Palo Alto considers commissioner handcuffs

Council is considering limiting the ability of seated leaders to speak freely, an apparent negation to The Brown Act

Statements to the media should generally be avoided. If asked, route questions through the Chair in collaboration with the City’s Chief Communications Officer.

BLUF: I find the agenda item for the October 19 Palo Alto City Council meeting, about a Commissioners’ Handbook, highly troubling. Does it say “handbook” or “handcuffs”? It seems to me part of a pattern to deliberately quash dissent and discourage civic engagement. It discusses deportment and not composition — in context, a very credible source questioned whether the board seats are part of a spoils system, that donations to candidates are being exchanged for seats, which acts to displace dissent and further consolidate power, which is already, arguably, unchecked. Leadership, quixotically, has eliminated 13 seats for aspirants and participants: 2 from Arts commission, 2 from HRC, 7 from library commission — they killed the whole commission off — and 2 from Council itself. Who is behind this surge? In the handbook it seems to say that in the future Council will select based on docility and submissiveness. It says that in the future any council member can remove from his or her seat any commissoner for any reason whatsoever at any time. It’s not a handbook, it’s handcuffs, and one of those little red balls that goes in your mouth, like in the pawnshop scene of “Pulp Fiction”.


I suggest we get rid of the staff PR Person, instead. I want commissioners who can speak their minds, and dissent. We should select for such, not ban it.


And who exactly is putting all these anti-Democracy ideas onto the agenda (or onto the ballot, as in 2012 and 2016)?

In his famous and influential essay “Civil Disobedience” Henry David Thoreau pleaded with his fellow citizens to speak truth to power.

In Palo Alto, nearly two hundred years later that would mean, one, vote, certainly. Two, subscribe to the council packet. Three, get to know at least three council members or commissioners. Four apply for commission or board if you have the means. Five, run for council if, like me, you have a hard time feeling that leadership in Palo Alto is either representative of or responsive to the average Palo Altan.

Government in a democracy is a We not a They, as in “We The People”. Again, leadership here is elected council members — 7, it was 9 until very recently; appointed commissioners — 55, it was 66 until recently and there is a push to restrict it further. And also paid staff: many of them do not live here but we grant them power to work for us and speak for us. Why gag them either? If we had proper leadership at City Hall, we would not also need a Chief Communications Officer.

I admit I was alerted to this further threat to self-governance by the not very reliable Post. Better is to read the 46-page staff report which includes contributions attributed to Tom Dubois and Alison Cormack, two electeds. The Post focuses on the discussion of whether commissioners abuse their responsibilities when they talk to the press. The staff report – -which is agendized on the next Council meeting on October 19 — says that Palo Alto leaders should funnel their comments through the paid staff PR person, a position which was created in 2010, roughly 80 years after Palo Alto incorporated.

I’d say first, I’d rather eliminate the staff PR person and put that money into the library.

If we had better leadership, we would not need a staff PR person. (Public relations, or what I would call “spin” “obfuscation” “propaganda”, or doing the bidding of the “deep state”, etc).

If Ed Shikada does not seriously consider my point, I would think we should look into sending him packing. And I would say that so far I support Ed Shikada, if for obscure or provincial reasons: on March 13, 2020, roughly 7 months ago, he attended my Tohoku Relief event concert at Mitchell Park El Palo Alto, at my invitation rather than, alternately, asking me to cancel it due to Covid — it would have been illegal 12 hours later the next day (and in fact I did cancel 10 other shows this spring at Mitchell Park due to the epidemic).

Palo Alto can do more to improve leadership and get better use of our appointed commissioners and boards (for instance: Planning and Transportation Commission; Architectural Review Board; Parks and Recreation Commission; Library Advisory Commission, Public Art Commission; Human Relations Commission; Historic Resources Board; search me the distinction between Boards and Commissions).

I would say there is a problem in terms of board positions recently representing the appearance of a conflict of interest and or being part of a spoils system. I would not go so far as to say how many commissioners are in their seats merely because they gave money to a council candidate . But I felt it a small victory for We The People when an incumbent commissoner was replaced by a new applicant after it was revealed that he hired his own attorney to tell City Attorney Molly Stump that he need not recuse himself from deliberation about Castilleja, an applicant for Conditional Use Permit and Expansion, where both he and his wife were or are also fiduciaries.

The problem with commissions is more obviously composition and not conduct.

I learned to always think of government as a We not a They first at Gunn High school, in a class called “American Political Behavior” taught by Clay Leo, in 1978, but also by John Attig and Barbara Brown. Later at Dartmouth, where I read Thoreau and also, illuminatingly, Shakespeare and Marlowe, and also read political science and history with Denis Sullivan, Vince Starzinger, Bruce Nelson and Charles Tuttle Wood.
There are 58 members, — commissoners, or board members –according to Beth Minor, February, 2020 discussion.

