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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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Analysis/paralysis: The infamous ‘Palo Alto Process’ must go

Uploaded: Sep 24, 2023
I’m Palo Alto Processed out. That long-standing famous, and for some, infamous process, must come to a close. Projects coming before the Palo Alto City Council and its committees take ages to get done, i.e., finished, completed. Hundreds of paid consultants have offered suggestions that seem to end up on those dusty shelves months later, perhaps because they weren’t quite the right solutions.

Nearly two decades ago, I asked a former council member to explain to me why this city debates and debates in deciding what to do and how to get it done. The council member explained to me (paraphrased) that “Many Palo Altans think this city is special – just look at how many bright residents with college degrees live here, even lots of Ph.D.s are in our midst. So, obviously we are a smart community, and if we’re so smart, we should be able to arrive at thought-out decisions for our community. We just have to together find the one right answer.

“And to get to that point, it takes time to discuss all aspects of an issue, all pros and cons, just to find that right answer, which smart people do. And this all takes time, and studies and consultants to accomplish. That’s why the Palo Alto Process is slow. But that’s okay, because we know we are smart and the process proves again we are right.”

This “process” of it being okay to take a long time to get things done has affected other projects in town:
• The pedestrian/bike bridge across Highway 101 took more than 20 years to decide upon and build, and ended up costing not $10 million but about $22 million.
• The city has finally decided to approve the Palo Alto History Museum after more than 20 years of cajoling and pleading from groups of residents. It still has to be built.

Current case in point: The PA City Council’s decade-plus-long discussion on providing grade crossings over or under Caltrain tracks so cars will not be delayed by train gates. At first the council focused on all four intersections-- and then three-- then four and now three again– Churchill Avenue. Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. Palo Alto Avenue at Alma will be determined later, the council decided.

Recently, the council learned that it could get $29.7 million from federal and state grants. BUT (and that’s a big “but”) Palo Alto would have to make its final decisions on the crossing alignments (autos go under, or over, or hybrid model that combines a raised track with a lowered road) by June 24 –nine whole months from now.

The council has already spent at least $3 million-plus on consultants as part of its years-long effort to figure out what exactly should be done. The council also agreed recently to pay Caltrain $106,676 in exchange for assistance in refining local plans for grade separations,

While staff says the track configuration decision can be made by June 24, some council members are doubtful – Pat Burt for one, chair of the council’s Rail Committee.

As Weekly reporter Gennady Sheyner aptly wrote in his recent story, Burt’s committee promised the studies that must be conducted before a decision can be made – “evaluating the pros and cons of each existing alternative when it comes to east-west a connectivity, traffic congestion, pedestrian and bicycle circulation, costs, private property acquisitions, environmental impacts and visual impacts.”

All that makes me wonder what the Rail Committees has been discussing for the past several years.

Sheyner’s story also reported, “Burt also said he worried that “speeding things up will keep the city from fully evaluating things like bike improvements, for instance. He called the timeline ‘ambitious,’ and said he is not ‘sanguine’ about being able to get to this point.” He also worried that some in the community may have “concerns” with this.

Analysis, Paralysis, I say again. And trying to please every0ne is an impossibility.

The proposed analysis will cost the city another $109,000, the staff estimated. The study, of course, will be conducted by the city’s rail consultant, Aecom.

Resident Steve Rosenbaum, who has participated in previous grade separation discussions, told the council he didn’t want to see the city “forced into making a quick decision on a project that’s going to have a long-lasting effect on this city.”

Yes, The Process is still alive and well in our fair city.

What do I think? This grade-crossing issue is becoming ridiculous. The city has been discussing this for more than a decade. Yet the committee and some council members still want more studies, more analyses, etc., which will cost more money. The fact that the city might lose the $29.7 million in grants is not even a driving force.

Enough! Just make a decision and move forward, council
As Judith Wasserman wrote online in a comment on the story, “It's a classic case of the perfect being an enemy of the good. Of course, there will be push-back - this is Palo Alto, after all. You CC guys get elected to have backbones, not be push-(back)overs. I agree, Judith.

