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.