Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to (part 1 of 3) | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to (part 1 of 3)

Uploaded: Dec 3, 2013

"Watch what we do, not what we say" was famously said by John Mitchell, as then-President Nixon's Attorney General and political strategist. I was watching yet another City meeting where the officials were lamenting the lack of public participation, while what was actually happening at the hearing provided a partial demonstration of the problem. But this is hardly a new problem -- for me it goes back to the 1990s.(f1)

While it is entirely credible that any single instance of discouraging public input is unintentional, and that the City doesn't recognize that instance for what it is, the same cannot be said for the long-term pattern. First, the meeting management is contrary to the basics of running meetings. Second, the City is persistently resistant to suggestions and critiques (although there have been some notable improvements). Third, when years of "bad" results don't lead to reforms, one has to believe that those in power are actually quite satisfied with what happened. Fourth, I (and others) have heard independently from sympathetic members of Staff that part of Staff's culture is that being accepting of public input undermines one's "professionalism."

The meeting that occasioned this essay was the November 13 Planning and Transportation Commission hearing on what should have been a mundane issue?the Matadero-Margarita Bicycle Boulevard?but it could just as well have been a host of very similar meetings that I and many others have been involved in.

This blog entry is intended to serve as a foundation for comments from people who have actual experience trying to participate as members of the public--for them to comment on that experience and/or to make suggestions. Part 1 (here) addresses the problems of public participation over a sequence of meetings. Part 2 will address the problems of participating effectively at a single meeting. Part 3 will address some promising, albeit understated, reactions of several of the Commissioners to a bad Staff report.
This split is both for length and to allow more focus in the comments by segregating them to the different aspects (hint, hint, hint).

---- Terms of this discussion ----
The problem is an institutional one, a combination of a long-established culture, practices and procedures. Mentions of individuals is to be only to make examples more concrete. Various individuals--on Staff, the Council and various Commissions--have expressed their awareness and serious concern about some of this in private, but their public behavior reveals little of this.

Mentions of the Bike Boulevard proposal here are to be limited to providing concrete examples of the stated topic. For anyone who wants to hear the cited statements, I cite the time within the archived webcast.(f2) For discussion of the specifics of Bike Boulevard, please see the news article and use the on-going Town Square Forum discussion: "Commissioners kick back bike-boulevard plan: Matadero-Margarita proposal lacks bicycle-traffic data, Planning and Transportation Commissioners say" in PA Weekly November 14/15 (online/hardcopy) (Web link).
---- end ----

In this hearing, one Commissioner (Alcheck @ 1:54:30) expressed concern about the minimal public input (6 speakers). He noted that there had been no opposition to the Arastradero lane reduction at the final meeting (emphasis added), but the debate on Measure D (Maybell-Clemo development) had revealed to them that it was highly controversial. This illustrates a very common problem: City officials tend to greatly underestimate the cost of public participation, both in term of attendance time and preparation time, and they largely ignore the return-on-investment, or benefit-cost ratio (inverting the usual phrasing). For residents with concerns about the Arastradero project, there was no point in attending that final hearing: The expected return-on-investment was zero. At earlier meetings, Staff, the Commission and the Council had repeatedly and abundantly made it clear that those concerns would be ignored, if not disparaged.

For example, at an earlier Commission meeting, I attempted to raise the issue of cut-through traffic and that an apparent failure to pay attention to basics of vehicular flow had resulted in easily fixable problems that were creating unnecessary congestion (my presentation (Web link)). One then-Commissioner (Garber), while saying that the needs of drivers were not being ignored, proceeded to dismiss them by seriously misrepresenting what I had said (details in my subsequent submission to Council (Web link)). None of the other Commissioners spoke against this viewpoint. Over the years, I have seen many residents angry at similar treatment by certain Commissioners and Council members. The issue is not the bad actors themselves--that is inevitable--but rather the consistent failure of the chair and other members of the body to rein them in. One of the early lessons in leadership is that your silence can easily be presumed to imply consent/agreement.

