Procrastination isn’t progress—even in Palo Alto | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Almanac Online |

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An Alternative View

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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Procrastination isn’t progress—even in Palo Alto

Uploaded: Oct 30, 2023

I am tired of complaining that it takes too long to get things started – and completed – by Palo Alto’s city staff. And, it turns out, so are many other residents in town, as evidenced by blogs responses on Palo Alto Online.
For example, Barbara Gross, a very civic-minded resident in this city, wrote on Palo Alto about delays, notably, “The train crossovers, the flooding caused by creeks, the roadway quality, the absurd traffic-calming designs – all are examples that have been before the Council & Staff for years! As a longtime resident, I believe you are failing our community.”

Another resident complained, “Sooooo, when's the city FINALLY going to restore all the libraries to their full schedules -- or do we have to listen to our ‘leaders’ who keep pleading poverty and threatening to cut emergency dispatchers??"

RW, under his (her?) online pen name, Consider Your Options, wrote, “The council didn’t have a plan for Cal Ave and this is the result. They allowed a mishmash of s tents in the street that block retailers. The whole area is unappealing, starting with the barriers. The city ignored the concerns of retailers like Mollie Stone. The city needs to do more than throw some games on the road. It needs a concerted effort to revitalize the street. The vacancy signs are everywhere. Obviously, what they are doing now is not working. At a bare minimum the city should be reviewing its decision.”
Another resident, upset with delays and using costly consultants to recommend signage on Cal Ave, said, “City Council is considering: hiring a consultant to look at different designs for the street and come back with a report next fall (2024) -- and how the street with be configured in the meantime. Does it take big bucks, 2 consultancies and our huge well-paid staff to put up a colorful banner saying ‘BUSINESS DISTRICT’ with arrows directing traffic to the streets parallel to Cal Ave??”

Recently, several residents in North Palo Alto say they have waited six years, and are still waiting, to have the city build a dog park in their area. They point out that South Palo Alto has three dog parks, and six years ago they were told by city officials that their area would get one, too. That has not happened yet.

My own list of inordinate delays to get projects completed include:

• Installing digital signs at the entrances to two public garages (at High and Bryant Avenues) to indicate the number and floor location of empty parking spaces in the garages. (Downtown San Jose had such counters in all their public garages 15 years ago.) When Liz Kniss was stepping off the council six years ago, she asked City Manager Ed Shikada about the delay and she told the council then, “We’re working on it?”

• A big delay (since 2009) in solving the routine daily traffic jam-up at the Embarcadero Road-El Camino intersection. Sometimes it takes four or five minutes to get through that crossing, in part because of poorly-timed traffic signals.

• A feasibility study regarding permanent closure to automobile traffic on California Avenue has been studied by a consulting firm for nearly a year and now, and council is asking that the study be extended until December 2024.

• And yes, that horrible delay in rebuilding the Pope-Chaucer bridge and protecting the San Francisquito Creek from spilling over onto residential yards along portions of that creek. The dramatic overflow occurred n 1998, and yet still nothing has been done to improve the situation. The Army Corps of Engineers were involved, then several consultants, and we’re still waiting, 25 years later, hoping the errant weather patterns will not produce another flood.

What can we do?

I can’t explain why it take staff so long to get projects done. But I can speculate reasons that may come into play contributing to this procrastination.

• The council never sets a deadline to staff as to a project completion date. Example: Utilities Department staffers have no deadline as to when the upgrade of transformer lines should be completed, yet until that happens, the city can’t handle customer increases in electricity usage. Yet private employees understand deadlines, and usually try hard to meet them.

• It may be part of the culture at city hall. City employee raises usually apply to all employees in a given category, and there are no merit increases. So, what is the incentive for a staffer to work faster?
• Oftentimes, when a reporter asks how a project is coming, the answer is: We’re studying it” or “We’re working on it.” I’ve received that same response for two or three years in a row on some projects.

