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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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Big changes needed in Palo Alto -- including spending control

Uploaded: Jan 4, 2022
For your consideration, Palo Altans: We need a change in the way this city is governed. Given our gigantic city budget, our thousand-plus employees and the increasing amounts of money the city brings in most years, we’ve become an economically significant city.

My first inclination was to change from a “weak mayor” to a “strong mayor” form of government. One advantage with a strong mayor approach is that residents could vote who our mayor should be – not just the seven members of the city council, as happened Monday night when Pat Burt was reelected mayor again, and Lydia Kou vice mayor – by other council members.

But the more I looked into a strong mayor, I tossed that idea aside thinking it probably wouldn’t be suitable for this city, in part because it would be too drastic a change. So, I want to look for other options.

Why?

For years, we’ve had a weak-mayor council-manager form of government, where the mayor is a titular head of the city, leaving most of the decision-making and control to the city manager.

But the last couple of years I have increased concerns. For one, it seems to take the staff, under the city manager, a long time to get things done. The council seemingly has no control over the speed of activity within city hall. Think of the time Council member Liz Kniss, nearly seven years ago, asked City Manager Ed Shikada when the parking garage on Bryant Street would finally get a system installed that lets parkers how many spaces are available inside the garage. “We’re working on it,” Sikada told the council. Guess they are still working on it.

Or there are the sorely needed traffic flow improvements on Embarcadero Road by the Town and County shopping center that have existed since 2009, with the roads still clogged with traffic, in part due to two traffic lights (one by Paly and one by the shopping center entrance) that are not synced. The traffic flow, delayed by the lights, has also not been fixed.

Seems to me a mayor, with additional authority, could just insist the traffic department staff figure out what to do. They’ve had enough time (12 years) to ponder over it.

Another major reason for some change is the expanding budget. According to the official 2022 budget, “Budget totals (are)$703.5 million and the capital budget totals $174.3 million in FY 2022 and $747.2 million over the five-year CIP (Capital Improvement Program).”

The operating budget of $703.5M includes 1) general fund (it covers police, fire, libraries and most city services not relating to utilities) and 2) enterprise funds (which mostly pertain to municipal utilities but also include things like operation of Palo Alto Airport and stormwater management).

The general fund in FY 2022 is about $209.2M; the rest of the operating budget is enterprise funds.

This is a lot of money that is being spent for a city of about 65,000 residents.

Palo Alto has grown too big to maintain a small government structure of a weak mayor – similar to the form that Atherton, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills and Woodside have. Their general fund budgets don’t soar to $200 million the way Palo Alto’s does.

So, Palo Alto is no small town financially.

However, the way our council-manager form of government works, the mayor has no more voting power than other council members (in fact the majority can override his vote), and he, alone, cannot veto a proposal. I suggest the mayor needs more authority. The council also needs to tell the city manager (more than it currently does) what it wants done, not just ask if something is possible to do.

The council members, in my opinion, are not really savvy about the city’s economy and its expenditures. They are good, concerned people who want their town to run right, but given their backgrounds (a teacher, a realtor, a community volunteer, etc.), budgets, I suspect, are not their trump suit.

At each council meeting, there is a “consent agenda” in which several items and expenditures are lumped together for a singular council vote. From time to time, an agenda contains $5 to $10 million-plus-plus in expenditures which typically get unanimous council approval without any discussion.

All this makes me feel uncomfortable – that not-so-vague feeling that what happens at the city level lacks thoughtful oversight.

What to do?

Perhaps create a new council-appointed staff member who will provide an overview over the budget expenditures and report directly only to the council. By that I am referring to all the ongoing contracts to consultants, suppliers, services that gt automatically approved -- some for large sums. This person's examination of money matters would be reported directly to the council.

Or the council may want to hire an internal in-depth auditor who will overview the progress of projects, and work to improve delays. Yes, it took more than 10 years to build a small bicycle bridge across 101 for a whopping $23 million. Some of that was due to council delays, but the auditor could advise council (with a concurrent report to the public) that delays in the city are costing money.

Palo Alto presently has an outside auditor for $750,000 a year. After years of complaining about internal strife and subpar performance in the Office of the City Auditor, the city council decided to cut every position in the small office and to outsource its operations to the Chicago-based consulting firm Baker Tilly US.
The council also moved to cut all four auditing positions at the Office of the City Auditor, effectively dismantling an office that had a budget of about $1.2 million. These include the three senior auditor positions as well as the position of the city auditor,

So, we have no internal auditor. The job I envision is a person who has the authority to delve in to all the financial activities within the city, a person to who will question delays, help move projects forward, in order to create a financially functioning city and curb expenditures—and maybe even control the consent agenda.

Do we have a council ready to take this on? I hope so, and if the first two steps are two new hires, as described, then Palo Alto is on its way!





Democracy.
What is it worth to you?

Comments

Posted by Clarissa Jensen, a resident of another community,
on Jan 5, 2022 at 2:13 pm

Clarissa Jensen is a registered user.

Questions (as we are considering a transcontinental move to an area called Crescent Park in Palo Alto):

Is Palo Alto big enough to warrant having a 'big city' type of Mayor?

Are the city council members voted in by individual districts/neighborhoods?

Does the city over-hire consultants rather than handling various designs and studies inhouse?

Are the top-tier city administrators overcompensated in terms of salaries and benefits in comparison to other California cities?

Are the members of the Palo Alto Police Department predominantly Palo Alto residents themselves or commuters from outside of the city?

C. Jensen/Zurich


Posted by Diana Diamond, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Jan 5, 2022 at 3:31 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Clarissa--
interesting questions -- I'll answer the factual ones and then give you the community viewpoints.