In situations like this, despite Council and Commission members having been alerted--formally and informally--that significant stakeholder groups are feeling that they are not being treated fairly nor honestly, they are shocked, shocked to learn of that opposition when the blow-up occurs. One of the early lessons in leadership is to avoid assuming that silence implies consent/agreement.

Also in this hearing, another Commissioner (Keller @ 2:04:20) advised residents to become involved earlier, such as during the formulation of the current Bike and Pedestrian Plan. First, this was a non sequitur: It had negligible application to what the actual speakers had said.(f3) Second, I and others have tried this, including on the Bike and Pedestrian Plan, and it isn't worth the effort.(f4) Any "victories" are minor and fleeting: If Staff and the favored interest groups lose during the strategic planning phase, they reverse that loss during the implementation. Or they stretch it out until the opponents disappear from exhaustion. Although I have routinely heard residents admonished about being "too-late", I have no recollection of that being applied to any of the favored interest group (one of their privileges).

Third, this is an all-to-common attitude among City officials that ignores the costs and difficulties of participating. Although "The Palo Alto Process" is purportedly intended to encourage public participation, its implementation demonstrably does the reverse. Instead of being a rational decision-making process, it is routinely trial-by-ordeal. The deliberately drawn out process tests the endurance of even those being paid to attend and of even the most dedicated activists.

This attitude entails that it is the public's responsibility to attend meeting after meeting after meeting, and give the same testimony and raise the same issues over and over and over. Since Staff reports provide the basis for discussion at these meetings, you might expect them to carry forward that public input. And you would be wrong, so very, very wrong.(f5)

One tactic to stifle meaningful public input is to create unnecessary confusion and create unnecessary controversies, typically on peripheral or irrelevant issues. This distracts and detracts from what should be the focus of the hearing. For example, under the previous City Manager (Benest), a preview briefing to Council had gone off the rails because of a simple confusion. During the break, I approached the department head responsible for the briefing and suggested how to avoid that confusion. He smiled at me and said "You have to remember that this is a City Manager's Report" (emphasis his). And sure enough, that same confusion was present when the issue was brought back to Council for a decision.

Another example: I was serving on a Citizens' Advisory Group for a traffic and planning issue that had lots of counter-intuitive aspects. Two of us--experience neighborhood leaders--could see that the presentations that were being made to the Group would cause significant unnecessary confusion and controversy when shown to the general public. We met with Staff and explained both why it was going to cause trouble and how to fix it. The City Staff member leading the project (a Senior Planner) said of our advice "They don't teach us how to do that." We suggested that she use presentations to the Group for dry runs, which she declined to do. We offered to provide additional assistance in refining the presentation, to no avail.

At the first public workshop, the presentation created the impression that a minor aspect of the proposal was actually the driving priority, and the ensuring confusion and acrimony dominated the meeting. Yet at the second public workshop, the presentation had the same problems and the same results. And at the Planning Commission meeting, and ...

But sometimes this backfires. This happened with the Bike Boulevard proposal, where Staff had created two spurious controversies. The first involved an alternate route ("The Chimalus Greenbelt"). This is an idea that has surfaced multiple times since the early 2000s, but has been quickly dismissed or deferred once people start looking at the details. Furthermore, it has many controversial aspects that were highlighted by the recent consideration of a bike trail along Matadero Creek in Midtown ("City urged to move Matadero Creek Trail: Residents oppose trail over safety, environmental concerns" Palo Alto Online, 4 May 2013) (Web link). Yet none of this was reflected in the Staff report or presentation.

The second spurious controversy involved a major re-configuration of the El Camino Real intersection for Matadero & Margarita Avenues (map) (Web link) in some future Caltrans project (El Camino, as a state highway, is under Caltrans control). This potential reconfiguration should have had nothing to do with the considerations of the project: (1) it was many years off, and (2) no part of the project was close to El Camino, other than some paint on pavement. Yet this was a factor in at least one Commissioner's decision to send the project proposal back for further consideration (Michael @ 2:15:40).

To the uninitiated, it might seem silly for Commissioners and members of the public to oppose a proposed project because of items not actually part of it, but there was a hard-earned caution (paranoia?) at work: You never know what will be claimed to be "approval". Much too often Staff has treated absence of strong opposition to such items as being approval/support for their position.

