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By Diana Diamond

City’s “priorities” have become meaningless – and a waste of time

Uploaded: Feb 10, 2020

Once upon a time, but not too long ago, I used appreciate when city councils decided on priorities for the upcoming year – usually three or four problem areas that needed not only attention, but also solutions.

Indeed, I remember former City Manager Frank Benest telling the Palo Alto City Council after priorities were selected that year, that his staff would focus on these areas, maybe to the exclusion of some other needs, but it these are the city’s priorities he would reassign staff to make sure city attention was directed on the three or four most important issues facing the staff and council.

That was then.

This February, our council chose three priorities: Housing, with a special interest in affordability, Sustainability, with a focus on climate change, and Mobility, which includes modes of transportation.

Wow! Really inspirational. Sustainability and mobility and housing. What do they exactly mean?

What ticks me off is there are no goals associated with these meaningless concepts, no suggestions of what should be accomplished or pathways to meet these priorities. No, nothing.

Okay, let’s make believe you (and I) are suddenly in charge of the “mobility” goal. What does that mean? Public transit or bicycle paths? Walking or more Caltrain grade separations? More shuttle buses, and if so, where and who will use them. Or maybe giving up our cars?

How do words like these priorities translate into what the city should accomplish? How will you know that Palo Alto has been successful in solving its priority problems?

Or how about the sustainability priority, with a focus on climate change? Now that’s a big task for local cities, because it implies that somehow we should do something to deter climate change. A little city in California is going to affect worldwide climate change? Even if we never drove a car again or hung our wet laundry on clotheslines or have seniors bicycle their way all over town, what, just what, has our little city accomplished worldwide? How do these simple acts compare with Japan deciding this month to build more coal-fired power plants?

Or are our city officials arrogantly doing this to make then feel good about themselves so we residents will be proud and we’ll all be able to proclaim to other cities how good and virtuous we have become.

It’s a bunch of crock, to put it bluntly.

When will we know that we’re finished with this year’s priorities? Or last year's? Or does it even matter?

We’ve had some of the same priorities for several years, with slight word changes. The 2019 priorities were climate change (sound familiar?); grade separation (we are further away from solving that problem this year than last but it’s not a priority this year); transportation (hmm, is that different from “mobility”?), and fiscal sustainability (this city is raking in so much money from property taxes this year that I understand fiscal stability is no longer a priority). By the way, transportation and grade separations were both carry-overs from the 2018 priorities. So what are we really accomplishing?

Yet the council wants to again try to tax businesses in Palo Alto, and think November 2020 is a great time to ask voters for businesses through a city-imposed head tax, to dump money into our bulging city coffers.

My point: Cities can’t have priorities without goals, can’t have priorities without defining what they want in calling for “sustainability” and “mobility” and “housing.”

That’s not the way to really accomplish anything in our fair city, if this city really, really wants to get things done.