Promises, promises

Publication Date: Friday Mar 19, 1999

PALO ALTO: Promises, promises

Are State of the City addresses just a lot of hot air?

by Vicky Anning

The crowd at Mayor Gary Fazzino's State of the City address may be standing room only Monday night--if only because there are no seats in the City Council chambers. Contractors are struggling to complete $700,000 of renovation work, including plush new seating for the audience, in time for Fazzino's speech. City Manager June Fleming has promised the mayor that the 11-week renovation job will be finished by Monday. To make sure Fazzino's audience of local dignitaries has somewhere to sit, Jim Duffy Construction Inc. will work through the weekend.

Promises are the stuff politics is made of. And Palo Alto's State of the City address has been no exception. Since former Mayor Larry Klein started the tradition in 1989, a procession of mayors has made a clutch of promises, from car pooling and ride sharing programs to family resources to more lofty goals like upgrading the city's infrastructure.

Not all of the promises have become reality.

"In some cases, mayors will propose ideas that will take some time to blossom," explained Fazzino, a seasoned politician, who will be making his second State of the City address.

There have been some exceptions. Fazzino's first State of the City address, in 1992, trumpeted better relations with East Palo Alto in a year when drug-related violence there escalated to an all-time high. By the end of the year, the Regional Enforcement Detail, or RED Team, an anti-drug police unit that included officers from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, was patrolling East Palo Alto streets.

Liz Kniss's 1994 speech gave birth to the idea of a Family Resource Center, a referral service dedicated to families. Last year, a staff person was hired to coordinate the project.

In 1996, Lanie Wheeler launched a citywide volunteer effort called Palo Alto Together, which aims to pull residents together to beautify their neighborhoods. The program is still alive today, if not exactly flourishing.

"It's still sort of together," said Wheeler, who confessed that her proposal hadn't made the great strides she had hoped for.

Some ideas have fallen by the wayside, while others have never really gotten off the ground. For example, Mike Cobb in 1990 set a goal of beautifying El Camino Real, an idea that he admits has seen little progress.

Other ideas, in true Palo Alto tradition, have taken a long time to reach fruition. And at least one idea also appears to have achieved the opposite of what was intended.

In 1996, Wheeler put historic preservation on the city's collective radar screen, pledging to "create a greater sense of community through the preservation of historic buildings." Since then, the debate has become one of the most divisive issues in Palo Alto politics.

In September 1996, after angry residents flooded City Hall to protest the demolition of historic homes in College Terrace, the council enacted an emergency ordinance prohibiting the demolition of pre-1940 buildings. But then some homeowners started to rebel, arguing that the ordinance violated their property rights.

The interim ordinance has now been extended three times in an attempt to placate angry residents on either side of the issue. The City Council is not expected to tie up the loose ends of the historic preservation debate until June, when it will likely approve a permanent ordinance.

Needless to say, historic preservation has not been featured in either of the State of the City addresses since 1996.

Perhaps one lesson mayors should learn from the past is to offer modest, attainable goals.

"This is a community that has high expectations," Fazzino has said in the past. "I think we need to set very clear expectations about what we can do in the public service area."

A case in point is the city's fiber-optic loop, which was a mere twinkle in the city's eye in 1994, when Kniss spoke about technological advancement. With only a handful of subscribers--all businesses--enlisted since the $2 million, 28-mile loop was completed in 1997, "advancement" takes on a whole new meaning.

Last year, a group of technologically savvy residents tried to persuade the city to run a trial that would allow them to connect their homes to the fiber loop and its promise of high-speed Internet access. Council members were enthusiastic about the trial last spring, but Utilities Department staff ultimately told the council that it would be too costly. The recommendation has led to much resentment in the community, and the issue is still unresolved. The council is due to debate it on April 5.

"(Last) spring, we promised a hell of a lot more than we could deliver by the end of the year," Fazzino said, referring to the council's initial enthusiasm for the fiber-to-home trial.

Fazzino is remaining mum about the details of Monday night's address, which he promises will be "entertaining but sobering." He already set himself some tough goals in his January inaugural speech: resolution of the historic preservation debate; inauguration of an intracity shuttle; discussions with Stanford about a new performing arts center and new cancer center. Some of those issues, particularly the latter, have already run into roadblocks.

"A mayor can take on one or two major themes, but if you try and pursue eight or nine things, you run into trouble," said Cobb. "I think Gary's put an ambitious agenda out there."

Meanwhile, Joe Simitian, a Santa Clara County supervisor and Palo Alto's mayor in 1995, has a word of caution for his successors.

"There's always a temptation to try and be all things to all people, he said. "At the end of the year, the speech is likely to be much forgotten, and the work of the council during the year stands on its own. We're judged on actions, not on promises."

Karen Willemsen contributed to this report. 

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