• The city manager and some other department heads have talked about their heavy schedules and all the work they are handling. If that’s the case, then maybe the council or its designee needs to prioritize some of the work.

• I don’t know if this happens, but deadlines should also be assigned to consultants.

So, the public waits, and the result is that things, take a long time to get done in town.

Do any of you, blog readers, have any comments or ideas about these delays and how they could be remedied? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 30, 2023 at 8:11 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I'm of the opinion that carrots work better than sticks. Many delivery drivers, garbage collectors, USPS deliverers get a bonus if they get back early from their rounds. While that may encourage sloppy work or dangerous driving, it does seem to produce faster work.

Deadlines are possible, but giving City staff a bonus for completed work in a shorter time may help counter delays. Delays cost in time and money, perhaps a bonus offered for finishing a project early may in fact cost the same as the cost of interminable delays.

Posted by Yesterday & Today, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 31, 2023 at 7:41 am

Yesterday & Today is a registered user.

Using two venerable adages, there are also two ways of looking at this...

(1) Rome wasn't built in a day.

(2) Haste makes waste.

Perhaps the key is finding some sort of middle ground.

Posted by Pogo2, a resident of Professorville,
on Oct 31, 2023 at 5:16 pm

Pogo2 is a registered user.

Financial incentives work to motivate getting work done quickly and well or penalties for sloppy or work that takes far to long to complete. The company I worked for was faced with a financial penalty of $17 million by a European country (at the time, $ and Euros were roughly the same) alleging a fraudulent importation. It landed on my desk. I couldn't beg being busy (I was) but time was of the essence. Two weeks of my living on airplanes in Europe following a highly complex freight forwarding audit trail, the allegation was dismissed. Why don't we see that kind of motivation for the city to act? I suspect the maze of halls and offices is enough to wear down the motivation.

Posted by Jesj, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 1, 2023 at 10:41 am

Jesj is a registered user.

One reason for the incompetence is a lack of consequences for municipal workers. Employees at companies lose their jobs for poor work and incessant delays. Who was deemed accountable for the infrastructure long over-runs and increases in costs for the Middlefield library, the bike bridge over 101, ongoing 'we don't know' regarding the Cal Ave issue (need MORE TIME?) after 3+ years? Examples in the Bay Area: who was fired for the Millennium Towers debacle? The mis-processed holes in the beam in the transit center in SF? The mis-processed anchor bolts in the eastern Bay Bridge? These three 'oops' cost billions of $, which we pay eventually through our taxes. Too often municipal workers know they will not be fired, tarnishing the efforts and reputations for those who work hard for the sake of working hard and doing their jobs.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 1, 2023 at 10:44 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"I suspect the maze of halls and offices is enough to wear down the motivation."

Sorry, Pogo2. Our "leaders" started to spend the big bucks to address that problem almost 10 years ago and "only" took a few more years to actually do it.

The city sure has a problem with cost-efective signage as evidenced by this, Cal Ave and some of their sillier traffic-calming efforts.

'Wayfinding' program to bring signs, monument to Palo Alto City Hall
City embarks on $300,000 effort to make Hamilton Avenue building easier to navigate"
Web Link (July 2014)

Visitors who have a hard time finding their way around Palo Alto City Hall will soon get plenty of help from the city, which is embarking on a $300,000 effort to install a network of signs in and around its primary civic hub.

The ambitious sign program, which is part of a $4.5-million effort to make City Hall more welcoming and inclusive, includes 21 separate signs, including building signs, freestanding signs and direction signs leading people to the Civic Center's underground garage."

Re the latest absurd traffic-calming effort, check out northbound Middlefield at University. Note the backed up left hand lane -- the only through lane -- and
watch all the cars getting stuck in the middle of the intersection, one leading to 101. They obviously learned nothing since 2016 when they limited through traffic at the Middlefield/Embarcadero and Middlefield/Oregon with the crazy merges, bollards etc.

