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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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City staff is running Palo Alto

Uploaded: Jul 28, 2020
There have been subtle but significant changes in the interplay between the Palo Alto City Council and the city’s top administrators, most notably City Manager Ed Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump. The result: The staff is running the city.

What’s wrong with that? Well, we elect city council members, we don’t elect staffers. When we vote, we choose among those candidates who want to go the same direction as we do (e.g., more growth? less growth?). We want residents to help choose which way the city should go, and not have decisions made by staffers, most of who do not live in this city.

Several examples: Take the staff reports on agenda items sent to the council before each meeting. Several years ago, these “Council-Manager Reports” used to contain a summary of each issue facing the council, some background info, and a pro-and-con analysis. The analyses were very objective and made no hard recommendations.

Then, toward the end of former City Manager Jim Keene’s era, the reports started to change. Now the council gets a staff report with no pro-and-con arguments, but simply one staff recommendation on how this agenda item should be voted on. Most of the time, the majority of council members go along with the recommendation, sometimes with little or no questioning.

It seems that council members are simply rubber-stamping what the staff recommends.

Councilmember Lydia Kou said it succinctly: “The staff is not presenting us the best information. The reports now are less informative, and they are repetitive. The recommendations are what the staff wants to do – and they are short and easy. The reports do not present us the best information.”

I’ve read these reports and they usually do make a single recommendation, so the council is left with keeping things status quo or going along with the one recommendation. Of course, council members could add their own recommendations, but most of the time they don’t. Maybe some like it this simple way. If not, why doesn’t the council demand the reports go back to the pro-and-con format, with several recommendations for the council to consider? There can be two sides to an issue. And why is the staff only recommending one solution? It seems that council now has to make up its mind on what someone else (the staff) says to do.

Which brings me to Ed Shikada. From what I observed, he is quiet but controlling, and he and City Attorney Molly Stump, in effect, run the city.

Take the two-week 8 p.m. curfew Shikada recently imposed in Palo Alto. Most, if not all, council members did not know about it until the evening before its midnight debut. This should have been a council decision, but it never came before the council. Several members were upset Shikada did it on his own.

Then there are council members who want to put items on the agenda. The mayor can do that, but Shikada told the rest of the council that they first must provide a written “colleagues memo” from three members to add an agenda item. Why can’t council members have an easier input on what goes on THEIR agenda?

Several months ago Shikada and Stump told the council that the police auditing system would have minor changes, so that the L.A. firm under contract would be called on only for investigation of police confrontations with the public, not disputes or conflicts between officers. The two auditors, Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly, have been providing independent reviews of the Palo Alto Police Department's internal affairs investigations since 2006. Instead, Stump said internal police confrontations, such as officer conflicts or disputes, would be turned over to the city’s HR department.

How convenient for the city. Once an internal dispute goes to HR, it become a personnel matter and is hid forever from the public, unless HR chooses to report out. The council went along with it, thinking it was minor, but it was a major loss of transparency. Why was Stump, a staff member, coming up with changes on incidents and conflicts within the
police department, and, in my estimation, misleading the council on what was happening?

Now the search for a new Palo Alto auditor, an office required by the city’s charter, is coming to a close, in an 18-month (!) search guided by staff. Shikada was hired in a three-week period.

Maybe, just maybe, it took so long because the city doesn’t like an auditor prowling around overseeing department irregularities and reporting them to the council and the public. Or maybe it took such a long time because there was debate as to whether a single city auditor should be hired or whether an outside firm would work better.

These are just a few examples of city staff running the city; there are many more. It’s always a delicate line of power and authority, but, in my estimation, the council members should take more control of the city. The council is the employer; the city manager and staff are the employees. It’s council’s job and why we elected them.
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Posted by Norman Beamer, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 28, 2020 at 1:15 pm

Norman Beamer is a registered user.

A good example is the President Hotel decision. Staff presented the issue to Council as if there was no way they could prevent the developer from having their way. They acted as if the city would certainly lose a threatened lawsuit. City Council acted as an advocate for the developer. But in fact none of the authorities cited by the developer or the City Attorney dictated such a result. They should have told the developer that the city zoning laws did not permit the project,and stuck with that.

