Mar 242017
 

Most of us aspire to the concept of ‘one man, one vote’. Our country was born in the Boston Tea Party with a cry against “taxation without representation” but is the converse true? Are those who pay higher taxes entitled to a larger voice in the governance of our city?

All homeowners should have received a ballot for an increase in the Storm Water Management Fee. This fee would cover operation of and improvements to the city’s storm water management system. Although most of Palo Alto is in Flood Zone ‘X’ which means little danger of flooding, we do live near a number of creeks which could flood and cause problems. It was noted that several years ago, one of the agencies in San Jose voted not to pay $7.5M to improve Coyote Creek because they didn’t think any flood damage would result in more that that amount! Fast forward to last month, the damage is estimated at $500M, not to mention how people’s lives were destroyed. Some may never recover. For more information about the program,  visit http://paloaltostormwater.org.

Some of you may have noticed that the ballot includes your name and address, parcel number (APN) and your signature and that the accompanying letter states that

“Ballots will not be removed from their envelopes until the tabulation begins. As required by state law, during and after tabulation, ballots will be treated as public records.”

Why are these ballots were not treated as normal ‘secret’ ballots, where your name and signature are on the outer envelope and this is separated from the ballot before tabulation? The explanation received from the City Clerk’s office was:

“Section 4(e) of Article XIIID of the California Constitution (aka Prop. 218) requires that assessment ballots be “weighted according to the proportional financial obligation of the affected property.”  This means that owners of properties with higher assessments have greater influence than owners of properties with lower assessments.  Specific information about the property associated with each ballot is required to determine its weight, and under state law this information becomes public record after the ballots are tabulated.  In Greene v. Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation Dist. (2010) 49 Cal.4th 277, the California Supreme Court held that assessment ballot information, including the name and address associated with each vote, is appropriately treated as public record after ballot tabulation.”

The fee is calculated on the basis of ERUs (Equivalent Residential Units) which are defined as the Impervious Area (Sq. Ft.) / 2500. Residential properties are assigned ERUs based on lot size which assumes a ratio of impervious area (driveways, sidewalks, etc) to open soil areas. Large commercial properties, many of which are located away from the most vulnerable areas of Palo Alto, would have much higher ratios (parking lots, etc) and hence higher fees. Does this mean that commercial property owners have a much larger voice in determining the fate of the flood control projects?

But if you read the cover letter which accompanies the ballot:

“…The Storm Water Management Fee will only be approved if the number of Ballots cast (and not withdrawn) in favor of the fee exceed the number of Ballots cast (and not withdrawn) in opposition to the fee. Each ballot counts as a single vote…”

And the ballot itself states:

“You will receive a separate ballot for each parcel you own that is subject to the fees, and one vote may be cast for each such parcel.”

Regardless of how one feels about the validity and value of the fee and the requested increase, in the light of such discrepancies in the stated ballot procedures, how can we feel assured that the information we are receiving from the City is accurate, that the ballots will be tabulated correctly and that the results will represent the will of the residents?

Aug 142015
 

Downtown Palo Alto parking problem persists while city officials, developers and employers wear blinders

by – Daily News columnist

It must be very difficult to live in a neighborhood near downtown Palo Alto where your street is completely filled with parked cars on weekdays during business hours. Many of those vehicles belong to downtown business workers and some to Stanford employees who don’t want to pay for a university parking permit.

Rather than force businesses to provide parking, city officials for years closed their eyes to the problem. Let employees park where they will, was their logic.

Thus the car clutter soon became the residents’ problem, not the city’s. And downtown employees found themselves in a game of musical chairs, hunting daily for a parking space.

[Read full story…]

Aug 042015
 

The following letter was sent to the City Council and Administration from a combined group of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) and Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ) leaders. We have been informed that the City Council will discuss CAC issues at the August 17th meeting.
If you agree with the opinions expressed here, please sign our petition to add your voice to this discussion.


