Why Palo Alto Needs an Elected Mayor
Original post made by Otto on May 20, 2007
A prior thread on Palo Alto online suggests that better revenue models and fiscal diligence would serve our city's financial future better than the current scheme.
Close monitoring of revenue lines will help, but this is only one part of a larger structural governance problem that impacts our city, as well as many of our municipal neighbors.
Different elected officials and key city staffers necessarily have different ideas about how far a city can "stretch" available revenue. Citizens also have differences in fiscal philosophy; in fact, the impassioned, lively expression of differences and ideas is part of Palo Alto's DNA.
The City Manager:
In a nutshell, our City Manager's primary tasks are to manage municipal operations and husband the budget. The City Manager - whether one disagrees with him, or not - maintains a fiscal philosophy that resonates, or not, with some or all of our nine members of City Council, who are charged with monitoring his performance, and giving him policy direction. A natural, healthy tension exists between City Council and the City Manager. If one or the other side becomes too prominent, or too powerful, our city suffers.
Given Palo Alto's "strong city manager" model of government, our City Manager's opinion often takes the day. Until the last City Council election in 2005, the preceding two City Councils were not as focused, or as strong as the current Council. Thus, until very recently, the City Manager's opinion was dominant; this has changed somewhat due to the election of a more focused Council.
The City Manager is charged with managing the municipal operation. The City Manager *is* the management expert, after all. The City Manager *is* closer to the action than any one Council member can ever be. That said, the City Manager and/or his staff are overruled from time-to-time, forcing compromises, adaptations, and work-arounds to the variations on a theme of city operations served up by well-meaning City Council members.
Municipalities - Palo Alto included - are ideally run according to traditional municipal accounting rules, but felt (by Council) municipal responsibilities to citizens often run up against staff recommendations.
Do we want a balanced budget? Should we permit the prudent use of reserves to save long-treasured services? Should we, or should we not, leverage services with other communities, and to what degree - in order to conserve revenue? Do we enable staff so that they can do more with less, or outsource, or both - in order to preserve revenue? How agressively should the city pursue large business development opportunities vs. small incremental gains? Should we pursue both? Should we staff up for both? And so on... Everyone, citizens included have a different idea about the best way to run our city.
The above questions emanate from the felt needs, and fiscal and operational philosophy of the City Manager and our nine City Council members. There's a natural tension present among them, even though they share a well-intentioned common goal of effectively managing and running the city.
In addition to the City manager, an additional variable impacting government's ability to turn on a dime - including agreed-on mandates that should speed along (but somehow seem not to) - is the every-other-year wholesale turnover of roughly half of PA's City Council (sometimes a litte less, assuming re-elections to Council; ;this year, we will reappoint four new Council members).
New Council members have to play "catch up" with sitting Council members. New Council members have to fit their various mandates (the ones they got voted in on) into the prevailing group of goals that the previous Council has already defined. New Council members are also largely dependent on the endorsements of sitting or past Council members. The Council, understandably, wants members that "fit in" or resonate with its decision-making style. I believe the latter process somewhat mitigates against meaningful innovation, legislative speed, and cross-functional cooperation with neighboring communities. What we end up with are policy oscillations that hopefully move decision-making toward the mean, as fast as possible. Unfortunately, "fast" is something that doesn't result from this process, and therein lies the problem; therein lies the "Palo Alto Process".
With the exception of the last Council [ending in 2005], past City Councils served during times of unprecedented municipal growth and success. Until late in the last century, most policy makers and citizens had the sense that our region's success would continue unabated - with occasional corrections - for years to come. Those assumptions no longer hold true; we are challenged as never before by international competition, and the "flattening" of our world (in terms of access to commercial opportunity).
Our current governance structure - with nine policy makers of equal weight - driven by a consensus-making policy model isn't fast, flexible, or wide-ranging enough to take Palo Alto forward in a way that will maintain a leadership position for Palo Alto in this region, while at the same time moving to initiate badly needed large-scale regional cooperation that we ) will require if Palo Alto and the rest of our neighbors are to thrive in this next century. This latter statement is true even as we have recently elected the most focused and talented City Council (in 2005) in years - a Council that has defined goals and worked hard to complete them. The current Council will accomplish some things, many of which are corrections to bad policy decisions made during past times of seeming never-ending municipal success - good times that were taken as our perpetual gift. Those times are over; know we need to show how well we can _adapt_ to changing times, instead of riding a wave of success that had little to do with public municipal innovation. Palo Alto went along for the ride during the last 50 years of the last century; now it's time for our leaders to take the reigns and forge new directions.
Can a none-member City Council, turning over in membership by 50% or so every two years manage to keep Palo Alto in a leadership position for the next 50 years? This writer is doubtful.
Palo Alto is stuck in a governance system that was fine for a time when Palo Alto could do no wrong. Our city was on steroids between 1960 and 2000; we could do no wrong that was serious enough to undue (at that time) the good fortune that was raining on our city. However, now that many of the world have largely caught up to Palo Alto's (and this region's) vaunted technology, and capital provision infrastructure, we no longer have the luxury to make casual, and often large "innocent" errors.
Our governance structure - nine elected City Council members and a strong City manager - is simply not "fast" and nimble enough to effectively govern a city within the increasingly complicated dynamic that our municipality and region have become. In my opinion, our current governance structure mitigates against timely forward progress. Palo Alto's overnance structure is simply not optimal for the times that we are living in, or the future that we are facing.
Does five-of-nine-person consensus needed to move forward - with half of those nine persons re-elected every other year - make sense in a world where cross-functional municipal and regional partnerships, and dynamic change in city operations require speed, and the ability to turn on a dime?
To move toward more speed of decision-making, and create possibility for more positive, visionary and forward-looking action, I believe Palo Alto should change its governance structure to accommodate an elected mayor.
An elected mayor - someone who is collaborative by nature - with very slight separation of power from city staff (we're not talking about a "Richard Daly" here), would have the ability to *initiate* and *follow through* on initiatives that take our current none-member Council many meetings, subcommittees, commission's advise, consultant engagements, and other time-consuming processes to make up its mind on.
If an elected mayor turned out to not be able to take us in the direction promised, we would elect a new mayor, instead of being stuck in a rut with nine well-meaning, but necessarily bogged down and slow-to-act City Council members. How can one City Council member get an initiative moving, fast? They can't. This isn't to say that a mayor's initiatives would move like a hot knife through butter, but they would move _faster_ than those started by a none-member Council that is stuck in a consensus rut, and filled with process.
Our current mayoral structure permits what is essentially a ceremonial title, with little more than bragging rights to a title. There is very little, if any power associated with being Palo Alto's mayor. This is not to denigrate the fine and talented persons who have held the title of mayor on our great city. Rather, this is to point up a difference between a mayor who has to campaign on platform promises and deliver, and nine City Council members who make campaign promises that usually end up disappearing into crisis management, and fixing problems.
Of course, mayors can begin initiatives - like our last mayor, with municipal security or safety - or the current mayor, with environmental and green initiatives. But what can one person without a _voter_ mandate for a platform accomplish with an announced platform that is in effect for essentially no more than the appointed mayor's term of just one year?
It would be interesting to see some seminal discussion on this issue, without personally attacking the current, or past mayors. The problem I'm raising is a _structural_ problem in our city government - a problem that is best represented by the necessarily slower comparative speed to accomplishment (and the coherent annunciation of vision) between a process-laden, none-person City Council, and an elected mayor (with a possible shrinking of Council from nine to 5-7 members).
All this is in the way of opening the discussion; have at it.