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City Council needs to be downsized and by district

Original post made by openspace, Palo Alto Hills, on Jul 24, 2007

Currently the City Council is not proportional in representation of the city of Palo Alto. If you locate each council member to the City Zoning map, there are 6 council members that represent Zones 1 ,4 and 5. Which means that these council members will pay more attention to what is going on Downtown Palo Alto and Stanford Area than the rest of Palo Alto. Lately council members have not been tackling issues fairly that are not within their own districts. Specifically the Fire Department issue sticks out as a sore thumb and shows that Council does not care for people who live in Zones 14, 15 and 16.

We need to downsize the council to 5 council members which will represent zones of Palo Alto. This would create a fairer representation of the City and ensure that the council members will represent their zones when enacting new city resolutions.

I would also argue for a four year term Mayor who could focus on issues like Fire Department, education and City Growth. The revolving one year term is not doing the job for city needs.

Looking at the Zone Map, I believe that the zoning for Council members should be
Council 1 = Zones 1, 4 and 5
Council 2 = Zones 2, 3 and 6
Council 3 = Zones 8, 9 and 7
Council 4 = Zones 10,11, 12 and 13
Council 5 = Zones 14, 15 and 16
Council 6 should be reserved for the Vice Mayor

Take a look at the Zone Map of Palo Alto and map out out each council members to see what areas they represent. You will see that it is disproportional. The same is true for those serving on other commission such as the Planning and Transportation.
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Comments (31)

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Posted by k
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 24, 2007 at 1:11 pm

I think this is a really interesting idea, especially since this city does have defined neighborhoods. Out of curiousity, do the above zones match how real estate agents/media like the Weekly determine neighborhoods?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Great idea although I did find the detailed map hard to work out with corresponding zones.

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Posted by Voter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 24, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Openspace, I agree Council representation needs changing. Given the fact that Council recently gave the Roth Building a further several hundred thousand to finish their dream of creating a Palo Alto Museum then balked at funding Fire Station 8 is despicable. Of course the Roth Building is in North Palo Alto, Fire Station 8 is out of site out of mind in the Hills.

Last year PAN looked into the possibility of reducing Council from 9 to 7 members. It would required changing the City Charter. Such a change would require 6,000 signatures on a ballot measure; without posting a petition on the internet - Good Luck.

I am opposed to a 4 years elected Mayor because if that Mayor turned out to be an ineffectual Mayor, you could not remove him/her from office for 4 years - you would be stuck with him/her. Also he/she would want a big fat salary.

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Posted by openspace
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 24, 2007 at 1:48 pm

Thank you for the comments. I had to google the charter to find what you were referring to. Indeed the charter states 9 council members. 6,000 signitures would be a challenge and too hard to do door to door. Internet could work.

After reviewing the charter, it could be structure to have council representation broken into 7 district which leave one for Vice Mayor and one for Mayor.

As for the four year term, yes, I understand sometimes we may end up with a bad apple for a mayor. But the one year term is not effective enough to manage Palo Alto because the dynamics will change every year when staff has to adjust to the quirks and personalities of the incoming mayor. And yes the high salary would be include which makes them accountable to the job when the one year mayor may not feel as accountable since they could feel like holding off the issue and let the next mayor deal with it the following year.

I also feel that the salary should be in the low one hundreds. Some city employees have very inflated salaries.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 24, 2007 at 2:13 pm

I've long advocated for fewer Council members, proportional representation, and an elected Mayor.

There is simply no better way to take our city forward - long-term.

Right now, Palo Alto still suffers from the congenital disease of 'optimal inclusion' - that must stop if we're going to forge our way through the many challenges that face us, and our region. We will either do this, or we will become a has-been on the Peninsula. A new kind of leadership is necessary.

Sure, we may elect a mayor who doesn't fulfill a mandate. I would rather face that than the constant, seemingly-never-ending circle of debate around key issues that take YEARS to resolve.

Also, when was the last time you heard of any city manager working to create efficiencies that would remove a substantial chuck of his/her management mandate - like combining municipal police and fire departments, either intra- or inter-city? Only a Mayor can make something like that happen.

The "strong city manager" model of government is beginning to wear thin. We need a strong mayor to balance that, because there is no way one cann guarantee a consistently strong Council that is focused on a single group of mandates. We cannot afford to shift mandates every two years; nor can we afford the titular mayorial mandates that interrupt operations every year as a new mayor is appointed. What's most disturbing about the appointed mayorial decision is that one has to be liked by ones peers to get the job; that's an environment that tamps down bold leadership.

