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November 02, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Guest Opinion: Some thoughts on evaluating City Council candidates Guest Opinion: Some thoughts on evaluating City Council candidates (November 02, 2005)

by Doug Moran

As I looked over the field of candidates for the Palo Alto City Council, I realized it was easier -- and hence tempting --to focus on policy issues and leave the more important question (how effective the candidate would be in office) to general impressions.

I have been dealing with the question of what makes a good council member for many years. As a leader of a major neighborhood association, I see council members at work. As an almost-candidate myself and as an organizer of candidates forums, I have had to grapple with how to concisely reveal the meaningful differences between candidates.

Following are some of my thoughts about better ways to evaluate candidates for the council.

Serving on the council is essentially a full-time job, although one can reportedly get by with a half-time commitment by just attending meetings and voting and not trying to assert any type of leadership. The job pays only $600 per month (way below minimum wage).

So my first question of a candidate is: Does he or she have the time and energy and the proven commitment to the community?

My second question is whether a candidate's breadth of experience and interests are relevant to the issues that come before the council? The important decisions before council routinely involve complex tradeoffs, but council members with limited interests may ignore that and base their votes on peripheral issues.

A candidate's position on specific current issues is often misleading about where he or she would stand on broader issues. What is more important -- and more telling -- is how the candidate arrived at that position: the priorities and tradeoffs, the understanding of the alternatives and complexities, and the assessment of risks and rewards. One of my favorite sayings is: "When you can see two sides of an issue, you are only just beginning to understand it." That may be doubly true in Palo Alto.

A council member's analytical skills are crucial. Although council decisions are based upon recommendations from city staff, there routinely are substantive objections and alternatives raised by the public. The current council has several members who routinely, and quite openly, say they are going to defer to city staff. To my mind, this is failing in their fiduciary responsibilities, and is no different than complacent board members of companies such as Enron and Tyco.

On the other hand, council members that are too eager to please are equally bad. For example, last summer the council voted to provide financial guarantees for the airport in response to airport supporters filling the chambers. Council did this despite knowing that there was a high risk that the county would leave the city "holding the bag" (which it did) and without knowing how large the financial exposure was.

"Vision" is one of those words tossed around in politics, but that doesn't mean it is unimportant. Palo Alto's government is badly afflicted with a piecemeal and reactive approach to problems. Too often it fails to respond to developing problems, waiting until after they have become full-blown crises. Look first for the candidate's vision of our current and pending problems, then think about the credibility of his or her approach to dealing with those problems.

An ability to work in a government setting is not as simple as it might seem. Many accomplished people from other fields have failed miserably when trying to make the transition. Be very suspicious of candidates who overuse the government-as-business metaphor -- government is not a normal business, but a monopoly, and then some.

A candidate's willingness to listen is crucial. The council has to deal with many complex issues, and those issues routinely have many different groups of stakeholders with different issues, priorities and perspectives. Palo Alto also has residents with considerable expertise and ability to research issues, and this resource needs to be better used.

Candidates invariably talk about their leadership abilities. However, exercise of leadership in a collegial environment, such as the City Council, is very different from that in traditional hierarchical organizations. If you want a well-run meeting, you will see that the chairperson is not only keeping the discussion moving towards a decision but also ensuring that people accept the eventual decision and understand what was actually decided and why.

What often is not visible is the significant amount of preparation that went into such meetings, including having attendees ready to help the chair keep the discussion on track.

Council meetings too frequently fail in some or all of the above. However, any candidate who claims to have an easy fix is na•ve -- over the years, many council members have tried and failed to achieve this. The cynic would argue that vested interests prefer the bad decision-making process because it offers more opportunities to manipulate it in their favor.

Given how much discussion there has been about the "Palo Alto Process," one should expect a far more sophisticated understanding of this issue than most current candidates have displayed. Many of the alleged failures of the council to make a decision actually represent its recognition that the decision-making process failed badly at earlier stages. Sometimes important stakeholders were not consulted or their inputs were ignored. And sometimes the recommendations don't follow from the facts presented.

Promoting good processes is an essential part of leadership in larger organizations. Current and previous councils have been criticized for treating these failures in the process as isolated incidents rather than instances of a larger problem. A candidate who arrives on council without involvement in, or at least detailed knowledge of, several of these battles is unlikely to be able to "see the forest for the trees."

The above are presented as criteria for next Tuesday's ballot -- because it is unlikely that most candidates will satisfy most of them. Instead they have been posed as questions to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates and to consider the tradeoffs.

Doug Moran can be e-mailed at go-10-0[email protected]

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