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New challenges, same 'priorities' in Palo Alto

City Council keeps top annual priorities in place despite fresh focus on infrastructure

Palo Alto officials often talk about 2012 as the "year of infrastructure" in the city, but one wouldn't know it by looking at the City Council's newly adopted priority list.

The council at its annual retreat on Saturday reaffirmed its commitment to focus the year on repairing the city's aged streets, sidewalks and facilities, a subject that has been dominating recent council meetings and that promises to loom large throughout 2012. But after a lengthy debate and some disagreement, the council decided at its annual strategic retreat that infrastructure should not be one of the city's official 2012 priorities. Instead, members voted 8-1, with Councilman Pat Burt dissenting, to roll over all five 2010 and 2011 priorities for another year: city finances, emergency preparedness, environmental sustainability, land use and transportation planning and youth well-being.

It was Mayor Yiaway Yeh's suggestion to keep the existing priorities in place. But Burt and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff argued that omitting infrastructure from the priority list makes little sense given general agreement that 2012 would be the "year of infrastructure investment and renewal." In December, the council received a long-awaited report from the 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, which had spent 13 months surveying the city's infrastructure needs and brainstorming ways to fund repairs and potential new buildings. The report, which the council discussed for much of the Saturday retreat at the Downtown Library, recommends among other things placing a measure on the November ballot to fund a new public-safety building and refurbishment of two obsolete fire stations.

Burt and Scharff both supported dropping "land-use and transportation" from the list of priorities, noting that some of the most important goals under this priority were accomplished in 2011. These include approval of the Stanford University Medical Center expansion, reforming the permitting process at the Development Center and completing a bicycle master plan (which is now in draft form). Both advocated replacing this priority with "infrastructure."

"If we have infrastructure as being such a priority that we're talking about devoting this day and other sessions to it but we don't call it a priority, what the heck is it?" Burt said. "It seems like we're treating it as an 'uberpriority' but it's not on a priority list. I don't follow that rationale."

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"If we're going to be talking about infrastructure all year, it makes little sense not to have infrastructure as a priority," Scharff added.

The council adopted the five priorities with some reservations and confusion about what exactly it means for something to be a "priority." Members also considered and rejected several proposals for new priorities. Councilwoman Karen Holman advocated adopting "healthy communities" as a priority, one that would include "youth well-being" but be broader. Her proposal was rejected 2-7 with only Councilman Greg Schmid supporting it.

Councilman Larry Klein proposed limiting priorities to two: infrastructure and Cubberley Community Center. The city, he said, currently has too many "priorities." This creates a false impression in the community that anything that isn't a priority has been downgraded in importance, Klein argued.

"I've become somewhat frustrated by people feeling that if their particular favorite issue is not listed in our priorities that somehow we will ignore that issue, which I don't think is true at all," Klein said. "I think five priorities is way too many in a sense that we just can't accomplish five different priorities."

While Scharff seconded Klein's proposal, the rest of the council opposed it before taking a vote to roll over the five 2011 priorities. Councilman Sid Espinosa agreed that infrastructure will be "front and center" this year and said that while he has no problem with shortening the priority list, the change would warrant more deliberation. The council referred the discussion of what exactly a priority is, and how goals are set under each priority, to its Policy and Services Committee.

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Proponents of keeping all of the existing priorities in place argued that each of them -- particularly "city finances" and "emergency preparedness" -- already encompasses infrastructure in some way.

"It touches every single aspect of our priority areas," Yeh said.

The council on Saturday also discussed various financing options for the infrastructure repairs -- including a general-obligation bond, a parcel tax and a sales-tax increase -- and reasserted its position that the future of Cubberley Community Center would be determined by a public process it established last year. The process includes three committees including members of the school district and a series of public hearings.

The new infrastructure report recommended terminating the city's lease of Cubberley from the school district, a move that the commission said would free up more than $6 million a year for possible infrastructure spending. The recommendation has upset some Cubberley tenants and former mayors Lanie Wheeler and Mike Cobb, both of whom on Monday had asked the council not to mix the complex Cubberley discussion with the larger issue of repairing the city's infrastructure.

Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd made a motion, which the rest of the council quickly adopted, to keep the two discussions separate and to remain committed to the city's process with the school district over Cubberley.

"At this point, there is a clear and defined process, and I think there is confusion in the community that we might circumvent the process via the report going forward, and I don't want that to happen," Shepherd said.

