December 15, 2019 Newsletter

Council to consider new objective standards for wireless antenna installations

On Monday, December 16, City Council will vote on a resolution tightening objective standards for approval of Wireless Communication Facilities (typically 5G cell antennas and associated equipment) on utility poles and streetlight poles in the public rights of way. Among other things, the proposed new standards call for exclusion of WCFs from residential zones (though exceptions may be allowed) and a minimum distance of 600 feet between WCF installations citywide. WCFs would be subject to minimum setbacks from schools (600 feet, but exceptions could be allowed for WCF’s further than 300 feet) and homes (20 feet, no exceptions allowed). When exceptions are granted in residential zones, the standards favor WFC placement on expressways and arterial streets over smaller, local and collector streets.

The proposed standards clarify where WCFs can be readily approved, but do not ensure they won’t be placed in the disfavored locations. The staff report cautions that “the City Council and community can expect that WCF applications will be filed and will include requests for exceptions. While there will be a review and analysis of each exception request, recent federal orders give great deference to wireless carriers over local interests.” Several coalitions of municipalities (not including Palo Alto) have challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s encroachment on local authority. The litigation is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and any ruling is expected to apply to Palo Alto.

In addition to restricting local authority to regulate WCF installations, Federal and State law require action on a WCF application within 30-90 days. Thus, when applicants seek exceptions, which they commonly do, the city’s authority to deny them is limited and staff resources would have to be redirected to the additional review on a short turn around. The staff report indicates that council could strengthen the standards further, to require greater setbacks for example, but cautions that more stringent standards would likely result in additional exception requests requiring more staff and council resources dedicated to review and appeals.

United Neighbors, a local grassroots group that has long advocated for tougher standards, acknowledges the proposed new standards are a step in the right direction, but is urging council to require no-exception setbacks of 100 feet from homes.

If approved, the resolution would apply immediately to new WFC proposals. Meanwhile, associated updates to the city’s wireless ordinance will go through Planning and Transportation Commission review with additional council action expected in April.

This item is scheduled for council debate on Monday, December 16 at 7:35 pm in City Hall. Click here for the staff report.

Under new contract, independent police auditor would not review reports of internal misconduct

City Council will vote December 16 to approve a new contract with the city’s independent police auditing firm, OIR Group. OIR will continue to provide independent review of the police department’s internal affairs investigations, including all use of force cases and all citizen complaints against officers. However, under the proposed three-year extension, the independent police auditor’s contract will exclude police activities that do not involve members of the public from its review.

In the past, the independent auditors were not barred from investigating such internal complaints and any IPA reporting on such investigations was required by law to protect the identities of the personnel involved. However, according to the staff report, general practice has been to handle them through the city’s Human Resources Department, thereby shielding any investigation from public disclosure and maximizing privacy for police personnel. 

Reporting by the Palo Alto Daily Post about allegations that an officer had used a racial slur towards another officer spurred concern that the public is routinely kept in the dark about alleged police conduct that could affect interactions between police and the public.

In preparing the contract renewal, city staff considered “whether the IPA should also review and comment on City investigations of internal personnel matters not involving policing activities or members of the public.” They concluded that even though such IPA oversight offered “some potential for additional insights, the risks to personal privacy and a safe and confidential human resources complaint system weigh in favor of continuing to handle these matters confidentially under the direction of the Human Resources Department.” 

As such, staff proposes adding new language to the auditor’s contract to specify that “Complaints and investigations of internal personnel or human resources matters are not part of these Independent Police Auditor Services.”

This item is scheduled for council debate on Monday, December 16 at 9:05 pm in City Hall. Click here for the staff report.

