Yes, WE are the city's priority. The council wants us all to get more involved, somehow, although council members didn't quite specify what they wanted us to do.
At first, as they developed this priority, they thought it should read, "Civic engagement for the common good." But then a few council members realized that "common good" was subject to interpretation — and sounded more like a slogan than a priority — and they dropped that phrase.
Just because the council was encouraging civic involvement didn't mean people should get involved in arguments or disputes about things in this city. This is "not for upsetting things," and, "We don't want civic engagement to divide us," some council members said.
I guess that means we should just get pleasantly involved. One council member summed it up by saying this priority is "to engage people to participate in a meaningful way." One quipped that perhaps it should be "civil engagement."
I would have thought that Palo Alto's top priority would be controlling city spending, or finally fixing San Francisquito Creek or even building a new library or a new public safety building (those two buildings are the second of four top city priorities).
I am more than surprised civic engagement is the top priority.
Nor am I quite sure what is the problem with resident engagement so far. There were references to fewer people applying for seats on city commissions. But a little publicity could solve that problem. Plus we have lots of people who go to council meetings, perhaps not every week, but they go.
We have two newspapers in town devoted to what's happening in Palo Alto and lots of people write letters to the editor. The Weekly has its "Palo Alto Online" site and thousands visit it each week, where many comment in the sometimes contentious Town Square forum, while hundreds of us get immersed in blogging each other.
And when the city's newly designed Web site was found to be impossible to use, scads of residents complained loudly.
Mayor Larry Klein pointed out that only 40-plus percent of us who are registerted voters actually voted in the last city election. More of us should have voted, he said — a couple of years ago, when Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposals were on the ballot, more than 60 percent of Palo Alto voters cast ballots.
But in last November's election the most compelling items on the entire ballot were the candidates for our City Council, and I think the fact that more than 40 percent of us cast ballots is amazingly good.
Some council members suggested that ethnic groups were not getting as involved in Palo Alto as they should. Yet our council now has one Hispanic and two Asians on it. That sure seems like involvement to me.
The notion of civic engagement came from the group, Palo Altans for Government Efficiency (PAGE), which defines the term as "building civic and social capital toward the goal of making the common good first among equals in our community values." Hmm.
At Saturday's meeting several people stood up in support of this priority: Palo Alto homeowner groups, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Stanford's Continuing Education group, the Avenidas senior program, a PTA president, and a Human Relations Commission member.
Everyone suddenly was on the civic-engagement bandwagon.
The second priority, as I mentioned, is getting a new library and public safety building constructed in Palo Alto. That's no surprise since we've been talking about a public safety building since 1985 and rebuilding our libraries for almost a decade and a half.
A combined Mitchell Park library and community center is expected to cost between $31.5 million and $44 million (last April's numbers) for about 30,000 square feet. Add to that renovations to the Main Library for $9.5 to $13.5 million, while the Downtown Library needs about $5 million in repairs. Residents will pay for this through a bond measure we will be asked to approve.
By the way, I find it interesting that San Jose is building a new 22,000-square-foot library for only $13.6 million, which includes an Internet cafe, a community living room with a fireplace, a technology center, a teen room and a 100-person community room — plus demolishment of the current library. And that library is one of 20 new or expanded libraries in San Jose.
How come they can do it so much cheaper?
The public safety building originally had a $35 million price tag a couple of years ago; its estimated cost is now $60 million.
The third Palo Alto priority adopted by the council is "economic health of the city." This rightfully addresses budget issues, infrastructure, possibly restructuring staff and services at City Hall, and looking for more public/private partnerships.
The fourth and final priority for 2008 is "environmental protection." Council members debated whether they want the words "protection" or "sustainability" after their favorite word, "environmental." Protection won out.
That priority is also no surprise, given Palo Alto's favorite color: green.
Other priorities mentioned but not included in the final list were "city manager recruitment," updating "the Comprehensive Plan," "emergency preparation" and "renewing staff."
When City Manager Frank Benest was asked whether those not making the top four list would still get city staff attention, Benest said they would, but sometimes things "slip." But he assured us our top four priorities would be attended to.
So, fellow residents, engaging us in our community is now a 2008 city priority. Aren't we lucky!