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Slow should not be the way to go in Palo Alto

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Oct 25, 2007

Slow motion -- that's the way I would describe the pace at which many things get done in Palo Alto.

Slow to get roads repaired, libraries facelifted, Web sites working -- the city is replete with examples.

That became abundantly clear when City Auditor Sharon Erickson presented a report last week to the City Council's Finance Committee on the status of some six years of audit recommendations to city staff from 10 different audit reports.

Her conclusion: Of 93 recommendations, city staff completed only five. A total of 68 recommendations are in process, some just barely, while 18 recommendations have not been started. Two have been discarded. Some recommendations are five years old.

Keep in mind that most of these recommendations are ways for the city to become more efficient and to save money -- in some cases considerable amounts. One would think these recommendations would be a high priority for the city staff. Obviously they are not.

The recommendations range from lowering overtime expenditures, prioritizing code enforcement to maintaining parks and streets, recovering costs for city-run classes.

For example, one recommendation made in 2003 was: "The City should propose a revision to the Palo Alto Professional Firefighters contract that minimizes the frequency in which higher-rank employees work overtime in lower-rank positions." Good idea, because right now it's the higher-paid firefighters that are first asked if they want to work overtime rather than the lower-paid ones -- as a result overtime costs this city more than it should. The city spends more than a million dollars a year in overtime for firefighters.

Erickson's report notes that the fire department concurred with the recommendation, but then each year from 2004 to 2007 she reported that implementing the recommendation was "not started."

A no-start label appears on 18 of her recommendations. Nearly all city departments are involved, including City Manager Frank Benest's office, which has seven not-completed recommendations on the list.

If the manager's office is delinquent in fulfilling the auditor's recommendations, what kind of priority message does that give to the rest of the staff? The Finance Committee was clearly upset at the lack of progress. It is scheduled to discuss the report in early December.

That report got me to thinking about other incomplete projects around the city:

* The Color of Palo Alto -- About five years ago, the city's Public Arts Commission agreed to fund artist Sam Yeats, who wanted to determine the color of the city by photographing every house in town and then digitally combining the colors. He set up his modernistic garage-looking studio in a raised planter on the plaza right in front of City Hall. So far he's received $65,000 for the project; $40,000 came from Hewlett-Packard. After some prodding, Yeats promised the commission that the color would be delivered by September 2007. It is now late October and we are still colorless; the now-unused garage is still on the plaza.

* Last year the city was $28 million behind in road repairs. This year we are still at least $28 million behind. Some progress, no real catch-up.

* Complaints about the city's new Web site started as soon as the site was posted in July. (It was supposed to be completed months earlier.) We were told that the "glitches" would soon be remedied. It is now late October and while there have been slight fixes complaints are increasing.

* The city has had at least three council-appointed retail committee during the last four years or so. We are still looking for auto dealers and some stores (like the old Hang Gallery) still remain vacant on University Avenue.

* There's a revised proposal for a redoing of Lytton Plaza on University Avenue. The idea to revamp that plaza was introduced at least three years ago. It's just a little plaza ...

Now slow isn't always bad. Slow can mean thoughtful, considered, relaxed and participatory. But slow can also be unproductive, ponderous and costly.

I think we need an attitude change at city hall. I watch PASCO, the private Palo Alto Sanitation Company, pick up my garbage and the guys literally run from house to house. Ditto on gardeners with contracts from the city who mow city parks -- they run with their lawn mowers.

I watch city employees mow our parks -- they amble along. For private companies, the faster the employees work the more jobs can be done and the more money made. Apparently there is no reward -- financial or otherwise -- for city workers to get jobs done fast. And I see no signs of any penalty for failure to get them done at all.

But attitudes can change. Benest, or someone, should impose across-the-board deadlines, and make sure city auditor recommendations are met in a timely fashion -- including carrying out the auditor's recommendations in his own department.

Diana Diamond can be e-mailed at

Comments (18)

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Posted by R Wray
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Ms. Diamond hits on one of my peeves. She euphemistically calls the eyesore in front of city hall a "modernistic garage-looking studio". This out-of-place junk should have been removed long ago. One would think the city government would want to get rid on this relic of their boondoggle. National/international news coverage will be here in February to cover the bike race that starts at city hall. I'd be embarrassed to answer questions about what the "studio" is. I'd like to see the junk removed and a large, well-lighted Christmas (oops, Holiday) tree in the planter for the holidays--to heck with the viros and the PC fanatics. The city doesn't deserve any new government buildings when they allow an existing one to be defaced.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Color of Palo Alto - I have just repainted my house from beige and muddy brown trim to cream with a light green trim. I expect that will change the scheme of things!!

