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More honesty please, at city hall

Original post made by diana diamond on Aug 10, 2007

Sometimes a small incident – like the redesign of the city's website – can serve as the symbolic "straw" in our community. Many residents are complaining loudly that the newly designed Palo Alto web pages are bad – the search engine is ridiculously slow, the pages are hard to read, information is missing, and there is clearly a PR spin to much of the material on the site. But City Manager Frank Benest and some members of the city council say the problem is with us, not the new web site. Will this be that proverbial straw with that figurative camel?

To read what Benest wrote this week in his "Frank's Weekly Memo" Web Link on the city's website shows that he is either creating the spin, is in a state of denial, and/or refuses to acknowledge there are any real problems.

A sampling from his page:

"Over the last week, many members of the public have explored our new website and weighed in with their impressions. Some like the sleek new look while others like the move towards classifying information into 'themepods' such as Living, Visiting and the Environment. Many are pleased that we retained the department listing for those familiar with locating information that way. Others find the phone directory to be helpful. As with any change, whether to a new website or way of doing things, we also have received some constructive feedback. As a result, we are reviewing our search application's methodology and functionality to help ensure that users obtain the results they expect when searching for common terms."

Compare and contrast that with all the resident comments on my recent blog, "Palo Alto's website is user unfriendly." Web Link and a similar blog, "City's new web site aims for elegance, utility," Web Link on the Weekly's web site. It is absolutely — and almost unanimously — clear that residents don't like the newly designed web pages. Everything I read complained about the site.

This new site is not what Palo Alto residents want or need.

What I want is maturity in our city staff — the ability of both our staff and council to admit a mistake. I can fully understand making a mistake (I certainly do), but when that happens, they should be admitted, and not simply denied or spun off into positive jargon.

I don't think the many blogs on this website are simply the fringe element in town, as some city officials have suggested. I think they represent the people who care about Palo Alto, who follow the city council, who want to know more about what is going on in our city. We are not "customers" nor are we the visitors the web site is apparently geared toward.

City officials approved this site in advance. I have to question their judgment.

And back to that straw. Design of a web site is not a critically important issue for this city. But there has been much resident discontent the past couple of years, and maybe something like a new but poorly designed website coalesces us. It becomes symbolic of what is wrong at city hall when all we are given is positive spin.

I, for one, want a bit of honesty.

Comments (30)

Posted by Need new council, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Aug 10, 2007 at 7:18 pm

Under the leadership of our current mayor, Yoriko Kishimoto, our city council and city hall staff have reached a nadir of incompetence and/or total lack of caring for the citizens they were elected/paid to serve.
Clearly the the stink emenates from the top--our mayor is totally unconcerned about the city and has chosen to utilize her year (thank goodness that's all) as mayor to push her pipe dream of climate change and take part in a series of photo-ops to try to raise her profile for who knows what selfish reason.
Besides the latest debacle--the new website, this year alone we have seen Emily Harrison get away with things that would cause you and me to lose our jobs immediately--while earning the praises of the city council and our city manager. then we have the storm drain fiasco--where it looks like the storm drains will not be fixed as promised. next we have the state of our libraries--I think we all know what is going on their. The downtown BID is facing a revolt since all of the money rasied is being used to pay the salary of another one of council's cronies Ms Bijan
So what has our city done for us?? Well they just spent $250K on a website that could have been designed by a high school student for pennies. The mayor has pushed through the creation of another beaufocratic position at city hall--an environmental coordinator at a cost of about $200K.
Maybe it is time for our mayor and city council to resign en masse so that we have a chance to correct this cities course before it is too late.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 10, 2007 at 10:50 pm

Which members of the city's mutual admiration society was Benest quoting in his weekly memo? He'd be better off reading the letter from Smokey Wallace in today's Daily: Web Link

Then Google Smokey Wallace and you'll find his resume at Web Link#

" . . . vice president of corporate engineering at Adobe Systems, Inc. where he was responsible for advanced technology, core technology and international engineering. Smokey was the founder, vice president and general manager of the Network Products Division of Oracle Corporation where he was responsible for the development and marketing of Oracle's network software products and services, as well as the management and operation of the Oracle Corporate Data Center and the Oracle Worldwide Multi- protocol Communications Network. Prior to Oracle, Smokey has held various management, research and development positions at the Digital Equipment Corporation, Xerox Corporation, Xerox PARC, SRI International, Bolt Beranek and Newman and the IBM Corporation."

