmental transparency; that _forces_ regional cooperation in ways that are FAR more significant than what we currently experience.

Paul's seven pillars are all dependent on these things as a foundation for successful integration as pillars that support the rooftop of community.

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Posted by Forum Reader
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 12, 2007 at 4:17 pm

The relationship with Stanford is complex. When the whole faculty lived in Palo Alto we were strongly intertwined as people. When they built their own housing for the faculty, the majority live on campus and that link is much weaker. Ditto for the medical staff and faculty.
My guess, although it is based on observation, is they those two groups think more like Palo Altans than do than the business and development part of the university which seems to have the same mentality that other developers have. Build the biggest, the most profitable, and get there by promising great things.
Those are very separate groups, though Stanford Management is very effective at living off the reputation of the others. So talking about Palo Alto's relationship with Stanford as though it was a single entity is actually misleading.

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 12, 2007 at 8:05 pm

aw: Thanks for this post. I agree that we seem to have “abandoned policy-driven priorities, fairness and consistency.”

“tired of bickering” sums up the situation very well re the vocal minority.

Paul Losch, as always, you have very thoughtful comments. Whatever the six pillars of the community might be, we lack the necessary leadership to build agreement on what they are, and then build and maintain those pillars.

The school board had a list of priorities, but along came PACE with $66,000. Instead of saying, “Sorry, we have our hands full now implementing the important things on our plate,” the board chose to encourage the feasibility study which led to five long years of strife with a bad decision at the end. (While I hate to beat the old dead horse of Mandarin immersion, it’s a perfect example of how things can go wrong without strong leaders.)

Neighborhoods are important, but they’re all built on the foundation of the city as a whole. Without a fiscally sound city and all the essentials in place, how can we afford to pay attention to special needs of the neighborhoods?

Our city council simply doesn’t understand priorities. Infrastructure, walkable communities, affordable housing, public safety, libraries, sustainable land use, sustainable budget, emergency preparedness, increased revenues, transportation . . . All these items bubble to the top year after year, but what’s really been accomplished? Where’s the accountability?

Council members can’t distinguish between needs and wants. For example, do we really need to know the “color of Palo Alto”? What we do need is an elected mayor who understands budgets and priorities and has the ability to lead.

People who complain about the way the city is run are told they’re disgruntled or frustrated. Unfortunately, very few people speak up. The utilities increases that were approved Monday affect all of us. Yet of 19,150 entities that receive refuse service, only 76 submitted written protests. Only 93 protested water rate increases.

Until the majority of the residents get involved in how their city is being run and how their money is being spent, the “vocal minorities” will continue to rule. I admire those who are passionate about their cause and can rally the resources to influence the council. But if the council abandons essentials for the wants of a small group, the city as a whole suffers.

If Palo Alto was a business, we’d be bankrupt.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 12, 2007 at 9:18 pm

Pat, that is an interesting and thoughtful post.

I'm not sure that a more "vocal majority" is the only path. The institutions can change too. I've posted elsewhere about the potential benefit of an elected ("strong") mayor; others have argued for a smaller (and implicitly more accountable) council.

I look at the way we are set up today - big council, no elected executive, city manager/staff with significant responsibility (but no accountability to the voters), a cash-cow of a hidden tax in the city owned utility - and it is not surprising, really, that we are not a city that "gets things done." Add tighter tax budgets (oops, retail got away), aging infrastructure, and growth - i.e., stress on the system that REQUIRES that things get done - and there we are.

Charter reform is a big project, not lightly taken on - but it feels like we are slumping along here, propped up by a world-class university and a pretty good (albeit expensive) school district. The town itself needs work.

Just my two cents,

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Posted by George
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 13, 2007 at 12:09 am

Pat says vocal minorities have undue influence, then shows that the vocal minority that protested the rate increases didn't succeed. Logic is sorely lacking here.
93 people wrote letters, that's a lot! The city required that protests be written, not emailed, and a separate letter for each increase. It was designed by the city to fail, there were no surprises. For the protest to succeed half of the 19,000 users would have had to write letters by the deadline. Ridiculous.
I would have protested but I could see the bar was set unfairly high and there was no way the protest could succeed.

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 13, 2007 at 9:11 am

Fred: I agree. How do we accomplish the necessary reform?

George: Sorry if I didn’t explain completely. I admire the vocal minority who are passionate about their cause and can rally the resources to influence the council. Clearly, not enough people rallied others to fight the utility increase. And getting 51% of the residents to do something is nigh impossible. Too many thought as you do: no point protesting, the system is rigged, the bar is unfairly high. That’s why we don’t get enough participation.

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