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By Diana Diamond

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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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Let’s find a better way to elect a Palo Alto mayor

Uploaded: Jan 7, 2023
Palo Alto City Council members are all set to select a new mayor on Monday night – a routine procedure each January. And finally! they are beginning to discuss how a mayor should be selected-- by council members.

Two ideas are in play. Retiring council member Alison Cormack has suggested a mayor be selected based on longevity in office. If two or three members served the same number of years, then the mayor would be the person who received the most votes when elected. She said that all members are well suited to become mayor.

The other suggestion by Mayor Pat Burt and two other members is to elect the person most qualified. That’s what’s been happening, and oftentimes it turns into a popularity contest.

I don’t think every council member is suited to be mayor. Some are leaders, others may be more adept at analyzing possible paths to follow. And some just turn out to be weak council members – duds.

This year two members are in play for the mayoral post – Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and Councilman Greer Stone. The latter has proved himself a strong member, who has not been afraid to occasionally challenge the City Manager Ed Shikada, or the workings at city hall. Kou, a gentle person, has often accepted Shikada’s responses with less probing. But she is good at helping constituents.

We will find out how votes go Monday night, Jan. 9 – although I suspect council members have already decided who that will be.

But there’s another option I think it is time for this city to strongly consider: Have the residents elect a mayor, not the council. And I will further suggest the mayor be elected for a two-year term. Sure, there would be some wrinkles to straighten out like, what if the person elected mayor is in his/her last year of office, scheduled to be termed out. But good, creative thinking can iron out that problem.

And to elevate that idea: Some cities have a strong mayor/strong city manager form of government, whereby the strong mayor is paid full time and is the head of the city, authorized to do more than run a meeting and cut ribbons.

The mayor, as chief executive, would hire and fire the city manager, with the approval of the council, and, depending on how the job is structured, pick the police chief, the finance director and the director of communications (or other city department heads).

Years ago, when I lived in Illinois, I used to cover Highland Park, where I was managing editor of the local newspaper. The city had a strong mayor/strong manager form of government, with a seven-member council (the mayor was one of the council members).

I watched tis system function for a decade. There were disputes between the two, often argued in the newspaper which enabled the residents to become more familiar with how a city really operates.

The mayor’s salary was less than that of the manager’s, with the manager overseeing employees at city hall and the mayor responsible for community outreach, public and resident concerns. The mayor often “suggested” what the manager should do – but the manager was no wimp. Each stood their ground and each had community support. In major disputes, the council would mediate.

I think it was a very effective form of government. The city did not have its own Utilities plant but it had many amenities and services. Highland Park was smaller than Palo Alto, but the two cities are comparable. Each had bright residents who cared about local affairs. The amenities were comparable, as were the sections with manicured lawns.

Would something like a strong mayor-strong manager government work in Palo Alto? I think so. It’s worth some thought. But let’s not sit around simply cogitating. Let’s consider probing into an alternative form of local government in Palo Alto.

Would it save the city money – with two highly paid positions, not just the city manager? Possibly.

Palo Alto’s city manager’s salary is $573,000 a year including benefits. He also has 2 highly paid deputy and assistant city managers, who handle much of the manager’s daily load.

What I really like about the strong mayor/strong manager set-up is that the mayor, elected by the people. He answers to the people. The city manager is not elected by the people and yet, the way the system works now, he runs the city – and at times, he runs the council. It’s time to end the authority of an unelected manager.

It's time for a change.

If I were on the council, I would move to form a thoughtful, fair, brilliant task force, provide it with a decent budget, to work to figure out a better form of government for Pal Alto, and affirm deadline, say 18 months, and allocate several staffers to assist.

We could consider a strong mayor/strong manager government, and, just think, we may like it!!!
Democracy.
What is it worth to you?

Comments

Posted by Jeffrey Lange, a resident of Community Center,
on Jan 7, 2023 at 2:39 pm

Jeffrey Lange is a registered user.

"I don't think every council member is suited to be mayor."

"...there's another option I think it is time for this city to strongly consider: Have the residents elect a mayor, not the council."

BINGO...but this will probably require a revision of the city charter pertaining to elected officials.