So who do you believe – Benest or Wallace?

If nothing else, the website debacle has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt what many of us have long suspected: What we get from our city officials is spin and hype. It's all one big PR machine. We can't trust a thing they say.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 11, 2007 at 8:56 am

The City Council spends more time defending their actions than trying to find solutions to real city problems. The new city web site is a glaring example.

99% of those who write in have negative reactions to the visitor, instead of resident oriented, poorly conceived and designed web site. And Frank Benest puts a positive spin on the problem that would make an ad person envious. I get very discouraged with our incompetent leaders.

Posted by Alyssa, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 11, 2007 at 6:21 pm

Benest's commentary is the most offensive drivel I've heard come out of Palo Alto's city hall, and that's saying a lot. Whether it's arrogance or plain cluelessness about what his employees are doing and the public's reaction to it, is unclear. But it is very clear that his lack of knowledge about what's going on in our city are a major cause of our myriad problems.

Posted by Frank Benest, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2007 at 6:30 pm

"Over the past few months many residents have weighed in with their impression of our Zero Effort street maintence program. Some residents like the fact that they don't have to travel to Tahoe to test the off road capabilities of their SUV's. Many parents have told us their children like the "roller coaster" effect of some of our streets. And many drivers appreciate that they've been able to develop a personal relationship with their auto mechanics. We have received some constructive comments on our street maintence program as we do about many of our other fine city programs, and we'll take them into account in the same fashion we always have. Thanks for all your great support."

Posted by An Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2007 at 3:08 pm

Running down and blaming the mayor for the city problems is wrong and nonsencial.
The mayor is just another council member with a figure-head title with no more power than any of the other 8 council members.

She is probably disliked as she is more of a "Residentialsit" than most of the others and is not an agent of developers and business people as most of the others are.

The citys biggest problem is the 60,000 commuters that come every day and pay no taxes to help with the upkeep of the streets, fire and police departments, etc..

The owners/renters of the 10,000,000 + sq ft of commercial space also pays no or little taxes that go to the city for it's upkeep also.

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 12, 2007 at 5:56 pm

There is no problem with the 60,000 commuters that come into the city--these people come into the city to work--they also shop and eat here--the companies they work for generate tax revenue for the city. these commuters pay their share of taxes which go to the state.
What about the residnets that are renters in the city? what taxes do they pay to the city?
Anyway, every other city in California faces the same issue of non-residnet commuters who come into the city to work and most of them are not in the sad shape that Palo alto is in.
what do you suggest, Oberver, that we ban "outsiders" from working in palo alto? then who will make your latte at Starbucks and who will bus your tables after you dine in downtonw Palo alto. What about police and fire service? who will do that work?
Really, trying to shift the blame from our elected officials to hard working non-residents is ridiculous also.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 13, 2007 at 12:50 am

OK, I hate the web site, but let's not get into hasty generalizations about City Hall staff, including Frank Benest.

These are hard working people, operating in a challenging environement.

the website needs to be fixed, period; let's stay with that.

Diana, time to move on to something else -why try to wring water from this stone. You've used up your latest whine (which I agreed with).