Get Up To Speed

Despite false starts, Council approves temporary eviction protections in advance of state rent caps

Communities across the peninsula have heard reports of a spike in rent gauging and evictions in advance of statewide renter protections set to take effect on January 1, 2020. With City Council’s adoption of an urgency ordinance proposed by Councilmembers Kou and DuBois, Palo Alto has now joined Menlo Park, Redwood City and Los Angeles in passing stop gap measures to protect tenants from evictions until the state law takes effect

California’s Tenant Protection Act of 2019 caps allowable annual rent increases for buildings 15 years and older at 5 percent plus inflation and will prohibit evictions without “just cause” for tenants who have lived in their unit for a year or more. Although the state law retroactively capped rent increases imposed after March 15, 2019, tenants and renter advocates have reported rent hikes well in excess of the 5 percent plus inflation cap, along with spikes in costs for parking and other bundled amenities and evictions of renters in good standing. According to the colleagues memo, such actions amount to “an escalation of harassment by landlords in order to encourage tenants to move out voluntarily.”  

Modeled after the new state law, Palo Alto’s urgency ordinance, passed unanimously on December 9, prohibits landlords from evicting tenants in good standing who have lived in a unit for a year or more. The ordinance defines what qualifies as an allowable “just cause” eviction and outlines certain types of properties and residential circumstances that are exempt from the “just cause” requirements. The ordinance took effect immediately and remains valid until December 31, 2019.  

It is hoped that council’s action will not only prevent no-fault evictions for the remainder of the year, but also reduce “voluntary” displacement through better understanding of renter protections, including the city’s temporary “just cause” eviction rules and the State law’s “just cause” rules and retroactive rent caps. 

Council unanimously approved the temporary eviction protections on December 9 after a three week delay due to misunderstandings regarding the vote threshold required to pass an urgency ordinance. Because an urgency ordinance takes immediate effect (without a second reading), it must pass by a four-fifths majority rather than a simple majority. But a councilmember absence in November and recusal by Councilmember Kniss complicated the calculation. 

When first calendared on November 18, the city thought the threshold was four-fifths of the entire council, or six votes. With Councilmember Kniss’ recusal and Councilmember Fine’s absence, it appeared that there were not enough voting members present to pass the ordinance so it was continued to December 2. By December 2, it had been determined that only four-fifths of those present were required (thus on November 18, five votes would have been sufficient for passage). 

There were no absences on December 2, but Councilmember Kniss again recused herself. To the apparent surprise of some on the dais and many in the audience, after Councilmember Tanaka dissented in a 5-1 vote on the urgency ordinance, City Attorney Stump indicated that the measure had failed, stating that a recused councilmember is considered “present” even though not in the room and not participating in the vote. Council then reconsidered the item and unanimously voted to continue it to the consent calendar on December 9 to allow time for additional public input as requested by Councilmember Tanaka.

Commission endorses pilot program for non-resident access to Foothills Park

On November 12, the Parks and Recreation Commission voted 6-1 to recommend that the city implement a one-year pilot program to allow non-resident access to the Foothills Park seven days a week. The pilot proposal, initiated by an ad hoc committee of the Commission, would allow up to 50 non-resident vehicles (or bicycle groups) to obtain a permit through the city’s new online reservation system for a $6 entrance fee. Palo Alto residents would continue to have free access. The proposal also recommends creating a formalized school field trip program to encourage and expand youth access to the park’s resources.

How many daily new visitors would take advantage of the pilot program is yet to be seen. Each vehicle or bicycle group may include up to 8 individuals, yielding a maximum of 400 new visitors per day. However, based on an historic average of 2.5 to 2.7 people per vehicle entering the park, proponents of the pilot estimate that the maximum new daily volume will be significantly lower. The pilot proposal recommends maintaining the longstanding limit of 1,000 total park visitors at any given time and would give city staff the ability to limit non-resident permits as necessary to manage park user volume. 

Further staff review and city council approval of changes to the municipal code still are required before the pilot program can be implemented.