Posted by Jeffrey Baum, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 28, 2020 at 1:28 pm

Someone has to do the heavy lifting, remember the council are not full time council members- they have Regular jobs, they depend the staff to, who are full time employees, to do the work.
(portion removed)

Posted by Facts, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 28, 2020 at 2:03 pm

This problem--of the inmates taking over--is also prevalent in neighboring Los Altos. There the City Manager has openly disregarded and/or dismissed Council's role/decisions. His decisions, taken unilaterally by himself, have always favored his and staff's interests at cost the public and taxpayers. E.g., alternate Fridays off, etc.

Now, WHY do City agents (be it Palo Alto or Los Altos) act so?
They can only do so when the people we elect to City Council are derelict or remiss in their oversight and management of the City's staff. As they do NOT provide the necessary checks and balances the system goes awry. As they say: when the masters are away the mice run amok.

Also, even if one or two Council members speak up to question staff's actions they are silenced or disregarded by others on Council (usually the majority). Guess what? that "majority" is often hand in glove with those very City agents they are supposed to oversee. Result: the efforts of the Council members who are asking the questions are in vain, the City agents know their backs are covered by others on Council who protect their interests. And sure enough, sooner or later, in a quid pro quo staff would act to protect the interests of the Council members who protected the staff.

All this gets away because: the complicit parties (Council members, City agents) are confident the public would NOT hold them accountable; it won't go to Court; if it does, they are protected by the City attorney and the legal costs are paid by us the taxpayers; and if they are found guilty, they can go on to the next job (or become a consultant; refer to AJ Capital/Hotel President) and their pensions etc are funded by us.

Sweet deal, if you can get it!

Posted by Facts, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 28, 2020 at 2:16 pm

"Why was Stump, a staff my estimation, misleading the council on what was happening?"

The City Attorney for Los Altos engaged in similar misrepresentations to that City's Council and residents. As with Palo Alto's AJ Capital scenario, in Los Altos too the City attorney and City manager claimed they were permitting what was explicitly prohibited by the Municipal Code. Later, as part of the cover up, they amended the Code claiming "our hands are tied", "State law requires...", etc. when such pretexts were pure nonsense.

In one instance the City attorney, at the behest of a Council member, asked a resident to leave a Council meeting. You'd think a trained attorney would know enough about the law and Constitution to respect a resident's right to attend a public meeting. Needless to say, the resident reminded him of her rights, he slithered back to admit his efforts to evict her failed...

Well, he was fired by the Council late 2019.
He, his colleagues at his law firm, the law firm too are defendants in a RICO Conspiracy lawsuit in Federal Court. Co-defendants include the City manager and some others.

Which brings us to: who in Palo Alto is going to step up to bell the cats in City Hall and Council?

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jul 28, 2020 at 2:45 pm

Many, if not most, of the pathologies afflicting our society are due to the ever increasing load of sclerotic, unaccountable bureaucracies that only care about perpetuating themselves. They are insulated from reality in low-accountability sectors such as the government.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 12:11 am

Thank you for your insightful articles. Any person who has attended a city meeting knows that Diana is right on the nose about these insights. Who hired Ed Shakida for his position as City manager. Not only is he over paid but he actually has a very vested perspective of how he wants the city councilors to vote. He makes a specific recommendation and tries to lead city councilors down a certain path to vote. And it appears Mayor Adrian Fine is more than happy to accept being led down a path.

Ed Shakida is the man behind the curtain. He does quietly pull all the strings and is paid one of the highest salaries in the city. Who watches over Ed Shakida? There should be a term limit to city manager and city attorney.

It's time there is change in this corrupt system. Time to go to the very top and that starts with Ed Shakida.

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of another community,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 1:06 am

Most cities like Palo Alto have a council-manager government model, where the City Manager is the powerful chief executive, and the council acts as a Board of Directors, with the rotating Mayor position as the chairman of the Council.