Posted by Reader, a resident of Stanford
on Aug 13, 2007 at 4:35 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 13, 2007 at 7:15 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Give thanks, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 13, 2007 at 9:30 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Unhappy, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 13, 2007 at 10:54 pm

The new website is a deliberate attempt to make quite sure we can no longer either e-mail or get in touch with any member of the staff. They have manipulated the website to deliberately build a wall between us and City Hall. The only way round this is to call the receptionist at the front desk and ask her for information, but don't do this on Fridays because she isn't there.

Posted by Dave, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 13, 2007 at 11:11 pm

Why don't they just list the names of all the governmental consultants and contractors in the State of California on the website? They apparently do all the real work in town anyway?

Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Aug 15, 2007 at 9:20 am

Frank Benest seems to have signed off on the new site, along with the $250,000 cost for it. The old site worked fine so why spend the money? Frank Benest and Carl Yates always seem to find the money for their pet projects at any cost.
Their shell game and manipulation of the budget is nothing but smoke and mirrors. They are always telling the residents and city employees that they need to tighten the belt and then this $250,000 pork project. Hey City Council you might want to look a little harder before you sign off on some of these things.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2007 at 8:53 am

Mike the vast majority of the comments I have read appear not to support Frank Benest,however, you seem to think every thing is fine and that Frank is not the problem? He is your HERO. Mike he leads this City,he is the # 1 employee. The quaterback. The City is 0 wins and all loses. I think most, if not all teams with this type of record would have released there LEADER many games ago,many seasons ago. The City Counsel is like the coach. They too have a job to do but, they need there players to do there jobs first. The coach can call the plays. If the player/players drops the ball or throws interceptions on a regular bases. Who lost the game? Not the coach.If this same organization has so many enept and incompitent managers that good players lose there minds,are unable to perform up to there ability for the system will not allow it and other good player will not even play for that team going else where to play. What are you left with? A second rate or less system and team. I have tried to reach the Citizens. Funny how what I have written seems to be the case. Miss Harrison's problems.The do nothing " I play bye the rules and will say nothing Fire Cheif " Rolling over and playing dead, who only has that position because all the qualified players left a long time ago and are playing for other teams. Sound familiar? I think it was called the Brain Drain in the planning department? First walk a mile in someones elese shoes before you open your misinformed mouth.Mike. I think some people in PA walk in the clouds. That is for Chicken Little was right the sky is falling and has been falling for many,many years. Those are not huge pot holes in the road that your SUV must drive over Frank. There thunder clouds that have fallen from the sky. The zero effort is not in the road maintenance, it is in the management and leadership of players in this City. I wonder what FRANK could teach at Stanford? How to hold on too your job when everything you do is so wrong? Screw over the City and Citizens, collect a good wage,have these people foot the bill for my nice home and collect a fat retirement a long the way. Then split and leave a huge mess in his wake? With Frank this would not be a intro class but, a grad class for getting ones Ph D. in BS. Mike I some how you eat alone in the morning or maybe with Frank when he lets you. And I would bet you pay the bill.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 17, 2007 at 10:37 am

Fireman, it's sad to see misplaced anger leading to such gross overgeneralization. It's as if you believe that noting good has happened at city hall. That's just not true.

Palo Alto is actually quite well run. The real problem here is that Palo Alto has always taken its good fortune for granted, until we hit a wall - along with the rest of the Valley - about 7-8 years ago. Then, everyone said "uh-oh!".

In fact, Palo Alto's credit rating is excellent - better than most. We also have a much larger bevy of services than neighboring communities.

I don't agree with all that Mr. Benest does, but overall, he has been a competent manager.

This is a difficult time for Palo Alto. It's always shocking to see one's hegemony disappear, almost overnight. That said, we're a gifted community. I'm fully confident we will adapt, given the right leadership, dtermined political will, and an increase in the diversity of voices who speak up on the issues. (the latter is beginning to happen, and policy makers are taking note).