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New challenges, same 'priorities' in Palo Alto

City Council keeps top annual priorities in place despite fresh focus on infrastructure

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 1:35 pm
Updated: Mon, Jan 23, 2012, 8:25 am

Palo Alto officials often talk about 2012 as the "year of infrastructure" in the city, but one wouldn't know it by looking at the City Council's newly adopted priority list.

The council at its annual retreat on Saturday reaffirmed its commitment to focus the year on repairing the city's aged streets, sidewalks and facilities, a subject that has been dominating recent council meetings and that promises to loom large throughout 2012. But after a lengthy debate and some disagreement, the council decided at its annual strategic retreat that infrastructure should not be one of the city's official 2012 priorities. Instead, members voted 8-1, with Councilman Pat Burt dissenting, to roll over all five 2010 and 2011 priorities for another year: city finances, emergency preparedness, environmental sustainability, land use and transportation planning and youth well-being.

It was Mayor Yiaway Yeh's suggestion to keep the existing priorities in place. But Burt and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff argued that omitting infrastructure from the priority list makes little sense given general agreement that 2012 would be the "year of infrastructure investment and renewal." In December, the council received a long-awaited report from the 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, which had spent 13 months surveying the city's infrastructure needs and brainstorming ways to fund repairs and potential new buildings. The report, which the council discussed for much of the Saturday retreat at the Downtown Library, recommends among other things placing a measure on the November ballot to fund a new public-safety building and refurbishment of two obsolete fire stations.

Burt and Scharff both supported dropping "land-use and transportation" from the list of priorities, noting that some of the most important goals under this priority were accomplished in 2011. These include approval of the Stanford University Medical Center expansion, reforming the permitting process at the Development Center and completing a bicycle master plan (which is now in draft form). Both advocated replacing this priority with "infrastructure."

"If we have infrastructure as being such a priority that we're talking about devoting this day and other sessions to it but we don't call it a priority, what the heck is it?" Burt said. "It seems like we're treating it as an 'uberpriority' but it's not on a priority list. I don't follow that rationale."

"If we're going to be talking about infrastructure all year, it makes little sense not to have infrastructure as a priority," Scharff added.

The council adopted the five priorities with some reservations and confusion about what exactly it means for something to be a "priority." Members also considered and rejected several proposals for new priorities. Councilwoman Karen Holman advocated adopting "healthy communities" as a priority, one that would include "youth well-being" but be broader. Her proposal was rejected 2-7 with only Councilman Greg Schmid supporting it.

Councilman Larry Klein proposed limiting priorities to two: infrastructure and Cubberley Community Center. The city, he said, currently has too many "priorities." This creates a false impression in the community that anything that isn't a priority has been downgraded in importance, Klein argued.

"I've become somewhat frustrated by people feeling that if their particular favorite issue is not listed in our priorities that somehow we will ignore that issue, which I don't think is true at all," Klein said. "I think five priorities is way too many in a sense that we just can't accomplish five different priorities."

While Scharff seconded Klein's proposal, the rest of the council opposed it before taking a vote to roll over the five 2011 priorities. Councilman Sid Espinosa agreed that infrastructure will be "front and center" this year and said that while he has no problem with shortening the priority list, the change would warrant more deliberation. The council referred the discussion of what exactly a priority is, and how goals are set under each priority, to its Policy and Services Committee.

Proponents of keeping all of the existing priorities in place argued that each of them -- particularly "city finances" and "emergency preparedness" -- already encompasses infrastructure in some way.

"It touches every single aspect of our priority areas," Yeh said.

The council on Saturday also discussed various financing options for the infrastructure repairs -- including a general-obligation bond, a parcel tax and a sales-tax increase -- and reasserted its position that the future of Cubberley Community Center would be determined by a public process it established last year. The process includes three committees including members of the school district and a series of public hearings.

The new infrastructure report recommended terminating the city's lease of Cubberley from the school district, a move that the commission said would free up more than $6 million a year for possible infrastructure spending. The recommendation has upset some Cubberley tenants and former mayors Lanie Wheeler and Mike Cobb, both of whom on Monday had asked the council not to mix the complex Cubberley discussion with the larger issue of repairing the city's infrastructure.

Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd made a motion, which the rest of the council quickly adopted, to keep the two discussions separate and to remain committed to the city's process with the school district over Cubberley.

