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An Alternative View: Why a gag order for Palo Alto city commissioners?

Original post made on Oct 23, 2020

In a proposed new handbook for Palo Alto's boards and commissions, one recommendation states that these council appointees should avoid talking to the press. That would certainly ensure less transparency in the city.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, October 23, 2020, 6:55 AM

Comments (8)

14 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 23, 2020 at 9:14 am

Online Name is a registered user.

I don't get why Mr. Shikada didn't go after Adrian Fine -- a city council member, not a commissioner -- who was repeatedly and publicly chastised for speaking for the entire city, using city letterhead etc. when in fact he was only speaking for himself, a city councilman "elected" mayor by his other council members.

Given the pro-development majority on the city council who kept appointing other pro-development commissioners is it any wonder that those opposed to that pro-density agenda were speaking out? Shame on this anti-democratic move to silence those opposed.

2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 23, 2020 at 9:21 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Do not let the tiny tip of the tail wag the dog.

A commissioner who behaves well outside established norms will be both ineffective and self defeating.

Ignore the aberrant individual and inspire everyone else with trust and confidence.

Peter Carpenter
Former Palo Alto Planning Commissioner
15+ years as a Director of Menlo Park Fire Protection District

4 people like this
Posted by Mark Michael
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 23, 2020 at 9:22 am

Mark Michael is a registered user.

As a former commissioner, I have been curious about the proposed new handbook.

Given that boards and commissions are chartered to provide recommendations and advice to council, yet council appears generally not to derive much value from such work, I asked a former mayor why commissions are not allowed to directly communicate to council? The commission chair doesn't speak to council on its recommendation, nor does the commission provide its own written statement. Instead, a staff report may include a brief recap of deliberations at the board or commission meeting. The mayor's answer:

"The city manager runs the city, not council members ... Each item prepared for council consideration is part of the city manager's work plan ... So, commission work fits into this as a "first take" ... Each staff report represents an area where the administration of city business is incomplete or in conflict with existing policy ... This is why it's not permitted for council members to work directly with [commissions] prior to the preparation of the staff report."

Your column correctly notes that issues such as journalistic access to board and commission members, grounds for removal of an appointed volunteer, orientation and training for new commissioners, and meeting protocols are all important. Underlying these concerns is the question why a resident might volunteer to devote hundreds of hours to public service? Namely, whether such work could make a difference.

Dysfunction in the city's governance is the responsibility of the council. Handcuffing or muzzling commissioners sidesteps the possibility that the potential delegation of work and collaboration with engaged and expert boards and commissions may be hindered by a flawed process which vests a monopoly of control in staff. Indeed, Palo Alto's failure to adopt best practices for utilization of volunteer talent on boards and commissions may result in financial waste and abuse!

The proposed handbook should not be the end of this conversation. Council should not approve it next week. Instead, council should engage with each board and commission over the next year in a conversation to identify how each body may provide useful recommendations and advice to council -- directly.

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Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2020 at 10:16 am

Me 2 is a registered user.

That's all the new proposed rules are? All this noise about a "gag order" is completely over-blown. These guidelines are less strict than you get from working at a company.

As for what goes on in these commissions, aren't these meetings open to the public?

Regarding reporter access, I assume if you're a good journalist, you can cultivate sources to get what you want to find out anyway, regardless of such rules.

What's interesting is there's a lot of noise about staff and city manager control. Apparently we have our version of the Deep State running Palo Alto. Makes it more plausible about one in our federal government.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 23, 2020 at 10:52 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"Regarding reporter access, I assume if you're a good journalist, you can cultivate sources to get what you want to find out anyway, regardless of such rules."

Over the years, I've written to various journalists about various issues wanting to know what's being done, when they're going to cover them etc. and I've been told that city employees and dept. heads had been specifically instructed NOT to respond to media inquiries. At all. Were a lower-level employee to respond when the boss had been gagged it would still be obvious from whence the "leak" came.

The gag order(s) are anti-democratic; it's not like we don't spend enough on pr / communications for the city to explain its side like it does on those rare occasions that its performance failures are surfaced.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Oct 23, 2020 at 5:07 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

14 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2020 at 5:47 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

In February of 2015 a member of the Architectural Review Board resigned after video showed her removing a clay pot from a neighbor’s porch.

In July of 2017 Planning Commissioner Michael Alcheck, without filing an application or receiving a permit, [portion removed] converted a carport to a garage on his residential property and also as part of an investment group on an adjacent property. He did not resign.

(See Chapter 4, pages 39-49 at Web Link )

Councilmembers: decide on your process, move him off, or explain why this behavior is acceptable from someone responsible as a commissioner for applying your zoning code laws to project applications.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 25, 2020 at 11:43 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Many of the issues regarding housing and capital improvements involve a large amount of investment. A lot of investigation has to be done to prepare a position and justify the expenditure of funds. The last thing anyone needs at that point is a PACC member / Commissioner trying to exert control over the development of the project until all of the facts are in.

We have pro-development and anti-development staff/PACC members and industrialist pushing their projects. We have finance people who have to look at what type of funds will be required. We have a city manager who is suppose to be keeping the herd moving on these projects. We have an attorney who is suppose to be keeping an eye on these projects so that they are within the legal criteria of the city charter.

People who "leak" information during the formative process could interfere with the process and add complications that just add more time and energy to respond to. Better to let the teams polish their projects for presentation - then go through the public discourse.

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