Rise of committees divides Palo Alto council | May 3, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 3, 2013

Rise of committees divides Palo Alto council

Some members think new committees are overstepping their authority

by Gennady Sheyner

When the Palo Alto City Council prepared to go into a closed-door meeting last week to discuss the future of Cubberley Community Center, neighborhood leaders and community activists weren't the only people to express shock and concern.

Some members of the council also seemed to have been caught off guard, a rare occurrence given that it's the council that normally decides how it should tackle issues. But on April 22, after several residents and community activists argued that the closed session should not take place on a subject of such public interest, council members themselves offered their agreement.

Councilwoman Karen Holman was one who sided with the speakers. She said a closed session at this time would be "premature" and argued that the city should first hold a public meeting. A public discussion, she said, would "speak better to transparency." Councilman Greg Schmid said he found it "striking" that the council was scheduled to hold a closed session. He said his understanding was that there was an agreement to hold a public discussion on the Cubberley report — "a promise to both the (Cubberley Community Advisory) Committee and the community for an open discussion."

Faced with pressure, the council voted unanimously, with Liz Kniss absent, to hold a public hearing on May 13 and a closed session on May 20. But while the discussion assuaged the community concerns for the time being, it left one questioned unanswered: How did this closed session that most council members didn't want to have end up on the council's agenda in the first place?

The idea came from the Cubberley Policy Advisory Committee, a group of three council members and two school board members who have met periodically to discuss Cubberley and to track the progress of the broader Cubberley Community Advisory Committee — 28 community stakeholders who worked for much of the past year on a voluminous study with recommendations on the future of the south Palo Alto community center. Councilman Larry Klein, who serves on the committee with Mayor Greg Scharff and Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, told the Weekly he and his colleagues felt they had enough information to go into negotiations and put it on the full council's agenda.

"I think the three members of the committee, Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd and I, felt that we're ready to move forward with negotiations," Klein said. "We got the report from the citizens committee, and we talked with the city attorney, who said this would be perfectly allowable under the Brown Act because we're talking about negotiations with lease terms."

The decision to schedule the meeting didn't sit well with his colleagues, some of whom told the Weekly in interviews this week that they believe the committee had overstepped its boundaries. Committees typically limit their input to issuing recommendations. The full council then considers the recommendation and issues a decision. In this case, members of a committee decided to alter what has so far been a highly inclusive process on Cubberley by scheduling the session without the council at large weighing in.

"The committees don't make the decisions; they make recommendations," Holman said. "There was not a decision by the full council to have a closed meeting."

Councilwoman Gail Price voiced a similar sentiment, saying the closed session on Cubberley caught people off guard because the process felt "a little bit of unorthodox."

"It was a situation where it just evolved and where there were no discussions about what was the appropriate response," Price said. "We never had a public discussion of next steps. I think that's a key issue."

Councilman Pat Burt was more blunt in his assessment.

"I think several of my colleagues not only disagreed whether there should be a closed session first, but we have misgivings about the process in which it got agendized," Burt said. "I certainly don't think it was a wise decision to simply agendize a closed session."

The Cubberley policy committee, which was formed last year and has just disbanded, is one of a crop of "ad hoc" council committees that have been popping up in Palo Alto in recent years. Earlier this year, the council formed the Infrastructure Committee, which has been meeting to discuss the potential infrastructure bond that would go on the November 2014 ballot. Next month, the new Technology and the Connected City Committee will meet for the first time, with the goal of implementing a citywide high-speed Internet system. Then there is the Rail Committee, which focuses on high-speed rail and Caltrain, and the drily but aptly named Regional Housing Mandate Committee, which has been debating and disputing housing mandates from the Association of Bay Area Governments.

Council committees are a longstanding part of Palo Alto's famously thorough democratic process, though the nature and the number of these committees have undergone gradual changes. The council's two "standing" committees, the Finance Committee and the Policy and Service Committee, are permanent and typically have no overlap in membership. This means that on a nine-member council, every council member except the mayor is assured a seat on one of these two committees. The mayor makes the appointments.