And chances are, no PACC member wants to initiate or support such a measure because it means that many of them will never get to fulfill their 'in-house' opportunities and/or aspirations of being chosen mayor by a mutual admiration society.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 7, 2023 at 4:26 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Palo Alto's city manager's salary is $573,000 a year including benefits. He also has 12 highly paid deputy and assistant city managers, who handle much of the manager's daily load."

Since all the City Manager and his highly paid communications team seen to be able to do is stonewall your questions, MS Diamond, those of other journalists and those of the public, change is indeed long overdue.

At the very least we need a regular Ask the City Manager session where he and his staff HAVE to answer our questions in public. We're not paying them the big bucks to amuse themselves stonewalling us and then applying for awards re how great they area.

More urgently we need a public review of the city's poerformance during the stornms. Why, for example, were we forced to play "Search For the Sandbags" and have teenage voiluneers doing the hard word of finding and fulling them.

Why, for another exampkle, did the city waiting until 5:04 PN to warn of us a project in EAST Palto Alto than was delaying traffic in Palo Alto for the hundreds of folks stuck unnecessarily in a traffic jam trying to cross the University Ave bridge and forced to make dangerous and frustrated detours?

Ms Kou does support residents and learn that we're often stuck at traffic lights due to failed road sensors. Good so we know the source of the problem but not WHY a failed former Traffic czar got the multi-million dollar traffic light timing contract so he can AGAIN fail and cause us needless delays.

Ms Kou was out filling sandbags and helping people find where they were wehn the city kept running out. Where was Mr. Shikada? Where were his 12 highly paid minions who couldn't even update PA's websites and alerts in a timely fashion??

Competence matters. Accountability matters. Oversight matters.


Posted by ALB, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 7, 2023 at 4:58 pm

ALB is a registered user.

Although Diana Diamond is always a lady she is misinformed concerning council member Lydia Kou. Lydia Kou will make a fine mayor. She is professional and understands the dynamics of governing with respect to
the inner workings of city government. She stands up for constituents. She has street smarts. She is not intimidated by the CM. I suggest that Diamond watch CC meetings in the future.

I do agree with her concerning Greer Stone who will be an outstanding vice mayor. I will never forget his vote against encryption. Greer Stone like Lydia Kou does his homework and cares deeply about residents and our town. We are fortunate that these smart public servants will take the helm to serve our community.


Posted by DianaDiamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 7, 2023 at 5:09 pm

DianaDiamond is a registered user.

ALB -- I watch nearly every city7 council -- and almost to the end of many long meetings. I think Lydia is a fine council member. I stand by what I wrote.


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 7, 2023 at 5:15 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

The idea of voting for a mayor is fine in theory except that most Palo Altans don't pay attention to CC elections so would probably not pay much attention to mayor race. Even those I know who would consider themselves very politically minded when it comes to state and federal elections, just don't appear to be very interested in local races.

We have residents who are taken unawares when their street is turned into a bike blvd, when street suddenly gets a center divide making it impossible for them to get in/out of their driveway from the wrong direction, and when other things that affect them suddenly happen without their prior knowledge. The likelihood is that voting for mayor would just pass them by also.

And for many people, voting for CC is more like a popularity contest. Perfect example is Cormack who was admired for her PTA work and library work, rather than for any of the things she said in her campaign. I have lost count of the number of times I have read on Town Square that they regret voting for her because they liked her community spirit in the past, but that she was not the council member they expected.

As for the rotation v popularity of the council itself, it sounds much more like a school class president situation where the one who promises to scratch my back best gets my vote scenario. As for what the mayor actually has power over, it is not clear to me if leadership is required, just an opportunity for one personal priority getting more attention than others.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 7, 2023 at 9:45 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Bystander makes some key points,

1) Yup. Sadly many Palo Altans don't pay attention and when that's pointed out, they're surorised. Recent example: LOTS of people are complaining about their increased utility bills on NextDoor (1500 postings) and few knew about the Utility Transfer Tax they;d just approved giving CPAU the right to keep "overcharging" us to feed the General Fund.

Oh, oopsie. What can we do?

2) Ms Cornmack is just echoing Ns Kniss's latest stab at changing the ways elections are run. When the voters elected a nore balanced, less developer-friendly council, they tried to limit campaign contributions for INDIVIDUAL contributors but not the business/ institutional backers who are their biggest contributors.