 

Dear City Council, Jim Keene, Hillary Gitelman,

We the undersigned have several concerns about the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan, and are recommending remedies in order to provide trustworthy, fair, and broad community representation.

  1. Dan Garber has both the appearance of and an actual material conflict of interest that makes him an inappropriate choice to serve on the Citizens Advisory Committee, particularly as its Chair, given that he recently worked for the city on design and planning issues for 27 University (the subject of a major Grand Jury report assailing the city’s action), and stands to benefit professionally from decisions made by the CAC.
    • Having those who work for the city then participate in citizen panels intended to be independent is the much-maligned “revolving door,” which is illegal in many places.
  2. Steve Levy is a paid advisor to ABAG and other government agencies and thus should not be on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee. He also frequently blogs on planning issues, which is a direct conflict of interest and also is likely to violate the Brown Act.
  3. The CAC should have co-chairs who alternate leading the meetings rather than a chair and vice-chair.
  4. The outcome of each meeting needs more transparency. The CAC Ground Rules state that “a brief summary of CAC meetings will be posted to the project website (www.paloaltocompplan.org) for any interested party to examine.”
    • Rather than a “brief summary,” full minutes should be provided within a week of the meeting so the public can understand and comment on the points discussed.
    • Minutes should also articulate dissenting as well as majority viewpoints and vote totals so that City Council will understand the challenges that the CAC addressed.
    • Ideally, meetings should be televised or at least taped and rebroadcast.
  5. Public comments should be allowed at the beginning of and also before any vote at each meeting. To limit public comments to the end, AFTER decisions have been made or votes have been cast, ignores those attending who ask to have their viewpoints considered.  And public comments should still be allowed at the end, so that any outstanding concerns that have not surfaced can be considered in following meetings.
  6. Staff has stated they will allow anonymous online posts, but will not allow them to be seen by the CAC or the public. This is wrong: for staff to accept anonymous posts and not reveal the content publicly gives anonymous posters undue power to influence and distract staff.  It diminishes the intention of the public forum, which is to support open conversation.  No anonymous posts should be allowed.  Also:
    • Is there a way to distinguish between Palo Alto residents and non-residents?
    • Can duplicate comments be identified?
    • Can the number of unique commentators be identified?
  7. Open City Hall should not be the only way people can make comments. Email and letters should also be allowed.
  8. The schedule seems overly rushed. Are all members of the CAC conversant on each section of the Comp Plan to be revised?  Can 20+ people really cover all the land use issues in just 2 3-hour sessions?
  9. The committee should be provided with high-level tools to analyze the impact of proposed policy changes on schools, traffic, parking, and the environment, such as Sim Palo Alto, so as to avoid wasting time discussing infeasible proposals.
  10. There needs to be a better balance of people from north and south Palo Alto, as well as more representation from community groups other than Palo Alto Forward. City Council should have final approval of appointments.  We can provide the names of several qualified persons.

Note that the undersigned residents are in substantial agreement with the concerns expressed, although minor disagreements do exist.

Sheri Furman, Midtown
Cheryl Lilienstein, Barron Park
Annette Glanckopf, Midtown
Norm Beamer, Crescent Park
Jeff Levinsky, Duvenek/St. Francis
Peter Taskovich, Meadow Park
Neilson Buchanan, Downtown North
Tim Gray, Charleston Meadows
Elaine Meyer, University South
Mark Nadim, Palo Alto Hills
Douglas Moran, Barron Park
Becky Sanders, Ventura
David Schrom, Evergreen Park
Robin Bayer, Evergreen Park
Joseph Hirsch, Green Acres

Jun 262015
 

Palo Alto should approve funding to bolster chances of preserving mobile-home park

 We Need Your Help

The County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday (June 23rd) to set aside an additional $6.5 million towards preserving the park for its residents and affordable housing, making the total set-aside by the County $14.5 million, all coming from developer fees paid by Stanford.