Getting rid of the Palo Alto Process will not be easy, because in our town, it’s a mindset, and minds are hard to change. But we can start at the city council and commission level -– the council could impose deadlines for staff, consultants’ contracts can also include specified deadlines, etc. This way, the city can save time and money, and projects could be finished – without all this over-the-top analysis/paralysis.
Palo Alto can do it, can’t we? We are a smart city.

Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?

Comments

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Sep 24, 2023 at 8:19 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

The Palo Alto Process can be useful in preventing a poor decision from being implemented.

Grade separation at the Palo Alto rail crossings will cost the City 100s of millions of dollars (even with the grant money mentioned), massively disrupt traffic for years, and possibly take away people's homes.

Even according to Caltrain, it has no prospect of increasing the number of trains it runs in the foreseeable future (and at its current burn rate will exhaust its reserves in just 2 years!). There is thus no need to change the current track crossings to accommodate increased train frequency.

Palo Alto should instead use the funding for a new Cubberley Community Center, or to help reduce its substantial pension obligation shortfall.




Posted by scott, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Sep 25, 2023 at 10:17 pm

scott is a registered user.

Thank you.

I was looking up details about Wilton Court the other night to fact-check myself. I thought it took five years. I was wrong. It took closer to ten.

Palo Alto Process needs to go.

It's mind boggling to think about how much work must go on at city hall just to put together meeting packets for issues that should have been decided in earlier meetings, or even handled administratively with no direct political input.


Posted by Silver Linings, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 26, 2023 at 12:36 am

Silver Linings is a registered user.

If you want more from City Counsel, it's time to make council positions full-time paid positions, instead of essentially volunteer positions. In this case, you do get what you (or the companies the councilmembers work for, or the major donors they don't disclose to the public before the elections, such as developers) get what you pay for...

Palo Alto has a $1B budget. We have long had the problem that lower-income residents are not represented on the dais because they cannot afford to volunteer for that kind of commitment. Make it a salaried full-time position.

Most of the small communities around us have volunteer councils, too, but their budgets are not commensurate with ours.

Oakland, SJ, San Diego, Los Angeles, SF, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento -- city councils are full-time paid positions. Even Menlo Park and Compton compensate councilmembers more than Palo Alto.
Web Link

People like to complain about the Palo Alto process, but democracy is messy and imperfect, and it's way better than the alternative.


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 26, 2023 at 7:33 am

Bystander is a registered user.

A simple remodel to our home, the addition of another bedroom, bathroom and bonus room took almost 2 years due to the Palo Alto process instead of the initial period of months estimated by our contractors. This was a painful process with many disruptions to family life and we would not want to go through a similar process again. There is a joke going round contractors that many marriages don't survive the project, and we can see why! The pressures on the family are enormous and something most families are unprepared for. Thankfully we survived, but as children grew during this time, the project did not solve the issues we were trying to solve, we survived in spite of not having the extra space we desired.

The two City projects that I have taken most notice of in recent memory were Mitchell Park library and the Footbridge. The library needed serious attention, but I am still not convinced we got the best facilities for our bucks and the amount of time was painfully drawn out, starting with a very badly worded survey which didn't show the options many of us would have preferred. Likewise the footbridge changed from a design competition and a beauty pageant to what we have, a functional if not dull bridge over a highway.

The Palo Alto Process is now so infamous that many contractors refuse to even bid for a Palo Alto project, just not wanting to deal with any Palo Alto project, or put in such a huge bid to sound unlikely.

This needs to stop all round.


Posted by Victor+Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Sep 26, 2023 at 1:32 pm

Victor+Bishop is a registered user.

Bystander
Remember they got grant money for the bridge. But then it became an ego trip for a certain council member ( let's have a design contest. We need an iconic bridge that will tell everyone they are in Palo Alto). Then they ditch the results of the contest because it would be too expensive,

Remember Alma plaza, the library, the firehouse on middlefield


Posted by DTN Paul, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 26, 2023 at 1:52 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Left or right, NIMBY or YIMBY, I think basic competence is a very rare commodity these days.


