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By Diana Diamond

City staff is running Palo Alto

Uploaded: Jul 28, 2020

There have been subtle but significant changes in the interplay between the Palo Alto City Council and the city’s top administrators, most notably City Manager Ed Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump. The result: The staff is running the city.

What’s wrong with that? Well, we elect city council members, we don’t elect staffers. When we vote, we choose among those candidates who want to go the same direction as we do (e.g., more growth? less growth?). We want residents to help choose which way the city should go, and not have decisions made by staffers, most of who do not live in this city.

Several examples: Take the staff reports on agenda items sent to the council before each meeting. Several years ago, these “Council-Manager Reports” used to contain a summary of each issue facing the council, some background info, and a pro-and-con analysis. The analyses were very objective and made no hard recommendations.

Then, toward the end of former City Manager Jim Keene’s era, the reports started to change. Now the council gets a staff report with no pro-and-con arguments, but simply one staff recommendation on how this agenda item should be voted on. Most of the time, the majority of council members go along with the recommendation, sometimes with little or no questioning.

It seems that council members are simply rubber-stamping what the staff recommends.

Councilmember Lydia Kou said it succinctly: “The staff is not presenting us the best information. The reports now are less informative, and they are repetitive. The recommendations are what the staff wants to do – and they are short and easy. The reports do not present us the best information.”

I’ve read these reports and they usually do make a single recommendation, so the council is left with keeping things status quo or going along with the one recommendation. Of course, council members could add their own recommendations, but most of the time they don’t. Maybe some like it this simple way. If not, why doesn’t the council demand the reports go back to the pro-and-con format, with several recommendations for the council to consider? There can be two sides to an issue. And why is the staff only recommending one solution? It seems that council now has to make up its mind on what someone else (the staff) says to do.

Which brings me to Ed Shikada. From what I observed, he is quiet but controlling, and he and City Attorney Molly Stump, in effect, run the city.

Take the two-week 8 p.m. curfew Shikada recently imposed in Palo Alto. Most, if not all, council members did not know about it until the evening before its midnight debut. This should have been a council decision, but it never came before the council. Several members were upset Shikada did it on his own.

Then there are council members who want to put items on the agenda. The mayor can do that, but Shikada told the rest of the council that they first must provide a written “colleagues memo” from three members to add an agenda item. Why can’t council members have an easier input on what goes on THEIR agenda?

Several months ago Shikada and Stump told the council that the police auditing system would have minor changes, so that the L.A. firm under contract would be called on only for investigation of police confrontations with the public, not disputes or conflicts between officers. The two auditors, Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly, have been providing independent reviews of the Palo Alto Police Department's internal affairs investigations since 2006. Instead, Stump said internal police confrontations, such as officer conflicts or disputes, would be turned over to the city’s HR department.

How convenient for the city. Once an internal dispute goes to HR, it become a personnel matter and is hid forever from the public, unless HR chooses to report out. The council went along with it, thinking it was minor, but it was a major loss of transparency. Why was Stump, a staff member, coming up with changes on incidents and conflicts within the
police department, and, in my estimation, misleading the council on what was happening?

Now the search for a new Palo Alto auditor, an office required by the city’s charter, is coming to a close, in an 18-month (!) search guided by staff. Shikada was hired in a three-week period.

Maybe, just maybe, it took so long because the city doesn’t like an auditor prowling around overseeing department irregularities and reporting them to the council and the public. Or maybe it took such a long time because there was debate as to whether a single city auditor should be hired or whether an outside firm would work better.

These are just a few examples of city staff running the city; there are many more. It’s always a delicate line of power and authority, but, in my estimation, the council members should take more control of the city. The council is the employer; the city manager and staff are the employees. It’s council’s job and why we elected them.