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April 29, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 29, 2005

City optimistic after storm-drain victory City optimistic after storm-drain victory (April 29, 2005)

Officials call approval a vote of confidence

by Bill D'Agostino

Public Works Director Glenn Roberts has worked for the City of Palo Alto for 12 years. Until this week's storm-drain measure, never in that time had voters approved a city-initiated election.

But on Tuesday, the city won a decisive victory -- 58.2 percent of ballots were cast in favor of a proposed increase to the monthly storm-drain fee. Roberts called it "a very momentous event."

"It's really the first time in six or seven years that the community has said 'Yes.' to a commitment to rebuilding out city infrastructure," said former Mayor Gary Fazzino.

The victory is a dramatic turnaround from 2000, when a similar proposal only received 37 percent in favor.

The newly successful measure will increase the monthly fee from $4.25 for the average residential property to $10. Larger commercial properties will be charged significantly more than residential ones.

The increase will raise approximately $35 million to improve and expand the city's aging and inefficient storm-drain system, which carries rainwater off streets and into creeks.

Numerous city officials, both past and present, described the successful election as a "vote of confidence."

"I'm very pleased," Councilman Jack Morton said. "The community is to be applauded for it, and I think the community recognizes step-by-step we are going to solve some of the longstanding problems in Palo Alto."

The first of seven projects to be built with the funds will likely be a $4.5 million "pump station" to aid neighbors of the volatile San Francisquito Creek. The pumps will help clear the streets when the water level in the creek is higher than the water level in the storm-drain system's pipes. The area affected is approximately 1,250-acres large.

More than half of the 19,700 ballots mailed to property owners were returned by the April 26 deadline. Approximately 200 were invalidated, however, because they were not signed. A few dozen others were invalidated for different reasons.

The storm-drain votes were counted in public, inside the Council Chambers of Palo Alto's City Hall, starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday evening. The 10,289 ballots were first removed from a filing cabinet and fed into two large machines that sliced opened the envelopes and filled the room with its loud, high-pitched whirring.

Assistant City Clerk Deanna Riding then sorted the bright yellow ballots into piles of 25, which were immediately rechecked by another city employee. They were placed into four large postal buckets, marked yes and no.

The results were announced shortly before 11 p.m. to the cheers of the city officials and other supporting residents present. A few dissenting residents also watched the count, concerned about its reliability.

The final tally was 5,991 for the increase versus 4,298 against. The tally closely mirrored the unscientific Palo Alto Online news poll, in which 187 persons voted 59.36 percent yes and 40.64 percent no by Tuesday night.

Among the recent city-initiated measures that failed: a prior attempt to raise the storm-drain fee in 2000 and a bond to upgrade two libraries and a community center in 2002.

Opposition to the proposed fee increase in 2000 cited the absence of a "sunset clause" and no ceiling, or cap, on future increases. Those were corrected in this proposal. The sunset clause requires re-approval in 12 years or the fee will expire, and future increases are capped at 6 percent per year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. An "oversight committee" will be created to monitor expenditures.

Unlike the previous election, an active group of residents also fought for the fee increase. The group raised $22,500 in campaign contributions, which they used to mail campaign fliers, call voters and run a Web site.

The committee also responded to each and every "negative" public comment, especially news stories and letters to the editors, according to group leader Larry Klein, a former mayor.

"That was absolutely critical," Fazzino said. "In the past, the city and city management has been far too defensive and unwilling to engage in a factual debate over issues like this one."

There was little public opposition to the measure, although attorney Richard Alexander purchased a few ads opposing it. He claimed the city should pay for the improvements using the city's general fund, and that officials were overspending by hiring too many managers.

"That didn't confuse the vast majority of voters," Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg said. "That was comparing apples to oranges."

The election's procedures were unusual, guided by California Proposition 218.

The city's commercial and residential property owners were mailed one ballot per property, even if they lived outside the city. No renters received ballots, and voters did not need to be registered to cast a ballot.

There was no procedure for how to handle the situation if two co-owners disagreed with each other. One man called the City Clerk's office complaining that he and his wife never discussed politics, and couldn't agree on how to vote.

"I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't get in the middle of that,'" City Clerk Donna Rogers recalled on Tuesday evening.

Perhaps theirs was the ballot with both yes and no marked.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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