3) Re Ns Cormack's performancL her CC performance is laughabky predictable -- A) Push foir approval of Developer-friendly Project -- selll our water rights to a Burlingame office developer during a drought, replace a resident-servinng shopping center that generates sales with undefined "medical./retail"... B) When questioned on the details, refer a different question to staff, C) Then distract with another irrelevant question. DD) Pout, offer very detailed explanation on why she's still pushing Unwanted Developer Project X and why she's voting no.

4) Campaign and fund-raise institutional funds for developer-friendly candidates endorsed by businesses.


Posted by Estelle Callan, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 9:38 am

Estelle Callan is a registered user.

> "Palo Alto's city manager's salary is $573,000 a year including benefits. He also has 12 highly paid deputy and assistant city managers, who handle much of the manager's daily load."

>> "most Palo Altans don't pay attention to CC elections so would probably not pay much attention to mayor race."

All things considered and given the aforementioned comments, wouldn't it be far easier just to appoint the City Manager as Mayor since he already has a salaried full-time staff to assist him?

The PACC could then devote their energies to more pressing issues like addressing climate change, creating additional sister cities, and cutting ceremonial ribbons at newly established bike paths.


Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 9:46 am

Annette is a registered user.

I think we might not even be having this discussion if two things were certain: 1) the process CC used was fair and not so obviously influenced (if not determined) by cronyism; and 2) we had a City Manager that was, in both theory AND practice, accountable to City Council.

I agree that there should be time set aside at each CC meeting for residents to ask the City Manager questions - and get answers. As is, we may as well be living in OZ.

Unless someone goes completely rogue, I agree that the two likely candidates for mayor are Kou and Greer. I think both have been effective members of CC and are attuned to what residents want, need, and expect. Kou was elected in 2016, Greer in 2020. Additionally, Kou has served as Vice Mayor for the past year. Anyone who heard Burt's recitation of accomplishments at the last meeting knows that 2022 was a demanding year. I think the able backing of a strong Vice Mayor contributed to the Mayor's successes. Based on experience alone, Kou should be supported by her colleagues and voted in as Mayor. And Greer should be voted in as Vice Mayor this year and Mayor next year. This will save CC from spending value time on this annual "who's gonna be mayor" exercise again next year. In the future, hopefully residents will be electing a mayor.

Diversity is another reason for Council members to support Kou for Mayor. To state the obvious: she is a woman and Asian and an empathetic victim of a hate crime. All this augments her leadership abilities and I think it would be a missed opportunity if Kou is not named Mayor.


Posted by Bill Bucy, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 9:58 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

I like Diana's idea but with a slight modification. Make the mayor a separate office with a four-year term while retaining the same number of council members. Yes, it would give a single person a lot of authority, but would deliver direct accountability from an elected official.

Most importantly, an executive mayor could demand accountability and responsiveness from the city manager and staff. Back channel maneuvering with council members and stonewalling by the city manager or department heads would be greatly reduced.

Think greater openess and accountability overall.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 10:05 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Annette -- as usual -- makes some escellent points. It's worth nothing the deafening silence from the City Manager's office about the hateful, politically motivated attack on Ms Kou. It was the same type of deafening silence when PA was being littered with anti=Semetic leaflets.

Maybe if the CM had twice the staff they could have managed to write a statement saying hate-based attacks aren't welcome in Palo Alto? Guess they needed a consultant's high-priced blessing

"All things considered and given the aforementioned comments, wouldn't it be far easier just to appoint the City Manager as Mayor since he already has a salaried full-time staff to assist him?

The PACC could then devote their energies to more pressing issues like addressing climate change, creating additional sister cities, and cutting ceremonial ribbons at newly established bike paths."

Hah! And sadly one of the newly elected counsel members campaigned on just that premise -- that city staff didn't need oversight and that it WAS thus preferable to concentrate on "big" issues like that.


Posted by Ross Petrie, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 10:10 am

Ross Petrie is a registered user.

Just because someone adequately fills the role of a lower-tiered elected representative (i.e. city council member, congressperson, vice-mayor, vice president etc.) it does not mean or confirm that they are capable of being an effective mayor or a president.


Posted by Beatrice Young, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 11:15 am

Beatrice Young is a registered user.

I was always under the impression that being Mayor of Palo Alto is more of a ceremonial title compared to a functional role and that Palo Alto City Council members merely take turns at being one every few years.