I ran for Palo Alto City Council in 2009, 2012 and 2014. I applied for commissions five times between 2010 and 2015.

Rather than waste tax dollars on this pseudo reform of leadership, I would pose these questions:

Is it true that Palo Alto, rather than being led by elected and appointed leaders as a self-governance, is actually run by a small list of property owners, for example the 20 names listed on a plaque at Lytton Plaza?

Does the real estate lobby which represents a billion dollar industry here, call the shots?

Would we not be cutting the 2021 budget had we taxed corporations here (four of which, combined, started here in the term I reference and now have a Trillion dollar market cap)?

Do downtown interests control the will or strivings of residents?

What would be accomplished, for example, for the least of our brethren, were we not obsessed with accommodating the real estate deluge and rout?

I was in a workshop where we debated five types of growth rather than thinking for a minute about “no growth”. We gutted our Comprehensive Plan to eliminate the Downtown Cap rather than deliberating even for a minute a moratorium on building.

The Mercury reports that Santa Clara county now has $522 Billion worth of taxable assets. How does that dramatic increase threaten democracy? (In 2014 as part of my campaign I noted that the Weekly published a figure that claimed that Palo Alto real estate had increase in a short term from $5B to $25B, what I termed a “20 billion dollar delta” — it’s likely closer to $50B here now).

How does Black Lives Matter influence our thinking about governance?

Why don’t we consider, for example these three pending and potential real estate plays in conjunction: Ventura Fry’s (39 acres), Castilleja (30 acres) and Cubberley (32 acres)?
Why didn’t we consider simultaneously Buena Vista and Maybell — blocks apart?

What is the effect on self-governance of the proliferation of semiconductors, computers and social media? Since 2009?

The Palo Alto Times/Peninsula Times Tribune shuttered in 1998 after 100 years — what is the effect of Palo Alto having no true press here? What is the role of the real estate press (Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Post — who cover policy thru the prism of the real estate interests) compared to a free press? Do blogs make a difference on having an educated populace? What is the impact of Covid and the substitution for a mediated governance ie via Zoom compared to a true participatory democrcacy?

Please table your proposal for a commissioner handbook until you give these ideas due consideration.

Dubois and Cormack are ironic choices for this task since neither or them served as a commissioner.
Why don’t you poll the most recent 100 people who applied for commissions but were not seated? The report says they polled 120 or so recent commissioners and got about 60 responses — can I see those?

My concern is that if Palo Alto cannot self-govern, America is doomed. I’ve been worried about this at least since 2009, when I ran.

A local paper said that this year’s council slate is the strongest in memory. I would say the opposite. It is the weakest, we are at a nadir.

Caveat: It is true that Steven Lee for instance muddied the waters by producing events, such as screening of RBG movie while identifying himself as HRC board but not speaking for board (why, for instance didn’t the board screen the film?)

Read: Dubois et all ad hoc report from Feb, 2020 — before covid and before BLM.
What prompted it? Link

I think these maneuvers are related to who moved elections from odd to even years, who reduced council from 9 to 7.
I would say the trend is to prevent self-governance, to preserve the real estate route.
What about a more Thoreau-like discussion of GJR — never fully accounted for. An exterior, unbiased government body said that Palo Alto leadership violated various principles when it secretly met and deliberated two intertwined real estate deals to appease the greed of a local billionare megalomaniac.

Why don’t we put the energy into recruitment for the current boards, which is open, there is a deadline next week??? Why are we tamping down interest in civic engagement?

This was deliberated at 10 pm on a Feb. 20 meeting. After an eight minute break.

How did a lame duck mayor Adrian Fine get put in charge of this? Or who put this in Adrian’s mind that as a goodbye present, he would burn the bridge he traveled to power? (Maybe we should ask: how does it help Ford Motors and its billion-dollar bet on self-driving cars to hamstring Palo Alto leadership? These are better questions than just rubber stamping the proposal.)

I have said previously that HRC might be unnecessary if we had people of color on other boards or if Arts Commission had more power, especially for programming in the performing arts. That’s a legitimate question: why doesn’t the art commission promote performing arts and programming?
A Green commission might not be necessary if we tamp down the role of real estate and tech to burn the planet and make capitalism worse than it had been. See Paul Hawken, various. See, Jerry Mander. See Robert Reich. Does anyone in Palo Alto leadership read books? I remember that Jim Keene was fond of Billy Collins, which he quoted off of his smartphone.

