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By Douglas Moran

"Flawed" process is normal

Uploaded: Sep 5, 2014

It is misleading for City Hall to label as "flawed" its action on the 27 University Avenue project (Arrillaga towers) and the attempted sale of 7.7 acres of land next to Foothill Park. That implies that this was an isolated event and unusual behavior. If only. Normally it is only "the usual suspects" who notice (and complain). But this was so big and so egregious that it rose to the level of a Civil Grand Jury investigation and scathing report.

Read the news story "Palo Alto admits mistakes in negotiations with developer: City agrees it followed a 'flawed' process in 2012 talks with John Arrillaga over property sale, proposed development" asking "Would City Hall have done this if it weren't already a reflex and/or they expected to be able to get away with it?"

The property sale involved a 7.7 acre wedge into Arrillaga's estate. Read the last two paragraphs of that story:
The city also disagreed that the deed restrictions requiring the property to be used for parks precludes the city from selling the land. "A private party, non-profit entity or other governmental entity could comply with this deed restriction," the city's response states. "There are many such parcels of land throughout the Bay Area and the state. Thus the deed restriction did not prevent the City from selling the property. The new owner would have been obligated to meet the deed restriction."
Ask yourself if you could have made such a statement with a straight face. Who has the resources and will to successfully sue a billionaire to enforce this deed restriction?

I could illustrate my argument about this being an established culture at City Hall by pointing to a multitude of development projects. However, for the duration of the City Council campaign, I'm trying leave that field open to the candidates. I want to hear what they have to say: their analyses, their priorities and the intensity of their commitment to various positions. Instead, I will use as my example the library renovation that was the subject of my first blog entry here: "Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorate" (read only if you are interested in the sordid details).

In early 2012, the citizens' group, which included me, brought the problem to then-Mayor Yiaway Yeh. He saw it as a serious problem and quickly arranged a meeting with the City Manager. The group then arranged meetings with almost all the City Council members.(foot#1) Although those Council members acknowledged that there were serious problems, there was no apparent follow-up?I saw no changes. One Council member was indiscreet/honest enough to say that there would be no action unless there was a substantial outcry from the public. I wandered away from the group when they decided to pin their hopes on rationality and good-governance.

There were three big issues. First, Staff was silently implementing a major change in policy that went against the language of the Library Bond measure, the "legislative record", and the representations made during the campaign. Second, Staff provided misleading and false information to members of the City Council and the Library Advisory Commission, and allowed, possibly encouraged, them to make misleading and/or false statements about the policy.(foot#2)

Third, City Hall had ignored requests for public records, violating the California Public Records Act. One request took 15 months to get a response (despite re-requests).(foot#3) In meetings with the City Attorney and the City Manager there were promises that systems and processes would be put into place to track requests and respond to them in a timely manner. More than two years later, there are still problems, although I don't have any statistics. The City Hall response doesn't appear to be on the website yet (although I did find their press release of 19 June that gave an interim response and announced that a full response was due in 90 days). Until then, you'll have to settle for the quotes in the above news article. Update: Now online at Council Agenda Packet, Item 9, with response beginning on page 22.

Closely related to this is the "flawed" response of the Commissions and Boards. The above citizens' group found a substantial error in the plans resulting from a flawed assumption where they hadn't bothered with a simple sanity-check (simple arithmetic). The group reported this finding to the Library Director in a letter of 10 July 2012 (on page 2). The Library Director took this letter to the Library Advisory Commission (LAC) where that information, and the group, was misrepresented and ridiculed (rough transcript). And City Hall can't figure out why residents aren't eager to participate in their meetings.

----For this Council campaign:
Don't accept the equivalent of "Mistakes were made." If/when you have the opportunity, press the candidates to hear their diagnoses of the problem, and what they would do to try to change it.
Hint: If they have a simple answer, they don't understand the problem.
Hint: Listen carefully to try to spot the ones that would deal only with cases that created a public outcry. I doubt that even dealing with all the cases that arise will make the needed changes. It is a systemic problem.

---- Footnotes ----

1. Council members briefed: Current Council members Berman and Kniss had not yet been elected, and Pat Burt declined a meeting, indicating that he wanted to wait until the issue was on the Council's agenda (which never happened).

2. On Council members unknowingly making false statements: During her briefing, Nancy Shepherd was shown that Staff knew that the information she was publicizing was substantially wrong and that Staff failed to alert her so that she could issue a correction and use the correct information going forward. There is an inference that Shepherd was misinformed by Staff (rather than being mistaken). See Briefing, page 22. She is running for re-election, and it would be interesting to hear what her reaction was, whether she did any follow-up, and what, if any, the results were.

3. For the timeline of requests, see Briefing, page 30.

The Guidelines 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.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.