Friday, July 4, 2014
(Santa Clara County) Diana Diamond column: Grand jury report shows there's nothing transparent about the way Palo Alto officials do business
July 1, 2014
San Jose Mercury News
By Diana Diamond
While Palo Alto City Manager Jim Keene declared there were no surprises in last week's Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report, I for one remain upset at the nine-month, behind-the-door maneuverings by city staff and some council members.
Together, they planned and strategized with developer John Arillaga to build four tower buildings and a shell of a new theater at the 27 University Ave. property adjacent to the train station, where MacArthur Park is situated.
Aghast may be a better word. First, everything was secretive, with the public constantly kept in the dark. Second, council members held closed sessions, where they're somehow brainwashed into thinking nothing that occurs behind doors can ever be told to anyone.
I do not exaggerate. I have talked to several council members about closed sessions the last couple of years, and to a person they said their lips were sealed. When then-vice mayor Jack Morton and controversial councilwoman Nancy Lytle were bickering, I asked a member whether one of the two left the room in anger. "I can't tell you," she said. But walking out of the room isn't on the agenda, I replied. Then I facetiously asked if council members were dumping their paper dinner plates into a trash can. She repeated she could not tell me, because it was a closed meeting.
So when we get to the nine months when Arrillaga was negotiating with the city, I get the same "can't tell" response. That should not be the way democracy or transparency works, particularly since the city funded a $250,000 design study for the developer's project that had not even gone public or been approved.
Furthermore, this wasn't a one-time innocent mistake. There were other meetings held among staff, council and developer. This was a project that had huge implications for the city and its downtown, yet when it finally was made public there was a glowing staff report supporting the project.
Back then, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie was orchestrating the negotiations with Arrillaga and staff was devoting a lot of time to it. Emslie retired from the city in March 2013, but continued as an occasional paid consultant. In April 2014, he went to work as a principal for Goodyear-Peterson, a public affairs consulting firm that lobbies cities. "The firm offers clients guidance and access to elected officials, policy makers and the media, helping to facilitate business success," its website says.
Emslie's new job feels to me like too fast a revolving door, where former city employees are hired because of the access they have to former colleagues.
San Jose has a two-year waiting period before a former employee can become a lobbyist. I think Palo Alto should have at least a three-year wait.
The city has embarked on a two-year effort to learn what residents want. "Our Palo Alto 2030" is holding a series of meetings on a $325,000 study that includes staff members running meetings and tracking public responses.
A couple of meetings spotlighted "smart growth" -- how to decide where the city should encourage more housing. Some participants urged no growth, saying our city already has too much. But that's not an idea some staff members want to hear.
The problem I have is that the smart growth concept lacks sufficient data, such as whether housing built near public transit leads to occupants taking the transit to work. The premise is it will, but city officials have shied away from any surveys in existing housing near trains and buses.
Instead, it's another politically correct bandwagon concept that we're supposed to hop on. Personally, I need cold hard facts first.