By Jay Thorwaldson
Mayor Nancy Shepherd asking: What does 'Our Palo Alto' mean to YOU?Uploaded: Feb 26, 2014
Faced with a significant community revolt relating to "overdevelopment," overflow parking and neighborhood-protection, still-new Mayor Nancy Shepherd is practicing her balancing skills as if she were on a tightrope stretched between City Hall and a high-rise downtown office building.
She's not the first mayor to be in that position, or to run head-on into the old Tip O'Neill reality: "All politics is local."
In Palo Alto's case, define local as "neighborhood." And it is in that definition that Palo Alto's dilemma of many years lies: How does one address the bigger, regional (or sub-regional) issues that affect Palo Alto and its quality of life and vigor of its economy, and environment and schools?
Shepherd's been around in the community and on the City Council long enough -- serving the past year as vice mayor -- to know that Palo Alto's a rough-and-tumble community, populated with well-educated, usually well-informed, vocal residents who are not afraid to level criticisms and even, on occasion, question motives, jump to conclusions and call names. The ability to be anonymous in online forums, as in comments following this blog, is akin to snipers firing from the undergrowth at whatever or whoever moves in the public square.
Yet she is well-equipped for the job, also. Her college studies were in international relations with a strong environmental bent: covering economics along with clean water, clean air, biofuels, genetically modified crops and river-border problems. She received a degree in "development theory" from San Francisco State University, finishing a master's degree during her first year on the City Council.
"My professor asked me what happened to my writing skills," she recalled of her workload.
She and her family moved to Palo Alto in 1984, despite having to settle for a smaller yard than they could get in neighboring communities for the same investment.
"We had three children and one on the way and my husband worked for Intel so we wanted to live closer to his job. It's important to note here that we did not have careers in the tech sector. My husband was finishing law school and was recruited to Intel's tax department, while I was a chief operations officer and later a controller operating businesses."
She spent five years volunteering at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, and a daughter, Rachel Kaci, a special-ed teacher at Palo Alto High School, founded the Belle Haven Foundation in eastern Menlo Park. Kaci and another daughter, Becca Shepherd, introduced her at the State of the City speech Feb. 11 at Lucie Stern Community Center.
"As much as I would like to have a magic wand," Shepherd said of challenges ahead, she knows the reality will be tough. There are just too many highly complex local issues that are deeply interwoven with regional or statewide realities and requirements. And many are in "fluid" states, changing almost week to week despite some common, decades-old threads relating to growth and neighborhood protection, traffic and parking.
On the other hand, she cites an astoundingly high 91+ percent "good to excellent" satisfaction expressed by residents, and 99 percent as a good place to work, while being recognized as the best place to live in a 2014 survey. She also cites soaring home values, up 46 percent in just the past five years, and also soaring commercial rents, as high as $900 to $1,100 per square foot.
She rated preserving Palo Alto's quality of life as among her personal interests and priorities, and said that in addition to dealing with numerous action items while dealing with a bevy of planning issues -- while avoiding falling into the "Palo Alto Process" of delay and study -- she wants to hear from a wide array of people.
She announced a program whereas residents can discuss what "Our Palo Alto" means to them.
And she announced that the City Council will rely on the rarely used method of holding "Committee of the Whole" meetings, on top of four standing committees: Finance chaired by Councilman Marc Berman; Policy and Services, chaired by Councilwoman Gail Price; and a Regional Housing Mandate Committee, chaired by Councilman Greg Schmid.
The concept of the Committee of the Whole, she said, "is that the full council will be able to address tough issues in a more in-depth way -- much like the work of a subcommittee -- while allowing for additional community feedback and input."
While not actually new, the full-council committee has only been used rarely over the years and decades, largely because it takes a substantial amount of time.
Its big advantage is that it removes the council members from having actually having to vote yes or no on a subject before them. So the public and members can discuss the matter without having to take a for-or-against stance, avoiding the predictable adversarial environment often present in government deliberations, from hometowns to Congress.
A big disadvantage is that it requires the council to bring the matter at hand back in a regular meeting, when the "discussion" often evolves into the usual public-hearing and pre-vote debate. But sometimes, sometimes a consensus does emerge from the less-combative committee process that helps in the second, voting phase.
As for the big theme of quality of life, Shepherd says that over the past 30 years of change, the essence of Palo Alto, for her, has held.
"We have a good Neighborhood Watch program, and our block parties attract over 100 neighbors with children and dogs. I can still knock on a neighbor's door and ask for a cup of sugar or an egg when I forget something in a recipe. And when I was having a hard time once, my neighbor planted my flower bed for me.
"That is what my Palo Alto feels like, and I'm guessing many of you view your neighborhood in a similar way."
Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at email@example.com with a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes print columns, archived at www.PaloAltoOnline.com under Palo Alto Weekly.