“Safe Parking” pilot for vehicle dwellers moves forward 

The City Council Policy and Services Committee voted unanimously on November 12 to recommend City Council approval of a three month pilot program to create safe overnight parking for vehicle dwellers on the privately-owned property of religious institutions. Although originally proposed as an 18 month pilot, the Committee reduced the duration to three months and beefed up required neighborhood notification based on concerns about potential community opposition or unintended consequences.

If approved by City Council, the pilot would allow up to four vehicles to park on the property of religious organizations between the hours of 6 pm and 8 am. The program also would include access to restroom facilities and case management services to help connect the vehicle dwellers to permanent housing. Two congregations, Palo Alto Church of Christ and Congregation Etz Chayim, have already expressed an interest in the program.

The three month pilot is seen as a first step toward actualizing the safe parking recommendations put forth in a colleagues memo by Councilmembers Kou and DuBois. Staff thinks the pilot can be implemented fairly quickly – as soon as early next year. A more ambitious program to allow five or more vehicles on private properties, not just congregation-owned, and to consider potential use of two publicly owned sites are still being evaluated. 

In other news…

  • Palo Alto to ban sales of vaping products – In unanimous support of a colleagues memo by Councilmembers Cormack, Fine, and Tanaka, City Council on December 9 directed staff to prepare an ordinance banning the sale of all electronic cigarettes in local stores.
  • Commission system up for an overhaul in Palo Alto – on a 5-2 vote (Kniss and Tanaka dissenting) December 9 City Council approved an ad hoc committee consisting of Councilmembers Cormack and DuBois to review city practices related to boards and commissions and recommend guidelines for improvement. In part spurred by citizen complaints about the conduct of Planning Commissioner Michael Alcheck, the ad hoc committee will consider such things as guidelines for appointment, conduct, term lengths and process for removal of appointed officials as well as the role of council liaisons and the ability of commissions to pursue independent initiatives (absent council direction), including demands on staff time. 
  • Council holds back funds from plan to revitalize Ventura – Despite majority council support for additional planning work (studies and planning consultants) to advance the development of a North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan, City Council voted on December 2 to reject a budget amendment that would have funded that work. Because a budget amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote,, the 4-3 vote (Cormack, Filseth, and Tanaka dissenting) on December 2 failed to pass. Staff has indicated that the NVCAP project will continue to move forward with existing funding. As those funds are expended, the planning likely will shift to a more “staff-driven” process.

Notable Upcoming Action

December 16, 2019

Board and Commission Appointments: City Council will vote on appointments to fill three seats on the Historic Resources Board, four seats on the Parks and Recreation Commission, and one seat on the Planning and Transportation Commission. Beginning at 5:30 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Wireless Communication Facilities: City Council will vote on a resolution amending the city’s objective standards for WCF in the public rights of way to clarify existing standards and add new standards regarding the prioritization, placement, location, and design criteria. Beginning at 7:35 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

4115 El Camino Real: Council will hold a hearing on the subdivision of a .36 acre parcel to accommodate seven residential, two commercial, and two office condominiums. Beginning at 8:30 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Police Auditors Contract: City Council will vote on a new three year contract with OIR Group to provide independent police auditing services. Beginning at 9:05 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Merit Raises and Property Contributions for Council-appointed Officials: City Council will vote on a five percent raise in compensation for City Attorney Molly Stump, a 4.25 percent raise for City Clerk Beth Minor, and a city contribution of up to $3 million plus a $1 million loan to City Manager Ed Shikada for the purchase of a primary residence within the corporate city limits. Beginning at 9:45 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Parks and Recreation Updates: The Parks and Recreation Commission will hear performance updates on the aquatics program and the golf course as well as updates on the Draft Cubberley Concept Plan and renewal of the Cubberley lease agreement with PAUSD. The Commission will also review the proposed FY 2021-2025 Capital Improvement Program Plan. Meeting begins at 7:00 pm (City Hall). Staff reports available here.

City Council Winter Break: December 19, 2019 to January 5, 2020