Posted by Roger, a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 17, 2007 at 12:15 pm

Please pool info -- about how our new City of Palo Alto site happened, who is responsible for it and what we can do to fix it -- on this Wikiversity page Web Link -- transparency is needed for effective civic action. Please help. Thank you.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 17, 2007 at 8:31 pm

Mike people should be mad. People should care and do something about it. People should start an investigation. People should stand up and say no more. Smoke and mirrors is what the public gets. The people who work in the City know much more about what really happens then the public who are misinformed. What good has happened?. Why have so many people been asking for the truth? When I wrote 0 wins I was going to erase it. Write very few. Then i thought about it and could not find one positive thing that has happened. You can continue to pretend things are ok. Palo Alto is only staying a float because it has a great deal of money. From City owned utilitys being a large part of it. If PA was a private company it would be broke and people would be going to jail.Stock holder would not put up with such mismanagement.With out funds given to this City,tax dollars,goverment grants/funds,Big Daddy forming city owned utilitys,large tax base,etc. PA would be another Eron. Oh you forgot PA had links to Enron also.That cost the City huge $$$. It is time for the Citizens to call for accountability. Do not let the City investigate itself. Criminals investigating themselfs?? That's going to get you some where?? Blow the smoke away, break the mirrors. Streets,libries,storm drains,Public safety buildings,utility scandels,sand bag scandels,Having to rebuild City hall. The Citizens are paying for platinum but, are being given plastic. Huge amounts of $$$ are being wasted and the blame is being shifted to the employees or as you would, blame it on the WALL. That is what is SAD. Beleive what you want,don't let the real world get in your way. OJ was innocent, right Mike?.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2007 at 11:24 am

Mike, you say "We also have a much larger bevy of services than neighboring communities." I get that from officials every time I question why we have so many more employees than other cities around us. When I look at the Mt. View website at all the parks and other services, it looks pretty good. And Mt. View has better/newer public buildings and is in the black. If you have an actual comparison chart of what we have that other cities don't, I would love to see it because I'm unable to get such information from the city. Thanks.

Roger, I sent an official request for information to the city several weeks ago regarding the website, but so far haven't received any response.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2007 at 12:48 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2007 at 10:47 pm

Pat, it's chicken and egg. We have more employees because we have more services. For instance, Mt.View doesn't have branch libraries; Mt. View doesn't have its own utility, Mt. View doesn't have as many parks, etc. etc.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 19, 2007 at 8:16 am

I do not think that a library with 1 or 2 employees throws the numbers off that much. What is the differance with 6 branch librarys with 12 employees and 1 large library with 12 employees? I think I read that these branch libraries have limited service.With limited hours.Do some of the same employees work at differant branches? As for parks and utilitys,much of the work for these two are contracted out. The money is spent but the number of employees will not RISE. Parks are trees,dirt and rocks. Did not one of these neighborhoods have to buy there own equipment to go into this City park? Landscaping,tree maintenance and other types of work and maintenance are contracted out for these two. As with other work done in the City. Again money is spent and no City employees doing the work. Like the new City Web page. $250,000.00 wasted and not one City employee to BLAME!, Well blue collar working person type. Remember there are two types of City employees, US and THEM. The City owned Utility make money. I was and am under the impression that this Department keeps Palo Alto afloat. The past governments for Palo Alto made the money and built the foundation for this City, It is the present and not so past one's that are filling there pockets with it and mismanageing it. Chipping away at the foundation. Reach more to the right Mike,I think there is another straw for you to grab.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 20, 2007 at 10:40 am

Fireman, it's too late to run for City Council this time - perhaps next time?

In the meantime, read the auditor's report about satisfaction with city services, and watch out for that piece of falling sky.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2007 at 1:08 pm

Your response is much like the one I get from the city – very general. I'm interested in specifics. EXACTLY what services do we have that they don't? How many parks with what facilities do we have over Mt. View?

If we deduct the Utilities department employees, Palo Alto has 859 employees to Mountain View's 555.