"At this point, there is a clear and defined process, and I think there is confusion in the community that we might circumvent the process via the report going forward, and I don't want that to happen," Shepherd said.

Comments

pat
Midtown
on Jan 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm
pat, Midtown
on Jan 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm
Like this comment

“The council adopted the five priorities with some reservations and confusion about what exactly it means for something to be a ‘priority.’"

“The council referred the discussion of what exactly a priority is, and how goals are set under each priority, to its Policy and Services Committee.”

The mind boggles! How can these people possibly run the city without understanding the definition of a priority?


common sense
Midtown
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:06 pm
common sense, Midtown
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:06 pm
Like this comment

Pat,

What I get out this article, since the "priorities" stayed the same, is that there will be no reallocation of resources & budget.

Instead what the council is saying is pass more taxes if you want infrastructure fixed, because we the council will refuse to provide any leadership in reallocating current budget allocations to address any infrastructure issue; we will continue to fund our "pet projects" demanded by the special interests who supported us, or which will position us for future political careers or other appointed commissions.

I would suggest that any council member up for election this year (Burt, Yeh, Schmid, Espinosa) who does not propose where $7 million (about 5%) of the current budget can be reallocated towards infrastructure, doesn't deserve our vote.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm
Like this comment

Reading this article I am in serious disbelief that the City council has a clue how to be a city council.

What a waste of time this meeting appears to be. Retreat may be the correct word, I certainly hope there is a retreat from this lot who are supposed to be in charge of sorting out Palo Alto infrastructure.

I was hoping for some real answers and suggestions, instead there was petty bickering and calls for definitions of words we all understand the meaning of.

Please can somebody somewhere do what is necessary to get this city out of the hole without expecting a windfall of money from residents who already pay for infrastructure maintenance and improvements with our hard earned money which goes in our taxes to frills and other unnecessary expenditures. It really can't be too hard to say that we have to stop funding x, y and z and start putting the money into basic repairs and upgrades.

Thank you.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Atherton
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm
Peter Carpenter, Atherton
Registered user
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm
Like this comment

As I have stated before, the answer is to depreciate each on the City's capital assets and to put the exact amount of that depreciation into a fund for the care and eventual replacement of that specific asset. And then require that all such funding be done each year BEFORE spending a penny on any other City function.


waste of space
Charleston Meadows
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:33 pm
waste of space, Charleston Meadows
on Jan 21, 2012 at 5:33 pm
Like this comment

Maybe they should have had Le Levy show up and do some singing and then klein and schmidt could have complimented him. Then the council should have engaged in congratulatory back slapping. What a group our 9 council members.


bill g
Barron Park
on Jan 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm
bill g, Barron Park
on Jan 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm
Like this comment

Ugh. And I thought this Council had people on it who would try to accomplish something. Instead it spent all its time on definitions and kicking the can down the road as any elected body does and avoid making firm decisions.

No leadership. What a waste of time the Council's 4 hours was. I see no hope that the infrastructure/backlog problem will be addressed let alone fixed. How tragic after 17 people put in thousands of hours on the IBRC then to postpone/delay/ignore all their hard work.


Kate
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm
Kate, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm
Like this comment

I just can't believe this!!!! What a waste of time and electricity. WHAT were these people thinking or doing? And when is the next election????


PA Neighbor
Charleston Gardens
on Jan 22, 2012 at 12:48 am
PA Neighbor, Charleston Gardens
on Jan 22, 2012 at 12:48 am
Like this comment

I attended the CC Retreat, and I must say it blew my mind when they spent 20 minutes attempting to define the word: "priorities."

With regard to Cubberley; one thing the CC did admit was that tenants and neighbors have failed to understand that "if" the City decides to end the lease in a couple of years and Cubberley returns to the School District, the School District will definitely want all the tenants to stay and the neighbors continue to use the facility. The School District has no immediate plans to use the Cubberley site for a school.

This will just mean a change of landlord, but the Council admitted they had not articulated this very well.