Palo Alto had a governing structure that was optimal for the good times; that same structure is no longer optimal, because we need more creativity, innovation, and hard-nosed milestones in government.

California municipalities are about to become much more DIFFICULT to manage; we will either change our governance strtuctures to adapt, or we will wallow in whining about what could have been, or mire down in intra-city politicing led by the same old hobby horse politicos that have been crowding City Hall for the last 20 years.

Shrink the Council, pusue proportional representation, and elect a Mayor.

About salaries: City Council members should get 35% of PA median wage, minimum. Mayors should get PA median salary.

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Posted by Voter
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 24, 2007 at 3:03 pm

You'd make a great City Council person; I encourage you to take out papers and run for City Council and represent Palo Alto Hill. We need good thinkers like you.

Besides reducing Council from 9 to 7 and having district representation; members of our City Council have suggested doing away with term limits, how do you feel about that?

As for the Mayor's salary. It would have to be the highest salary in the City, larger than our Superintendent of Schools. No Mayor is going to settle for anything less!!

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Posted by Not Mike
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2007 at 3:08 pm

You'd make a great City Council person; I encourage you to take out papers and run for City Council and represent Palo Alto Hill. We need good thinkers like you.

This self-promotion is getting really funny. LOL!

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Posted by opensapce
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 24, 2007 at 3:33 pm

Voter and Not Mike

Thank you for the endorsements. I have entertained the notion of doing so but the amount of time and energy put into it does not equal the compensation received by council members. It takes a lot of time and effort that the city expects council members to put into it while they receive a pittance for the work provided. I do like Mike's suggestion that Council receive some sort of wage.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 24, 2007 at 3:41 pm

Voter, Why then do current City Council members and the appointed Mayor work for virtually nothing?

This is about community service, not having the hhighest salary in town. If that was an issue for any candidate, they shouldn't be in the political arena.

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Posted by Bill, on the corner
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2007 at 3:43 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by You get what you pay for
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 24, 2007 at 4:00 pm

> Voter, Why then do current City Council members and the appointed Mayor work for virtually nothing?

They dont.

-You get what you pay for.

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Posted by Bill, on the corner
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2007 at 4:23 pm

YGWYPF, I think the salary is between $400-600 per month. Around here, that's virtually nothing.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 24, 2007 at 5:26 pm

How does this break down by population? I think each district would need to represent roughly the same number of voters, or else there will be issues of equal representation.

Another issue that needs to be dealt with is are the "conflict of interest" rules. For example, with the current makeup of the council, I believe 3 - 4 members generally need to remove themselves from discussions involving Stanford, which makes it difficult to get the 5 votes needed to decide proactively on policy issues involving Stanford. Generally a council member needs to remove themselves from the discussion and voting if they live within a certain distance or if they have any financial interest of the issue. This could mean that the council member representing a district, may not be able to participate in an issue that is from their district.

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Posted by Bill, on the corner
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2007 at 5:46 pm

The rules have mostly to do with personal gain - something like not being able to vote on issues that are within 500 feet of your property (or business). District representation is happening all over America - San Francisco is one example.

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Posted by New Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2007 at 5:50 pm

I get the impression that most of the people who run for council positions are independently wealthy or beholden to the money in this town. Perhaps that's why North Palo Alto issues are always dealt with and the rest of this city doesn't get the representation it needs.

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Posted by Bill, on the corner
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 24, 2007 at 6:05 pm

It's not that Council members are wealthy, but those who work at it full time are enabled by circumstances to do so. This takes nothing away from their personal dedication and hard work for the city.

If we paid City Council members more than the nominal rate they're getting now, perhaps we would see more citizens try a run at Council.

Teachers, social workers, homemakers, etc. would have an opportunity to serve without taking an almost 100% hit on their income. Being a City Council mamber is a tough and often thankless job; we should, in any case, be compensating people more than they currently get for performing that job.

Also, I don't see City Council members necessarily beholden to money interests.

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Posted by Steve Chessin
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 24, 2007 at 8:04 pm

As a charter city, Palo Alto has a lot of options in terms of how
it organizes its city council. While geographic districts are
one option, they may not be the best option. One issue is that
districts have to be fairly equal in population (10% variance between
smallest and largest district); it isn't clear that
the grouping of zones suggested by openspace meet that criteria.