Like this comment
Posted by Winslow Arbenaugh
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 25, 2007 at 2:15 pm

Aside from my distaste for most public art projects - they're usually pretentious, and largely disconnected from the true vernacular of a community (this is a universal quality of most public art) - it has to be said that Palo Alto is slow because we have been able to afford to be slow - until recently.

We are now in the process (no pun intended) of learning how to go faster, but that will take some time (pun, intended). Old habits die hard. It will take less time than it would have when things were hunky-dory around here.

Some further comments:

Color of Palo Alto - whine (sic)

Road repairs - we're catching up, in case anyone hasn't noticed

Website - sue the vendor, or stop payment on disbursals

Retail - a mess, because the cost of retail space mitigates anainst longevity. Retail churn is a problem that won't go away. We are victims of our own success. The BID is a miserable failure, creating dissension and half-baked promotions. We need *comprehensive* business development strategies, that we can execute on the ground. We are very far from this, because it's not in our political or city management culture to see development done this way.

City workers cutting grass too slowly - Diana, try cutting grass all day - they key phrase is "pace yourself". Further, to make a generalization from how fast someone is cutting grass, to the competence of hard-working staffers, is crumpled thinking.

Like this comment
Posted by Don
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 25, 2007 at 3:13 pm


You have described socialism in action. There IS no motivation to increase productivity. I have worked for private contractors and city government. It is vastly different. I was most productive, when I owned my own business.

Palo Alto is not going to change. If we can't come up with the money, the services will just diminish or disappear. Get used to it.

Like this comment
Posted by Art
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 27, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Look into the situation with Ciardella's Garden Supply. They were forced (by the city) to move from their long-time site on East Bayshore to make room for the new storm sewer pump station. Their new site just off San Antonio required a rezoning. The City Council was originally scheduled to finalize the needed rezoning on October 21, but staff requested a delay because all the paper work wasn't done and Ciardella's hadn't filled out all the needed permits even though they had moved the whole business and were ready to operate. Staff said they couldn't get the rezoning back on the agenda until after the new Council was seated in January. Because they didn't have the proper permits , the City Council ordered the business to be closed putting nine people out of work.
Since Ciradella's was forced to move, why couldn't the staff have helped with the permits and expedited the zoning change? Is this the way to treat a long-term succesful local small business? No wonder businesses are leaving Palo Alto and few new ones are coming in.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 27, 2007 at 4:20 pm

ANd of course some neighbors near the location complained about traffic and noise (so what else is new--this is palo alto).
I am sure that the city council does not want to upset them, so everything must be put off for 3-4 months and people will be out of work.
And speaking of that area--notice the relatively new shopping center that has a Best Buy, REI, Bed , Bath and Beyond etc? That place would have been perfect for PA-nice stores, nice tax revenue. Notice how quickly it was approved and built? In Palo Alto we would be in year 2 of a 10 year process before ground would have been allowed to be broken for the center

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Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2007 at 11:05 pm

Not So Fast,

The Best Buy/REI development which is located across from Costco, looks identical (color and size), to all the other commercial developments that I have seen recently built in Washington State, Oregon (no sales tax there), and many cities throughout California.

These developments are typically built near freeway on and off ramps, and not buried within neighborhoods.

This is similar to the East Palo Alto development across from IKEA.

I personally have not seen many people shopping in REI/Bed Bath and Beyond/or Best Buy.
They are always empty when I have gone in.

I am not sure how much taxable gain they are bringing to the city of Mountain View (especially if they are not making much money), but it was an appropriate area for them to be located.

Where would you propose placing a development such as this?

I would like to propose that we build a huge commercial development such as this one in Palo Alto Hills.

It's not fair that rich developers and non citizen landlords (like mine) can hide up in the hills while the majority of residents in Palo Alto will have to suffer from increased traffic, poorly planned high density housing units, hotels, and potentially money losing developments.

