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9 Years As A Local "Official"

Original post made by Paul Losch on Nov 17, 2012

I received this week a couple e-mails about openings for various Commissions in Palo Alto for which there have not been enough canditates.

Engagement in our community takes multiple forms I was truly disappointed to receive information that critical positions on Commissions that advise City Staff and City Council lack such an interest in our city.

After three terms on the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission, I am stepping down. While I am leaving the Commission, I intend to stay involved with things around town.

I appreciated the honor of serving the community in this capacity. I feel that I was part of a group of seven that got things done, and helped our City Council make better informed decisions.

We are blessed in Palo Alto with an outstanding Community Services Department, with which I and my fellow Commissioners spent countless hours dealing with matters that lead to Commission and to Council hearings and action. I will miss working with them.

I was naïve about local affairs before I was appointed to PARC. I was involved as a parent with my kid's stuff, as many of us are. We have many fantastic organizations that care for our community, from Little League, Soccer, Gardeners, Open Space, Youth Welfare, too many others…

I learned a great deal about the depth and breadth of what keeps Palo Alto vital. I fear that too many in this little rarefied world in which we live do not appreciate what they have.

And as importantly, what is truly involved in making it happen.

I am stepping down, who is stepping up?

Comments (17)

Posted by Horselady, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 17, 2012 at 9:03 am

I do not think it is lack of interst, Paul. I think it is lack of time. Many PA residents work long hours, six days a week. For the first 17 years we lived here, my husband and I worked three jobs between us, a total of 145 hours a week between us. Some of it necessary for the career, some of it necessary to live in Palo Alto. That does not leave much time for volunteer work, after job, kids, housework, etc.


Posted by Wannabe, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2012 at 9:47 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm

On the flip side of this issue is the possibility that there are too many boards and commissions that spend a lot of time spinning their wheels, and don't really achieve very much other than a "Yes" or "No" recommendation some various proposals put before them.

These boards and commissions often are populated with friends of the Council, or advocates for various special interests. It's not clear that the membership of these group is really "fair and balanced".

Maybe it's time to rethink the number of these groups, and their missions. The Internet/WEB offers lots of opportunity for the City to disseminate information, and even take votes on various issues that would draw from the population as a whole, rather than just the few advocates that have been appointed to the boards/commissions.

It's not exactly clear how much staff time these B/C absorb, not it's got to be non-trivial, when all of the groups/issues are considered.

This issue of people not volunteering for the B/Cs is not new. It probably won't go away anytime soon. So, a rethinking might not be such a bad idea.


Posted by horselady, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Wayne, you make a good point. However, I do like the idea of a cxommitte for parks and recreation, since it affects our progeny.

The Arabs have a good saying about committees: A committee of gods created the camel. A single god created the horse, independent of the committee.


Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Nov 19, 2012 at 9:56 am

Palo Alto should have lots of candidates-- certainly the regular complainers on PaloAltoOnline constitutes a huge potential pool. These folks regularly write about any/all PA disfunctions and claim to want change.

Maybe some of the regular vocal critics, whose names appear over and over on these pages complaining or nay-saying ad nauseum, should do something real and try to make some actual change instead of blowing-off steam on the bully pulpit.

Then, perhaps PA gov't would find the relative tranquility that some of it's neighboring towns are able to maintain.

Politics will always have nasty intrigues and power plays -- but participation by the non-professional politicians helps to keep the lid on.


Posted by Anne, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 20, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Most of the Boards and Commissions are made up of Palo Alto Senior community members. It is time to look out of the box and for talent in other demographics and areas of town like New Palo Alto.

The current groups consist of senior and parent centric personalities. Let's give younger people some experience on commissions.

Even appoint student representatives to Commissions. They will grow up and carry on what they learn in community service, perhaps using their knowledge in Palo Alto again.

We need new faces and open minds on the current City Council that are willing to bring in some new blood and vote them on to Commissions.


