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Politics loom large as Palo Alto reforms commission system

Original post made on Dec 1, 2020

After more than a year of debate, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to adopt a new set of rules for the city's boards and commissions. Members clashed, however, over whether one of the key new rules should apply to them.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, December 1, 2020, 1:19 AM

Comments (14)

54 people like this
Posted by Bad Governance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2020 at 6:25 am

Bad Governance is a registered user.

Alison Cormack thinks council adopting the boards and commissions handbook is “good housekeeping”.

I think her voting for lame ducks to interview commission candidates is trashing the house, breaking the windows and kicking the cat.

There was no good justification offered by her, Tanaka, Kniss or Fine for doing this. It was political “getting away with it” at its most raw, with good governance of no concern.

Fine and Kniss (she still with multi-FPPC campaign violation cases under investigation) are lame ducks, and Tanaka is in his last term - so none feel any accountability for their actions.

But “Good Housekeeper” Cormack can and should be held accountable when she asks for your vote in 2022 for another term on council.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 1, 2020 at 8:48 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

At least the CC meeting last night was more civil. Because every one has played their cards for now and will get dealt a new hand next year. The topic of how many people on a commission and and how long they get to be on that commission was interesting. The people on commissions get to have a longer position on topic than the actual PACC members and city staff. That is a concern. WE have people anchored in commission positions which are critical to the running of the city. That means that we now have to get a lot of data as to who is on the commissions, what their "story" is, and what agenda they are pushing. It is going to be hard to keep the herd moving here. Will need a lot of herding dogs to keep it all going in the right direction.

21 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 1, 2020 at 9:51 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

The outgoing council has the opporunity to choose its Golden Rule.

Treating others as you want to be treated.
Follow the gold.

15 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 1, 2020 at 9:51 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

The PTC's role is mostly advisory. If the lame-duck Council appoints a PTC that's out-of-step with the incoming Council, will the PTC just become irrelevant?

7 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 1, 2020 at 12:13 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

WE can already suspect who some of the Commission "movers and shakers" will be - the ones that lost in the PACC voting competition. They have already spun their stories and fully chastised the existing PACC for being lame - or not Woke.

Note to reader - being WOKE is not a qualification for a job - it does not mean that you actually have any job experience - except being an activist. And an Activist can be supported and paid for by any number of groups. The Taxpayer is also an Activist group - and we are bigger than any one group out there. Note to PACC we are the biggest activist group and we let you know how this show is going.

So we need to pay attention to who the commissioners are, what their positions were in the political fray with their continual newspaper and on-line postings. That was then - this is now - and they lost because they did not support the bulk of opinion of the taxpayer residents. So pay attention - if you did not sell an idea in the political fray then don't count on any support when you keep on pushing a rock up a hill. There is a name for that.

13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2020 at 1:18 pm

Resident is a registered user.

> The PTC's role is mostly advisory. If the lame-duck Council appoints
> a PTC that's out-of-step with the incoming Council, will the PTC just
> become irrelevant?

That’s how it was when Pat Burt was mayor. The outgoing council had appointed a nutcase PTC, so Burt's council did its own work. This is Fine being petulant, and Kniss just being petty; there’s nothing here for the community. Why Cormack lets herself be part of it is unfathomable.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Dec 1, 2020 at 1:33 pm

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

8 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 1, 2020 at 1:33 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

McCormack - comment last night from the former Mayor of PA and head of the Tuolumne River Trust - she voted against them in a recent event - did not support their programs. That is where our water comes from.

Does she think this stuff up herself? I do not see her as very knowledgeable on that topic. Is she taking direction from someone? Trying to direct traffic for some other entity? She made some comment about meetings with legislative types. She is working her position.

A new card game coming up, new players. Deal them up! Let's keep track of how the chips are played. The biggest activist is the taxpayer who has the money on the table. The Taxpayer is the House. The House keeps track of the players. And the monopoly board.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Dec 1, 2020 at 1:34 pm

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

15 people like this
Posted by jc
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 1, 2020 at 1:49 pm

jc is a registered user.

during last night’s council meeting the usual majority block consisting of Kniss, Cormack, Tanaka, and Fine, voted to ignore the recommendations they were themselves advancing to allow new councils to appoint vacancies on the commission.

This is unfortunate given how many commission appointees during the last decade have been politized by similar majority block council members whose main goal appears to be to advance the special interests of their many large campaign donors, despite how they (mis)presented themselves to voters to get (re)elected.