Web Link 2016

"Narrower lanes on Middlefield Road could slow traffic, improve safety
New bike lanes, crosswalks and other road changes are in the works"

Nothing like slowing traffic so cars stuck in the middle of Oregon get to deal with 4 lanes of traffic speeding at them and mayor Adrian Fine blaming the county

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Nov 1, 2023 at 10:50 am

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

People in any organization will be lazy if they can get away with it. Unfortunately government is only minimally accountable to citizens through the infrequent and indirect mechanism of elections. We can see the results. Even more unfortunately, progressives clamor for government to gain more and more authority over our lives.

Posted by Pogo2, a resident of Professorville,
on Nov 1, 2023 at 12:27 pm

Pogo2 is a registered user.

To Online name. I know. I was being ironic about the difference of two weeks constant travel to get something done as opposed to walking down the hall.

Posted by Lawrence Jackson, a resident of another community,
on Nov 1, 2023 at 12:41 pm

Lawrence Jackson is a registered user.

• "One reason for the incompetence is a lack of consequences for municipal workers."

This is pretty much true and one of the benefits of being employed in the municipal sector, at least among the underlings.

The only way one can get fired is for (1) embezzlement, (2) physical assault on another employee, or (3) a personality conflict with a superior.

Other than that, it's lifetime employment with minimal supervision and a substantial retirement program including medical insurance.

On the other hand, city workers outside of upper management generally earn less than those working in high-tech.

Many disgruntled residents don't seem to understand the economic sacrifices that one makes when dutifully serving in the public sector. As a result, MBOs (Management by Objectives) are sometimes placed on the back burner, no different than procrastination pertaining to one's choice of vacation destination.

Now comfortably retired after serving 35 years in county services, it appears that public perception of city and county workers have not changed.

Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Nov 2, 2023 at 6:45 am

Annette is a registered user.

To state the obvious, somewhere along the line City Council forfeited control of Palo Alto governance. I noticed this starting with Benest, watched it worsen under Keene, and see it continuing in the same warped way under Shikada. CC needs to stop letting the tail wag the dog.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 2, 2023 at 9:31 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Annette nails it yet again and so succinctly. While we all have our pet peeves, she's gotten to the root of the problem.

Maybe we need a followup blog on possible solutions. It's like the City Council has no awareness of city history like when Pat Burt echoed the retail consultants' recommendation that PA position itself as a tourist destination when that had been tried in a pricey experiment years ago wand then dropped then when they finally had to face the reality that offices aren't a major tourist attraction.

@Pogo2, humble apologies for missing your irony. Here in Palo Alto one never knows what's irony and what's not. Who could imagine some of this dysfunction.

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 2, 2023 at 12:05 pm

Neilson Buchanan is a registered user.

Palo Alto Council and citizens are avoiding common problems for government today. We have increasingly urgent, commonsense issues to address. For example,

1. Too many objectives
2. Funding and staffing spread too thinly on objectives
3. Unstated ROI for short and longer term objectives
4. Acceptance that council, not staff, has primary accountability for results

Why not ask staff for recommendations to address these issues? Or any short, practical list of issues the council wants to resolve? Oor council does not lack a list of overly ambitious, annual objectives. Hone them down.

Barbara Gross kickstarted an approach.

Council and Staff, you have an opportunity to refine her not-so-gentle advice.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 2, 2023 at 2:57 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Neilson Buchanan, thank you! Maybe you could repeat your above post to City Council during public comments? And maybe also a letter to them and to local media.

I'd love to know more about what Barbara Gross has kickstarted. Maybe we can help her efforts?

Posted by Seer, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Nov 3, 2023 at 10:01 am

Seer is a registered user.

Here's me wondering about how “all electric" is going to match up with the existing transformers, wires, substations and finally main stations? More and more electric houses are upgrading to 400Amps when they calculate heating, cooling (both house and food). Power for that is very large and our infrastructure isn't up for it. Solar panels with battery can easily handle lighting, TVs etc. They can't cover electric heating and cooling (or electric cars) and so the electrical infrastructure needs are going to be huge. Handle that.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 3, 2023 at 3:56 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Echoing Seer's concerns. We're already getting warnings to shut off air conditioners and charge cars outside peak hours like overnight etc etc. to reduce to relieve the strain on the CURRENT system -- which might have been knocked out by a mylar balloon, squirrel, branch etc.