Posted by Bill Bucy, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 29, 2023 at 9:00 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

Grade separations aside, there are other issues confronting Palo Alto that demand more and better decision making. Lengthy approval processes for even simple home remodels directly affect residents. Inattention to state housing mandates enables developers to build what they want where they want. Costly consultant studies often resolve nothing and fuel endless debate.

It's almost as if successive councils employ foot dragging to allow our highly educated nit-picking residents with too much free time to blow off steam. That might reduce the number of people angered by the final decision but it is poor leadership.


Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 2:07 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

AECOM is definitely the only winner here.


Posted by Barbara Gross, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 10:45 am

Barbara Gross is a registered user.

Diana - Is time to reconfigure our local government to an elected Mayor with term limits? Any interest in forming a serious group to accomplish this?


Posted by CityWatch, a resident of Community Center,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 12:51 pm

CityWatch is a registered user.

The 'Palo Alto Way' is firmly engrained & standard operating procedure by the PACC. Deliberation in the decision-making process is frequently implemented to ensure that sound choices are made with key advisements from highly qualified (and highly paid) consultants who are specialists in their respective fields.

Palo Alto is wealthy city with a sound tax base so there is no reason for council members to act in haste. It is also an upscale mecca for liberal elites as reflected by its exorbitant residential property values, excellent public schools, and progressive perspectives.

Case in point...with an African American population that comprises less than 2% of the city's overall population, municipal employees will now be celebrating Juneteenth with another paid holiday.
This partially explains why morale levels remain increasingly high among city employees and residents alike.

Having grown-up in San Bernardino (locals call it San Bernaghetto), Palo Alto is light years beyond and it is no wonder why so many folks want to live here.

Instead of complaining consider counting your blessings and let the PACC do their job. After all, you voted for them so takes some personal responsibility as well.


Posted by James Bodine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 1:28 pm

James Bodine is a registered user.

Another option would be for PA residents to directly elect the mayor or city manager and give them autocratic power to operate the city accordingly.

A daily elected municipal dictator who has the best interests of Palo Alto citizens might be the next step towards getting things done.


Posted by James Bodine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 1:34 pm

James Bodine is a registered user.

Not 'daily' elected but rather duly elected by the citizens of Palo Alto. *L*

Sometimes all it takes is one truly dedicated and competent person to get the job properly done.

What has transpired so far obviously isn't working. We can still have council members but their roles should be more ceremonial (i.e. ribbon cuttings, shovel digging photo-ops, public speakers at Lions/Kiwanis/Rotary etc.)than governing.


Posted by Deborah, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 3:13 pm

Deborah is a registered user.

James Bodine - That's a good idea. Problems usually are structural. A directly elected mayor would weight balance towards decision making.


Posted by Deborah, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 3:14 pm

Deborah is a registered user.

Pat Burt says council might not be able to decide about grade crossings before June and to hell with $300M? He should lose his seat for that because he should know better and has the political clout to make sure that doesn't happen.

Maybe it's time to start showing up to council meeting with signs that say. "To Govern Is To Choose."


Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 7:25 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

I agree very much with the idea that the mayor should be elected by the people. I also believe that the City Attorney should be elected, as is done elsewhere. Instead of having a healthy system of checks and balances, both the Judiciary (City Attorney) and Executive (City Manager) report solely into the legislative body (City Attorney), which accordingly, wears all three hats without any division of power.

Perhaps that worked in the past, prior to the major problems and challenges we face now-- unprecedented and growing wealth divide, outsized power of big companies and billionaire commercial developers, and problematic and still increasing jobs-to-homes ratio, to name a few. But it isn't working now.

We have seen the City Manager and City Attorney bend the rules in monumental to accommodate billionaire interests out of fear of being sued -- e.g. Castilleja's 3-story underground commercial garage in an R1 neighborhood with entrance on Bryant Bike Boulevard; the failure to enforce the Ellis Act on AJ Capital, enabling the billionaire private equity firm to convert President Hotel from residential to commercial use; the unprecedented windfall to Sobrato, enabling him to convert residential lots to commercial use despite having aquired many of the residential lots under suspicious circumstances - Web Link

Having an elected top executive (Mayor) and an elected top lawyer (City Attorney) could ensure that operational decisions and legal strategy is done with the community in mind.