The most infamous recent example of recasting a decision occurred with the Alma Plaza PC (mid-2000s). At one meeting, Staff told Council that they weren't making a binding decision on a highly controversial aspect, and then at a subsequent meeting told Council that they had made an irrevocable decision. Several Council members said that they were very upset about this. But upset enough to actually do anything to lessen the chance of it happening again? Hardly.

The Alma Plaza deliberations were also a prominent illustration that public input can be futile. At the Final Hearing, one Council member rebuked the public, saying that they should have raised the concerns earlier. However, at the Preview Hearing roughly a year before the public had raised those concerns, and that testimony had lasted over 3 hours. The comments of several other Council members strongly indicated that they hadn't digested, or even read, the Staff report.(f6) The Planning & Transportation Commission had worked hard to create an extensive record and assessment of the various issues, and Staff had created a transcript of that hearing on a tight schedule to allow Council to benefit. All to no avail.

One piece of the problem is that many Council members and Commissioners haven't gone through the process as members of the public. Speaking against the Staff position is very different from speaking in support. And leading or coordinating an effort by a group of residents provides additional insights and sensitivities.

At one time, people would be appointed to the Planning & Transportation Commission without their having shown enough interest to have attended even a single meeting. Then some of us started pointing this out, and the word went out to such applicants to attend that one meeting before submitting their paperwork. And Council continued to reject applicants who were residents with working knowledge of how the Commission worked and the nuances of the issues it dealt with. The Council's decision to not reappoint Susan Fineberg to the Commission (July 2012) (Web link) was seen by many as a declaration of hostilities by the Council majority against a major segment of residents, an attitude that exacerbated many of the current controversies.


1. When the former City Manager Frank Benest went on a "listening tour" shortly after he was hired in 2000, I and others highlighted various of these problems to him. Just before the 2007 Council campaign, I wrote a series of essays on the problem (Web link) on the City's dysfunctional decision processes, of which this is part. But that went nowhere. When the current City Manager Jim Keene was hired in 2008, I made multiple attempts to talk to him about this. No interest (and he was aware that I was a major neighborhood leader of long-standing). You may well ask why I persevere. I suffer from Don Quixotism--a compulsion to tilt at windmills.

2. To see for yourself parts or all of this item of the PTC meeting (not that I recommend it), see the archived Webcast (Web link) with this agenda item starting at minute 55 and lasting almost 100 minutes. Public comments (6) begin at 1:14:45. The Commissioners comments begin at 1:31.

3. Four of the speakers addressed an issue (alternate location, the so-called Chimalus Greenbelt) that was not part of the Bike and Pedestrian Plan, but was raised--actually resurrected--during the discussion of the specific Bike Boulevard project and one speaker addressed specific issues related to the Park Boulevard Bike Boulevard to which this project connects. The remaining speaker spoke to the strategic planning issues that the B&P Plan had ignored.

4. I participated in the development of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan to no effect. I attended meetings and gave testimony. I (with another BPA Board member) walked Staff along the length of the proposed Matadero Bike Boulevard, pointing out the problems and opportunities. While we were appreciative that Staff gave us the time, they took no notes. When I asked about this, I got the standard reply of "Too early". When the public outreach was conducted, the presentation was for a generic bike boulevard, and, with one exception, showed no benefit of that walk-through.
The similar situation occurred with the public outreach meeting for the Maybell Bike Boulevard: Staff chose to ignore work that had been done on this under a Caltrans grant only a few years before.

5. In "Residents, developers clash over city's vision:..." (Palo Alto Weekly 2013-July-19) (Web link) City Manager James Keene is reported to have acknowledged this: "The findings in the staff reports tend to support the particular staff recommendation rather than represent all views, he said." (also cited the accompanying editorial "In city that loves to plan, Palo Alto's creates cynicism" (Web link)). But there is some hope that this might change somewhat.

6. Although the location and access of the building for the market was a major issue, one Council member was persistently confused throughout the debate about what was the front (blank wall close to the street) and what was the back (windows and doors facing the parking lot).

The Guidelines (Web link) for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.