However, "ad hoc" committees typically have narrower scopes and finite shelf lives (though the Rail Committee and the Regional Housing Mandate Committee are both stretching the definition of "finite"). The Municipal Code empowers either the council or the mayor to set up what it calls "special committees," though it specifies that the mayor's committees are "subject to approval of the council." The council's protocols, however, don't require the mayor to get the council's approval before appointing an ad hoc committee, as long as the mayor publicly announces the committee, its membership and its stated purpose. The city manager is also required by the council procedures to prepare a report about the "anticipated time commitment for staff to assist the ad hoc committee" and allows the council to terminate such committees through a majority vote.

In practice, these committees have generally been informal affairs with more questions and back-and-forth exchanges than would be possible in a regular council meeting. Committees allow four council members to delve into an issue, ask questions of staff and then issue a recommendation to the council at large. When the committee recommendation is unanimous, the full council typically approves it on its "consent calendar" without discussion.

Klein, who has served on the council for much of the 1980s before returning to the council in 2007, said he does not recall a time where there have been so many committees. This growth, he said, is partly driven by an increasing number of outside forces that warrant the council's response — whether a high-speed rail system threatening to bisect the city along the railroad tracks or regional planning agencies demanding that Palo Alto plan for more housing.

Local issues are also a major factor. There are more demands today on council members, Klein said, than there have been in all the years he had served on the council.

"Our population isn't that much larger than it was 15 or 20 years ago, but we are in many ways a bigger place with much more demands," Klein said. "Lots more issues seem to arise from the things that we do."

The committees have value in that they "allow people to focus intensely on particular issues," Klein said. Council members have a chance to discuss things in a more leisurely setting and have staff on hand to answer questions.

If a growing number of local issues is one reason for the proliferation of committees, the style of Palo Alto's 2013 mayor is another one. Since taking helm in January, Scharff has been shredding the notion that a mayor's post is nominal or ceremonial. In this sense, he is a sharp contrast from the two mayors who preceded him. Sid Espinosa, the city's 2011 mayor, may best be remembered for his polished presence, smooth delivery and magical ability to appear at every ceremony. Yiaway Yeh, the 2012 mayor, was known for mild-mannered inclusiveness, love of compromise and devotion to community engagement.

Scharff, by contrast, is an aggressive pragmatist who has no qualms about setting big goals and shaking things up. He has added time estimates to each discussion of an agenda item and has been diligent about making sure meetings don't stretch until past midnight, a common practice in the past. He has also just created a committee (an act that is usually done by the council) to focus on technology and, through his power to make appointments, put his stamp on Palo Alto's other ad hoc committees.

While the council's tradition keeps the mayor from serving on the two standing committees, Scharff has been a consistent presence on the new ad hoc committees. He currently serves on the Regional Housing Mandate Committee, the Infrastructure Committee and the new Technology and the Connected City committee. He has also served on the Cubberley Policy Advisory Committee, taking over for Yeh after the latter concluded his term in December.

In an interview this week, Scharff praised committees as important tools for exploring issues.

"The committees allow the council to delve deep into issues that you can't deal with at council meetings," Scharff said. "You can go way into the weeds and get a strong understanding what the issues are and what the concerns are. That's a really useful and valuable tool to make policy."

Scharff isn't the only council member juggling a full load of committee assignments. In addition to appointing himself to every ad hoc committee except the Rail Committee, Scharff has also brought Klein and Shepherd along. Both serve with him on the Infrastructure Committee, with Marc Berman as the fourth member. The trio had also served together on the Cubberley Committee and will also serve together on the Technology committee, where Liz Kniss will round out the membership. The fact that Scharff, Klein and Shepherd are serving on just about every ad hoc committee and that four other council members aren't sitting on any of them has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the council.

"I think the committees should have broad participation and representation," Holman said in a recent interview, when asked about the membership overlap of committees.

Scharff said that he bases his appointment decisions on who expresses interest in serving. For the new technology commission, he said, only five people said they were willing to serve. But several council members said they had made a case that they should be included on the new ad hoc committees but were not selected. Holman, Schmid, Burt and Price all said they had such experiences, to various degrees.

Schmid, a former school board member who lives in south Palo Alto, said he made a case for serving on the Cubberley committee but was not chosen.

"There is a striking anomaly," Schmid told the Weekly. "There are two council members who were elected who reside south of Oregon (himself and Price). The population of the city is divided 50-50. But there are no members who live south of Oregon who are on any of the new committees."

