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Open Letter to City Council
Mar 122014

Dear City Council members,

On behalf of the leadership team of Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, we hope that in the coming months, you can implement the changes outlined below, as they align with many of the city’s stated goals of open government, transparency, inclusion, and data driven decision making. We view these items as fundamental and vital improvements to our city’s functioning.

Issue 1: “Impartial ballot language” for a municipal referendum is not impartial if the city attorney writes it.

Please investigate how San Francisco creates impartial ballot language, and create and pass an ordinance that has a process whereby the producers of a referendum work together with the city attorney to create ballot language that is actually impartial and satisfies both parties. This would be efficient, and waste less time and money producing legal challenges and make for a more amicable relationship between parties. It’s also the right thing to do.

Issue 2: This city has demanding management needs, and most people who are talented and experienced enough to make good leaders for our city cannot run for office because they need to earn a living. This city faces big city problems, yet city council is stuck in a small town model of governance. Presently only those who are able to volunteer, (or who are supported by organizations that may benefit from their participation), can be on the City Council, yet, the City Council has great strategic, legal, fiduciary, planning responsibility, and faces increasingly complex situations. The City Council is faced with a huge amount of work that would benefit from some advanced skill sets, and it should be a fully paid position in order to attract great leadership. We also feel that the people elected to city council should represent geographic areas of the city, so that every part of our city feels included in decision making. This has not happened for a very long time.

Issue 3: Residents continue to distrust traffic reports. We would like the city to have a short list of vetted traffic engineers that developers must choose from, and also require that those studies undergo peer review prior to being accepted by the planning department. The practice of accepting traffic reports that do not use current data and consistently make pronouncements that there will be no significant impacts is not going to help us make good decisions.  A peer review process that considers cumulative data would help rectify this habit.

Issue 4: Often City Council meetings are distressingly inefficient, and decisions are delayed. We see that council members and members of the public are often ill prepared for city council meetings,  because staff reports are issued only a few days before meetings so there is very little time to digest. Too frequently the council gets new information AT the meeting, and the public is completely excluded. Staff presentations have frequently been verbatim powerpoints of printed material and add little to a discussion,  perhaps assuming that council has not read the materials (a good guess since the materials were not supplied in a timely way). 

It’s a process that all too often  results in delayed decisions, and creates ineffective, inefficient, incomplete meetings, elongated and disorderly discussions, and poor outcomes. Staff reports released with too little time to read/reflect/consult/question or gain clarity create cynicism about staff and council, even when everyone is working hard to produce a good outcome.

We believe that this issue can be solved by requiring all staff reports be submitted at least 10 business days in advance of every city council meeting, in order to allow council members, the public, and the press, adequate time to review issues, get questions answered, and exchange options and opinions. Staff presentations at meetings could then be of better quality: with presentations that lay out the context and the issues, the pros and cons, (not just staff recommendations) summarize important questions raised, and invite discussion.

Additionally, this process could support the desire we all share for concision. Concision is something you require of the public, yet concision is not practiced on the council because there are too many open questions once the meeting commences. Creating the expectation that staff will adequately answer questions in the ten day period prior to council meeting is a practice you could institute, and a cultural shift you could achieve. 

Logistically, skipping just ONE council meeting would get this synced up. 

Issue 5: Presently Staff reports make recommendations, and avoid delineating the impacts of developments. They provide piecemeal information. (Whether this is a legal issue or not, it’s bad governance.)

A. We would like to see each project report in a standardized format. With pros and cons that provide context and objectivity. Specifically, each report should have a standardized attachment that clearly states (for example) what the present zoning would allow, what the excess zoning request is, what the parking impacts are, what the traffic impacts are, what the infrastructure costs are, what the increased water demand would be, how (and which) schools will be impacted, in order that our city can keep track of cummulative effects of developments, and have transparency about these issues. This data should feed into an ongoing (published and updated) spreadsheet so the city and citizens can track issues and manage solutions proactively, not continuing to wait until the system is broken and the public is “activated.” This is part of an essential data collection process that should be used to inform whether “more” is “better,” and if not, what other options are there.

B. We also want to see staff reports include possible alternatives and state which parts of the comp plan are being addressed AND NOT ADDRESSED by the proposal. Parking issues are the most obvious (see italicized note below) but there are others too. 

For example, if an area on El Camino is zoned for a 12 foot sidewalk and a developer wants just 6 in order to build more low income housing, the report should use the language of the comp plan to clearly state that (for example) “this request satisfies state mandates on behalf of x units of low income housing, because it adds x number of units to the projected requirement of x, but it also removes public enjoyment of the streetscape and creates pedestrian and bike safety problems at this stretch of x and at intersection x for a distance of x. It also complies with the state underparking allowance, but if all inhabitants have cars it would add x numbers of cars to the adjacent neighborhood streets. This problem could be solved by requesting the developer build the parking even though it is not required, or paying into a fund in perpetuity, administered by the city, such that all inhabitants are provided with taxi service on demand, in order to preserve safety and neighborhoods.” This would mean that reports would clearly define which specific parts of the housing element or comprehensive plan are being violated or and which are supported by the proposal. (And not with shorthand that refers to an item buried in the comprehensive plan) As it is now, the reports take positions without defining surrounding impacts, what is being lost, and without offering other options that could be considered. We want staff reports to offer options that could be considered.

Here is an example of problems we experience:

Below are just three examples of staff reports which are void of important development information.  Factual information is missing and not in the public record [except in the case for formal, expensive  citizen appeal of 260 S. California].

 Consequently, the public record is never clear about implications of these developments.  Attached is one such staff report.

In these cases we want to highlight absence of important information that affects the California Avenue business community and adjacent neighborhoods.

Consider three projects to illustrate inadequacies in staff reports.

To the best of our knowledge these projects are completely “legal” and within the zoning requirements. However, public trust and council stewardship are issues beyond simple legalities.

Fact #1 All-day, unrestricted California Avenue commercial core parking capacity is acknowledged to be maxed out midday almost every day.

Fact #2 Consequently, there is obvious, increasing non-resident short-term and all-day parking on the residential streets adjacent to the commercial core.

Fact #3 These three projects significantly expand the number of square feet originally on these three sites.  In each case the staff report states that required parking exceeds the on-site parking….silently and implicitly assuming  that tenant and customer parking is available somewhere within the commercial core!  If the staff can state that parking is and will be available, then the staff report should say so.  But parking will not be available.

In our opinion the staff reports are legal, factually deficient and intellectually misleading because the City Council and the general public are not informed about the cumulative negative impact from future tenant parking in the California Avenue Commerical Core.   In this case there is no mechanism such as the University Avenue Dowtown Development Cap(UADDC) to set a limit on development.  The UADDC is mathematically flawed, is based on outdated assumptions and ineffective; but, it has forewarned to the Council to be proactive to address the ever-increasing imbalance between commercial parking space supply and demand.”

Thank you city council members for considering these requests. We see these improvements as vital to our future, and hope that you will use your power as members of the city council to create processes that align with the your own stated goals of open government, transparency, inclusion, data driven decision making, and completeness, that will offer residents confidence in the city council’s decisions. We have confidence that you care about good governance, and hope that you see the value these changes would have in creating a city that serves residents as well as businesses. 


Cheryl Lilienstein
President, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning

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