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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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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 with a copy to He also writes print columns, archived at under Palo Alto Weekly.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Ridiculous analogy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 26, 2014 at 6:33 pm

"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. "

Just to,show how out of touch jay is with reality, he compares people exercising their free speech rights, with a person who would gun down innocent people in a public setting!!!! Really, jay???? Time for you to retire permanently and ride off into,the sunset.

Posted by Free speech does not equal right to snipe in private newspaper!, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 12:36 am

@ Ridiculous analogy - What free speech rights do members of the public have in commercial newspapers? None! The Weekly allows the public to comment and enforces some limitations, at their discretion.

I personally find Jay\'s comment that you quote to be spot on. Our city officials, whether elected, volunteer or paid are walking targets for public comment in this forum. Some comments are kind and thoughtful. Some comments are well reasoned though critical while still being respectful. Still other comments are not based in fact and are downright mean spirited.

Jay\'s choice of the word "akin" shows that he knows the difference between verbal snipers and armed gunners. If you\'ve missed that distinction, then check out Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of "snipe". The two definitions echo Jay\'s analogy.

Web Link
snipe intransitive verb
* to shoot at someone from a hidden place
* to criticize someone or something in a harsh or unfair way

It is exactly your snipe; or harsh, unfair criticism made anonymously that Jay is talking about. You made spurious claims of "free speech rights" and launched salvos of insults at Jay from a hidden place. You sniped so you are a sniper!

Hopefully, for all our best interest, your weapon is your not quite free speech and not guns!

Posted by Anonymous sniping is okay if you support jay, a resident of University South,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 5:29 am

Free speech--- you would think, given their history, that a newspaper would be the place where free speech is respected. N certain countries comments like those would get you arrested, henCe the free speech comment is valid.
But more to the point, your posting is akin to the kettle calling the pot black, since you criticize ridulous analogys comments anonymously as well.
Elected officials are criticized more everywhere, in public and the press and on forums. If they cannot handle the heat they should resign. I am sure they do not need jay to defend them. However, if it is such a proble, the weekly should switch to a registered user only postings-- postings and ad revenue will plummet, but our locals litigants will be spared the comments you so,concerned about.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 8:08 am

From my perspective it is irrelevant whether someone is anonymous or not when people make comments on the internet in general. Even in this forum, I have seen registered users make disrespectful comments, as well as anonymous people make polite comments even when in disagreement.

On a Facebook nostalgia site I recently had some very bad abusive comments made to me by someone who presumably used his own name and his own picture in both the public comments and in private messages to me.

Anonymity is not the problem. People's internet attitude is the problem. Some people regret their comment after hitting submit, when it is too late. Unfortunately others just think it is their right to be able to behave exactly how they like as their right of free speech. Many of the latter type do not feel inhibited even when using their real name.

Secondly anybody can call themselves any "real" sounding name so even the supposed registered users may not be using a real identity. It is possible to create an online identity for every smart device someone is able to use. There is no way of knowing on the internet that the person commenting is the person they claim to be.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 9:08 am

Not going to snipe, bad mouth or even criticize people who comment on these forums. Would rather be heard, then shouted down and you know most people want to heard.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 9:08 am

Not going to snipe, bad mouth or even criticize people who comment on these forums. Would rather be heard, then shouted down and you know most people want to heard.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 1:08 pm


Simple question: In your opinion, or to your knowledge, do you think that PA council members actually read this PA Weekly blog? I have heard some of them claim that they do not, but I don't believe them. I think that they just don't want to explain their specific position to our community...and own it.

Do you disagree?

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Hi Craig -- I believe based on various conversations with various council members that some read some of them, but zone out and tune out when the topics become mean-spirited, name-calling and ill-informed. I would personally respect "verbal snipers" more if they owned their own potshots and stood behind their opinions, innuendoes, insults and names. But I'm not advocating foreclosing anyone's "free speech rights" in any way.
As for the focus on my "snipers" reference, I find it an odd diversion from a blog that is really about the bigger subject of what kind of community do people want to see Palo Alto be, remain or become. How about someone venturing into that arena? -jay

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 1:47 pm


Your "sniper" analogy did not trigger me...pun intended (or even bother me...I got what you were saying). It was the "The ability to be anonymous in online forums" comment. I use my own name, and I would prefer if others did so, too...but they don't. Nevertheless, I think PA council members should state their case, and explain it, on any given public issue...on this blog. This blog is called the "Town Square"...I think our political leaders should use it to support/defend their actual views. It is not good for them to avoid the heat in the kitchen...we all need to know what is cooking.