1) Big enough for a big city type of mayor -- probably not, unless PA curtailed some of the customary big city mayor's responsibilities. Normally a big mayor runs city departments, and that would not work here. But PA could enlarge the present (limited) responsibilities of the mayor.
2) no districting for electing council members -- just a wide city vote.
3) Palo Alto definitely hires consultants -- and plenty of t hem.
4) Overcompensation of high-level employees -- some would think so, but cities compete with each other and the managerial salaries go up and up.
5) Most police officers live outside the city. Only the city manager is required to live in Palo Alto..

I certainly hope my answers don't dissuade your moving here. A is a great place to live!
Diana


Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Jan 5, 2022 at 11:07 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

@ Clarissa
I'm not sure the details of government matter so much unless you may be staying for a decade or longer. Palo Alto has a reputation of political activism in its council compared to the less "interesting" neighboring cities of Menlo Park and Los Altos. The latter two are both very nice imho and you may want to consider them. I'm not sure if either has a big overhanging unfunded future pension liability like Palo Alto, which may have a bankruptcy-level problem some decades from now.


Posted by James Goodwin, a resident of Southgate,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 12:11 pm

James Goodwin is a registered user.

@Clarissa

Let's trade...your home in Switzerland for my overpriced 3BR/2.5B house in Southgate.


Posted by Green Gables, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 12:14 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

The City Council can make only recommendations. The staff controls the Council.It's not as though anyone can be fired. Even a friend who was sexually harassed (HR told her that) had a very difficult time getting anything accomplished until she threatened to sue the City. That's when the male employee of 20 years was fired.


Posted by Corey+Levens, a resident of Green Acres,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 1:38 pm

Corey+Levens is a registered user.

Diana, I normally don't agree with you, but I think you are on to something here. To cut to the chase, what you are really suggesting is that the City Manager and Staff should be more accountable to the City Council and the people of Palo Alto. I agree and there are innumerable examples over the last thirty years to cite. Once that task is accomplished, though, it will be the responsibility of the people of Palo Alto to elect members of the City Council who understand how to run a city as complicated as Palo Alto. You seem to be skeptical of our ability to do so (I assume that is why you listed the occupations of the current Council members). I don't necessarily disagree with you on that claim but note that it will be a challenge to elect Council members running for the right reasons with the cost of running for City Council spiraling out of control and shutting out most people from committing to what is a time consuming and, mostly, thankless endeavor (see Gail Price's recent op-ed).


Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 1:39 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I agree with Ms. Diamond. We have a tail wags the dog dynamic; have had since at least Benest. This is not in the best interests of the residents of Palo Alto. The Mayor, supported by CC, can and should hold the CM accountable. And the public should be able to rely on this happening. If the existing dynamic persists, we will continue to have a CM and, by extension, senior staff who essentially function with impunity. Expect more Hotel California situations. And more unnecessary road furniture. And more "la la" reports at City Council that repeat what is in Uplift Local and make little to no mention of ongoing, serious matters such as the unfunded pension liability, recruiting challenges that impact services (including in the PAFD)and personnel issues within PAPD - of course filtered for confidentiality purposes. Lay it out for us; we can handle it! Palo Alto remains a very good place to live but having a CM with little to no accountability threatens the future of that. Should that sound extreme, recall the 10-day 8:30 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew that our CM imposed in 2020. He recalled it after two days - in response to pressure - but he never should have felt he had the authority to take an action like that. It's time for the dog to wag the tail. I think Burt and Kou have what it takes to get that started.


Posted by Erin Phillips, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 1:59 pm

Erin Phillips is a registered user.

Rather than just griping & pointing fingers at various parties, why not initiate a ballot referendum calling for a restructuring of the Palo Alto city government?

The PACC members who either endorse or condemn this measure would give Palo Alto residents a pretty good idea of where our elected officials stand in terms of pursuing and carrying out the best interests of the Palo Alto community.



Posted by Claire Phillips, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 2:58 pm

Claire Phillips is a registered user.

Palo Alto's Golden Era (1950s-early 1970s) is long gone as are the more interesting & specialized retail stores.

It's still an OK place to live but no longer very interesting and perhaps best reserved for unimaginative types who are geared towards keeping up appearances.


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 6, 2022 at 3:00 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I like the idea of a referendum to make some serious changes.

Problem is that so many Palo Alto residents, even those who consider themselves very political, take very little notice of what is happening politically in town. Try discussing Palo Alto issues with them at the time of elections and they really show little issue in local matters and only in state or federal matters. These are the ones who are surprised when a road is altered to a bike boulevard or suddenly find their go to business has gone.

I am not sure what would make residents who live in Palo Alto take more notice of what is happening. I am also not sure how to make them care - unless of course it happens outside their driveway or when they want to do some business, claiming nobody told us!


Posted by Jesse Taylor, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 7, 2022 at 3:05 pm

Jesse Taylor is a registered user.

There is very little (as in ZERO) that Palo Alto residents can or will do to resolve this issue.

Palo Alto resident voter apathy allows for a perpetual revolving door of indifferent PACC members whose sole incentive in becoming a council member is not predicated on a sense of civic duty but rather as stepping stone to higher public office (county supervisor, state assembly person etc.).


Posted by Paul Withrow, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 8, 2022 at 2:19 pm

Paul Withrow is a registered user.

> Problem is that so many Palo Alto residents, even those who consider themselves very political, take very little notice of what is happening politically in town.

>> Palo Alto resident voter apathy allows for a perpetual revolving door of indifferent PACC members whose sole incentive in becoming a council member is not predicated on a sense of civic duty but rather as steppingstone to higher public office ...

^^ If such is the case, the Palo Alto residents deserve what they are getting in the way of elected public officials.


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