Will new council members shift Palo Alto's priorities? | January 6, 2017 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 6, 2017

Will new council members shift Palo Alto's priorities?

In addition to housing and traffic, some say council should focus on finances, airplane noise

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto's new City Council meets in late January to set its priorities for the 2017, housing and transportation will inevitably top the list, as they have in each of the past three years.

But with three new members now on the council — Adrian Fine, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka — the annual retreat may also feature a few wild cards for City Hall's annual agenda. Should the council, for instance, "increase City revenue by 50 percent without new tax increases," as Tanaka has proposed? Or should it devote significant energy this year to make sure Palo Alto is a "smart, efficient, experimental city," as Fine wrote in his recent survey?

It's not just the newly elected members who are proposing fresh ideas for the council's annual priorities, which are defined as topics that will receive "particular, unusual and significant attention during the year." Councilman Cory Wolbach listed housing and transportation as his two top priorities but then added a third: human and civil rights. And Councilwoman Karen Holman made a pitch for "living up to City promises," which she noted refers to code enforcement, traffic and noise violations, collection of appropriate fines and making sure developments meet their conditions of approval.

Some council members played it relatively safe and signaled their intent to stay the course from 2016, when the four priorities were the built environment (housing and parking, with a particular emphasis on mobility), infrastructure, "healthy city, healthy community," and completion of the Comprehensive Plan update. Newly elected Councilwoman Lydia Kou, for instance, is recommending retaining three of the 2016 priorities (all save the Comprehensive Plan). Councilman Eric Filseth has offered the same list, with one additional item: "long-term financial stability."

Other council members are proposing something completely different. In addition to the revenue increase (from sources to be determined), Tanaka is also suggesting adopting as a priority the placement of Caltrain tracks underground, a project that the council has been discussing for more than five years and that is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

Under the council's priority-setting guidelines, each member is asked to submit up to three top issues. The council adopts no more than three at its annual retreat (this year scheduled for Jan. 28), and each priority has a three-year time limit.

In practice, all of these guidelines are routinely ignored, as the 2016 list of four rather than three priorities makes clear. This year, four of the nine members of the new council submitted longer lists (Liz Kniss' includes seven items; Greg Scharff's has five; Holman's and Filseth's have four), some featuring items that would inevitably require many years to accomplish.

One 2016 priority that may or may not remain on the docket is completion of the update to the Comprehensive Plan, the land-use bible that has been stuck in revision mode for close to a decade. For at least two council members — Scharff and Kniss — getting the revision done remains a high priority. Others have omitted it from the list and shifted their focus to items that are either more concrete or more intractable and City Hall-focused.

Both Tom DuBois and Holman, for example, have proposed setting a "long-term staffing strategy" as a 2017 priority. For DuBois, this includes "hiring, retention, pension and benefits and leveraging technology to increase efficiency." For Holman, it also includes "focused resource needs" and "sustainable funding mechanisms."

The most extensive and specific list of priorities came from Kniss, who has proposed approving at least one affordable-housing project, building the proposed "iconic" bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, and determining the future of Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto. Kniss also proposed partnering with schools (though it's not clear what form the partnership would take and what objective it would aim to achieve), and pursuing a new study for separating roads from the train tracks along the rail corridor.

These wild cards notwithstanding, the survey of the council indicates that the new priority list may have a familiar feel. Last year's "built environment" priority received nine mentions, according to staff, and is likely to stay. The "healthy city" and the Comprehensive Plan issues each received four votes. No other priority had more than one.

Residents, meanwhile, have their own ideas. While housing and traffic remain near and dear to many hearts, dozens used the social-media site Nextdoor and the city's Open City Hall forum to request that the council include "airplane noise" on its priority list for 2017. One resident on the forum called jet noise "unbearable," while others called it "terrible," "harmful," "excruciating" and a "hijacking of our skies by the FAA."

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


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