Lack of Transparency at City Hall & the Need to Better Utilize Residents' Expertise and Knowledge

Government transparency, or rather the lack of it, has been a major issue in my 2016 and current campaigns. Many residents are concerned that the City Manager and City staff – NOT the City Council – are running Palo Alto. I fully understand your concerns, and often agree with them.   In the past, the City Manager would present Council with his recommendation and one or two alternatives. Now, many times Council receives a single recommendation to which we can make a few modifications before being expected to “rubber-stamp” it.

In endorsing me, the Palo Alto Weekly said "More than others, Kou has been a councilmember for the majority of those residents who don't have connections at City Hall and who feel underrepresented."

Before becoming a Councilmember, I experienced the frustrations and indignities that many other residents have suffered through the years. These experiences led me to run for City Council. I know it is important for a councilmember to have a strong network of residents throughout the City. Residents willing to share their thoughts on what is important and to utilize their knowledge and expertise in helping me address the issues before Council. The North Ventura Community Advisory Panel (NVCAP) and the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP) – rail crossings – are examples of the expertise and innovative thinking that residents can bring to difficult issues.

The lack of transparency can be achieved through four (4) basic bureaucratic tactics for keeping officials and the public from understanding Staff recommendations or formulating alternatives:

  1. Make the information effectively inaccessible.
    1. Provide Staff reports which are poorly written, repetitive and provide “links” to vital information rather than containing the vital information itself. Scatter the locations of relevant information so as to increase the difficulty of finding it and connecting it together in order to understand ALL aspects of the agenda topic.
    2. Provide little or no time for Council members to question Staff or receive answers to these questions.
    3. Update Staff and other vital reports at the last minute, making it impossible for Council members to read and digest.
    4. Limit alternatives for City Council discussion by providing only one Staff recommendation.
  2. "Bury you in paper".  See (a) above. One week in June, the Staff report for the second day of Council meeting was over 2,400 pages and followed every tactic listed above for making information effectively inaccessible.
  3. Release the City Council packets so late that there is barely time to read them. And little time to consider the tradeoffs, consequences, or consult additional sources. Or have Staff release an UPDATED or REVISED report on the day of the City Council meeting. Previously, Council fought not only to eliminate these last-minute revisions, but also to ensure agendas and reports were available to the public and Council well before meetings, with a target of 10 days.  Sadly, under the recent pro-growth Council majorities, Staff reports are once again becoming available only 3-4 days before a Council meeting.
  4. Change the City website and make it harder for the public to locate packet information, links or other relevant information.

In addition to a lack of transparency in the City Manager’s recommendations, there has been a longstanding failure to incorporate into Staff reports / recommendations information received from residents at public outreach meetings.

This may be a consequence of the City hiring consultants who, believing they have all the answers, shun listening from residents. I expect this is why so many traffic studies are so deeply flawed and unacceptable.

It is ESSENTIAL that any Staff recommendation be accompanied by at least one alternative. It gives the decision-makers a sense of whether due diligence has taken place regarding the trade-offs and risks, and helps the decision-maker in her own assessment. There are few situations in which there is a single “best” recommendation. Staff, by not providing reasonable alternatives, promote their own agenda. They fail to do that which they were hired to do: serve the residents of Palo Alto.

Currently, residents' responses to City Hall proposals centers on small groups and ad hoc collections of residents. The Council campaign has brought the depth of dissatisfaction with City Hall transparency front and center. I encourage you to think and talk among yourselves about how we might become more effective, so that after the election, we can work together to return control of Palo Alto to its elected officials.

Of course, the most important thing we can do now is elect candidates who actually want to improve City Hall transparency.