It does not reflect at all the view that boards are a place to expand leadershp or to train new leaders for increasing responsibility. Or to increase participation in Democracy.

The former Library Director provided information about the significant amount of time Staff utilized on behalf of the LAC. Are they talking about DeCongo? Or Diane Jennings?

I applied to LAC once — I think the dissolution of the commission is sad because now I will never get to achieve that goal. This was done because LeCongo said it was a drain on her time? Why would the current commissioners sit still for that? If Cormack brags of helping re-build Mitchell Park library, why does she now sit still while governance is limited or consolidated? It’s a huge cognitive dissonance that Alison Cormack got elected by taking credit for the rebuilding of Mitchell Park library yet under her watch the library advisory commission was eliminated.

Further problems:

I find iffy the notion in the handbook per se formalizing Palo Alto as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley”. I don’t work in high tech. I object to the role that a small group of companies and their landlords are trying to assert over democracy and our civilization. Exactly who calls Palo Alto “the birthplace of Silicon Valley”? Who decided to codify this? Why not call Palo Alto “a place where a large feature of nature, a giant tree, was noted by important visitors 250 years ago, and we still like trees”? Why don’t we play up tree worship and play down our obsession with expensive and destructive toys? Don’t you know that high tech is killing the planet? Don’t you know that HP polluted the planet? Why is fealty towards the technology cabal important training for leaders here?
Further, who came up with acronym BCC? Five of the eight bodies are Commissions and not Boards. There’s only one Committee? Why not make that one a commission too? Why not call them Cs and B’s? CCBs.
Why are there proposed term limits?
Why are we using the HP Garage as the logo for Historic Resources Board? Isn’t this further propaganda for high tech? It is not even a historic asset in the type that that board deliberates upon.
Who designed the blue heart and handholding logo for HRC? Why not a rainbow? Why not Bill Green the muscular track champion who died of a disease and was Black and Green? He could be the logo of the climate BCC if we have to have one.

Notably, I don’t even recognize the art that is used to introduce the PAC section. (I could more easily identify 20 other pieces, maybe 50: Greg Brown, Bruce Beasley, Marta Thoma, Joe Piziale, David Huffman, Brad Oldham et cetera).
Individual commissioners should avoid giving Staff Liaisons direction or making specific requests outside of the public meetings. No, we need better staff who know who exactly is paying their paycheck, and they can learn to manage their time better.
(Chairs) act as the spokesperson for the BCC, including as the media’s point of contact for information regarding BCC activities. Seek advice and involvement of the City’s Public Communications Manager as needed, through the Staff Liaison.
The following is a list of duties and responsibilities of the Chair:

page 31 of 44:
It is important to recognize that as a BCC member your actions and comments are often interpreted to be that of the entire BCC, the staff, or the City. Statements to the media should generally be avoided.
If asked, route questions through the Chair in collaboration with the City’s Chief Communications Officer.
When addressing the media, observe the following guidelines:
You must clarify who you represent as the speaker. Are you speaking in your capacity as a BCC Chair or as a private resident? Keep in mind that a member’s comments to the press or other public comments are sometimes misinterpreted even though the BCC Chair states that they are speaking for themselves.
Do not make promises to the public that are binding on the BCC, staff, or the City Council.

Are there examples of any of these things ever happening, and why would necessarily that be a problem?
Comments to the media or the public should be factual and accurate. Avoid speculation.
I find the phrase “BCC member” problematic in that it implies membership. Commissioners are representative of their fellow citizens. They are not part of an exclusive group, as “members”. Who decided to call it BCC? It’s redundant. If anything, use “BCCs” not “BCC members”.

Part of a code of conduct section, pretty well buried though the Post highlighted this.
But it dodged the whole question of whether Council uses leadership to increase involvement and dissent or tries to stifle such. What about real estate per se displacing progress on any other social good or program. How many hours has council deliberated giving an amenity to a real estate interest? What per cent of deliberation time is on real estate per se?
BCC members serve at the pleasure of the Council. Council reserves the right to remove one or more members of a BCC at any time, for any reason. BCC members understand that they are not entitled to any process in the event Council removes them from service. Incumbents seeking a reappointment are required to complete and file an application with the City Clerk by the application deadline.
The City Council may remove a member by a majority vote of the City Council without cause, notice or hearing.

That doesn’t sound very Democratic or transparent? How does that not conflict with the Brown act?
(If your proposed handbook states that commissioners can be removed by council “without cause notice or hearing” how do you accomplish that without violating Brown act? How about it, if you want to discuss it, a little light shed on the topic of how to recall Council?)