Posted by Get Real, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I think it's more that people just aren't aware of these opportunities. I also don't know how onerous the application process is or selection.
If so, the fault may lie in how the city is communication with it's residents. Could the city leverage their monthly emails to all residents in the form or Utiliy Bills to include this sort of information?


Posted by Mom, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 21, 2012 at 10:31 am

Paul,
Thank you for your service to our community. I think it's just the nature of human community that there are always heavy lifters and a lot of the rest who have no idea how their quality of life benefits from those heavy lifters. I love the fictional example in the Lord of the Rings, where the Hobbits have just no idea how they are protected by the Rangers of the North, but they don't trust them, and have only disparaging things to say about them.

@neighbor,
The problem with your post is that you aren't differentiating between the trolls who don't understand an issue but feel comfortable lobbing inaccurate bombs and half-baked facts in public discussion -- always with strong opinions and often snarky or mean-spirited -- and those whose genuine attempts to improve our town and schools naturally create conflict, as is inevitable to overcome institutional inertia, ignorance, and politics.

There is a wonderful TED talk by Margaret Heffernan about the importance of conflict in groups to getting the best outcomes:
Web Link

Too often I see the most fierce opposition to those in the latter group, people whose efforts we desperately need in this town, couched as if they were the former. It's a power play to shut down discussion and opposition, and the trolls are happy to play along. Often the opposition is just jumping on the troll bandwagon.

I would submit that the "Palo Alto Process" comes about because we don't make this differentiation, and are too quick to shut down positive conflict that would drive openness and improvement. Criticize the critics, as "neighbor" has done, is an attempt to belittle and dismiss them -- thus dismissing the efforts of those whose willingness to endure the troll bombs in this town and work on our problems gives us all important benefits (that most don't realize or appreciate).

Thanks for sitting in the hot seat, Paul. Looking forward to the new park at Mitchell.


Posted by Get Real, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm

@Mom
You're confusing "debate" with "conflict". Healthy debate is good. It only moves into conflict when residents who have never tried to get elected or residents who try to get elected and fail then attempt to dictate terms to everyone else.
Attempting to mask or excuse this behavior as "naturally create conflict, as is inevitable to overcome institutional inertia, ignorance, and politics." is disingenuous.
If you really feel that you are working for the good of the district and not just for yourselves, you need to work with the district. Follow Paul's suggestion and "step up".
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Mom, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm

@Get Real,
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

You are completely and utterly wrong about "conflict". From the TED.com I linked to above: "Dare to disagree", she's not advocating debate, she's advocating the value of CONFLICT:
"Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Margaret Heffernan shows us, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren't echo chambers -- and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.

The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns -- like conflict avoidance and selective blindness -- that lead managers and organizations astray."

Perhaps you'll tell us your part in the district that you believe, in contrast to any large administrative bureaucracy, they alone experience no institutional inertia, ignorance, or politics? What are you doing except attacking ad hominem (ex troll) simply because I have had the audacity to point out the value of conflict? And to thank Paul?

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]



Posted by Mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2012 at 7:43 pm

@Umm,
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The problem with exactly this discussion, and many on this online forum, and especially in our school board dealings, is that people try to shut down problemsolving and working through things by demonizing conflict. But they aren't differentiating between the trolls who don't understand an issue but feel comfortable lobbing inaccurate bombs and half-baked facts in public discussion -- always with strong opinions and often snarky or mean-spirited -- and those whose genuine attempts to improve our town and schools naturally create conflict, as is inevitable to overcome institutional inertia, ignorance, and politics. Good people disagree. Saying that someone isn't "working with" the district because they disagree and are willing to go to bat over an important issue is disingenuous.

There is a wonderful TED talk by CEO Margaret Heffernan about the importance of conflict in groups to getting the best outcomes:

Web Link

Too often I see the most fierce opposition to those in the latter group, people whose efforts we desperately need in this town, couched as if they were the former. It's a power play to shut down discussion and opposition, and the trolls are happy to play along. Often the opposition is just jumping on the troll bandwagon.