An alternative model is the big-city government type, with a separately-elected Mayor who is the Chief Executive, usually with a four-year term, and the City Manager just supervises the day-to-day operations. That allows the Mayor to campaign on a platform and set his/her priorities, and be judged by the voters on his/her performance.

Posted by be careful with Ed shikada, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 8:06 am

be careful with Ed shikada is a registered user.

Seems like the City needs to be careful about firing Ed Shikada:

He gets a year's severance (?!) if he's fired:

Web Link

At his last job, he fired people without informing the Council or the Mayor on his way out the door after he backed the wrong horse in the campaign (he wasn't expecting Sam Liccardo to win):

Web Link

Web Link

Posted by City Observer, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 8:27 am

Is it possible that the PACC members are intimidated by the upper level administrators at city hall, opting instead to focus their vibrant energies & limited abilities on other issues that tend to infuriate a sizable number of Palo Alto residents?

Posted by Facts, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 8:51 am

"...a council-manager government model...alternative model is...separately-elected Mayor who is the Chief Executive, usually with a four-year term..."

You can come up with any number of such models.
And adopt them too.
They might even, for some time, convince you the problem is solved.

The fundamental problem is, there is an inherent conflict of interests. City agents and agencies have their own vested interests.
Those interests include insuring their pensions are well funded (in the face of Prop 13 this means permitting projects that allow the tax basis to rise consistently, constantly), their jobs secure (seeing which way the wind is blowing wrt Council politics and voting and flowing with, not against, that), etc.

We voters and taxpayers elect representatives to, among other things, listen to us and insure the City's agents and agencies execute our priorities, oversee and manage the City's management, and provide the necessary checks and balances to manage the inherent conflict of interests detailed above.

Council can, and does, run amok with members having their own agendas or pushing the agendas of those backing them.

Who provides the checks and balances on Council? insure they are performing their duties and not breaching them? We the residents and taxpayers do. Unfortunately we are NOT doing any good job of it.
Most of us are busy with a gazillion things.
Few of us take the time to attend Council meetings, express our concerns, insure they are attended to, and hold Council members' feet to the proverbial fire.

Council members know that, City agents know that, and so we have what we have.

This will change when we the residents stand up, speak out, demand and insist on accountability, and even use the Courts of Law where appropriate. Until then we can't expect any different. And no matter how we structure the administrative structure (elected Mayor, etc) they would be but mere rearrangements of deck chairs on the Titanic. As Ben Franklin noted (and this is a summary): democracy requires vigilance and requires effort if we are to keep it.

Posted by Pat Burt, a resident of Community Center,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 10:43 am

Pat Burt is a registered user.

There is always some natural tension between the city manager's role in managing the city administration and the council's responsibilities for setting policies and providing oversight. Having worked with the last four city managers while on the City Council and Planning Commission, that dynamic changes depending on the approach of the city manager along with the willingness and ability of the council to assert their authority.
Unfortunately, Dianna is right that the last couple of years have seen the city manager increasingly interfering with or even usurping what are clearly policy decisions while resisting council oversight. This has been done, with the active support of the mayor, by either limiting information narrowly framing the alternatives presented to the council as Dianna noted or by acting unilaterally through executive action that effectively establishes policy without council authorization. There are two recent important examples.
The first, with initial support by the mayor, was the imposition of a radical and poorly justified citywide 10-day curfew despite a very tenuous legal authority to enact ostensibly based on the “public health" emergency.
More recently, the mayor and city manager sent an "official" letter to multiple government agencies inaccurately asserting that the city council and the city had taken a position to not only support placing the Caltrain sales tax on the ballot (without any contingent governance reforms) but also claiming the city endorsed the voters “enacting" the measure. Neither of these claims was true. Despite backlash from members of the council and the public, the city manager and mayor have since doubled down, asserting that the city's general legislative guidelines authorized their action while falsely claiming that the letter only supported placing the measure on the ballot. The council will have its first discussion on the tax this Monday.
The council can re-establish its proper and traditional authorities without any changes to the city charter provided that a majority of them recognize the problem and understand how to use the levers of their authority to correct it.

