Palo Alto officials held the first in a series of town hall-style meetings last week at Duveneck Elementary School to listen to residents' concerns and provide a better understanding regarding how the city aims to solve issues plaguing their neighborhoods.
The Nov. 12 meeting was the City Council's effort toward more transparency and to improve dialogue with residents. City leaders aim to hold the meetings in groups of neighborhoods to better gauge concerns and to inform residents who might not get to council meetings. Nearly 100 people from Crescent Park, Duveneck/St. Francis and Triple El/Leland Manor neighborhoods attended the meeting at Duveneck Elementary.
"Our goal is to strengthen the relationship between the community and the council," Mayor Karen Holman said. "Your feedback is really important to us."
Some residents applauded the city's efforts while others said the meeting did not shed any new light on issues or how the city would resolve them. Many older residents said officials should have used a microphone when they spoke because they could not hear them.
"Overall, city leaders talked too much and listened too little," said John Guislin in an email after the meeting. But others said the meeting was a good first step.
Councilmen Pat Burt and Eric Filseth, City Manager James Keene, Planning and Transportation Director Hillary Gitelman, and Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello also addressed residents' concerns, including how much the city can legally fine Sand Hill Property Company for not having a grocery store at Edgewood Shopping Center (Up to $1,000 a day in accordance with city ordinances, officials said); shifting parking problems resulting from the city's permit-parking program (The council will look at wider boundaries on Dec. 7 and other possibilities, officials said); and aircraft noise (Federal Aviation Administration regulations limit the city to only control the number of tie downs to indirectly control the number of flights, but not who can fly in or out, officials said).
Several residents expressed frustration with the pace of flood control along San Francisquito Creek. About 20 people nearly one-quarter of those in attendance stood and said they were victims of the 1998 flood that inundated many parts of the city. After 17 years, there is still no fix, they said.
Burt said that in 2007 he began working as the city's liaison to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to fast-track flood protection. When he joined the city council, flood protection was expected to take more than 20 years, he said.
"The moment I was on the council I asked to be on that thankless job because I felt strongly that we needed to get it done sooner," he said.
The JPA cobbled together more than $60 million in funding that was outside of federal money. But the process was hampered by required approvals from six state and federal regulatory agencies and a stubborn refusal by the Regional Water Quality Control Board to sign off on the permit.
"We were ready to start two years ago," Burt said.
That hurdle has recently been resolved, although there are other agencies from which they must get approval. Work began in July on rebuilding the San Francisquito Creek bridge, the first step in relieving the backup of flood water. But for this year, an anticipated El Nino season, the city has been limited to clearing the creek of impediments such as trash and vegetation and shoring up weak spots where the creek over-topped in December 2013.
"We don't have much more at our disposal. I've worked every month for seven years based on my frustration. But frustration isn't a solution," Burt admitted.
Some residents at the forefront of their neighborhood's issues were not satisfied with the meeting.
"I was very disappointed in the way city leadership managed the meeting and in their apparent inability to really hear residents' concerns and join in investigating new solutions," John Guislin wrote in an email. "I am appreciative that they took the time to meet, but they just recited the history of the city's attempt at finding solution and moaned about how difficult these issues are.
"I did not hear much real dialogue, i.e. exploring of how we might look at different approaches for problem solving," he continued. "When I got to ask my one question about the traffic and accidents on Middlefield and why the city was spending almost $1 million to repave the same configuration, Jim Keene's answer was a short and dismissive, 'Well, we have to maintain the city's roads.' That is not what I think of as a dialog."
Guislin said if the meeting's goal was to address residents' concerns and give "additional direction to the city leadership, it was an utter failure."
"I can only guess that the city was hoping that allowing residents to vent might relieve some of the pressure in the system. I'm betting that is not a winning strategy. Residents are informed and smart enough to understand when they are being placated," he said.
But others applauded the city's efforts, including Jeff Levinsky, who has spearheaded efforts related to Edgewood Plaza's grocer.
"You would never get this many people to come to a council meeting," Levinsky said.
Crescent Park resident Karen Harwell said she "appreciated immensely" city officials' and staff's efforts to address concerns and allowing further clarification and engaging openly with peoples' questions.
"I think we are realizing we have challenging times ahead and coming to terms with the reality that it is not possible to return to some 'normal' of yesterday," Harwell said. "The more we can create conditions whereby we have common understanding and realizing we are all in this together and cooperate as much as possible, (the better we will be at) valuing that we all have gifts to contribute toward creating something greater than ourselves."