I would submit that the "Palo Alto Process" comes about because we don't make this differentiation, and are too quick to shut down positive conflict that would drive openness and improvement. Criticize the critics, as "neighbor" has done, is an attempt to belittle and dismiss them -- thus dismissing the efforts of those whose willingness to endure the troll bombs in this town and work on our problems gives us all important benefits (that most don't realize or appreciate).

Here's another TED link from the same speaker, 5 Rules for Productive Conflict:
Web Link

Happy Thanksgiving, Ummm and everyone.


Posted by umm, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 21, 2012 at 11:21 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Telling You the Truth Mom, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 22, 2012 at 12:39 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

The Boards and Commissions are not for residents, but for allies and friends of Council members. Haven't shown enough interest to have even attended a single meeting? No problem. Once some of us started pointing this out, many applicants learned to attend a single meeting before submitting their forms.

The most egregious recent case of this was the replacement of Susan Fineberg on the Planning and Transportation Commission. Susan was highly respected for her knowledge of the issues and the City policies, for her analysis and her constructive contributions to the PTC meetings. Her replacement was an attorney who represented developers, who had not attended a PTC meeting, and whose application showed his civic activities were focused on San Francisco, not Palo Alto.

Another example: At the interviews for the Human Relations Commission several years ago, there were multiple candidates who showed deep interest in the issues and had a perspective that would have constructively complemented the existing commissioners. They got no votes. The selected candidate had skipped the interviews but was "well-known" to Council members as a friend and as a neighbor of one of them.

Even if one does get appointed, you are in for a frustrating experience. I have repeatedly seen major decisions made where the Council ignores the work and consideration of the Board/Commission to the extent that I and others suspected that a majority of them may not have read the report produced.


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 27, 2012 at 8:31 am

Paul Losch is a registered user.

Hi Doug,

I always enjoy our conversations, but I must criticize your observations this time. You paint too broad a brush in terms of people who serve on Commissions and the Commissions themselves.

I only can speak from my own experience, but I never felt or thought that I was under any pressure to do anything other than what I viewed as appropriate policy recommendations.

This is a very complicated little burgh in which we reside. Hair gets up on all sorts of matters. Personally, I view the new Alma project as a travesty, but I do hear good things about the Miki's grocery store, for example. Go figure.

I learned over the Turkey Day weekend that City Council members re-appointed two incumbents--both great people--and that I have been asked to continue on PARC on an interim basis until appropriate candidates are able to take on the mantle.

There is something wrong when we reside in a place with so many talented and capable people, and it appears that we lack a community-mindedness ethic.


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@Paul: "but I never felt or thought that I was under any pressure to do anything other than what I viewed as appropriate policy recommendations."

I didn't say that or did I mean to imply that. The selection process excludes much of the community. Demonstrated interest in a issue counts for nothing. Neither does the experience that comes from working on a range of issues that allows you to have the knowledge of the complexities, pitfalls, stakeholders, ...

Over the years I have heard Council members correctly "anticipate" who would be appointed before the interviews were even conducted, and when I question why that person rather than others who seemed more qualified, I have been told "because Council feels more comfortable" with that person.

It is like working for a company where any time a management position opens up, the boss is likely to appoint a relative who may not have set foot into the building before that. And if you do make it into management, you find that most decisions are actually made at their family events, not in the office.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2012 at 10:19 pm

BTW, Telling You the Truth Mom was me, I should have hyphenated that, it makes it seem like someone besides Umm was being objectionable.

I thought I worked pretty hard not to say anything objectionable despite the uncalled for and nasty way I was attacked, so I object to having been censored! I think the exchange highlights just why it is so difficult to be a volunteer. It's not just that few people will answer the call, it's that so many more feel so free to be so uncivil without ever taking a turn at sitting in the hot volunteer seat themselves.

Thanks again, Paul.


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