Posted by This is the kind of behaviour that caused him to have to leave San Jose., a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 29, 2020 at 1:53 pm

This is the kind of behaviour that caused him to have to leave San Jose. is a registered user.

Staff underneath Mr. Shikada are unhappy too. A little investigative reporting would be helpful. I see a pattern emerging, similar to what led to Mr. Shikada's abrupt departure from San Jose government. Web Link

So much staff has turned over at Palo Alto City Hall in recent years, there are few experienced staff with Palo Alto-specific historical knowledge. This results in mistakes. I hope the next Council will be more knowledgeable and experienced and confident about directing staff.

Posted by this is the kid of behavior that caused him to leave San Jose, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 30, 2020 at 12:01 pm

this is the kid of behavior that caused him to leave San Jose is a registered user.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. When citizens don't apply up for commissions and committees, when they don't read the local news and support local media infrastructure that keeps the electorate informed, this is what they get. I know people who don't even know who the mayor is. Sad.

Being a participant in democratic process between elections is critically important. Pecking on cell phones and yammering on social media is not participating in government. Go to city hall and do the adult work of participating in community conversations that include everyone in front of the elected key decision-makers. Educate yourself about policy. Read staff reports. You might find them interesting. They are about your community, after all.

The advocacy and oversight work of engaged citizens is what keeps the voice of the people at the center of policy and decision-making.

BE the change. Participate. Help create the community you want. Otherwise, staff will run the show, and you probably won't like the outcome.

Posted by honey meir-levi, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jul 30, 2020 at 12:25 pm

Question for Diana: Doesn't the Auditor report directly to the Council. It seems that selecting the auditor would be one of their most important tasks.

Posted by chris, a resident of University South,
on Jul 30, 2020 at 1:21 pm

chris is a registered user.

The City Council spends too much time micromanaging and too little time effectively dealing with big policy issues.

1. Housing
2. Caltrain grade separations
3. Cubberley Community Center
4. Parking

They have accomplished very little on these big issues while meddling in distractions like The President, in which they manage to make the situation worse.

The City Council needs to take a leadership role in leading the city to solve big issues. Instead, they spend too much time listening to the squeaky wheels who would like to ignore reality and impose 1950 style policies on Palo Alto.

Posted by Gale Johnson, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jul 30, 2020 at 1:49 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@ Pat Burt
Thanks! You are the breath of fresh air we need in this discussion. More and more people are signing up for their candidacy for council. Many of them I've liked and followed from previous campaigns, and some other new ones have credentials that I like also. I might have some tough decisions to make, but not when it comes to voting for you. You're solid because of your past experience and calm demeanor when you speak. You know your town...our town...pretty well. You engage with us and I remember visiting with you at a July 4th Chili Cook Off event at Mitchell Park a few years ago. You were cordial and willing to give me your time. On council you held that powerful swing vote position. You drove the other two sides crazy because they never knew which way you would vote on many issues. Time for you to get back on stage and perform your swing vote role again.

I'm still left with the quandary and decision to make of who I will vote for for the remaining empty seats. Tom and Eric have given some guidance on that! I will keep an open mind until campaign season is over and election day looms.

I'm one of those swing voters on election day. Getting up on the wrong side of the bed could cause me to change my vote and swing the election outcome...with just my one vote. Just think about it...the power of my one vote, and to think that a better mattress would cause me to vote differently. LOL1

Posted by Green Gables, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jul 30, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

the City Council has to kiss up to the staff if they (City Council) wants to get anything done.

Posted by DIana Diamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Jul 30, 2020 at 3:13 pm

DIana Diamond is a registered user.

Honey --

The city auditor does report directly to the city council, which is good, because s/he could not do a decent audit job if the auditor was reporting to the city manager.


Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 31, 2020 at 12:45 pm

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,

>> ever increasing load of sclerotic, unaccountable bureaucracies that only care about perpetuating themselves. They are insulated from reality in low-accountability sectors such as the government.

