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Where is the conscience of our city?

Original post made on Aug 16, 2007

State Senator Joe Simitian, while serving on the Palo Alto City Council in the 1990s, once referred to the Human Relations Commission as "the conscience of our city."

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, August 15, 2007, 12:00 AM

Comments (17)

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Posted by observer
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 16, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Great article! Good advise. I think I'll take it. Thanks for writing a thoughtful piece on how to play with others.

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Posted by Civic Responsibility
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2007 at 5:48 pm

"One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards" - - Oscar Wilde

Although Ms. Mora writes touchingly, from the heart, and her piece is contrite, I maintain strong doubts about whether Palo Alto requires a full-time human relations commission.

I would also question whether the conscience of our city contains heady amounts of guilt. What does Ms. Mora mean by that?

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Posted by older parent
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2007 at 8:40 pm

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” - Aristotle
I'm liking the call for consideration and for reflection. If the HRC is asking us to reflect, I'm all for it.

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Posted by Diana
a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2007 at 9:54 pm

I don't speak for the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, but as a strong PPJC supporter who was offended and angered by Mr. Blum's column, I personally accept Ms. Mora's apology. And I thank her for such a compassionate, well-thought-out and well-stated message to the community. With so much finger-pointing, unwillingness to accept responsibility, and bellicosity confronting us these days, this column is a breath of fresh air. Thank you Ms. Mora.

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Posted by Boaz
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Aug 17, 2007 at 8:31 am

No apology was due to PPJC--on the contrary they owe us am apology for years of one-sided, biased Israel bashing. Shame on them and shame on those that support them.

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Posted by No Thanks
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 17, 2007 at 8:32 am

It's all to self-serving.

Off with their heads.

And that goes double if the HRC is costing the city one thin dime.

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Posted by Civic Responsibility
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 11:00 am

older parent, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” - Aristotle"

Then why not consider dismantling the HR commission?

The problem is that questions of an ethical nature - coming from a tacit, subjective place - should not necessarily be contrived by an appointed commission.

Why don't we have an ombudsman here? Why do we need to appoint a group of individuals (who hhave personal agendas of their own, no matter how well-meaning) to help us define our conscience? I'm all for reflection and coming together, but don't feel that our community needs a commission to tell us how to do that.

Perhaps a series of lectures by ethical luminaries, but an HR Commission??

I'm all for openn discussion of any matter, but agendizing ethical questions tends to politicize them, often creating problems that would not have otherwise existed.

If we have a problem with police relations, neighborhood conflicts, etc. etc., why not have the proncipals in those conflicts create their own ad hoc problem-solving groups, monitored by volunteer facilitators. Why make limited issues local issues? Why infect our conscisousness with someone else's definition of what our collective conscience is?

There's too much (unintended hubris) in all this. It's smacks of an appointed moral priesthood. Who needs that?

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Posted by GSB
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2007 at 11:40 am

I'm amazed by the contrast between PA's HRC and Mountain View's HRC.

Here is a link to the MV HRC's annual report to the City:

Web Link

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Posted by Civic Responsibility
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 1:26 pm


Here's a link that will get you there
Web Link

I don't see the difference between Mt. View's mandate, and ours. What, in your experience, are the primary differences between Mt. View's and Palo Alto's HRC?

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Posted by GSB
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Oops, here is the correct link to the report itself:

Web Link

It seems like MV's HRC is more in line with listening to the residents and representing them, as opposed to waiting for council to tell them what to do...but that's just my opinion.

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Posted by Civic Responsibility
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:13 pm


I just read the link. It doesn't appear that Mt. View's HRC is as scattered as ours is - i.e. there appears to be a goal-oriented plan.

That said, I have never seen any of those people in action, so I can't comment on their effectiveness.

What's happening here is that some HRC members (well-meaning, all) have taken it upon themselves to perform a kind of meta-analysis of community ethics. We - and other communities - do not need politically appointed priesthoods to sooth our respective consciences,

Frankly, no one group can represent the "conscience" of a city. This is the sort of thing that can lead to dangerous lock-step thinking, and personal/political grandstanding on delicate issues.

I don't have the time to do a hermeneutical analysis of the concept of "conscience", but warning bells go off when I hear someone telling me how I should be thinking about issues that are necessarily nuanced. This is dangerous territory for public-appointed commissions to venture into.

Listening, and using the action of listening in service of the facilitation of less conflict (i.e better human relations) is very different from going out and "finding trouble". This is why I argue for a more ombudsman-like, ad hoc appointee commission approach to these issues - one by one.