Another issue is that one has to draw district lines, and redraw them
every 10 years. Anyone who has observed this process in San Jose
or at the County or State level knows that this can become a very political and polarizing process.

A third issue is that geographic districts assume that geography
determines commonality of interest. While this may be true for
some people, it may not be true for others. You may have more in
common with someone who lives across town than with your next-door

A better option, mentioned by Mike, is proportional representation (PR). PR allows each voter to decide what characteristics of
representation matter to herself most, and vote accordingly.
One voter might decide that geographic representation is most
important, and vote for candidates that live nearby, while another
voter might decide a candidate across town represents her the best.
PR does the best job of balancing these competing interests, and
will produce a council that reflects practically all of Palo Alto, and not
just the dominant faction. (It is for these reasons that the City
of Davis recently voted in support of moving to a PR system.)

Of course, most people, and that would include most people in Palo Alto, know very little about PR systems. I give talks on the topic,
and would be happy to give a talk to any group that would like one.

In the meantime, if openspace and others are interested in changing
Palo Alto's method of electing its city council, they would be well
advised to follow what other communities have done, and ask the
City Council to appoint a Governance Task Force to explore the options.

--Steve Chessin
President, Californians for Electoral Reform

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Posted by Steve
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 24, 2007 at 9:17 pm

I am very supportive of trying to make the city council more representative, and I think a directly elected mayor has merits as well. However, I don't agree with your proposed plan. Why decrease the number of city Council members? That will just give us worse representation. There will be fewer city council members to service all the people of Palo Alto, all the diverse interests, all the needs of the community. In my experience, having lived in other places, too few representatives does not make for better democracy, it makes for representatives with too much on their plate and not enough time to deal with all the issues of the city.

One of the worst examples of too few representatives is the California State Senate, with only 40 districts representing 35 million people, over 800,000 people per district -- even larger than our congressional districts at over 600,000 people per district. They are the largest districts in any state legislative chamber in the United States. At least at the local level there's a chance of having local representatives that are more connected to "we the voters." But if you reduce it down to five city council members you'll be undermining our chance to do that. As long as you are cutting the number of city Council members, why only cut it to five? Why not three? Or why not one? What is your criteria for cutting from 16 to five? It seems you're approaching the problem with any meat cleaver, just hacking away. I think we can do better than that.

Also, you are misusing the term "proportional representation", your proposal will not lead to proportional representation. It leads to geographic-based, i.e. district representation, just like we have in the state assembly, the state Senate and the U. S. House of Representatives. Do you find representation in those bodies to be satisfactory? I sure don't.

I think Palo Alto should truly try a "proportional representation" method, like the kind that has been used in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over 60 years, and many other parts of the U.S. as well. Cambridge is a city much like Palo Alto, a kind of "town and gown" community with major universities like Harvard and MIT, so there are some similarities that bear examining to see if their method would do well here. To find out more about what proportional representation really is, go to Web Link and Web Link

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Posted by Veritas
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2007 at 10:28 pm

Clean government is not always the best government. Look at Chicago over the years, "the city that works" compared to many cities that do not. Palo Alto needs ward heel politics, a tad bit of old-fashioned graft, and some corruption here and there to "grease the skids". Ward heeling bosses would deliver the goods without the piety.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 25, 2007 at 12:18 am

Yipee! Good ideas. I agree that our ineffectiveness comes at least as much from structure as it does from the individuals filling the chairs. This is a great way to approach it.

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Posted by Uncle Vinnie
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 25, 2007 at 12:27 am

