What are Palo Alto's core values?
If you understand the question and have an answer, the City Council is all ears.
Council members agreed on Monday that "core values" should be enduring, if not "timeless," and that they should guide all council decisions. But after an hour-long discussion of this lofty question, the council balked at actually adopting any values and instead kicked off a community exercise aimed at harnessing the wisdom of the local crowd.
The issue of values came up Monday thanks to the council's decision in February to decouple abstract and idealistic concepts like financial sustainability and youth well-being from its official list of annual priorities and to redefine "priorities" to mean actionable items with a shelf life of one to three years.
Core values would be far less ephemeral and a little more abstract than priorities. Earlier this year, Mayor Greg Scharff, Councilwoman Liz Kniss and City Manager James Keene drafted a preamble that defines core values as "foundational and ongoing (timeless)" and wrote that they "should be assumed to inform the Council's decisions and staff actions every day and in every applicable encounter." They proposed a list of five core values: quality of life, safe and healthy communities; stewardship (financial and environmental); open government and civic participation; and innovation and entrepreneurship.
The council quickly agreed on Monday to set aside the list in favor of a more inclusive approach. Members reasoned that adopting "civic participation" as a core value without any civic participation in this decision would be an unfortunate irony. With that in mind, the council voted 7-0, with Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price absent, to reach out to the people for help and to revisit the question early next year, at the council's next annual retreat.
This outreach was proposed by Councilman Marc Berman, who pointed out that it's the "core values of the community" that are being adopted, not "the core values of the council." Berman proposed a "virtual whiteboard" -- an online tool that allows residents to submit their ideas for the city's core values. This could also include a physical whiteboard set up in the City Hall lobby, Berman said. The exercise, he said, will give the council "a unique and awesome and exciting opportunity to engage the public."
"We can really engage the community to find out what they think our core values are," Berman said.
Councilman Pat Burt agreed, though he suggested that expecting these values to be "timeless" is a little over the top. "Enduring" is more like it, he said. Setting these values, he said, will require "in-depth discussion" among the council and with the community.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilman Greg Schmid used the Monday meeting as a chance to bring up related topics of Palo Alto's growth and "quality of life," a term that Shepherd tried to define. She said quality of life for her is having her children live close to her and lamented the fact that there is a "whole group of people getting raised now in Palo Alto that probably won't be able to live in this town." Shepherd recalled her recent trip to a meeting of the League of California Cities and said representatives from many other cities would have been happy to have Palo Alto's "problems."
Councilwoman Karen Holman countered that the city's success, while "a blessing, also comes with huge responsibilities and challenges." She proposed that the city adopt as an overarching "bedrock" principle the idea that the council serves the will of the people. She cited a placard in front of City Hall with the Henry Clay quote, "Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people."
Her colleagues took no issue with this idea. By a 7-0 vote, they directed staff to come up with an outreach plan to the community, which would include language describing the purpose of the exercise -- to gauge the will of the people. Staff is scheduled to present this plan to the council in November.
Councilman Larry Klein was among those who agreed with Holman that the council should think in lofty and abstract terms when coming up with "core values." He urged his colleagues not to stray too far afield on issues like the Comprehensive Plan or development issues. Rather, he said, core values should be more poetry than prose. They should be as applicable today as they were decades ago or will be decades hence, Klein said.
"If we really did a great job, it would be far more Gettysburg Address than it would be the Constitution," Klein said.
Mayor Greg Scharff agreed with Klein that core values should be "general" in character, rather than proscriptive. Keene, meanwhile, stressed the need to reach out to a broad spectrum of the community before adopting the values.
"I think if we're going to do this, we ought to do it in a way that tries to capture a lot of attention, so we don't have just the people who know how to access City Hall to be expressing it -- that's a limited perspective," Keene said.