As for libraries, I'd rather have one great library than several shabby libraries. It's interesting to note that no fiscal analysis was done before deciding to keep all branches open. I'd sure like to know what it's costing us to keep them – repairs, utility and upkeep costs, duplication, etc. -- but it's impossible to find out because of the way the city budget is structured.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 21, 2007 at 12:07 am

Mike: I do not know about the position on the City Counsil that you think I should have ran for.This position has great and many responsibilitys.The phrase the buck stops here. Here is the City counsel.They are the center of the target. They can have the best intentions for the City. Best intentions for all that work there and all who live there. Being on the counsil puts one in a position that you must trust the leaders of the City. ie; City manager/assistent City manager. Under these two positions are many other people that you must trust. City attorney,Auditor and Department heads. The chain gets longer.The more links in a chain the greater the chance for that chain to break. The way this chain is constructed has at least one great flaw. The City managers position. The Counsel has power directly over one position the City managers. The counsil can only firer him.That position is the only one they hirer. All others are hired/fired under the control of the City Manager. So who do these people really work for? The Citizens that we all work for have no power. They get what we give them. Get a City manager who exploits this and you will have huge problems. He is the one telling them if you do not do what I tell you to. If you do not think the way I think. If you do not back me 100%, you will have major problems. I might suspend you for 2 weeks without pay. When I think you are not doing what I tell you to do,If you become a threat to him,2 weeks without pay or worst. Now get several links in this chain who think that if I do what the City manager tells me to do, my job will be much more easier. I will be rewarded. Get several links in this chain who know that while being interviewed for positions in the City the right answer is.I will do what you tell me to do City manager, I will follow your lead. Point me in the direction you think I must go, then watch me. Now you have several more weak links in the chain. Now three things can happen with this chain,it can break. Then you get all kinds of problems,bad storm drains,money that is wasted and mismanaged,Enron pay offs,terrible web sites,million dollar bills to look at building sites,roads that are like a rollercoaster ride,etc. Or the leader of the pack thinks he can wrap that chain around the throat of the City counsel or any one who gets in his way. This chain has now become very dangerous, out of control.The third is a combinations of the two. It breaks and the City manager takes what he has left to silence the counsel like a dog on a chock chain. Who gets blamed when this chain breaks? The City counsel. Who gets blamed for most all things that go wroung,the City counsel. Who says nothing the City manager. Now when things go well who is the first person to stand up and take the credit? The City manager. Then he asks where is my bonus. Then to show the other links in the chain just how strong he is he gets them bonuses also. There is also a game the City manager plays useing control points in ones salery. The happier you make the City Manager, the more control points you get. The more control pionts you get the more money you get. Mike this is a fraction of what you have to face if you are a member of the City Counsel. Short version. If you do not know everything.Do not always make the right call. Do not make everyone happy. Do not do this for less money then everyone thinks it can be done for. Can not look into the future. Then you are the reason that everything is wroung. I do not have the skills to be on the Counsel. I think I would be someone they could trust.I do not think they have too many of those type links. For I am just a broken down,burned out Firefighter/paramedic who was used abused and then thrown to the side. So other links in the chain could hide from the light of day. Cover there bottums for there action show just how incompetent they really are/were and just how vindictive they can be. It takes a brave person with very thick skin to be on the Counsel, if you are honest and really try. Or a arrogant power hungry psycho,if your intention are less then true. The latter goes for City counsil,City Manager,Attorney,auditor,Department head. Or any other person who has to ly to cover up the truth of there action to get ahead.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 21, 2007 at 8:06 am