Posted by southerner, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 8:42 pm

I'm just discouraged to even read this, because I have no indication that Shepherd isn't just feeding her echo chamber. Why talk to the hand again?

Some of us tried to tell her last year at this time that there would be a lot of resistance to upzoning Maybell, I have notes in my own phone log that I called her about it, but later she would go on about how neighbors had no right to complain because they didn't complain earlier. There was historic levels of participation during the Maybell debates, and many letters written, but conversations with Councilmembers before the election indicated to me that they simply filter them for what they already think and ignore the rest. Most of my letters to Council go unanswered. Now that Measure D is done, many people wanted Council to think seriously about saving the orchard, but here we go again - they don't remember all the indications that residents would like this because it doesn't agree with what they want. Or maybe they're just being vindictive. Who knows. I've tried to be involved this past year and not been listened to. So have thousands of my neighbors. Now she's asking for other opinions, as if this never happened.

It's like she still believes the large cross-town section of people like Eric Filseth, Nielson Buchanon, and all the Maybell people, are just a small minority and if she just keeps asking, she'll get the voices to support what she already believes anyway. I'm not just making this up, that's essentially what Gail Price and other council (who bothered to respond) said before the election - they believed everyone else who wasn't trying to talk to them agreed with them and the vote would go their way. Even after the election, they somehow reasoned that Marc Berman's 18% of the vote in the general election somehow had a bearing on the majority vote in the Maybell special election, and this somehow meant the Maybell vote could be ignored. Very strange reasoning, especially since a lot of us No on Maybell people voted him into office, including me.

So, Nancy Shepherd's "Our" seems to mean "her" Palo Alto - looking for some more opinions to agree with Her Palo Alto, so she can continue to exclude those of us (apparently in the majority) who don't agree with it.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 28, 2014 at 12:26 am

What in the world does anonymous posting on this thread have to do with whether Nancy Shepherd has the background to be the Mayor of Palo Alto, or if she has any intention of actually listening to people who disagree with her?

It's pretty clear that virtually no one on the Council ever listens--so why should she be any different?

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 28, 2014 at 6:04 am

Jay, I found this posting to be less about 'what kind of community do people want Palo Alto to be' than a PR piece about Mayor Shepard. Over half the article is about Mayor Shepard's personal background. I would have found the post much more informative if you had reviewed Mayor Shepard's votes on various developments and budget items and get her to comment on how those votes support the 'quality of life' that she has most recently decided to be important.

Posted by excuse the anonymity, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 28, 2014 at 8:37 pm

The Mayor describes block parties, neighbors, dogs, children...

Mayor asks "That is what my Palo Alto feels like, and I\'m guessing many of you view your neighborhood in a similar way."

Oh yes, Jethro and I think too, but our Palo Alto is so much more than that.

Posted by Marrol, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Mar 6, 2014 at 3:50 pm

A well written and thoughtful piece Jay.

Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 25, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Having been here since 1960, I would favor electing a slate of City Council candidates who would place a moratorium on any future commercial structures and multi-family housing. One could create a 10-year sunshine law element to revisit the issue a decade from now. I am convinced all of Palo Alto's overdevelopment are linked to the above two issues. We are enough of a center of success that has been ironically undermining our quality of life since the 1990s. Time to push out this wealth and development to other communities. And less available housing will help to drive up local housing rates. Like Los Altos Hills, Woodside, and Atherton - I would prefer people mostly live here - not have to work here. But for those lucky few, good for them.

I would favor more development (commercial and multi-family stack and pack housing) to the South - Sunnyvale, Mountain View, San Jose, Santa Clara, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and Monterey. Assuming of course, they would want it. I suspect however, many of these cities would embrace the success of Silicon Valley expanding more within their boarders beyond what they already have. Simple reason: translates to money for the city/town governments and increased property values (until they reach a relative saturation level where I believe we are).

