Palo Alto officials on Monday night moved to delay the city's process for appointing new members to three local commissions, opting instead to reopen the application process in hopes of attracting more candidates and giving new council members a greater say in the selection process.
In a decision that could leave several local boards shorthanded for several months, the council agreed to defer its scheduled appointments to the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Historic Resources Board. In a separate vote, the council also agreed to reopen the selection process for one seat on the Planning and Transportation Commission, which was held by Adrian Fine before he was elected to the council in November.
In both cases, the council agreed that those applicants who had already gone through the interview process would remain candidates, with an option to go through another interview if they so choose. But while the council quickly settled on a process for filling the unscheduled vacancy on the planning commission, the question of what to do about the other two boards generated significant debate and sharp disagreements.
Greg Tanaka, whose final term as the planning commissioner concluded at the end of 2016 and who also joined the council this year, proposed delaying both the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Historic Resources Board to give himself and the council's other two newly elected members -- Fine and Lydia Kou -- a chance to interview the candidates. Fine supported the recommendation and suggested that reopening the recruitment process will also allow the city to have a larger list of candidates.
The list the council considered on Monday night had only four candidates for three seats on the Historic Resources Board: veteran incumbents David Bower, Beth Bunnenberg and Pat DiCicco, and Brandon Corey. For the Parks and Recreation Commission, there were five candidates for four spots: incumbent Keith Reckdahl and potential newcomers Jeff Greenfield, Doug Hagan, Alice Mansell and Ryan McCauley.
Some council members argued that the appointments should not be delayed, noting that the candidates had already gone through the interview process with the expectation that the selections would be made this month. Councilman Tom DuBois called the proposal to redo the application process a "slap in the face" of the volunteers who wish to serve.
"They filed the applications, they came in for interviews, and we'll reject all of them and do it all over?" DuBois asked.
Councilman Eric Filseth called it "grossly unfair" to the candidates to require them to go through the process again.
"It's not their fault that we had a council change in the middle of the process and couldn't get this done," Filseth said.
Other members noted that all the interviews are available online for streaming, should the new council members wish to familiarize themselves with the candidates. Kou agreed with DuBois and supported his motion for moving ahead with the process, as initially scheduled. But while Karen Holman and Filseth also supported staying the course, they were outvoted by Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, Fine, Tanaka and Wolbach. The council also voted 7-2, with DuBois and Kou dissenting, to give candidates who had already interviewed for the positions the option of interviewing again.
For the planning commission, the process was far less controversial, with the council voting unanimously to reopen the recruitment process for the unscheduled vacancy. The council also directed staff to contact the candidates who vied for the commission seats last year and ask them if they are still interested.
The only wildcard came from Tanaka, who floated the idea of replacing existing commissioners whose terms have not expired with new candidates. This would effectively allow the council to fire the citizen volunteers on its most influential and important commission in the midst of their terms.
"If we get, let's say, two strong candidates or three really strong candidates, perhaps we can consider putting them in place of some of the current members," Tanaka said.
The idea found no support among the council, though it did prompt some raised eyebrows. Holman, after clarifying Tanaka's intent, said she would "never support that."
"Not in a process like this," Holman said. "And I'm not sure we'd have a process that would allow that. I think it's a little off the wall."
DuBois also made it clear after the meeting that he strongly opposes Tanaka's proposal, calling it a "radical idea."
"I think council's has a pretty established process with its protocols," DuBois told the Weekly. "We have only removed or replaced commissioners in the past if there was a cause, like legal conflicts.
"This seemed pretty shocking. (Tanaka) is an experienced PTC member and to suggest that we remove people without cause -- it just seemed very political."