Obviously increased demand means more strain, more warnings, more outages...which explains why lots of people bought/ are buying their own GAS generators to power their homes and cars.

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 3, 2023 at 5:46 pm

Neilson Buchanan is a registered user.

I don't understand two things.

First, macroeconomics of Palo Alto retail. It is really difficult to govern our city when so many opinions abound. I would like to understand how council, staff and citizens can make decisions when retail real estate markets are so unnstable. Here is a good theory about underlying financing and how "bankers guide" the leases (rent) presented to retailers and restuaranteurs.

Web Link

Second, common sense and mirco-economics. Economies of scale are the prime success factor for small commerce. The new marginal customers make a huge difference if a restaurant can reach to more paying customers at noon and evenings. What is the city doing to promote customer convenience and access to all public garages. These free parking assets are wasting after 5pm, seven days a week.

There is no modern, active guidance system to these garages. Information could be availabe on a "Go Palo Alto" app....and it could be on a brightly lit signs at the entrance of garages. Instead I observe too many customers wasting their time orbiting downtown street faces and surface parking lots.

Consultant recommendations and council commitments continue to be unanswered for this simple, commonsense solution.

Posted by Derek Johnson, a resident of Stanford,
on Nov 4, 2023 at 12:54 pm

Derek Johnson is a registered user.

Though it is a mundane shopping experience at best, Stanford Shopping Center is probably the only profitable retail venue in Palo Alto.

The reason? Because Palo Alto (including downtown and California Avenue) no longer have any true specialty stores to offer. Interesting or esoteric are PA oxymorons

So why even bother? Besides, most of the retail shoppers at Stanford Shopping Center and Palo Alto restaurants are from outside of Palo Alto.

Posted by scott, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 5:59 pm

scott is a registered user.

Every meeting that staff has to prepare for involves a creating a packet that is frequently hundreds of pages long. The longer the process, the more meetings they will have to present before Council and Commissions and Boards. So the length of the process itself is creating tremendous amounts work that burdens staff and creates more paralysis. The paralysis makes the process longer. It's a cycle.

One thing Council could do is simply be disciplined about actually making decisions. Have a hard vote? Just take it and move on. Instead we have leaders who tend to continue things, ask for more study, et cetera. Every time you see them to that, remember: they just created work for staff that measures in the dozens to thousands of pages, depending on how many more future meeting agenda topics they just implicitly created by not just making a call.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Nov 6, 2023 at 2:34 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Scott, good point but it's not only those packets it's also 3-D models and videos. I'll never forget when former Transportation Head Josh Mello tried to sneakily ban all parking on Middlefield to make way for a 24-hour bike lane -- an idea that had been defeated only a few short years before.

Fortunately an astute resident learned of his plan even though he never notified us of his proposal. Hundreds of us surprised him by showing up at his Lucie Stern presentation where he expected his "plan" to be ummediately adopted.

He got nailed for how wrong his expensive and large 3D model of the street and intersections were, how his equally wrong his zowie animated video based on all those errors was and how an alert resident managed to refute his other claims.

Then instead of apologizing for wasting our time and money on a proposal defeated when car traffic was even lighter or showing any awareness of the earlier proposal, HE got mad that we didn't show him the respect he thought he deserved for creating the 3D model and video!

Maybe each staffer and all their consultants should be required to review past actions before pushing them again? (See also the latest StreetSense proposal to turn PA into a tourist destinatiom.)

Posted by scott, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Nov 8, 2023 at 11:45 pm

scott is a registered user.

Feel like I should follow up and say Kudos to Lauing and Council for the Cal Ave decision. Love it or hate it --it was a real decision. (I love it.)

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