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By Diana Diamond

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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Time to tighten up the PA city council meetings

Uploaded: Dec 2, 2020
When I mention to my friends that I usually watch the Palo Alto City Council meetings on Monday nights, their quick response: "How can you stand it!" Their second response is, "They talk and talk -- sometimes until midnight!" And they add, "I watched it a couple of times -- but the meetings are just too boring."

Yes and no to the above. But soon you get to recognize the council members, and watch the two groups battling each other over future growth in this city. In early January, we are adding two new members who were elected in November, GreerStone and former mayor Pat Burt, as council members Liz Kniss and Adrian Fine depart.

I know most of the council members, and they work hard at what they do. So the suggestions that follow below on improving their meetings in no way implies that they are not doing their jobs. But it is time for some procedural changes.

And here, at the end of 2020, I thought it would be a great time to offer the ways in which the council can improve its meetings.

• Start your meetings on time. Quite frequently, the council has a closed session at 5 p.m., with an agendized 7 p.m. start. Except meetings don't start then. These closed sessions typically involve pending lawsuits or union negotiations and run on and on. Before COVID, residents would arrive for a 7 p.m. start, and sit there for 30, 40 minutes. The other day on Zoom, the meeting didn't start until 8:05 p.m. I think it's rude to make the public wait so long. Simple solution: Start earlier or talk less.

• Two minutes is usually allotted for each individual who wants to address the council. When there are 40 people, that's a lengthy period, but also a good test on how residents feel about the issue before the council. Also, by its own rules, the council does not respond to those who speak. So ideas float off into city space. I have not found residents suggestions being discussed at later council meetings. 'Tis a shame. But then, after public comments, council members start to speak on an agenda item -- some of them for 10 or 15 minutes without interruption. The council should have stricter time limits for its members.

• Something's happened to the number of council action items discussed. In the past year, there have been typically two, and occasionally three, "action" items on the agenda. This coming Monday, there is only one item. And they deal with issues staff is interested in -- like zoning for a single-family lot or approval of a surveillance policy for cameras in the new garage. There used to about 10 action items, but this year Mayor Adrian Fine and City Manager Ed Shikada, who are responsible for the agenda, have too few action items on an agenda. Is this to make it easier on the staff?

• The verbal staff reports on an agenda item are way too long, and too detailed. The staff person presents the item, gives a history, explains the details, shows several charts, and 45 minutes later asks if there are any questions. Oftentimes, the charts simply cannot be read on my large wall-mounted TV. And these used to be pro-con reports, but now the staff only presents the staff's view, which, to me, sounds like it wants council approval on what staff developed -- and no options. That is not right. It is up to the council, not staff, to decide these issues.

• If it is not already happening, these reports should be included in council packets, so they can read them before the meeting. And the packet is posted online, so residents also would have access to the reports. An executive overview of the item under discussion would be sufficient And just think, that could cut out at least an hour of the weekly meetings.

Finally, on a very positive note, this past week the council had a study session with a panel of economic experts (including Stanford Prof. NIcholas Bloom) to discuss the effects COVID-19 will have on Palo Alto, particularly now that the recessionary economy is underway. The group of four panelists also provided an analysis of growth in the city, whether more office space will be needed, how working at home will affect traffic and businesses in town -- and a myriad of other components of Palo Alto. Council members appeared quite impressed, and I urge them and the city to have more similar study sessions to improve city staff and council knowledge by drawing on the intellectual wealth around us.
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Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 2, 2020 at 7:15 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

Excellent suggestions. As it is currently, things seem to be more and more opaque and disengaging.

Posted by akaMaiNguyen, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Dec 3, 2020 at 8:51 am

akaMaiNguyen is a registered user.

Thank you, Diana. Like the friends you cited, I have not attended PA Council meetings for the same reasons as theirs. I think your proposal would be effective to make the meetings be much more helpful for the citizens. Please post a follow-up on this piece, to let us know Council's response to your proposal.

Thank you again for this well-thought out and well-argued piece to improve our city's governing procedure.

Posted by rsmithjr, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Dec 3, 2020 at 12:35 pm

rsmithjr is a registered user.

The city staff does not really care what the residents think, and this affects the council's opinions. They all have made up their minds and are just going through the motions.

Posted by B Spreng, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Dec 3, 2020 at 9:18 pm

B Spreng is a registered user.

I respectfully ask that posters refrain from stating personal opinions as if they are facts. For example, rmithjr's comment that "city staff doesn't care about what residents think" is a statement of his opinion. One may or may not agree with his opinion, but there is no way that any of us could know it as a 'fact.' If we, as a community, wish to work collaboratively on the real issues our city faces, we first need to give each other...residents, staff and elected officials, alike...credit for caring about each other and the courage to speak to each other with honesty and respect.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Dec 4, 2020 at 9:51 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

I am concerned that when discussing how to proceed they talk about the subjects as Item 1 or Item 2 with no name of what those items are. Any Item has a name so say it. There are many topics I have no investment is but others are hot buttons. Say what the name of the topic is.

Also some people ramble to indicate that they are THERE but have no point to what they are saying - just taking up time. Then they look pleased that they offered up projections of concerns that could be discussed in future meetings with no POV on those topics. Irrelevant rambling.

Posted by Novelera, a resident of Midtown,
on Dec 4, 2020 at 11:11 am

Novelera is a registered user.

Diana, it's Greer Stone.

Posted by J Guislin, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 4, 2020 at 11:34 am

J Guislin is a registered user.

All valid points and overdue for consideration. I would add that agenda items that are anticipated to draw strong public interest and a substantial number of comments should be scheduled for early in the meeting. In that past I have sat in the Council Chambers until almost midnight waiting to speak only to have the item of interest pulled from the agenda, postponed to a later date. This is not acceptable.
And I will add that I often find staff reports lacking in data to support their recommendations. When that is the case, the Council should send the report back for further details. And, yes, let's see all the staff reports well before the Council meeting so we all have time to review the information.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:08 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

>"The city staff does not really care what the residents think, and this affects the council's opinions. They all have made up their minds and are just going through the motions."

^ Armed with their rubber stamps.

>"If we, as a community, wish to work collaboratively on the real issues our city faces, we first need to give each other...residents, staff and elected officials, alike...credit for caring about each other and the courage to speak to each other with honesty and respect."

^ Concurring...but it is a TWO WAY STREET...not just PACC lip service and/or skating key resident issues.

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