News

Guest Opinion: Is the City Council working for residents or city staff?

The Palo Alto City Council plans to formally adopt the city's proposed budget on June 22. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

As the City Council formulates the Palo Alto budget, members should remember: The question is not "What services can Palo Alto frantically cut short term to save money?" The question is "How can we improve our city long term?"

Nothing I have seen from the council directly addresses that most obvious goal. I know the job is incredibly difficult, but council members were elected to do a difficult job.

The council needs to remember that the city manager and the unions represent city staff. The council members represent us. They need to consider this when thinking about how the budget should be cut.

Mickie Winkler is a former Menlo Park mayor and one current frustrated Palo Alto resident. Courtesy Mickie Winkler.

At the very least, they should consider combining the administration of our police department with other cities or with the Sheriff's Department and combining our fire department with Santa Clara County's department as other proud cities have done. We would save millions of dollars every year in administrative costs and lose NOTHING in service because the contracts we negotiate can reflect our unique goals.

Study the case of the city of San Carlos in San Mateo County and see how personal the police force is, how seamlessly consolidation with the sheriff was achieved, and how easy it was to fiddle with the contract until it was just right.

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Our police department does not deserve the council's unquestioned loyalty as proved by the tapes involving Palo Alto police officers in the case of Gustavo Alverez, the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident who sued the city after he was violently arrested in February 2018. Sgt. Wayne Benitez, the principal offender, was allowed to retire with full pension, and the city was successfully sued for $572,500. One of the officers involved — but never charged — in that incident went on to allegedly commit another act of violence, which may involve Palo Alto in a $3.8-million lawsuit. Ouch.

The police problem is not new, you know. The culture of the oh-so-powerful police union in Palo Alto will not fundamentally change. It must finally be defrocked.

As for fire, Santa Clara County (not counting San Jose) has a population of just 900,000 and six fire departments, with six expensive administrations to support them. Is that really necessary?

Fire services are on the brink of consolidation. Come on, Palo Alto. Take us all the way. Note:

— We already have one countywide 911 dispatch service.

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— We already have a mutual-aid agreement with Cal Fire and other cities.

— Four Santa Clara cities already contract with the county for fire protection.

— Ambulance transport service is provided countywide by AMR (with just one exception, the city of Palo Alto.)

The council needs to ask: Is there opportunity for consolidation here? Are there big bucks to be saved in our most expensive departments? Is it worth at least investigating?

Councilwoman Lydia Kou sent an email asking what services we could tolerate cutting. Why should we cut service? Why not outsource it? The result? Service might improve! And remember, the people to whom we outsource those jobs also want to work.

I remind you that in February 2019, Pets In Need took over the operation of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter from the city, which by all accounts has been a big success. And we hired Team Sheeper for operational oversight of Rinconada Pool's aquatics programming. Of course, we are free to not renew that agreement should his excellent track record not be sustained, which is one huge advantage to outsourcing. This move proved that outsourcing brings service as well as fiscal benefits.

Every opportunity to streamline city staff and reduce the administrative glut helps to extricate us from the huge burden of CalPERS (California's Public Employees' Retirement System). Our CalPERS debt is one of the largest among cities in the entire state and is doomed to substantially increase because CalPERS is increasingly underfunded — and was substantially underfunded even before our current economic woes. In fact, the only real solution to even taming that debt is to reduce the size of our full-time workforce — on which those pension obligations are based — and to not just cut un-pensioned, lower paid, part-time staff, as you are doing.

Council members need to ask themselves, "Do we really need five PR people on staff?" The answer is "No." "Do we really need five recruiters in our HR department, plus support staff?" Of course not. And we won't for the foreseeable future.

Did I really need five separate inspections from the city when I had a washer and non-draining dryer installed in the unit where I live? And have I just scratched the surface of the opportunities for cost-saving reform? Probably.

So I implore the City Council to start thinking about the big picture; work on reshaping the city to save us money, without curtailing services; hire a consultant to design a new organizational model; and please, take this opportunity to at least begin extricating the city from our enormous CalPERS debt. Thank you.

Mickie Winkler is a former Menlo Park mayor and one current frustrated Palo Alto resident. You can email her at mickie650@gmail.com.

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Guest Opinion: Is the City Council working for residents or city staff?