Mike; The Auditors report I wanted to read was the one from Mr Benson. Remember Mr Benson? There where/are several other people that I know who would of liked to read that report. Read a whole report not just what some people want you to read. What I remember most about that report was how the City Manager fought so hard to stop it and control it. You see that was around the time I started watching City Counsil meetings on TV. I a long with other members of the Fire Department started to think. How are they going to hide or explain away certain issues $$ ?. Lets see how good my memory is. City Manager telling the City Counsil. "Lets not perform this aduit it will take time,time that we do not have. We have to act now. This audit will cost 50,000 dollars. That is too much money to waste.You hired me to do a job let me do my job. Trust me."
Mike have you heard this? Statistic's lie and liers use statistic's. If one has to worry about there job or acts or retaliation what type of report would/will you get? I judge part of my opinion on the satisfaction rating, on what I read here in these colums. Part, a fraction of. So far you and Frank seem to be satisfied. Not too many other people seem to be satisfied? Try using substance,specifics, common sense a long with other tool to form your own opinon. Key word OWN. One thing about a opinon, it is ok for people to have differant ones,it is a good thing. It is not a good thing to force your opinon on to others.Or not listen to other opinon at all. Numbers do not lie,looking around and seeing a City falling apart does not lie. The spin that is put on this can lie. It is hard to see the truth through Smoke and Mirriors or while trying to find it while wearing rose colored glasses.
My sky has already fallen,well is still falling. Strange how I was not given a second chance. For a mistake I made. This mistake did not involve years of retaliatory,vindicative or abusive behavior. No I was at the other end of that. I have never missed weeks of work because I was in jail? Never collected multiple DUI's, Never been in charge of a organization acused of a wrounful death. In fact I was worried about my own death working in a unsafe environment. How things were handled when a coworker was involved in a incident that could have taken his life. Yes firfighters do die. 10 in 3 recent incidents. 343 from one incident. Pieces of the sky have been falling for a long time,very long time. Maybe it is safer to just stick your head in the sand and let the other person get hit in the head with a piece of this falling sky?
Mike hope and pray your sky never falls. It sucks when it does. You will find that people around you,people trusted to do a job. Will have no faces, no hearts and no souls.

Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2007 at 9:50 pm

I made a mistake with the Auditors name. The correct name would be
Mr Bill Vinson.. Sorry

Posted by aboyd, a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2007 at 9:30 pm

Getting back to the point of Diana's blog, the bottom line at this point is that the site has been online for over a month now, lots of criticism has come in, the city officials have fixed nothing. So I've taken the first step toward residents simply redesigning the site for themselves, without waiting for council members to take action. My blog entry outlining the solution is here:

Web Link


Posted by LIke mind, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Thank you, Tony, very helpful.

Since much of the content from the old site has been hidden or removed, and there are structural weaknesses in this new site, I was wondering if an open source PA website would put this thing out of its misery. That would actually give us a chance to leverage our basic understanding of good technology use to contribute (by example) to cities nationwide.

Posted by resident who's had enough, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 12, 2007 at 12:25 am

Diana, Tony, anyone reading this --
More than a month after the web site fiasco was launched, and the only change I can see is that someone finally removed the really offensive text on the front page referring to residents as "customers" and not having to know anything about the city in order to find answers to our questions. And I have not seen any response other than the most ludicrous spin from our city manager or the head of IT.

I must admit that I am not usually a fan of Diana Diamond's, but these words from her column at the beginning of this discussion should be the bottom line that the residents of Palo Alto insist on in the upcoming City Council elections:
"What I want is maturity in our city staff — the ability of both our staff and council to admit a mistake. I can fully understand making a mistake (I certainly do), but when that happens, they should be admitted, and not simply denied or spun off into positive jargon."

Diana, have you received a response to your comments about the website from anyone on the Council or in City Hall? Do you have any optimism about the possibility that a major re-do will happen soon?

My personal favorite illustration of what a lousy website we got for $250,000 is that the Worm Composting Workshop was featured as among the top events in the city last week.

Close second: the Visitors section of the website has a picture of Stanford's Memorial Church as the icon for Visitors to click on -- but then under Attractions, the # 1 listing is (I kid you not!):
Junior Museum and Zoo Home Page
Web Link
Of course, there is no mention or links to any of the attractions at Stanford University to be found.

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