Price also said she believes assignments should be dispersed among all council members.

"I think it's really, really important to be thoughtful about assignments and about opportunities," Price said. "I feel very strong about that."

Burt, who had served as mayor in 2010, said the composition of the committees is in many ways a reflection of the new mayor's style, which includes "making a lot of decisions unilaterally."

"The mayor is looked upon to do the best job he or she can in trying to be impartial," Burt said. "We all bring a certain amount of bias with us. We have individual perspectives and we don't expect perfection, but we expect mayors to really work and be really self-reflective about it.

"I think there needs to be some reconsideration about what's going on," he said.

Scharff's decision to unilaterally create the technology committee also didn't sit well with everyone. Burt said there were "legitimate questions about whether that was the best way to go about it" and said the committee's creation would have benefited from a public conversation. The council didn't discuss the committee's existence or its potential membership because it wasn't given the opportunity, Burt said.

"I think there was a reluctance to have that discussion after the mayor has already acted on his own," Burt said.

Committee memberships are particularly important these days given the magnitude of the issues being considered and the committees' growing autonomy. The Infrastructure Committee, for instance, is tasked with helping the council meet its deadline for placing a bond measure on the November 2014 ballot, a funding mechanism that could impact the city for decades. In its last two meetings, it has also discussed the proposed Jay Paul development for 395 Page Mill Road, which would bring 311,000 square feet of new commercial space to a site that is already built out to the maximum under the zoning regulations. In exchange, Jay Paul offered to build the city a new police building — the Holy Grail of city infrastructure needs.

Two meetings ago, the four-person committee had asked staff to come back with a new timeline for reviewing this proposal so that the review process would coincide with the drive toward a bond measure and the council would know whether the police building should be included on the measure. On April 16, the committee heard a report from staff about an expedited timeline that would limit reviews by the city's famously thorough Planning and Transportation Commission and Architectural Review Board to one formal meeting each and allow the council to vote on the project within a year — an effective sprint for a project this size when compared to other developments. (The new process also allows the architecture board to hold a "preliminary hearing" on the project in June, which doesn't allow a vote, and gives the planning commission a chance to discuss the Environmental Impact Report for the project in a September meeting.)

Committee members emphasized at the April 22 meeting that they aren't changing the process for the review, just making it faster. Klein made the same point in an interview this week, saying the committee didn't modify the schedule but just "squeezed it tighter," while keeping all the legally required steps in place.

"Two meetings (for the planning commission and the architectural board) is not required by anything in the ordinance. It's not essential. It's not in the code," Klein said.

But whether or not squeezing the schedule constitutes changing it, the committee's tacit endorsement of the new timeline (there was no vote) concerned several other council members, who told the Weekly they felt the committee had overstepped its authority in considering an expedited timeline without direction from the full council.

"I think there could've been other ways in which it could've been brought forward," Price said. "I know we're trying to be efficient by having ad hoc committees and all of that, but the fact is, if they felt there should be a modified schedule, that should've been a recommendation brought back to the full City Council for discussion.

"If it appears like, by fiat, we are changing the process, I don't think that's a good way to go."

Holman and Schmid made similar points, challenging Klein's stance that the discussion on a tightened schedule is a minor matter that did not need the full council's input. Holman said she was concerned that an expedited schedule would lead to a premature decision. The fact that the committee did not take a formal vote on the tightened schedule did not ease her concerns.

"Sometimes, by not making a decision or not rolling recommendation up to the council, we are making decisions because the calendar dictates them, or other actions and activities dictate them," Holman said. "I understand we have a 2014 election cycle we're trying to catch, but I'm a little concerned about rushing to judgment and having a premature decision on a public-safety building as part of a project that hasn't been fully vetted and viewed.

"Those are big decisions to be made," she added. "They're not committee-level decisions."

Burt suggested that the members of the Infrastructure Committee may be a little too enthusiastic about the Jay Paul proposal, which at 311,000 square feet is the largest commercial project in the city's current pile of development applications (in terms of floor area, is about 50 percent larger than John Arrillaga's proposed office towers for 27 University Ave.). Burt has argued that the Jay Paul development should be significantly reconsidered, keeping in mind the city's and community vision for the site. This could mean significantly reducing the proposed size, rather than negotiating minor adjustments, Burt said.