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Jun 19, 2020, 6:49 am

As the City Council formulates the Palo Alto budget, members should remember: The question is not "What services can Palo Alto frantically cut short term to save money?" The question is "How can we improve our city long term?"

Nothing I have seen from the council directly addresses that most obvious goal. I know the job is incredibly difficult, but council members were elected to do a difficult job.

The council needs to remember that the city manager and the unions represent city staff. The council members represent us. They need to consider this when thinking about how the budget should be cut.

At the very least, they should consider combining the administration of our police department with other cities or with the Sheriff's Department and combining our fire department with Santa Clara County's department as other proud cities have done. We would save millions of dollars every year in administrative costs and lose NOTHING in service because the contracts we negotiate can reflect our unique goals.

Study the case of the city of San Carlos in San Mateo County and see how personal the police force is, how seamlessly consolidation with the sheriff was achieved, and how easy it was to fiddle with the contract until it was just right.

Our police department does not deserve the council's unquestioned loyalty as proved by the tapes involving Palo Alto police officers in the case of Gustavo Alverez, the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident who sued the city after he was violently arrested in February 2018. Sgt. Wayne Benitez, the principal offender, was allowed to retire with full pension, and the city was successfully sued for $572,500. One of the officers involved — but never charged — in that incident went on to allegedly commit another act of violence, which may involve Palo Alto in a $3.8-million lawsuit. Ouch.

The police problem is not new, you know. The culture of the oh-so-powerful police union in Palo Alto will not fundamentally change. It must finally be defrocked.

As for fire, Santa Clara County (not counting San Jose) has a population of just 900,000 and six fire departments, with six expensive administrations to support them. Is that really necessary?

Fire services are on the brink of consolidation. Come on, Palo Alto. Take us all the way. Note:

— We already have one countywide 911 dispatch service.

— We already have a mutual-aid agreement with Cal Fire and other cities.

— Four Santa Clara cities already contract with the county for fire protection.

— Ambulance transport service is provided countywide by AMR (with just one exception, the city of Palo Alto.)

The council needs to ask: Is there opportunity for consolidation here? Are there big bucks to be saved in our most expensive departments? Is it worth at least investigating?

Councilwoman Lydia Kou sent an email asking what services we could tolerate cutting. Why should we cut service? Why not outsource it? The result? Service might improve! And remember, the people to whom we outsource those jobs also want to work.

I remind you that in February 2019, Pets In Need took over the operation of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter from the city, which by all accounts has been a big success. And we hired Team Sheeper for operational oversight of Rinconada Pool's aquatics programming. Of course, we are free to not renew that agreement should his excellent track record not be sustained, which is one huge advantage to outsourcing. This move proved that outsourcing brings service as well as fiscal benefits.

Every opportunity to streamline city staff and reduce the administrative glut helps to extricate us from the huge burden of CalPERS (California's Public Employees' Retirement System). Our CalPERS debt is one of the largest among cities in the entire state and is doomed to substantially increase because CalPERS is increasingly underfunded — and was substantially underfunded even before our current economic woes. In fact, the only real solution to even taming that debt is to reduce the size of our full-time workforce — on which those pension obligations are based — and to not just cut un-pensioned, lower paid, part-time staff, as you are doing.

Council members need to ask themselves, "Do we really need five PR people on staff?" The answer is "No." "Do we really need five recruiters in our HR department, plus support staff?" Of course not. And we won't for the foreseeable future.

Did I really need five separate inspections from the city when I had a washer and non-draining dryer installed in the unit where I live? And have I just scratched the surface of the opportunities for cost-saving reform? Probably.

So I implore the City Council to start thinking about the big picture; work on reshaping the city to save us money, without curtailing services; hire a consultant to design a new organizational model; and please, take this opportunity to at least begin extricating the city from our enormous CalPERS debt. Thank you.

Mickie Winkler is a former Menlo Park mayor and one current frustrated Palo Alto resident. You can email her at mickie650@gmail.com.

Comments

Counterpoints
Community Center
on Jun 19, 2020 at 9:37 am
Counterpoints, Community Center
on Jun 19, 2020 at 9:37 am
6 people like this

While I agree the initial proposed city budget was not well aligned with residents interests and favored staff interests, I disagree with merging Fire or Police leadership with the county. Let's not forget that Santa Clara's Sheriff Department has had its shared of problems including planting evidence ( Web Link ) , 3 sheriff deputies found guilty of beating a prisoner to death ( Web Link ) , and corruption ( Web Link ) etc... The Santa Clara County Sheriff's leadership is focused on county, not the city of Palo Alto interests and will significantly reduce PAPD officer oversight at a time when we need more (not less) officer oversight.