Your Chicago observation is right on. When you are in the garbage industry like we are, from time to time you need a go-to Councilman to get things straightened out. This has not been possible in Palo Alto in decades, if ever. Now Los Gatos is another story. Regarding representation, being a member of a good union is all that is necessary. When we show up in purple shirts, Council sees it our way nearly every time. If they don’t, five Council members or nine, it makes no difference to us. We know where you live, whether it is quadrant 4, 14 or 44. But seriously, if you look at that map and just elect representatives from odd numbers regions one time and from even numbers districts the next, then every third Council election, go back to the old way of picking people, that would be the fairest way. There would never again being a split between the NW and SE segments of our city, all six quadrants would be represented equally, Stanford would cast the deciding vote, and everyone would be happier for it.
I don’t think people appreciate all that Stanford has done for us. When they bought out the hospital from the city, for example, they paid top dollar and made a commitment to Palo Alto that your doctors could always use the hospital until 2004. Now with the bigger and better hospital coming (Twin Towers plus One), that rule will be ripped up and a new idea extending the commitment past 2004 to 2014 seems fair to all concerned. Do you agree, or would you rather we went back to the original agreement, then just extended it for $1 per year until you didn’t want to pay anymore, or a woman became president, would that be fair? Put my name in the hat should a ground swell develop to elect me Mayor for 4 years; I would prefer 8 with a six-figure salary, plus car allowance, and of course 4 weeks vacation, 10 days of personal time, every other Friday off, except when the city is on lock down, full medical in perpetuity for my pets, vesting of my retirement account the earlier of 1) age 52, 2) my 56th birthday after working for the city for at least 10 years, or as soon as my youngest child graduates high school, and I get keep the house and all the equity in it. When you study the fine print in my employment agreement, you will find no one on city council can criticize me in public or take my house away, even if I take another job in Lodi. I like that rule and the other one which says I cannot call on my cell phone when incarcerated, except during family emergencies which I have all the time or bake sales. Our union is four square behind the Promenade idea and think, with a little tweaking, it should be extended to every weekend, but to bring all the communities together in this, rotate cities; the first weekend per month in downtown Palo Alto, the second weekend in downtown Portola Valley, the third weekend downtown Woodside, and finally the Promenade would move to downtown Los Altos Hills. We like the idea of putting up and taking down barriers when overtime is double and triple; in Los Altos Hills, we could be on the job forever just trying to find their downtown. Maybe that is the reason they are trying to rent a park from us; they don’t have a park either. That’s the simple life. And I believe they only have 5 members on their council. They are on to something.

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Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 25, 2007 at 12:35 am

Rearranging the deck chairs

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 25, 2007 at 8:50 pm

Good, so Howard won't object to our changes!

On Proportional Rep - come on, anyone who has lived in Cambridge knows that they are hardly a model of effective city government. The Hare Proportional voting system used there requires an advanced degree just to figure out who won the election! I think it is misleading to say "many others" use the system - certainly not Hare. Let's keep it simple and just have tidy districts, forcing candidates to focus on small numbers of constituents and the ditch-digging issues of running a small city.

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Posted by For District Representation
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 1, 2007 at 11:43 am

I favor council representation by neighborhoods (districts). Neighborhood meetings with candidates would clarify what the voters want and give the candidates the opportunity to agree or disagree. If the elected representative did not support the voters, there would be a clear recall procedure in place. This system would help to get rid of the influence of outside money, inaccurate flyers, and inaccurate news articles.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 2, 2007 at 2:58 pm

While I value very much our neighborhoods in Palo Alto, having lived in 2 different ones, each with its own attractions, I am not sure that having council members elected by neighborhoods/districts will lead to more effective management of city affairs. I am open to reasons why, but I offer here some thoughts about what we do need in Palo Alto City Council members, which is not neighborhood based.

Skills needed include--environmental awareness, financial analytical capabilities, land use, water use and real estate experience, business development experience, legal and public policy background, involvement in Palo Alto community affairs, leadership qualities, inter alia.

If I were choosing to vote for people, I would vote for people who bring those types of skills and background to the table, without regard to where in town they live. Conversely, someone who lacks such background, but becomes part of the policy making body of Palo Alto merely because of where they live strikes me as a person who would not be effective in dealing with the lion's share of the city matters which come before City Council, which are not strictly speaking neighborhood issues.

I am not diminishing some of the concerns people who reside in certain parts of Palo Alto may have at the present time about certain decisions City Council makes. For me, it is a leap to conclude that neighborhood represntation on City Council will lead to those types of decisions being better decided, but does lead to a risk that highly qualified people who might get elected "at large," as we have today, would not serve our community because they happen to reside in an area where another candidate or an incumbent does, and some seats may get filled by people whose qualifications fall comparably short, they just happen to live in a part of town where they can get elected.