The problem is compounded by how bad the media is. I don’t mean that in a “fake news” Trump way but in a Chomsky / Bagdikian sense of not letting advertiser interests dictate policy — arguably Palo Alto Weekly exists to manage its real estate investment, at 450 Cambridge.

I’d like to see a very specific focus group of good people who were snubbed when they applied for commissions.

There’s also the issue of how many members of leadership redact their home addesses. if you don’t trust your neighbors, you are not fit to lead.

How did various members of leadership decide to run? Does the Deep State recruit for self-self-preservation reasons? Who are the Palo Alto 300?
Did we adequately address the Grand Jury Report? Was that the nadir, our darkest hour, or just more noise, or business as usual?



and1: From candidate Rebecca Eisenberg, a Stanford and Harvard grad, and former journalist, in response to Sara Tabin of the Post who condensed this to one line “Rebecca Eisenberg said she thinks the handbook is unwise and illegal”. To wit:

Palo Alto City Council has a history – and present – of interpreting the Brown Act 100% backwards. The purpose of the Brown Act is to mandate TRANSPARENCY, not secrecy. The Brown Act requires that all deliberations made by public officials be done in public rather than in secret. 
There is no more effective manner of being public than speaking with the press! The Brown Act does not PREVENT speaking with the press; if anything, it MANDATES it.  
It seems fairly certain that the City Council has llittle understanding of the purpose of the Act; and if they do understand, they likely oppose the Brown Act. Time and time again, we see the City Council use the “Brown Act” as a shield, to hide from the public deliberations that are required to be public. For example, recently the City Council hired a consulting firm to serve as the City’s auditor. Although the Brown Act has an exception that ALLOWS (but not MANDATES) hiding from the public deliberations regarding *individuals*, there are no such exceptions when it comes to firms. In other words – as I told the City Council in both email and orally during meetings — the city council was violating the Brown Act by deliberating about the auditing firm in private.  Similarly, the city council has a tendency to overload the “consent agenda” with too many items while the consent agenda only is allowed for items that already have been discussed and the resolution is known. Making this worse, while the overwhelming majority of other cities — as well as legal academia and the courts — interpret the Brown Act to mandate that any agenda item which has ONE objection be taken off the consent agenda, our city council requires THREE city council members to object to enable any deliberation on a consent agenda item.  What our city council either does not understand – or does not care about – is that it is ALWAYS in the public interest to have deliberation on a topic. Given that the consent agenda is legally created exclusively for items for which there is no objection, ANY objection by a city council member should remove it from the consent agenda. 
As you see, transparency and accountability are top on my list of values, which is why it has top billing in my campaign’s platform.
Some may ask — well, then why does City Attorney Molly Stump advise otherwise?  I asked Ms. Stump this very question last week, and I am satisfied with her answer. The City Attorney’s client is the city council, whose job it is to represent the community. Ms. Stump takes direction from the city council. That is standard and appropriate for a head of legal — I should know; I have held that job for private companies 7 times in the past 28 years. Like all Heads of Legal, Ms. Stump responds to the direction she is given by her manager: the city council.  If the community is confused by or unhappy with her answers, the responsibility lies with the City Council. 
(As an aside, after I asked that question during one of the scheduled meetings between candidates and city staff, one of my fellow candidates – who is not an attorney – did not understand the impact of her answer, and he proceeded to ask her many more questions, in my opinion, unfairly.) 
In sum: to the extent that the City Handbook advises Commissioners and members of Committees not to speak with the press — I believe that the advice not only is unwise, but that it is illegal. 

What she said!

andand: re Mills the florist building, posted to PAW—

 +   Like



I sometimes wonder what we as a community would accomplish especially for the least of our brethren so to speak If we were not inundated with requests by landowners to increase the value of their land through development.

I tried to comment on the PAW but it got automatically deleted:

I ran for council three times, applied for commission five times. I’d probably say: let them build it. 

But if I were in their shoes — and I did recently inherit 7 percent of a building downtown, that we bought into via an LP thirty years ago, and we supposedly turned down two $8m offers though our basis was only $500 — I would sell, take your gain.

Further – and boy this is somehow complicated: I buy flowers from you or your tenant occassionally. I don’t smoke, and I don’t particularly like the “hoppy ending” people. 

This part is guaranteed to be deleted by the censor in chief but, this does smack of election year posturing by the former member of leadership trying to rehabilitate his image — he should demolish. 

Then I tried to simplify it to: I hope they have a “hoppy” ending. (Their tenant is a small brew pub).




About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player, and blogger; he also sang in local choir, fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32 Reads 'Howl' and owns a couple musical instruments he cannot play
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