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April 15, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 15, 2005

Council reduction, elected mayor gains new support Council reduction, elected mayor gains new support (April 15, 2005)

Could be on ballot this November

by Bill D'Agostino

A controversial and far-reaching proposal to shrink the size of the Palo Alto City Council and have a voter-elected mayor is picking up steam among the city's politically influential neighborhood leaders.

Last night, the three co-chairs of Palo Alto Neighborhoods were expected to propose to other neighborhood leaders an election, possibly this November, that would alter the city's charter to reduce the number of council members from nine to seven and have voters, not the council members, elect the mayor.

PAN leaders argued that shrinking the number of elected officials would make the council -- which has been criticized in recent years for being "dysfunctional" -- more efficient and effective.

"This year is a lot better than the previous two years, but still...," PAN co-chair Doug Moran said. "It highlights what the normal state is."

With nine council members, discussions last too long, too many questions are asked and council members' power and responsibilities are too diffused, PAN leaders said.

"To see this as critical of individuals is wrong," Moran insisted. "This is what happens when you get a normal mix of individuals."

Mayor Jim Burch immediately criticized the idea.

"It comes from people who are looking for more power," he said. "I don't think that's what we want going on. It's a power drive."

Reducing the size of the council will not make it more efficient, Burch argued. "The work will expand to fill the time allowed."

A nine-member council has produced a valuable diversity, he added.

If voters approve the idea, it would be the second significant shake-up of Palo Alto's political structure. In the mid-1960s, the electorate gradually reduced the size of the council from 15 to nine.

If the council put the idea in front of voters this November, or the idea got on the ballot through a voter initiative, it would also have far-reaching implications that could significantly alter candidates' strategies for this year's City Council election.

There are five open seats this year. But if voters approved the proposed charter amendment, only the top three vote-getters would be elected, rather than the top five.

Four incumbents are up for re-election: Burch, Yoriko Kishimoto, Jack Morton and Hillary Freeman. Burch has said he is not running for re-election. Councilman Vic Ojakian is also leaving due to term limits.

Palo Alto council members can only serve two consecutive four-year terms.

The mayoral change would also have political ramifications. Currently, the council elects the mayor from its nine members. The post rotates every year, typically handed to the most senior member yet to be mayor.

The mayor's additional powers are to run meetings and appoint council members to other boards, but he or she still gets only one of nine votes. That would still be the case if voters elected the mayor.

Elected mayors would have more continuity, allowing them to gain expertise in running meetings, according to PAN leaders. It would also allow more experienced and qualified council members to stay on beyond traditional term limits. The mayor would serve up to four-consecutive two-year terms, under the PAN leaders' plan.

The proposal comes, in part, from concerns that the City Council has ceded too much power to City Manager Frank Benest.

PAN leaders pointed to two recently defeated proposals -- the Environmental Services Center in the Baylands and a zoning change to allow more homeowners to create "granny units" -- and argued that the city's direction has been coming from the staff, not the City Council.

"This potentially could make the council a little stronger," Moran said of the proposal.

Council members were also criticized earlier this year for letting Benest run the city's important priority-setting meeting.

The PAN proposal, Burch argued, would increase the mayor's power at the expense of other officials. Mayors in other cities that are directly elected have more power, he said. "Other council members disappear into the woodwork."

Burch also argued that Benest was hired to be a strong city manager with a strong vision. "We got exactly what we wanted."

In an unrelated move, a Mountain View proposal to have a voter-elected mayor was floated and defeated this week. Mountain View Councilman Mike Kasperzak failed to get any of the other six council members to support his idea.

Although PAN leaders insisted last night's discussion was preliminary, they had already prepared a two-page list of arguments in favor of the proposal and hammered out other specifics. They have also spoken to at least three current council members about their idea.

"We're at the place now where we have a vision," said PAN co-chair Annette Ashton. "We think we have the momentum and the energy. We think the time is now. We're testing the idea."

Reducing the size of the council and having a voter elected mayor has been pitched by various city leaders in recent years, including a proposal from controversial Councilwoman Nancy Lytle in 2000. PAN leaders say they will only push their proposal if there is support from residents.

"This is a trial balloon and we'll test the waters," said Karen White, the third PAN co-chair. "This would need to be a grassroots, community-based effort."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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