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Changing the City’s Direction: An Opinion

Original post made by Martin Engel, Menlo Park: Park Forest, on Aug 13, 2007

The new city manager of San Jose, Debra Figone states: “The city manager is the CEO of the city government. He or she works for the board of directors, which are the mayor and the City Council. The business we serve, or are there to lead, is the city government of San Jose.” That’s a useful metaphor.

With that in mind, we welcome the new city manager, or CEO in Figone’s metaphor, Glen Rojas.

It seems to me that due to the residual policies -- intended and unintended -- of the prior council majority, as well as the recent protracted interim absence of managerial leadership, the Council has not yet been able to fully assume its responsibilities for setting priorities and directions for the city. The long anticipated El Camino plan is a good example.

Since last December, the Administration/staff has not sought or been receptive to new directions or guidance from the new city council. Thus, older, unpopular policies and practices remain as staff guidelines. The Council is thereupon required to debate and micro-manage staff actions and decisions case-by-case with which it and the residents of the city are continuously dissatisfied. Example: first 1906 El Camino, appealed, back to planning, etc.; now comes 1706 El Camino, followed by 1300 El Camino, then Bohannon Towers, each loaded with zoning exceptions, doomed to be endlessly debated and disagreed over.

As Debra Figone intimates, like a corporate board of directors (not that they all perform optimally either), the City Council must devote its precious time and energy to the creation of policies, guidelines, and strategic directions, these to be implemented in practice and “on the ground” by the Administration in the conduct of the city’s business. And, by the way, to whom is the Board of Directors (the Council) accountable? The stockholders – that’s us – of course.

With a new city manager in Menlo Park, this is an opportune time to clarify and rectify the confusion which has generated considerable ill will, second-guessing, some angry residents, and a Council which consumes vast amounts of precious meeting time negotiating fine-grained consequences of what remain confusing policies.

The bottom line is that it is the Council’s (Board of Directors) job to generate policy, long range planning, strategic agendas and directions. Such as an economic development plan; a downtown development plan; an El Camino Real development plan; a revised General Plan; an urban transit plan; an industrial area re-zoning plan.

Every staff report reflects a policy basis for the recommendations and judgments it contains. Absent news ones, they continue to operate on the old policies or improvise with pro-developer biases promoted by the prior council.

Council’s job is not to quarrel and argue over the details, but to assert the basic policy and the metric against which a staff report may be judged inadequate, inappropriate or wrong. It then gets sent back to staff to do over again with appropriate policy charge from the Council. Council must clarify and de-ambiguate its policies to reduce staff confusion. Staff should handle the details. Council shouldn’t expend late night hours debating the destiny of one tree or another, one parking space or another.

To the degree that the policy is clear and approved by Council, that becomes the charge and the direction to be implemented by staff. It has been said that there is no intention to undo prior Council policies. In that case, why did we not just re-elect the prior council? Council (the Board of Directors) received a mandate from us stockholders to change directions. Administration’s job is to implement it. It’s not too late.


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