There's nothing wrong with appointing people to a group that is focused on a single problem, but we start to get into murky ethical waters when we have political appointees acting from on high (no matter how well-meaning) in ways that have those appointees thinking they somehow represent the "conscience" of their fellow citizens. That's nonsense, and borders on demagoguery.

The consciousness of a community is ANYTHING but fixed; it's ANYTHING from definition-bound, in ways that let any one person or small group of people begin to make assumptions based on a necessarily limited definition of their fellow citizen's personal values.

The whole thing smacks of a kind of subtle group-think that was so very popular during the heyday of the New Age movement. The one thing that almost always stands out about those days was the near totalitarian group-think that operated among groups who were into "healing" this, or that. I'm not ascribing the latter qualities to our HRC, but (with respect) some of the contriteness, and "touchy-feely" sentiments that have been driving that group's behavior lately has made my consciousness (pun intended) perk up.

Think about this: we now have the behavior of the HRC to consider - as a problem - in Palo Alto. Commissioners, heal thyselves, and let the rest of us work in good faith to do the same. The last thing this community needs is an "anointed" commission looking for ways to fill its time.

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Posted by Say what!?
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:28 pm

Boy are you off base GSB. The Palo Alto HRC brought a number of resolutions to the City Council over the last 30 years that were not referred from the Council, and in fact some members of the Council would have preferred to avoid. All the resolutions were based on input from the public. In this article alone, Ms. Mora refers to HRC resolutions against the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and a Voter Confidence Resolution. Before commenting on Commissions in our City, GSB, you may want to do your research.

Regarding other comments here about the uselessness of the HRC, sorry, I don't agree. I've attended some of the meetings and they look at a lot of tough issues. I think there does need to be a place for the hard stuff to be discussed. I'm sure the City Council appreciates having someplace to send people who complain about injustice and civil rights. Are any of you willing to take that on? And by the way, as far as I know Commissioners on all the City Commissions are volunteers. That means "No Thanks" that they are not paid, even one thin dime.

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Posted by GSB
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:41 pm

Say What:

My comment is based on all of the (mostly negative) feedback i've seen in this forum on numerous occasions re: your HRC. I know they are volunteers (just like MVs), but MVs isn't met with as much hostility. I'm just curious to know why the PA HRC is talked down about so much.

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Posted by Rhonda
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:56 pm

"All the resolutions were based on input from the public. In this article alone, Ms. Mora refers to HRC resolutions against the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and a Voter Confidence Resolution."

Say what, what proportion of PA citizens objected to the Patriot Act? What proportion of PA citizens wanted the Boy Scouts kicked out of Lucy Stern? Just because a FEW citizens make a complaint to the HRC, it does not follow that the HRC, voting in favor, represents the majority of PA citizens.

Civic Responsibility (above) has it about right. We don't need to be told what our collective conscience should be. That sort of thing belongs to the taliban. As a woman who prefers not to cover up, I object to your heavy hand.

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Posted by "Conscience of our city", indeed! - ha!
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 17, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Say What!,

No one said that hard issues should not be discussed, but why are so many soft issues made into hard issues, just because someone on the HRC thinks it's important to "heal" a difference?

In fact, what about the hard issue that defines itself as "why do we have an HRC?". THAT"S a hard issue worth debating. Why aren't policy makers willing to take that on?

"Conscience of our city", indeed!

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Posted by Say What!?
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2007 at 5:50 pm

What heavy hand are you talking about? I don' t represent the HRC and I sure as heck haven't suggested women cover up. I'm just somewho who is glad I've had a place to go an air my concerns. As far as public input, I was at the HRC meeting on the Patriot Act. The room was packed and nearly everyone wanted the HRC to do something. Which they did. As for the issues, I doubt HRC members are making stuff up to discuss. My guess is people come to meetings and complain enough times the folks on the HRC decide to take it on or look into it. As far as I know the HRC doesn't make policy. That's the City Council's domain. If the City Council doesn't like a recommendation from any of the Commissions they don't vote for it. I'm actually stunned at the level of hostility a few people have for this group. As I read the article Ms Mora is saying the HRC DOES NOT represent the conscience of the City. Guess some people just read the headlines.

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Posted by Civic Responsibility
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2007 at 6:20 pm

The initiatives covered by Simitain's HRC, and the current HRC are worlds apart - in quality and quantity.

Patriot Act? I think the Patriot Act is a piece of rubbish, violating the very foundation of human rights as we (most of us) understand it. However, I don't want a local commission making statements on national policy. Yes, that national policy DOES impact us, but so do energy, transportation, criminal justice, drug enforcement, Dept. of Interior, etc. etc. policies. So?

Legislating ethical policy is not a good idea. HRC's, as appointed commissions, are a very short stone's throw from that, as they advise policy makers.

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