On Monday, June 29th, the Palo Alto City Council will be voting on taking next steps towards matching these funds. This is  a critical juncture for the City Council to take action towards keeping Buena Vista’s residents in their homes. In order to encourage them, we are suggesting that folks:

1)      Write letters to the City Council
Urge them to take steps to match the County’s funds and preserve the park. These will be very influential to the Council in understanding our community support for affordable housing and for keeping Buena Vista residents in their homes. The Council can be reached as a group here:

2)      Attend the City Council meeting on Monday night. There is a good chance that this is one of the last meetings we’ll be asking folks to come to before there is a deal to approve, so it will be worthwhile for supporters to come out. The item is scheduled to be heard by 6:40pm, so I recommend arriving by 6:15pm.  We won’t need folks to speak – they have a long meeting that night, and they’ve heard from many of us already – but we do need to show that the broader community supports preserving the park.

Jul 192014
 

On July 18th the Palo Alto Weekly published an excellent article on the architectural review process in Palo Alto. Gennady Sheyner’s carefully researched work covered both sides of the controversial question: Is Palo Alto’s architectural review process broken?

Palo Alto, a city that relishes its role as the center of innovation and creator of “disruptive” technologies, finds itself in the midst of an escalating battle over architecture — a tussle that pits some of today’s most prolific architects against a growing coalition of residents who are enraged about modernist new buildings and intent on changing the way proposed developments get reviewed. In one corner are proponents of modernity, economic growth and what they see as inevitable urbanization. In the other are land-use watchdogs, neighborhood leaders and residents bent on preserving what they refer to as the city’s “quality of life.”

In meeting after meeting over the past two years, residents have lashed out at architects with the scorn traditionally reserved for developers, accusing them of blighting the city with modernist monstrosities. Council watchdogs and slow-growth “residentialists” slammed the designs of such recent developments as the affordable-housing complex at 801 Alma St.; the Arbor Real townhouses on El Camino Real; and Alma Village, where the flagship grocery store appears to turn its broad, beige back on the public.

But the larger issue is about the whole development process in Palo Alto with many residents feeling that the system IS broken, that developers get preferable consideration by the ARB, the Planning and Transportation Commission, City planning staff and the council and that the very character and quality of life of Palo Alto is being irreversibly altered by overdevelopment.

The Architectural Review Board (ARB) is charged with five goals:

  • Promote orderly and harmonious development of the City
  • Enhance the desirability of residence or investment in the City
  • Encourage the attainment of the most desirable use of land and improvements
  • Enhance the desirability of living conditions upon the immediate site or in adjacent areas
  • Promote visual environments which are of high aesthetic quality and variety and which, at the same time, are considerate of each other.

The ARB has no authority to modify or grant exceptions to zoning ordinances. That is the purview of the Planning and Transportation Commission (P&TC). So when members of the ARB make statements extolling the virtues of ‘higher density’ they are outside their realm. And when they do so, ignoring the obvious fact that the proposed structure grossly conflicts with the classical architecture which is iconic of Palo Alto, they fail to fulfill their mandate.

Perhaps it would be better if the process were reversed and review by the P&TC should precede that by the ARB so that the architects don’t waste their time deciding on the style, shape and color of the project before it is known if it is in conformance with the zoning ordinances. To have the ARB review first is like deciding on the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic before you know if the ship will float or sink.

Granted, there are projects which are clearly within the prescribed zoning guidelines and do not require P&TC review. But here we encounter yet another piece of the broken system: the Director’s approval. Having passed ARB review the project receives approval from the Director of Planning and is then placed directly on the Consent Calendar of the City Council to be passed by a simple majority vote without public discussion. Even when a resident has filed (and paid the fee for) an appeal against the Director’s approval, that resident will not be allowed to speak and that appeal will not be heard unless 3 members of Council vote to remove the project from the consent calendar. This does not promote a feeling of trust that the Council represents the views of the residents. Any wonder that many feel that the election in November has to bring about major changes in the Council?