Yes and no to the above. But soon you get to recognize the council members, and watch the two groups battling each other over future growth in this city. In early January, we are adding two new members who were elected in November, GreerStone and former mayor Pat Burt, as council members Liz Kniss and Adrian Fine depart.
I know most of the council members, and they work hard at what they do. So the suggestions that follow below on improving their meetings in no way implies that they are not doing their jobs. But it is time for some procedural changes.
And here, at the end of 2020, I thought it would be a great time to offer the ways in which the council can improve its meetings.
• Start your meetings on time. Quite frequently, the council has a closed session at 5 p.m., with an agendized 7 p.m. start. Except meetings don't start then. These closed sessions typically involve pending lawsuits or union negotiations and run on and on. Before COVID, residents would arrive for a 7 p.m. start, and sit there for 30, 40 minutes. The other day on Zoom, the meeting didn't start until 8:05 p.m. I think it's rude to make the public wait so long. Simple solution: Start earlier or talk less.
• Two minutes is usually allotted for each individual who wants to address the council. When there are 40 people, that's a lengthy period, but also a good test on how residents feel about the issue before the council. Also, by its own rules, the council does not respond to those who speak. So ideas float off into city space. I have not found residents suggestions being discussed at later council meetings. 'Tis a shame. But then, after public comments, council members start to speak on an agenda item -- some of them for 10 or 15 minutes without interruption. The council should have stricter time limits for its members.
• Something's happened to the number of council action items discussed. In the past year, there have been typically two, and occasionally three, "action" items on the agenda. This coming Monday, there is only one item. And they deal with issues staff is interested in -- like zoning for a single-family lot or approval of a surveillance policy for cameras in the new garage. There used to about 10 action items, but this year Mayor Adrian Fine and City Manager Ed Shikada, who are responsible for the agenda, have too few action items on an agenda. Is this to make it easier on the staff?
• The verbal staff reports on an agenda item are way too long, and too detailed. The staff person presents the item, gives a history, explains the details, shows several charts, and 45 minutes later asks if there are any questions. Oftentimes, the charts simply cannot be read on my large wall-mounted TV. And these used to be pro-con reports, but now the staff only presents the staff's view, which, to me, sounds like it wants council approval on what staff developed -- and no options. That is not right. It is up to the council, not staff, to decide these issues.
• If it is not already happening, these reports should be included in council packets, so they can read them before the meeting. And the packet is posted online, so residents also would have access to the reports. An executive overview of the item under discussion would be sufficient And just think, that could cut out at least an hour of the weekly meetings.
Finally, on a very positive note, this past week the council had a study session with a panel of economic experts (including Stanford Prof. NIcholas Bloom) to discuss the effects COVID-19 will have on Palo Alto, particularly now that the recessionary economy is underway. The group of four panelists also provided an analysis of growth in the city, whether more office space will be needed, how working at home will affect traffic and businesses in town -- and a myriad of other components of Palo Alto. Council members appeared quite impressed, and I urge them and the city to have more similar study sessions to improve city staff and council knowledge by drawing on the intellectual wealth around us.