"We now have a process being driven by a few council members who I think may be too enamored with the public benefit of the project, and it's moving us in a direction that the community is going to be very upset about," Burt said. "Frankly, if we want to go to the community for infrastructure funding, I've been very concerned that we are alienating the community by continuing to consider proposed projects that are out of scale."

Burt said he wasn't aware that the council had delegated to the committee the power to change the process. The council, he said, "had not intended to defer to the committee to the degree that the committee is acting."

"I don't believe that subcommittee has the authority to request or direct staff to change the process of review to that project," Burt said. "Under our protocols, I don't see where that authority exists."

Schmid also took issue with the process for the Jay Paul application, which under the revised schedule would get to the council at the end of the year. He said he was "struck" by the scheduling change.

"The judgment of whether the council should or should not be involved in something is not the role or function of the committee," Schmid said. "The committee's role is to make recommendation on council action."

Scharff said the committee was simply trying to retain Jay Paul's proposal for a new police building as an option in the city's conversation about infrastructure by coordinating it with the process for the bond measure. If the infrastructure bond and the Jay Paul application aren't planned in a coordinated way, Scharff said, the city would lose the option of having a police building as a "public benefit" of the development.

"What we're trying to do is to make sure that the timing of the Jay Paul project makes the public-safety building a possibility as a public benefit."

Council members also expressed broader concerns about the recent proliferation of committees. Burt said that while they generally serve a valuable purpose, they should not be permanent unless absolutely necessary.

"I think we do need to continue to question the necessity of each of them," Burt said.

Price said committees serve an important role when they reflect the focus of the full council (this year's priorities include infrastructure and technology). But she said she has broader concerns about the impact the new groups have on staff's workload. She also said she feels strongly about the fact that participation and leadership roles on the new committees should be spread out among all nine council members.

"I think it's really, really important for the ad hoc committees to be mindful of what they're doing and what their responsibilities and roles are, and the fact that they should be vetting things and going forward with the council's direction," Price said.

Schmid took a similar position.

"The notion of committees is that the work of the council would be spread out in equal portion," Schmid said. "With these new committees, they certainly don't do that."


'I think there needs to be some reconsideration about what's going on.'

— Pat Burt, city councilman, Palo Alto

'Those are big decisions to be made. They're not committee-level decisions.'

— Karen Holman, city councilwoman, Palo Alto

'The notion of committees is that the work of the council would be spread out in equal portion. With these new committees, they certainly don't do that.'

— Greg Schmid city councilman, Palo Alto

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Innovative
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2013 at 7:44 pm

There is a reason there is a City Council - not a City Committee.
The citizens did not elect an/a (apparently self appointed) "committee".

The city hype culture around transparency has truly been "hype",
but isn't that why we have three City of Palo Public Relations managers for the city now?

Why would anyone expect "Son of Klein"to be a source of democracy?
Evidently the historical lessons learned are that you can dominate council... Scharff just hasn't learned to be subtle. He's only reflecting the arm of council he grew up on -

We'll decide, and we'll let you know.

Like this comment
Posted by South PA resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm

As a South Palo Alto resident I am very disappointed that no South Palo Alto Council members has been appointed to these newly formed Committees. Obviously our voices are not going to be heard or listened to.

We are returning to a former time when North Palo Alto representatives on City Council would dictate to South Palo Alto how their part of the City should be run, then make us pay for their inflated ideas.

South Palo Alto has one option and that is to vote "NO" to any proposed Infrastructure Bond Measure that may be placed on the ballot in 2014.

Greg Scharff wants to be a hands-on, controlling Mayor but he ignores South Palo Alto at his own risk.

Like this comment
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Ventura
on May 4, 2013 at 8:36 am

@ Wondering
Thanks for pointing out that Gregg Scharff is a real estate attorney. That explains why he wants to shortcut the planning process on the Jay Paul project and why he did not include any of the councilmembers with extensive planning experience (Burt,Holman - PA Planning and Transportation Commissioners and Price- Sunnyvale city planner) on his Infrastucture Committee that decided to shortcut the process without council review. I hope this article will serve as a wake up call to our mayor.

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