Politiized ed to the point where the majority of council members have been willing to vote for appointees who are not only unfamiliar with Palo Alto but too often know next to nothing about this area of expertise. Which make them pretty useless during their first year or two on the commission. In particular, slowing down meetings with their basic (ignorant) questions demonstrating what a steep learning curve they have before being before able to make any meaningful contributions. Outside, that is, of advancing the agendas of those majorities on the council who voted to appointment them to the commission.

However, looking on the bright side, this will certainly be a campaign issue should Cormack seek reelection since her vote clarifies whose interests she is representing on council.

24 people like this
Posted by jc
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 1, 2020 at 1:57 pm

jc is a registered user.

"Meanwhile, the two council members who will be departing this year — Kniss and Fine — happen to be the council's two most consistent proponents of growth, particularly when it comes to housing."

If you look at how Kniss and Fine have voted while on the council, they have been consistent proponents of growth, most particularly when it comes to office development and lip service for below market rate housing.

19 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 1, 2020 at 5:02 pm

John is a registered user.

Given the recent (paraphrased) statements of Fine and Kniss - FINE: "People over 40 don't get it", and KNISS: "What traffic problem?" - they are beyond shame or redemption. At best we can celebrate that they are leaving the Council. Tanaka will be termed out of the next election but it will be our duty to remember the role our "Good housekeeper" Cormack played in this pure power play.

3 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Dec 2, 2020 at 10:28 am

Dave is a registered user.

In my mind there is a third camp in Palo Alto besides the residentialists and the pro-growth camp. In my mind there is really pro-growth-more-housing and pro-growth-office-space-and-hotels. To lump them together is dead wrong. We need more housing while we have a glut of office and hotel space. Why lump them together?

6 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 6, 2020 at 10:05 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

The article focuses primarily on the disconnect between the City Boards, Commissions, and Committees (BCC) Handbook schedule for appointments (spring) and the council's 4-3 decision to fill upcoming vacancies prior to the end of this year, which was re-argued in an agenda item prior to later discussion of other sections in the latest revision of the handbook. Consequently or due to time constraints, some important additions to the handbook were not mentioned. Two are taken up here together with some background and commentary:

1. Release of Staff Reports Seven Days in Advance of a BCC Meeting

The legal requirement under the the Brown Act is for agendas for public meetings to be released 72 hours prior to a hearing. The city, as long as I can remember and at least in regards to the commissions and boards I have followed most closely, have included staff reports together with their agenda by the 72-hour deadline.

As late as early 2012, the city council packets (i.e., agendas plus staff reports) were released the Thursday afternoon prior to a council meeting (i.e., 4 days prior). As part of a multi-faceted public effort for increased transparency and ability to more adequately prepare for council meetings, City Manager James Keene first increased the council packet window by one day, with a much wider window to come, pending implementation of a new agenda management system. That started in 2014, resulting in an increase in the packet-release-to-council-meeting window to the current 10 days (i.e., release is Thursday, two weekends before the council meeting). This brought Palo Alto up to par with one of the elements implemented in San Jose as a result of their Sunshine Reform Task Force.

This extended period of access applied only to the city council packets and not to those of BCCs. Council Member Lydia Kou made a motion for that same window to be included in the handbook. Some council members expressed reservations, but when Kou reduced the request to 7 days, it passed with an unlikely coalition (Greg Tanaka seconding the motion, and Liz Kniss and Tom Dubois also approving).

If implemented as approved, it will yield a significant increase in preparation time for the public as well as BCC members.

2. For Quasi-Judicial Hearings, a Stronger Prohibition on Communications Outside of a Public Hearing Will Go into Effect.

This would revert Planning & Transportation Commission (PTC) policy to what it was between 2005 and 2010 and also apply to the Architectural Review Board (ARB).

The specific wording in the handbook’s approved revision is as follows:
"Quasi-Judicial Hearings: Communications with an applicant or any member of the public is strongly discouraged beginning from the time an application has been submitted and until final decision is reached. If any communication does occur, it must be fully disclosed."

The adjective “strongly” as well the time period covered (from application submission to final decision) are crucial elements of this very significant change.

In brief, a quasi-judicial hearing is one in which an exception to current code is requested. This would include land use applications for Planned Community (PC) zoning, variance, design enhancement exceptions, appeals, conditional use permits, and other items.

In or around 2005, Karen Holman, then on the PTC, gained the support of other commissioners, including Pat Burt, Phyllis Cassel and Lee Lippert for such a policy. Commissioners would not speak with applicants or members of the public in regard to a quasi-judicial matter, an item in which they would, in effect, be acting as judges. All communications related to these items would be handled completely in public. The norm held, and the policy helped elevate trust in the work of the commission.