No argument. But, I've seen the same thing but actually worse in private companies with monopolistic market dominance in their sector.

Posted by Public vs Private, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Jul 31, 2020 at 2:02 pm

"actually worse in private companies with monopolistic market dominance in their sector"

Sure, let's see. AT&T. Standard Oil. etc.
They had their times and bureaucracies.
Where are they and those bureaucracies now?

Contrast to a govt agency (be it City Hall or more), the pensions and lifetime benefits for its agents, the sense of entitlement and non-accountability, the privilege of being protected by Qualified Immunity and "Nobody wins against City Hall", all funded and paid for by you and me and others like us. Contrast that to private companies, however monopolistic.

There is nothing in this world that is more "monopolistic market dominance in their sector" than government agencies.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jul 31, 2020 at 2:33 pm

Posted by Public vs Private, a resident of Charleston Gardens,

"actually worse in private companies with monopolistic market dominance in their sector"

>> Sure, let's see. AT&T. Standard Oil. etc.
>> They had their times and bureaucracies.
>> Where are they and those bureaucracies now?

Well, AT&T is the third-largest non-financial (e.g. bank) public company in the world after Aramco (Saudi Oil company) and Apple. AT&T is more diversified than Verizon, but, AT&T is the second largest cell provider. Since you mentioned it ;-) Web Link

Posted by Public vs Private, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Jul 31, 2020 at 7:28 pm

>AT&T is the third-largest non-financial (e.g. bank) public company
Irrelevant to your argument concerning "market dominance".
Even more to the point, regardless of how big it may be in market cap, does AT&T have the power and influence that it did circa 1960s or earlier? Do customers have the option to go elsewhere should they choose to? And now to bear down on what this is all about: can Palo Alto residents go elsewhere (i.e., other than City Hall) to get their permits or city matters attended to?

In any case...this is getting away from the core points in the article and comments above. You are free to have the last word, Anon.

Posted by ALB, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jul 31, 2020 at 7:31 pm

ALB is a registered user.

Thank you Diana for nailing what is wrong with the governance culture in city hall. Yes it pivoted greatly under Jim Keane and now is festering under Ed Shikada. I do feel that Mayor Fine is a lackey for the city manager as exemplified by the staff letter orchestrated by Shikada for the mayor to sign. The mayor eagerly sent his letter regarding CAL train and whether or not to have a tax to maintain this form of public transportation. He did as he was told. He never once offered to bring this topic up for discussion with fellow council members. Then he blew a gasket when the vice mayor corrected him regarding protocol and the city's charter. Sometimes the dynamic here amongst the city and the mayor feels like a farce. There is no respect for the process and certainly none for the constituents. Bravo, Diana for writing your piece about this egregious comportment on the part of the city manager and the mayor.

Posted by Kathy, a resident of Greater Miranda,
on Aug 1, 2020 at 10:30 am

Kathy is a registered user.

The problem is the unionized public employees run the city, with the unions using their dues to purchase political power, including 'hiring' their own bosses. All are afraid to confront them and their power, purchased w our tax dollars, including the city council and the city manager, Ed Shikada, as the union will try to run anyone who opposes them out on a rail.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Aug 3, 2020 at 3:21 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"It seems that council members are simply rubber-stamping what the staff recommends."

The observation that city council rubber stamps staff orders is at least two decades old, dating back to the virtually cultlike control city manager Frank Benest had over his councils.

One can see Shikada's point: Why work staff needlessly when the council will dutifully take the path of least exertion and rubber stamp the prescribed action with little if any debate? That shortens council meetings considerably if there are no pronouncements being made.

And it avoids suspense. Want to know the outcome on an item a week in advance? Read the staff reports in the agenda packet.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Aug 3, 2020 at 3:30 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

"The city auditor does report directly to the city council, which is good, because s/he could not do a decent audit job if the auditor was reporting to the city manager."

The city auditor reports to the city council, which reports to the city manager. City auditor crosses the city manager, city auditor is toast

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