This is a pretty small city to be considering neighborhoods issues to be the prevailing matter that our City Council should base its membership on. My perception and decent understanding of the issues we face suggest to me that such an approach will be more of a disservice to the community than it would be an improvement.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2007 at 8:31 pm

Paul, you may be right. On the other hand, at-large representation tends to bring out "special interest" candidates who can pull together constituencies of enough like-minded people who would be a minority in in a geographically smaller district. Given the sometimes abstract issues that some of our Council members latch on to, it might be better to have less "skilled" people who are more rooted in the ditch-digging reality of their individual communities. I sometimes think "smarts" and "skills" are over-rated vs. just honesty, candor, and a commitment to getting things done - the Harry Truman approach to government.

What do you think?

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Posted by Where's the beef?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2007 at 10:20 pm

I think the solution to the problems on the council level have to do with the overwhelming influence of real estate and development interests. If electing by district would help with that, it would be worth considering, but I don't see how it could.
Some of our problems lie in the inadequate supervision of some departments (Utilities comes to mind of course, but it isn't the only one.)
Take a look at the thread on political contributions where the author lists some of the big money contributed to one council member after the election, after interest in contributions had gone away. It has always been obvious that they give the most money, but I hadn't realized they were so organized and so good at evading scrutiny. And of course, those are only the visible monetary donations.
Ask the author for more specifics, it is an eyeopener, at least for me.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 3, 2007 at 10:37 am


You describe potentially an equally pernicious type of candidate for local office, a special interest person, based on something other than neighborhood. I have little taste for either.

That said, I do think there is some value in having people on the Council who bring a certain amount of subject matter knowledge to the game. I am not sure that having people elected by districts in a city this size will assure us that we consistently optimize that sort of selection. For example, if a highly qualified candidate with expertise in water issues (of which we have many) emerged, but lived in an area with a good incumbent, and another fine person who has background in issues around business devleopment, wouldn't it be better to have all three of them serving on Council, than for only one to do so because they all are in the same District?

There have been a number of opinions expressed on various other threads about how we need to look at things more regionally right now, and my own experience on the Parks and Recreation Commission bears out that some of the issues we face in Palo Alto are in fact regional in nature, all cities have them, they cannot fully solve them at the cities level, and regional approaches can lead to better solutions for all. Moving toward a neighborhood model to me runs counter to what it will take to solve some of the issues we face in Palo Alto, which is another reason I am skeptical of taking such an approach.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2007 at 2:50 pm

Paul, of course following your path too far leads to one-world government ;-)

I agree, district-based candidates would not help ensure the candidates you like (smart, subject-matter-experts), though I'm not sure it would meaningfully prevent them. It would help ensure the kind of candidates I like (candid, down-to-earth, less inclined to BS since they answer to their neighbors).

Expertise is nice to have in elected representatives; incentives to do the right thing and gets things done is critical, in my humble opinion.


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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 3, 2007 at 3:23 pm


Common sense and above average intelligence are both terrific traits for local officials to have, no matter how the "districts" are organized. What I observe about getting things done is that what needs to get done is not strictly speaking neighborhood based, so I have a difficult time seeing a great deal of lasting utility in such a model, compared with what we have currently. I agree with you that such a model does not preclude capable people with appropriate backgrounds to be selected in neighborhood type districts, but I think the likelihood of getting the best candidates elected overall for this town comes from at large, not neighborhood, officeholder.

This is one of those things that can end up going around and around with not much that will add to an informed discussion. I pretty much have expressed my POV, others have a different one, so it goes.

On your "world government" point, having worked at the UN some years ago, I can assure you I do not advocate such a direction! But, I see first hand on really basic things like soccer and basketball teams that cannot find places to play that every city around here is dealing with the problem, and some of the way to address it (I could provide detail ad nauseum, but just accept the premise) is by cities banding together and dealing with some of the issues as a group/region. It is impossible to successfully fix some of the problems if each city works on its own--it has been going on that way for years and gotten worse, not better.

I can actually see a neighborhood based policy maker potentially being obstructionist on such a matter, based on what I hear, see and experience.

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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2007 at 4:11 pm

Happy to agree to disagree Paul! I'm not a big fan of what we have now (are you?) and tend to think just changing the people in the chairs won't change the outcome; but structural change might.

District representation doesn't equate to district myopia - but it does mean that I know who "my" rep is and who to yell at if I don't like something - and my rep knows too. Beside, districts would be multi-neighborhood and there wouldn't be very many (6?), so maybe less parochial than you think. Plus a real elected mayor!

As you say, we disagree - I put my bet on tight accountability, not so much smarts and understanding "the big picture."


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