Secondly, Palo Alto is fortunate to have our own ambulance service which reduces response time by half from 13 minutes to about 6 (approx). This is specifically designed to save the lives of heart attack victims and folks who have serious medical emergencies. I for one am grateful for this faster response time to medical emergencies. Again, local oversight is key to providing high quality local service. In era of increased wildfires in the foothills and the next big earthquake becoming overdue, let's not cut our fire department and suffer much more damage from an "unanticipated" fire.


Online Name
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 19, 2020 at 9:58 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 19, 2020 at 9:58 am
27 people like this

"Council members need to ask themselves, "Do we really need five PR people on staff?" The answer is "No." "Do we really need five recruiters in our HR department, plus support staff?" Of course not. And we won't for the foreseeable future."

Finally someone asking the right question. How many poorly paid part-time librarians were cut to preserve the costly PR staff, the huge staff in the city manager's office, etc etc etc. whose salaries all contribute to the massive unfunded pension liabilities.

And why is the CC even entertaining the thought of having PA ban the registration of gas-powered vehicles in Palo Alto when PA clearly doesn't have -- and hopefully won't have -- its very own DMV? How much does the "Office of Sustainability" cost us? They preach conservation and then raise our utility rates when because we conserved too much! They preach at US to get out of OUR cars while WE fund the commuting expenses of the commuters who've turned PA into an office park and keep the consultant$$$ busy.

This gravy train has got to stop.


Stepheny
Midtown
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:38 am
Stepheny , Midtown
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:38 am
9 people like this

Menlo Mayor Mickie makes many good points about Palo Alto's management under its present City Council and staff. As a Palo Alto resident, she voices what many people over many years have recommended -- consolidating police, fire and emergency services. We need to cut costs, especially in these times!

How many people does Palo Alto have on its City payroll for our a population of slightly over 72,000???


commonsense
Professorville
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:42 am
commonsense, Professorville
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:42 am
17 people like this

Great article and about time. However, timing would have been better to consider these things before starting construction on a new $60,000,000 police department (not to mention the other $10-$20,000,000 in cost overruns.) Better late than never!


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:45 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:45 am
2 people like this

I'll agree 23.6% with this opinion. I agree that clearly, -clearly-, the public safety unions are not advancing the public good. So, perhaps, we do need to outsource them. BUT, people should understand that whenever things get consolidated, and money is saved, service -always-, -always-, -always- gets worse. I've seen tons of consolidation in my career, and, it can save money. But, service always gets worse. So, sure, let's save some money, and, send a message to the public safety unions. BUT, don't complain when it takes 15 minutes for the police car or fire truck or ambulance to show up.

Alternatively, we could start parallel negotiations with the County, and, with the unions, -and-, with the non-union public-safety -managers-, and see if we can't get our costs back in line, and, get some -real- oversight in place, with either strategy. Including management costs. CPA has incredibly high management salaries.


Another Giveaway
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:53 am
Another Giveaway, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:53 am
27 people like this

Both the city staff and the pro-growth majority on council work for real-estate developers and wealthy commercial property owners.

You are not going anywhere in any profession related to planning, transportation, land-use, or politics, unless you have a powerful sugar daddy in the real-estate industry.


Consolidation vs. Focus
Community Center
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:59 am
Consolidation vs. Focus, Community Center
on Jun 19, 2020 at 10:59 am
4 people like this

It's extremely hard to find and hire police officers and now you want them to be fully trained as a firefighter? You want all firefighters to be fully trained as policemen and go through at least a year of POST training plus police academy? You'd have to pay more per person and add a couple of years of training. Isn't the problem we're trying to solve is the PAPD often either withholds or "loses" the body cam footage of excessive force so their officers aren't held accountable. Cross training police and fire will not solve the excessive force and racially biased policing issues but in fact defocuses away from the core issue. It's also not clear to me it saves money.


