While the details of the Town Hall program — including the dates of each meeting and the specific neighborhoods that they would target — remain to be hashed out, the council unanimously endorsed the concept on Monday as part of its approval of staff's proposed work plan for the rest of the year.
The Town Hall program is expected to consist of about four meetings, with the first likely taking place in May. The format will be informal, with council members and neighborhood leaders making brief presentations followed by questions from the audience. According to a memo from City Manager Ed Shikada, the meetings will be held at "city-owned, school district-owned or community partner (i.e., Elks Lodge/churches) locations."
On Monday, the Town Hall proposal received a mixed reaction from neighborhood leaders, who lauded the goals of the program but questioned some of the details. The umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), which includes representatives from various neighborhood groups, issued a memo that recommended numerous modifications, including later start times to accommodate working residents; neighborhood groupings based on common issues rather than the number of households; and a "hybrid" format that allows some residents to participate remotely.
Sheri Furman and Becky Sanders, co-chairs of PAN, also suggested in a letter that city leaders work with neighborhood leaders to facilitate the meetings to avoid "the appearance of the city controlling the agenda."
Annette Glanckopf Ashton, a Midtown neighborhood leader, also suggested that each town hall be co-sponsored by the city and neighborhood leaders and not focused solely on the council's preferred issues. She concurred with PAN leaders about deferring to neighborhood groups in determining how the Town Hall meetings would be spread out.
"There is a concern that the neighborhoods that you have selected are real estate selections and are not the real neighborhoods that the neighborhoods themselves believe in," she said.
Council members generally concurred with the PAN suggestions. Council member Greer Stone said he agreed with staff's intent in launching the town hall program but suggested that the meetings should be structured in a way to facilitate "meaningful engagement" with residents rather than merely advance city goals.
"The expectation from council as well as the community is that this needs to be true community engagement and not simply just checking a box off," Stone said. "It seems to me that many in the community and many of our neighborhood leaders are feeling that way."
Mayor Pat Burt recalled a similar town hall program that the city launched in 2015, which focused on neighborhood issues rather than city initiatives. The new program should have a similar focus, he said. He also advocated for proactively reaching out to residents in apartment complexes, who have traditionally been underrepresented.
"This is a good opportunity for many of these neighborhood groups to look at multifamily dwellings and really neighborhoods that are adjacent to what they think of as essentially single-family neighborhoods," Burt said.
Council member Tom DuBois also urged the city not to schedule meetings in September and October, which he said is too close to the election.
"We should avoid having this become political forums," DuBois said. "It would be very tempting and impossible to avoid."
In voting to approve the town hall initiative, the council also approved staff's ambitious work plan, which consists of 42 separate projects in the four priority areas.
* In the economic realm, these include coming up with improved designs for portions of California Avenue and downtown's Ramona Street that were closed to cars during the pandemic; expanding the city's fiber-optic utility; and pursuing a citywide economic development study.
* On housing, the city's projects include expanding the relocation assistance program for local renters; passing a citywide "safe parking" program for residents who live in vehicles in church parking lots; completing the new Housing Element plan; and creating a master plan for building housing downtown.
* The community health and safety priority includes a wide range of programs, including hiring more police officers, updating the city's tree ordinance and planning for redevelopment of the city-owned portion of Cubberley Community Center.
* On climate change, city staff members plan to focus much of their energy on electrification: the conversion of local homes and businesses from gas appliances to electric ones. Other projects that fall into this category include planning for a purified-water facility in partnership with Valley Water, installing smart meters and upgrading the city's electric grid to support the electrification effort, a critical component of Palo Alto's plan to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2030.
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