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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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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.
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Posted by Anneke, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 11, 2020 at 8:59 am

Excellent article, Diana.

Too many lofty ideas, and no walk the talk!

I suggest that Palo Alto select one goal at the time, bring that goal to fruition, and keep Palo Alto's citizens informed of the progress.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 11, 2020 at 9:51 am

Online Name is a registered user.

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

Excellent and timely. So tired of their lack of concrete achievements and failure to address / fix real problems while spouting nonsense about "21st century" this and "leading edge" that and "car-light" fairy tales.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 11, 2020 at 12:26 pm

I said my bit elsewhere. Mobility means nothing, a skateboard and roller blades are mobile, so are mobility scooters. This means nothing about traffic, parking, public transport or shuttles. It could mean more Ross Roads, Arastradero/Charleston and rental bikes. It does not mean coordinating with Mountain View or Menlo Park, signage or easier payment for parking, satellite parking lots or getting kids to schools or workers from points east or west.

Housing of any description means nothing unless the City is going into the rental or construction business.

As for the others, been there, done that, no change.

Posted by Longtime Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 11, 2020 at 3:04 pm

My favorite was "Civic Engagement". I don't think anyone ever knew what that was, and one year, it was one council's Top Priority.

Best I could guess was that staff would come up with an idea, everyone would be invited to a few gatherings to give feedback, then residents & average businesses would pay for it, exempting all big businesses from spending $$.

No one could ever define Civic Engagement, as far as I know. But it sounded good.

Posted by DIana Diamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 11, 2020 at 3:13 pm

DIana Diamond is a registered user.

I remember "civic engagement" also -- and I asked what it meant. Best I could come up with is that a resident was concerned that not enough people were attending city council meetings and they were not taking a big interest in what the council was debating every Monday (even if it was only sexy topics like easements and property lines or zoning changes in the Baylands), so he thought we needed to get more people interested. The reality was that people came to council when something interested them -- like undergrounding or height limits in town.

But even then, there were no clues as to what to do, and no measurements as to whether anything got done or if civic engagement improved.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 11, 2020 at 9:34 pm

"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 happened because Benest would dictate to the councilmembers--in advance and out of sight--what the city priorities would be. Then he'd graciously let them pretend they set them and of course he agreed to accomplish them. Joy and good feelings everywhere.

Shikada has streamlined the process. He coaches the council to set high-sounding goals whose attainment is impossible to measure, and Presto! Staff achieves the city's priorities effortlessly. Kudos all around at the end of the year.

Posted by mjh, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 13, 2020 at 4:36 pm

mjh is a registered user.

"The reality was that people came to council when something interested them -"

Like many other council watchers, unless I want to speak or support someone else who is speaking during the public comment time, I often watch all or of the council meeting at home in the comfort of my armchair.

Until fairly recently Councilmember Kniss would sometimes make a point of asking people in the chamber to put their hands up if the agenda topic was of interest, it seems to make a point that few residents were interested in the outcome, and then use lack of attendance to justify her comments and vote that might benefit a few at the expense of many.

Posted by hold on now , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 13, 2020 at 6:06 pm

hold on now is a registered user.

Does anyone have a chart of prior priorities and what was achieved with them year over year? No

I would rather have 3 big titles which obviously will have specific projects for each, and then have a way to look to the left of a sheet of paper (specific project) then to the right (results). If anything this means the city may be willing to have more transparency.

Posted by She votes no, a resident of Esther Clark Park,
on Feb 15, 2020 at 8:14 am

They should ask the individual council members what their priorities are. Lydia Kou would say her priority is to vote no on any and every housing or development matter.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Feb 15, 2020 at 12:59 pm

Last night at Stanford Theatre, Kurosawa's 1952 film "Ikiru" keenly illustrated city government bureaucracy. Appropriate snickering in the sizable audience, obviously familiar with local politics.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Feb 17, 2020 at 7:35 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Have to agree with the opinions expressed.
Climate Change - what is that suppose to mean? We do not have the budget or outstanding issues to affect that topic. Think that is a signal to vote for a bond on that topic. Not going to happen. Join in to prevent the Oakland port being a shipping point for Coal going to China from Utah.

Do not let oil trains travel through residential areas on their way to Central CA for shipment to where?

How about infrastructure? Our local cities are now on the hook for aging sewer systems which are allowing raw matter into the bay. It is measurable.

Political Hype is being used to push bond issues and hopefully grab some of that money for the city. To do what? Note to city - the British Commonwealth and the European Union control their member states and their funding. We are not an ATM card for what they are up to. And we are not an ATM card for China and India and their coal burning energy systems. But it is so much fun to go to meetings and swap stories.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 17, 2020 at 11:23 am

Re: "It's a bunch of crock", I'd like to suggest there's a big difference between insignificant virtue signaling (a straw?) and major virtue signaling (rooftop solar panels?). No one can contribute more than they are able. However, if whatever we do helps shift cultural norms - via a social contagion effect - than we're accomplishing more than the actual amount of pollution we reduce. Much of this depends on visibility, i.e., solar panels.

As to why: In George Marshall's book, carbon detox (2007, Gaia/Octopus) he writes about a speculative "emissions-death ratio" (pg. 25) as suggested by Craig Simmons of the UK, "one person could die, be made homeless...or face starvation for every 102 tonnes of carbon dioxide we add to the air."
That's in addition to the millions of deaths per year due to "local" air pollution.

If there are positive ripple effects from your, your neighbor's, or the city council's, behavior - it's no crock.

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