Jeff
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2012 at 8:40 am
Jeff, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2012 at 8:40 am
Like this comment

I attended the retreat and what is left out of the article is that there was a thoughtful discussion about Public Safety and the need for a Public Safety building. The Council should have made infrastructure a priority and it is unclear why they didn't. However, they are planning on having additional council meeting devoted to infrastructure and it is clear that infrastructure is the priority for the year. The Council Members are clearly hardworking people that are serious about solving the infrastructure issues and it should be noted that they gave up their Saturday to have these discussions and are willing to schedule additional meetings to address this issue


Paul Losch
Community Center
on Jan 22, 2012 at 9:27 am
Paul Losch, Community Center
on Jan 22, 2012 at 9:27 am
Like this comment

A related but separate infrastructure issue: trees and sidewalks and streets.

Too detailed a topic for a retreat, but the tree removal on California Ave. is a harbinger of what is going to happen around here for years to come. Mature tree roots are pushing up sidewalks and streets all over town.

Take the trees down? Not likely. Re-engineer how our streets and sidewalks are re-purposed? Gonna be very expensive! Many people in town will oppose such actions due to the high cost.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. We love our trees and need improvement on paved walkways and byways. Palo Alto Online will be getting all sorts of postings about this matter for years to come.


pat
Midtown
on Jan 22, 2012 at 10:04 am
pat, Midtown
on Jan 22, 2012 at 10:04 am
Like this comment

common sense wrote: What I get out this article, since the "priorities" stayed the same, is that there will be no reallocation of resources & budget.

I agree.

There are two related problems that get us to the point where the council wants us to give them more money:

1. As evidenced by this latest Dilbertesque discussion, the council doesn’t know what a priority is. Although everyone else in the world is pretty clear on the concept, council members seem to think that Palo Alto is so special that it can redefine the word.

2. The city does not budget to priorities – any priorities, regardless of whether they are Yeh’s or the outcome of the retreat. If they did, they would immediately cut whatever is needed from other areas of the budget to pay for infrastructure and public safety.


Time to Move Back
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2012 at 7:11 pm
Time to Move Back, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2012 at 7:11 pm
Like this comment

pat should move back to Palo Alto to become a Palo Alto resident and run for elected office.


Infrastructure-Includes-Sidewalks-Too
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm
Infrastructure-Includes-Sidewalks-Too, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm
Like this comment

> Mature tree roots are pushing up sidewalks and streets all over town.

Yes .. this is true. The topic has been raised in a couple of venues, over the years. During the BRC on Storm Drains the topic came up, since the curbing also acts as a "sluice" of a sort to move water to storm drain culverts, and into the sewers.

Some of the Staff wanted to move the costs of the refurbishment, and subsequent maintenance, onto the homeowners (property owners). This didn't sit too well with the BRC, most of whom were either homeowners, and/or property owners.

What was not provided at that time was a comprehensive study of the damage that was visible at that time. Sooner or later such a survey needs to be done. Costs to repair would need to be included in such a survey to be meaningful.

If this issue of sidewalks and tree damage was in included in the report, it is another reason to reject the report as a whole. It's a bloody shame that we don't have a P/W that understands asset management. This sort of thing should have been done over a decade ago.


Concerned resident
College Terrace
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:33 am
Concerned resident, College Terrace
on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:33 am
Like this comment

Council should be reduced from the 9 people that do not know what is going on in the community, to 5 people that are interested enough to do their own research and to demand city staff keeps them apprised, and the office of mayor should be elected by the people for a 2 year term.

The library costs also came as a surprise to council members, one of many big issues that surprised this council, another being the High Speed Rail.

Whatever happened to Civic Engagement? That was a council priority not that long ago. Was that ever defined?


Pete Henry
Southgate
on Jan 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm
Pete Henry, Southgate
on Jan 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm
Like this comment

ROADS!!! As a Board member for other Association, you set money aside, acrue for yearly maintenance and DO IT! Lytton for example is a creek bed. Since the roads have been neglected, there is much catch up to be accomplished. Also, when the roads are torn up for cables i.e. phone, Internet, utilities, et al they need to be resurfaced back to a standard. We have patches of patches now as our usual surfaces.


Richard Placone
Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2012 at 8:21 pm
Richard Placone, Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2012 at 8:21 pm
Like this comment

After learning over the weekend about the strategic planning meeting held last Saturday, I sent this letter to the city council Monday morning.


Dear Council Members,

I learned over the weekend that council members, during their Saturday strategic planning meeting, could not reach an agreement on what constitutes a priority, or how one describes a priority, assembles a list of priorities or determines how goals are set regarding priorities.