I admit that we could use several moderately price supermarkets.

Which neighborhood do you live in Not-so-fast?

You, and another poster sound like developers to me.

Perhaps you have a second home to move to (in another state or country) when Palo Alto is ruined.

I don't. We have been here for 60 years.

Like this comment
Posted by pa resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 27, 2007 at 11:25 pm

Just a thought, how about the Embarcadero east exit from 101, by Mings, along East Bayshore? There's some old empty office buildings (next to the new one that's being built) that could be replaced with some medium box retail.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 28, 2007 at 9:02 am

Long Time Resident--
Not sure when you shopped at that location, but the times I have been there the parking lot looked relatively well used. Anyway, PA residents suggestion is one to be considered.
however my whole point was not that PA should have a shopping center like that, it was that if PA did want to build a shopping center like that it would take years before anything concrete would happen.
WE do a vety nice job of driving retail from town (Alma Plaza, Hyatt site) but constantly talk of wanting tax revenue from retailm but then we hear constant complaints about too much traffic.
PA needs to decide what they want and how they want to achieve it.

Like this comment
Posted by Frustrated
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 28, 2007 at 10:06 am

I am one of those shoppers who was delighted to see the shopping center go up with the REI, bb&b, and pet supply. Instead of hauling up to RC or down to San Jose, I have gone to these stores on numerous occasions - as well as the Michael's Crafts across the street. I also regularly go to IKEA, home depot (when PA hardware doesn't have what I need first), Costco, Target, Sears....

Palo Alto just doesn't have these kinds of practical stores at all where, if you need a specific item, you have to go there. Downtown Palo Alto is not practical for our necessities except for PA Hardware and PA Toy and Sport. And as for grocery stores, the only one in town now that has everyday AND specialty items is Piazza's.

We need to get past the paranoia of the whole car trip business. I'm just thrilled for car trips that are less than 20 mins.

This town has the illusion that it's still a charming, small town where life is slow. We try to slow our lives down all the time, but to do even our part as active members of our church and school community, it's impossible.

Like this comment
Posted by Joanna
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 29, 2007 at 9:53 am

Don't forget that the city spend $250k on a website. Bonus points that it is a broken website.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 29, 2007 at 10:32 am

Joanna, Are your lights on? Garbage picked up? Streets generally safe? Take a deep breath, and enjoy what's right in the world.

Like this comment
Posted by Alyssa
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 29, 2007 at 10:50 am

Joanna, has the City Council prevented the sun from coming up today? Are any of the potholes in front of your house more than a foot deep? Have you been mugged in the last week?

Well then quit complaining and support higher wages and benefits for the hard working city employees and managers responsible for your happiness.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 1, 2007 at 10:09 am

As usual, Diana Diamond hits the nail on the head! Thanks, Diana!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2007 at 10:12 am

The only thing the city has managed to do quickly is rename City Hall Plaza and allocate $10,000 for a plaque, too quickly for anyone to complain. Why can they do something like this quickly and not do something useful quickly.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 2, 2007 at 5:41 pm

I have to say Diana, that I really enjoy your blog and your way of thinking. I agree with so many of the things you write. Thanks for your voice on how slow Palo Alto sentiments exactly...

Like this comment
Posted by Nathan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 7, 2007 at 1:50 pm

Diana is right on all these things. Another area that is slow is flood control. Next February it will be a decade since the flood on the San Francisquito creek. It's hard to figure out what has been done.

Like this comment
Posted by Norm
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2007 at 1:21 pm

The toll from the “Palo Alto Process” is not only sad, it is inevitable.
“The Process” is a necessary step for any activity purporting to be progress. A must when initiating an innovatively traditional project. Or is it a traditionally innovative project? Well, I mean, when you attempt change while not impinging on the status quo in any fashion the may have an impact beyond improving the quality of life for others, even if it precludes you from achieving your intended goal.
Of course, this means send the whole thing back to staff for tinkering and tweaking with “due diligence” (as opposed the implied lackadaisical review and assessment already provided), thus making it easier to vote for or against because there are many options, or none at all, which will dissatisfy everyone equally.

"Our civilization is characterized by the word “progress.” Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. >And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself.< For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves."
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), Austrian philosopher. Culture
and Value (ed. by G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, 1980), 1930
(Emphasis mine)

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