Outside of presiding over council meetings, what does a Palo Alto mayor actually do?


Posted by Desmond Phillips, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 11:28 am

Desmond Phillips is a registered user.

"Outside of presiding over council meetings, what does a Palo Alto mayor actually do?"

@Beatrice Young...in a City Manager form of local government, the mayor is more of a perfunctory role.

In actuality, it is no different than being a regular council member except that the mayor is issued a gavel & gets to sit in the middle of the pack.

The only thing missing is a buffalo head hat with horns.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 8, 2023 at 2:11 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

The Los Altos city council fired their city manager for blatantly ignoring their directives, as did a few other communities recently.

Not sure why PA doesn't provide actual oversight.


Posted by Terrence Jeffries, a resident of Los Altos,
on Jan 9, 2023 at 9:36 am

Terrence Jeffries is a registered user.

• "The Los Altos city council fired their city manager for blatantly ignoring their directives, as did a few other communities recently."

"Not sure why PA doesn't provide actual oversight."

^ Simple explanation...the PACC follows the City Manager's directives.


Posted by Bill Thompson, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jan 9, 2023 at 11:06 am

Bill Thompson is a registered user.

In all fairness to the Palo Alto City Council members past and present...

(1) The Palo Alto City Council members are merely civic-minded local residents with no expertise in managing a municipality.

(2) As a result, the City Council must rely on highly-trained professionals like the City Manager (e.g. Keane, Shikada et al) and their highly-skilled staff of subordinates and outside consultants to ensure the proper administration of city operations.

(3) This 'head in the sand' practice on the part of the PA City Council encourages and better prepares some city council members to seek higher office (i.e. SC County Supervisor) where they can easily and adeptly apply the same technique in the name of public service and civic duty.

Deja vu?


Posted by Barbara Gross, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 9, 2023 at 11:17 am

Barbara Gross is a registered user.

I support Jeffery Lange's comment. I would like to see an elected mayor and would be willing to participate in an organized citizens group to pursue this.
An elected professional mayor would directly answer to all voters, representing all neighborhoods and facing re-election based on competent management.


Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 9, 2023 at 2:23 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Not having an elected mayor should not preclude accountability.

This is a problem in Palo Alto. Council Members rely on the CM and Staff, arguably too much, accepting what they are told about staffing levels, compensation levels, and the direction the City needs to go on various things such as the business tax, utility rates, traffic measures, the use of consultants, housing, development, etc. This might work if there was some real accountability. Without that, the CM and senior staff pretty much determine what happens in Palo Alto. Residents have been accepting of this until several not-so-good things happened, some threatening to become the new normal. Examples: the unnecessary imposition of a curfew, the closure of libraries followed by reduced operating hours, the imposition of encryption (since reversed thanks to the new chief), inadequate staffing in PAPD and the co-incident increase in crimes that leave residents asking "what is going on here", a "typo" that resulted in the loss of affordable housing at the Hotel President, the many oddities associated with the Castilleja project, the Junior Museum fiasco, the annual "hope we get lucky" approach to staffing PAFD. All that is in contrast to robust staffing in the CM's department and compensation practices that make more sense for a much larger city than Palo Alto.

This does tie back to the initial subject: choosing a mayor. Changing the charter so that we change our governance model will take some time. In the meanwhile, is it too much to expect improvement in accountability? Hopefully CC will choose a mayor tonight who is responsive to residents and cognizant of what needs to be done regarding accountability. I think that argues in favor of Kou this year and Greer next year.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 9, 2023 at 6:12 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Echoing Annette's comment on the need for accountability. Over the decades we've seen too much fiscal and common sense mismanagement by our EXTRENELY highly paid city managers who pretend to want citixen input and then send us surveys that have NO way to reject a proposal and that fail to relect citizen priorities,

You'd think our $600,000 current CM with a staff of 12 assistant managers and associate managers could at least communicate clearly and accurately with the community, could adminisiter non-laughable surveys.


Posted by Doug Gleason, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 10, 2023 at 10:38 am

Doug Gleason is a registered user.

"Outside of presiding over council meetings, what does a Palo Alto mayor actually do?"

^ In a council-manager government such as Palo Alto, the role of mayor is fairly ceremonial. The Mayor's main jobs in Palo Alto are to chair the City Council meetings and work with the City Manager to set the agenda. The Mayor also gives the annual “state of the city" speech.