Understanding the meaning and application of "priorities", it seems to me, is a prerequisite to qualifying for election to public office. As most you of know, over the years that I have lived with my family in Palo Alto, (since 1962), I have had a great interest in the way our town is governed, and have served in various capacities of participation in that process, including direct communication with sitting council members. This message to you today is to help in your process of determining what is meant by priorities, establishing viable priorities for our town and reaching positive conclusions with the minimum of wasting of time.

To begin, here is a dictionary definition of priority:

pri·or·i·ty noun, plural -ties


1. the state or quality of being earlier in time, occurrence, etc.
2. the right to precede others in order, rank, privilege, etc.; precedence.
3. the right to take precedence in obtaining certain supplies, services, facilities, etc., especially during a shortage.
4. something given special attention.

It strikes me that the third definition listed above is particularly germaine to the situation our town now faces.

Several years ago (and well before the present council occupied City Hall) this question arose within the then sitting council. I submitted the following letter to council members and staff, and offer it here as a guide for your deliberations. I believe the priorities I list below are as applicable today, maybe even more so, as they were at the time I wrote them.

Please feel free to adopt these soon so you all can get on with governing this town.

Thank you.

Richard C. Placone
Chimalus Drive (Barron Park)
Palo Alto
**********************************************************************To: Palo Alto Government

Subj.: Establishing Priorities

Before budget adjustments can be made the city government (Management and Council) must first establish the purposes (or priorities) of the city government.

Tier One Services

These are essential, required by law and necessary for the survival of the population living in community. While they may be made more efficient, regionalized and outsourced if such moves prove cost effective, these services cannot be eliminated.

Public Safety/Health

Fire Department
Police Department
Paramedic Service
Vector control

Infrastructure

Roads and transportation
Public buildings
Land use planning and administration

Utilities

Gas, Water, Electricity, Sewer and Storm Drains, Trash collection

Tier Two Services

These are services that add to the livability of the community. While not essential for survival of the community, these services make living in often crowded community situations, both enjoyable and bearable. These services can be reduced to minimum standards in hard economic times, and even temporarily shut down. Services can be outsourced, and may be open to volunteers

Parks and Open Space
Libraries
Recreational facilities

Tier Three services

These services add to the cultural environment of the community. These are those that are often provided by wealthy public spirited citizens, which should be encouraged and given public recognition. Many of these services may receive minimal support from the city, with the goal of making these self supporting. None of these should be undertaken until all Tier One and Two services are properly met.

Performing arts
Zoos and museums (Note that Zoos are becoming a thing of the past globally, and should not be undertaken by any other than large metropolitan cities or regions.)
Public art
Golf Courses
Yacht Harbors
Airports (General aviation and private facilities)

Public Education

Typically, public schools are supported by and organized in their own political districts, with rights of taxation, holding elections, with their own governing boards and subject to state and federal regulations. While cities may think it is a good thing to give funds to local school districts, this is not a good practice in that it confuses responsibilities and jurisdictions. It is better for each entity to remain financially separate. However, mutually advantageous use of common facilities like playing fields, public auditoriums etc, should be encouraged.


Sally
Midtown
on Jan 23, 2012 at 11:23 pm
Sally, Midtown
on Jan 23, 2012 at 11:23 pm
Like this comment

To Richard: yes, I agree with your letter, very clear. Your priority list should be adopted and followed by City Council and City Staff.


Stand and be Counted
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2012 at 8:05 am
Stand and be Counted, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2012 at 8:05 am
Like this comment

All those advancing their own views on City of Palo Alto priorities should stand and be counted. Run for City Council!


pat
Midtown
on Jan 24, 2012 at 10:12 am
pat, Midtown
on Jan 24, 2012 at 10:12 am
Like this comment

Thank you, Richard Placone, for your common-sense list of priorities. I have no doubt that Council will ignore your suggestion. It’s too logical, too obvious.

Instead, they will spend an eternity quibbling over yet another process, all the while debating the meaning of “priorities.”
This is nothing short of insane. These are the people who are supposed to be running the city ON OUR BEHALF.

Does the CEO of Google or Facebook or Oracle or any other successful organization say, “I’m setting up a subcommittee to figure out a process to define priorities and how we’ll set them.”?

It’s not rocket science to determine what’s essential to an organization’s success. Priorities are at the foundation.

What the council really needs is someone to clue them in on a “city management process."


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