Importantly, a switch to elected positions will not work until and unless Palo Alto put reasonable Campain Contribution Limits in place. A very reasonable proposal was recommended by the League of Women Voters but rejected without consideration by Council - Web Link . Without contribution limits, we could have a City Attorney & Manager bought by the s


Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 7:25 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

I agree very much with the idea that the mayor should be elected by the people. I also believe that the City Attorney should be elected, as is done elsewhere. Instead of having a healthy system of checks and balances, both the Judiciary (City Attorney) and Executive (City Manager) report solely into the legislative body (City Attorney), which accordingly, wears all three hats without any division of power.

Perhaps that worked in the past, prior to the major problems and challenges we face now-- unprecedented and growing wealth divide, outsized power of big companies and billionaire commercial developers, and problematic and still increasing jobs-to-homes ratio, to name a few. But it isn't working now.

We have seen the City Manager and City Attorney bend the rules in monumental to accommodate billionaire interests out of fear of being sued -- e.g. Castilleja's 3-story underground commercial garage in an R1 neighborhood with entrance on Bryant Bike Boulevard; the failure to enforce the Ellis Act on AJ Capital, enabling the billionaire private equity firm to convert President Hotel from residential to commercial use; the unprecedented windfall to Sobrato, enabling him to convert residential lots to commercial use despite having aquired many of the residential lots under suspicious circumstances - Web Link

Having an elected top executive (Mayor) and an elected top lawyer (City Attorney) could ensure that operational decisions and legal strategy is done with the community in mind.

Importantly, a switch to elected positions will not work until and unless Palo Alto put reasonable Campain Contribution Limits in place. A very reasonable proposal was recommended by the League of Women Voters but rejected without consideration by Council - Web Link . Without contribution limits, we could have a City Attorney & Manager bought by the s


Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 7:26 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

(oops) by the same billionaire special interests that seem to have outsized influence on City Council currently. I think it is worth considering, at least.


Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 30, 2023 at 7:33 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

One last edit -- I meant to follow "the legislative" with "City Council" rather than City Attorney.


Posted by Jake Schaefer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 1, 2023 at 7:40 am

Jake Schaefer is a registered user.

Since the Palo Alto City Council members are little more than goodwill ambassadors for developer interests, paid holidays, and sychophany for the directives of the city manager, do we really need them governing our city?

As another poster noted, their roles should be more along the lines of ceremonial. Upon being elected, they could be issued a colorful sash emboldened with the City of Palo Alto logo to wear about town.

Let's leave it at that.


Posted by Barry Weisman, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 1, 2023 at 8:23 am

Barry Weisman is a registered user.

@Ms. Eisenberg...the only way your idea could be implemented is if the city council voted for such changes (which it won't) or if there is a citywide referendum to abolish the city council replacing it with neighborhood steering committees who address their key issues directly with an elected mayor.

The city council is a Palo Alto tradition and though its actions are oftentimes questionable or utterly counterproductive, there are many aspiring future council members who will gladly continue the pervasive ineptitude with their head scratching decisions and dubious appointments.

Then they go on to become county supervisors but rarely anything higher because their skill sets are limited and underfed.


Posted by Lenora Jensen, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Oct 1, 2023 at 10:42 am

Lenora Jensen is a registered user.

The Palo Alto Process should be renamed The Palo Alto Recess when it comes to PACC deliberations on key issues.

Then again, we elected these city representatives, most likely because no one else wanted the job.


Posted by PH, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 1, 2023 at 3:47 pm

PH is a registered user.

Too much to unpack. Part of "the process" creates long-standing community consensus which can survive elections and new egos on council. That is good. Part of the process is inefficiency that causes delay. That is bad. Part of the process is that democracy sometimes must choose between more worse and less more worse futures. That is hard. It's really hard to choose between almost equally undesirable future alternatives. Doing nothing is a choice. If the community chooses to do nothing why is that any more or less decisive than choosing to do something?