So all things considered, being Mayor of Palo Alto is not that big a deal unless one is a PACC member with those aspirations.

As another poster noted earlier, "The only thing missing is a buffalo head hat with horns."


Posted by Justin Tarr, a resident of Woodside,
on Jan 12, 2023 at 12:52 pm

Justin Tarr is a registered user.

The PA mayoral elections are over and no constructive changes have been implemented to change things.

Time to move on and get over it.


Posted by Miriam Jacobs, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jan 13, 2023 at 12:42 pm

Miriam Jacobs is a registered user.

We don't have these kinds of issues in Mountain View.

Palo Alto is unique from the standpoint that it is a population comprised of clueless posers and do-gooders.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jan 13, 2023 at 3:08 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Miriam Jacobs, and you also have a business tax based on reality whereas Palo Alto can't even produce a business registry with employee counts and then still caves to the Chamber of Commerce.


Posted by Gertrude Petrovsky, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jan 14, 2023 at 12:51 pm

Gertrude Petrovsky is a registered user.

Palo Alto is an alternate universe based on wishful thinking.


Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 14, 2023 at 10:23 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

@Getrude Petrovsky .No kidding. Yes.Alternate universe. Many at work “hybrid, remote" r clueless in front of a computer screen, Cal Pers safeguards, Unions, upper management pay increases has doomed us from a fair, Democratic process of participation in governing our tax dollars as a whole community 4 infrastructure up. It's broken.

I commute to RWC & back daily. The “iconic" & historic HWY from Atherton 2 S Palo Alto is a near road of rubble & flying pebbles of pavement debree.

Why is Menlo's portion of ECR smooth going? Why is RWC (not perfect yet better) doing a better job on ECR's road way?

What is Palo Alto doing 2 work in partnership w Cal Trans & Stanford U to ensure a safe crossing & passage 2 Cal Ave, T & C, Stan Shop Ctr or Churchill @ Paly? I can only assume there either 1)no partnership or 2) a long standing law suite.

The road thru ECR from Menlo boundry & So. PA is treacherous. Alto Locale & Sandhill look so nice & pristine. While us on foot, or bike or auto remain in peril. How Stanford gets a pass on this major arterial/vein is beyond reality.

During these storms the loose gravel spits up like shrapnel, and is further unraveling w storm uplift. It is a dirt road of a Century & a half ago.

A group of 5 humans huddled in a down pour, under 2 umbrellas on a 2 sqft island at W Galvez & ECR at 5:30pm on a dark, Jan nite.

I consider Petaluma. Pet Blvd N. & S. Similar circumstance. While here, a major ECR artiorial Hwy, gets zero infrastructure upgrades & many interior new builds. Is this a dire result of Prop 13?

How does Stanford avoid thier responsibility to partner w city & county infrastructure: Sewer/HWY upgrades? They own both sides. East (PAHS, Town & Country...etc).

I pulled over twice tonight along ECR w/in PA Town limit 4 the flying road debree. W/ all the loose gravel flying up from fragmented concrete on ECR(much worse since San Francisquito Creek flood), I was frozen behind the wheel of my 20 yr-old eco car.


Posted by Jacob Weiss, a resident of another community,
on Jan 15, 2023 at 8:33 am

Jacob Weiss is a registered user.

Nothing will ever change in Palo Alto as the die has already been cast ensuring an eternally toothless PACC perpetually ruled by a more dominant/alpha City Manager's office.

Palo Alto resident PACC votes are essentially meaningless as the council members march to the beat of Mr. Shikada's drum.


Posted by Burke Long, a resident of another community,
on Jan 15, 2023 at 12:19 pm

Burke Long is a registered user.

"We don't have these kinds of issues in Mountain View."

^ Mountain View and Palo Alto are two different worlds as are the residents.


Posted by Rufus Young, a resident of another community,
on Jan 16, 2023 at 11:03 am

Rufus Young is a registered user.

My daughter resides in Palo Alto and has shared these complaints regarding the city council. She refers to them as a kangaroo council.

With a newly chosen mayor and vice-mayor, let's just see if they pro-actively respond to all immediate PA resident concerns while scaling back the power and influence of the city manager's office.

If not, it is time to change the structure of Palo Alto municipal governance.


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