But some applicants did not like it and were quite disrespectful to the commission, most notably during and/or after the Alma Plaza and College Terrace Centre (“JJ&F Block") PC hearings (2005, 2009). Possibly and not by coincidence, in both cases the PTC did not recommend initiation of the PC application. (Each decision was subsequently appealed directly to the city council.) Web Link

At the time, the council did not have such a restrictive policy, and some commissioners believed that applicants were talking to council members before or while the quasi-judicial application was in front of the PTC, and therefore, what was the point of their work if developers were engaged, at the same time, in working around them? Three commissioners raised this matter in a colleagues memo in October, 2009.

The concern had influence beyond the commission as the City Council's Policy & Services sub-committee took up the matter and recommended revising the council's protocols restricting any non-public communications on a quasi-judicial matter until after the PTC completed its work (i.e., its recommendation to the council).

But the commissioners behind the PTC colleagues memo wanted more, i.e., to have the same unlimited access to developers and the public as the council had. And so, like two ships passing in the night, in December 2010, days after the Council's Policy and Services sub-committee made its recommendation to the full council, the PTC changed its protocols by voting 4-3 to loosen its restrictions. Web Link

A year later, in January 2012, the PTC set aside time to review and discuss the impact of the new policy.

It was the first meeting for new Commissioner Mark Michael. Here are some of his initial remarks on this matter:

"I received a very warm and gracious communication from a resident of the City of Palo Alto last Thursday congratulating me for joining the Commission and thanking me for my work in IBRC [the city’s Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission] and also asking if he could tell me about his favorite project over a cup of coffee and he wanted to meet with me alone and have this conversation. I was impressed at the election of the new Mayor [Yiaway Yeh], the testimonials that said what’s good about Palo Alto is elected officials’ return calls from constituents. So I responded to the email and also in the email was, we apparently were members of the same college class at Stanford although I had no recollection whatsoever of ever having encountered this gentleman and wouldn’t recognize him on the street if I saw him and vice versa I’m sure. But I said I don’t have any objections to sharing memories of life on the farm and having a cup of coffee but I wanted to check with [the] City Attorney to see if there’s any ethical guidelines that affect my behavior and just then the packet arrived for this meeting and I noted what was on the agenda and low and behold there was a quasi-judicial item and there was also this whole history of discussion on the policy of ex-parte communications for quasi-judicial matters so I thought wow, this is really interesting, I better get studying up on this and so in the course between now and last Thursday there have been seven emails back and forth between me and this very engaged resident and one of which copied council member Klein, Deputy City Manager Emslie, Director Williams and others and that was one that asserted that he had had over 200 ex-parte communications with members of the City Council and members of the Planning Commission and encouraged me to meet him for a cup of coffee."

Later, Commissioner Eduardo Martinez spoke. He had two years on the PTC under his belt, had opposed the proposed policy change each year, but once it was approved, he accepted it and dove in. He said:

"I fully embraced it and I probably more than any other Commissioner, mostly because of my nature but when somebody asked to meet with me I readily accepted this. There was one occasion when our packets hadn’t been passed out and I asked that we wait until this was done so I could become familiar with their project. The difference between what we read in our packet and what’s presented in the field is like night and day because it’s rational, it sort of follows a line of why the project is good for the city and why it makes sense for this particular site. In the field it’s a sales pitch. Its ratcheted up to everything from I have a right to do this, to the City is going to make a ton of money in taxes, to its way better than what is here now, and aren’t you pro-growth, and a lot of arguments that you wouldn’t make in writing, and so the dynamics of this ex-parte meetings versus not doing it is very different and we had to really walk a very careful line of which I have to say was not the easiest thing to do.”

This PTC policy change has remained as is over the past decade, and despite the intent of the PTC colleagues memo and subsequent discussion to mitigate the impact of such meetings via various mechanisms, the long-time, terse, commission/board round-the-dais statement at a quasi-judicial hearing is almost always: (possibly) disclose, and if so, state that nothing was learned that is not in the staff report. This does not cut it.

Applicants as well as some members of the public may miss their ex-parte discussions; PTC and ARB will be freed of the stream of communications looking to sell and probe under the guise of informing; and the handbook’s change in policy will greatly increase transparency and confidence in the PTC and ARB.

There is much other welcome material in the handbook. It benefits from early surveys and other input, examples from other municipalities, staff support, revision followed by written and stated comments from the public, council members-elect, and once again BCC members present and past. The final product is a well-thought out set of requirements, expectations, responsibilities and guidance, all nurtured by the ad hoc committee, initiated by last year’s mayor, and unanimously endorsed by the current council.

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