Online Name
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 19, 2020 at 11:09 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 19, 2020 at 11:09 am
12 people like this

Read Diana Diamond today who says much the same thing Web Link

especially her examples of the city's the city's continued failure to install the parking garages "space availability" signs and awarding multimillio-dollar contracts to former city employees regardless of their abilities:

"Take the intersection at Embarcadero Road and El Camino, which is routinely tied up with traffic and long delays because of an inept traffic light system. I've been ranting about that for 10 years. At that time, then Traffic Manager Jaime Rodriguez was working on it but there was no progress. He left to form his own company, which was awarded a city contract to work on it, but 12 years later still nothing has happened."

Comments from every candidate and city "management" these costly, non-productive failures would be special.


cmarg
Palo Alto High School
on Jun 19, 2020 at 1:20 pm
cmarg, Palo Alto High School
on Jun 19, 2020 at 1:20 pm
9 people like this

Someone needs to write something similar for the PAUSD School Board. Is the PAUSD School Board working for the community and students or self interests and decisions made from the superintendent and teachers union?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 1:31 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 1:31 pm
1 person likes this

Posted by cmarg, a resident of Palo Alto High School

>> Someone needs to write something similar for the PAUSD School Board. Is the PAUSD School Board working for the community and students or self interests and decisions made from the superintendent and teachers union?

Neither. It is pandering to vocal factions who want more and better rote learning and AP exams and whatnot, and, school administrators. Neither students nor classroom teachers are a priority.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 1:41 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2020 at 1:41 pm
21 people like this

I agree with so much of this and have said it here.

We have already lost the shuttle which is even more important as it was due to the shuttle that we lost VTA service.

Anything that makes quality of life and recreational issues for residents should be a priority as should infrastructure. Too many low priority things are given too high a priority such as banning gas cars and gas appliances, the cost of altering the residency requirement for Foothills Park (due to needing more money for rangers, maintenance, etc.) should be so low on the list that during these difficult financial times they are too expensive to consider.


Rose
Mayfield
on Jun 20, 2020 at 9:08 am
Rose, Mayfield
on Jun 20, 2020 at 9:08 am
1 person likes this

Thank you, Mickie, for your insightful and knowledgeable recommendations. I agree with you 100%.


Lawrason
Menlo Park
on Jun 20, 2020 at 9:58 am
Lawrason, Menlo Park
on Jun 20, 2020 at 9:58 am
2 people like this

As a former owner in PA and 20 year observer of MP and PA councils, I have to agree with Mayor Winkler. The 2 counterpoints in the chain are well meant, but outsourcing does NOT mean things get worse - read Winkler's examples and see the exact opposite.
San Carlos worked through its concerns with SM Sheriff and essentially got the same PD staff, patrols, response - just different admin. Win-win. As for difficulty in recruiting, the Sheriff and County Fire have no more trouble than a see-saw politics city.
PA needs to make these moves and quit pretending their pension debt will be paid off by a John Arrillaga, 'cause even he can't fix this one.


Totally Agree
Downtown North
on Jun 20, 2020 at 1:30 pm
Totally Agree, Downtown North
on Jun 20, 2020 at 1:30 pm
2 people like this

I totally agree with this article. We need to get rid of as many city employees that are covered by ridiculous Cal Pers pensions that allow them to retire at very young ages with millions of dollars worth of benefits. Further it is way past time to get rid of a fire department model where they sleep, eat and relax all while being paid. They live far away since they only work a couple of days a week and would never be available to help in an emergency.

I think a hybrid model where we have public officers who can be police/fire/community service people is the way to go. They can work shifts, be available as needed and hopefully won't develop the same combative mentality that can be seen in some of the police but will be focused on service. Let's get it done sooner rather than later and look for more opportunities to outsource to get out from under the pension rackets thumb.


senor blogger
Palo Verde
on Jun 20, 2020 at 4:41 pm
senor blogger, Palo Verde
on Jun 20, 2020 at 4:41 pm
4 people like this

Banning the registration of Gas vehicles in the most cockamamie idea that Paol Alto has come up with in the 43 years I have lived here. This is the kind of stuff that recall petitions are made of. I'd like the Council to step and state whose idea this was


Fred Balin
College Terrace
on Jun 20, 2020 at 9:53 pm
Fred Balin, College Terrace
on Jun 20, 2020 at 9:53 pm
7 people like this

Counterpoints (1st poster), is spot on, and in particular with regard to the quality of our EMS both in personnel and response time as compared to the county’s. Tomorrow (Sunday) mid-day, I will post an investigate article on PA Online with regard to the draconian cuts to PAFD coming before the city on Monday, for final approvals, and why it should concern you.


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