While I have generally agreed that PA should consider paying its council members to be full time, it's not clear that would solve this problem.


Posted by NTB2, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 2, 2023 at 1:50 am

NTB2 is a registered user.

Follow the leader who snub the Gov money in place of the private money who lead the leaders to the brick wall .


Posted by Jack Lewis, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 2, 2023 at 8:25 am

Jack Lewis is a registered user.

• If you want more from City Counsel, it's time to make council positions full-time paid positions,

••PA should consider paying its council members to be full time, it's not clear that would solve this problem.

^ The average pay for city council members nationally & depending on population is $128,000.00 per year with a high of $175,000.00.

Are the PACC members worth paying this much? Being a city council member is essentially a part-time job regardless of whether they are being paid or not and a 'professional' council member will also have to hire staff. Do PA taxpayers and residents actually want to subsidize an expenditure such as this?

Multiply $150,000.00 + staffing costs times the number of PACC council members and the total costs becomes astronomical.

It's OK for a big city but Palo Alto is not a big city, just a fancier version of Mountain View.


Posted by PH, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 2, 2023 at 11:26 am

PH is a registered user.

@Jack Lewis

PACC controls a $1B budget. 7x$150k < $1M. $1M is .001% of $1B.

Do you really pay your own professional money managers .001% or do you use a volunteer?

And in Palo Alto, beside running a $1B city, your "volunteer" city council regulates a mult-trillion dollar land-use development industry.

There's good reason to want dedicated full-time members.





Posted by Helen Jessup, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 2, 2023 at 11:41 am

Helen Jessup is a registered user.

@PH...given the fiscal duties you have noted, are the current PACC even qualified to handle such responsibilities let alone being paid to do so?

It is one thing to get incompetence and deliberation for free and another to have to pay for it via taxpayer coffers.

The 7x $150K estimate is low because there will be added expenditures including staff assistants who most likely not work for free.

Like various consumer electronics, it is imperative to limit 'bloatware' that detracts from the task(s) at hand.


Posted by PH, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Oct 2, 2023 at 2:26 pm

PH is a registered user.

@Helen "are the current PACC even qualified to handle such responsibilities let alone being paid to do so"

Maybe not, but democracy is democracy. If there are no qualified citizens then all is lost anyway. It's up to voters to find and pick them.

At the end of the day 7 people will do this job competent or not paid or not. The simple hope is that payment would allow council members to dedicate full time to the job.

Honestly, I hadn't thought about "staffing" council members, but even if you give each seat $1M for staffing, $7M is a rounding error compared to $1B. One good decision by council can save tens if not hundreds of millions and one bad decision can waste that much.

When I was a cc member, my inner Republican desperately wanted to be able to RIF staff without union bumping rights. Every organization does have bloatware, and everybody knows who it is. One good organization pruning, and the tree comes alive again. But bumping rights prioritizes seniors, some of whom are running out the clock on their pensions. Now there is something to be said about protect mgt from RIF'ing all the high paid, experienced employees and replacing them with rookies, and ..... its complicated.

I do not wish to slam the current PACC. I think PA has done a better job than most. I have always admired PA despite slams on the process.





Posted by mjh, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 3, 2023 at 5:22 pm

mjh is a registered user.

After decades of observing the so called "Palo Alto Process" unfold, this has more to do with commercial developers almost always requesting multiple exceptions to what is permitted for their proposed projects. Which holds up their development applications while they negotiate with the planning department to reach a compromise. Usually to get more than permitted but less than requested.

The commercial development at 2100 El Camino was a poster child for this practice with the developer, as quoted in the local press at the time, angrily claiming that the Palo Alto Process took too long. Completely ignoring his role in delaying his development application for several years because he kept refusing to comply with what was permitted in the municipal code.


Posted by Jacob Steinman , a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 4, 2023 at 12:41 pm

Jacob Steinman is a registered user.

Being a Menlo Park resident, I can only observe but not critique the priorities and visions of the Palo Alto City Council.

On the other hand and compared to other municipalities, it difficult to view the PACC as productive and efficient when it comes to city governance.

One might get the impression that the council members are happy just to be there.

How sad.


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