Yes: law offices, venture capitalists, start-ups, and new technology firms - head on South. Or better yet: help upgrade the entire East Bay. Lord knows that zone can do with an influx of educated professionals who could bring wealth and new upgraded neighborhoods.

Thanks Jay for some insight to our current Mayor. They know the development Gold Rush years are done (1984-2014) and I think they are trying to complete what's already in the pipeline and discern what percentage of the two Palo Altos (preserve or develop) will not only appear in future political battles but be able to maintain a presence beyond their own years of participation. I think the beginning to the end of overdevelopment has started.

Posted by resident 1, a resident of Adobe-Meadows,
on Apr 5, 2014 at 8:51 am

Mr. Thorwaldson is paid to be a journalist and push an agenda - most notably the continual comments on the jobs/housing imbalance and ABAG as reported in the 03/14/14 Weekly. The problem with the point of view is that the jobs he is referring to for the most part are Stanford employees and students - we have no control over that in the city of PA.

You will note that Stanford is very busy building housing so they are stepping up to the plate to meet that requirement. If you look at a map from AAA you will note that Stanford is a distinct zip code and "city" with defined boundaries.

If you look at the San Jose Mercury News you will note that the majority of high tech jobs are in the southern part of the peninsula or now the east bay and there is huge growth in commercial and housing building in process. This is occurring in areas that were previously fields and open lots. There I no lack in growth relative to where the jobs are. It does not require tearing down existing homes to boost the tax assessment for the area - one of the underlying goals of ABAG.

Many people do not put their names on comments because they actually have jobs in the valley and their employers would not appreciate random thoughts other than what the company is trying to accomplish - which is getting along in the community.

Note that people who are employed have companies that have firm policies on Ethics and project management - meeting goals for schedule, financial responsibility, and producing whatever the product is in a timely manner.
When people spend their day working in a set of guidelines which work then confront lack of ethics, financial knowledge, and meeting schedules in the city then this juxtaposen is vexing. We would like the city to run as efficiently as businesses are expected to. Pointing that out is not always popular or job enriching.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 31, 2014 at 11:57 am

"Our Palo Alto" is a $325,000 slush fund to undermine the comp plan, subsidize the developers (of both office space and stack and pack housing) and help the incumbents, like our Miss Nancy.

I like Nancy. It will be interesting to see what she does post-council.

I voted for her in 2009 because her daughter is a teacher -- I respect her social and moral compass. But either she does not understand the dynamics here or she is getting caught out of bounds as the winds of change have shifted.

She and Scharff are completely different animals. It will be interesting to see their strategy. Further: I think the Weekly has been "right" about 9 of 9 of their last council picks, endorsements. Can they keep the streak going? That Holman is drawing fire for various reasons is a big relief to Nancy, who would otherwise be the weakest link in the Development Machine, Juggernaut, Behemoth Molloch!

Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Aug 21, 2014 at 4:08 am

"Our Palo Alto" means to me the following

1. MOROTORIUM on new commercial construction/tall builds/eye sores
2. Keep PALO ALTO the way it has been since 50 years
3. Solve TRAFFIC problems we have
4. ZERO crime goal
5. Respect elderly/children/students by creating a safe place to live
6. Be OPEN and TRANSPARENT and no hidden business deals
7. Get along with our neighbors; Stanford-Menlo Park-EPA-Mountain View
8. Invite affordable health care for our senior citizens
9. Enough malls
10.Plant more trees; do not kill trees;
11.Transport our school children safely
12.Provide businesses employees to park so they do not need to move every two hours.
13.Be considerate to our Palo Alto workers that leave after their work
14.Alter rules to have students/professors/workers to rent a room
15.Be respectful to our 'less haves' and lift them every way possible
16.Be like Bill Gates/Lauren Powell/Warren Buffet to 'give' to charity causes to solve worlds problems
17.Be innovative; invite ideas to have 10 fold increase in productivity
18.Think to be 22 and be positive; take out the negativity and open for new ideas
19.Hug our trees; cherish our neighborhoods; say hello to neighbors; do not trash in our city
20.Be happy and strive for Palo Alto be a 'Heaven on Earth'


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