accountability cartoon

October 10, 2017 Newsletter


What’s all the fuss about code enforcement? Public trust and damaged community life.

Ask a typical Palo Altan what code enforcement is all about and odds are the first thing they’ll mention is gas-powered leaf blowers. But it also encompasses zoning and building compliance, Use and Occupancy permits, parking, signage, construction noise and more – complex, wonky, and sometimes seemingly nitpicky, issues that have both immediate and cumulative impacts on land use and quality of life. While most residents may not know a specific code violation when they see one, they experience the impacts of noncompliance and it feels unfair.

Immediate neighbors suffer from unabated violations. Worse, Palo Altans city-wide endure a double loss: they suffer lasting changes in the character of their neighborhoods and they feel abandoned, or even duped, by their city government. Supposedly protected retail converts to other uses; burdens on public parking increase unnecessarily; traffic safety in neighborhoods deteriorates; and businesses freely flout rules designed to protect residential quality of life. Rumblings rise about city bias favoring non-resident interests.

When an electric generator failed for a giant dewatering project near California Avenue, the construction company replaced it with a much louder diesel version that was so noisy, 24/7, that neighbors were unable to sleep or work. Increasingly desperate residents got the run-around, sent back and forth to the Police and Planning departments, and it took several days and countless calls and emails to city staff and Council before the problem was resolved.

“For a week they’ve had a loud pump going and has been going on for 24/7. I have not slept. It is not an exaggeration.” – Mayfield resident

In residents’ view, city reluctance to impose costly penalties on the violator delayed resolution of the problem, leaving residents paying the price as they endured the impacts or retreated to other locations. Additional stories below exemplify wide-reaching impacts and frustration with weaknesses in the code enforcement system.

When the city inadequately enforces the promises embedded in its own rules, public trust diminishes. This weakens the citizen-government partnership and creates a climate of suspicion in which it’s hard to secure public support for valued purposes (such as much needed below market rate housing or Transportation Management Association (TMA) funding) or innovative, yet unproven strategies (such as car-light housing that lets developers build fewer parking spaces where programs or location are thought to reduce car use).

“I’m concerned that the City increasingly demonstrates an open door policy to developers but a closed door (and deaf ear) policy to residents.” – Fairmeadow resident

It also compounds frustration with the “Palo Alto process” as residents seek greater scrutiny of planning decisions. Indeed, a recent permit applicant told the Planning Commission “We should not suffer simply because [residents don’t] trust the city to do its job.”

The code enforcement audit currently underway is much needed. While its findings may be constrained by limited public understanding and active participation in code enforcement, public dialogue about this decidedly “unsexy” topic offers a critical step toward rebuilding the goodwill and partnership Palo Alto needs to confront the challenges before us.

Read on to learn more about code enforcement, Palo Alto’s systemic code enforcement challenges, and what you can do to improve outcomes.

Read more…

Get Up to Speed

  • Colleagues’ memo advocates strengthening renter protections.
  • Councilmember Tanaka fined for campaign finance violations.
  • 5-4 Council majority calls for looser office cap.
  • No empowered stakeholder group for rail corridor planning, but strong public preference for trench/tunnel solution emerges.
  • City Tidbits: TMA funding, Fry’s site planning, and shifting parking woes.
  • PAUSD: Amid controversy, Trustees vote to limit public comment at Board meetings and Superintendent resigns.

On the docket: Notable upcoming action on renter protections; speed limit changes; grade separation planning; paid parking; GUP for Stanford expansion; Fire Department staffing; Comprehensive Plan Update.

DuBois, Holman and Kou seek to strengthen renter protections in Palo Alto

In a colleagues’ memo to be discussed on Monday October 16, Councilmembers DuBois, Holman and Kou seek Council support to consider strengthening Palo Alto’s renter protection ordinances. The authors find that “although the growth in our tech economy has been a boon to many, that growth has been accompanied by negative disruptions, including a steep increase in demand that has severely degraded our housing affordability and resulted in many long-term renters being forced out or having to spend inordinate amounts of their incomes on housing.”

With approximately 44 percent of Palo Alto’s population comprised of renters, most of whom are long-term members of our community, the memo argues that “current and future economic forces have made additional renter protections necessary for the well-being of our community, its valuable diversity, and a viable economy.” If a majority supports the colleagues’ memo, the issue will be referred to the Council Policy and Services Committee to consider policies to:

  • Moderate the rate of rent increases;
  • Provide protections from unjust evictions by means that are fair to both renters and landlords;
  • Continue to promote construction of new multi-unit rental developments.

Council member Greg Tanaka cited for campaign finance violations

After a lengthy investigation, the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) concluded last month that Tanaka had committed multiple campaign finance disclosure violations during last year’s election season. Tanaka has agreed to pay $733 in fines.

This settlement by Councilmember Tanaka adds to a worrisome February narrative in which Tanaka returned $5,000 in campaign contributions (including $4,500 donated post-election) from the son of applicant Elizabeth Wong just prior to casting his vote to approve her controversial development project at 429 University Ave. Tanaka’s June 2017 finance disclosure statement reports the $5,000 refund along with new, off-setting contributions totaling $5,000 from three local developers.

Complaints from the public in March 2017 also triggered FPPC investigation of campaign finance irregularities by Vice Mayor Liz Kniss’ campaign. That investigation has yet to be concluded.

Interim office cap extended, but 5-4 majority calls for more “flexible” future limits

On September 5, City Council unanimously extended Palo Alto’s interim annual limit on office development to June 2018. But a slim majority directed staff to prepare a permanent ordinance with a “flexible” limit more favorable to developers.

The 5-4 majority (Scharff, Kniss, Wolbach, Tanaka and Fine) also voted to eliminate priority for projects designed for better environmental quality, mitigation of impacts, public benefit, or inclusion of housing, retail and cultural amenities.

Staff expects to present the specifics of new permanent ordinance in the Spring of 2018, for final action by next year’s City Council membership.

Community stakeholders kept at arms length in rail corridor planning, but communicate strong support for costly trenching solution.

Despite forceful objections from both the dais and the audience, Council voted 7-2 (Holman, Kou dissenting) to forego appointing a diverse stakeholder group (made up of residents, staff and technical experts) to help guide the design process for future grade separations. The majority, joined by DuBois after failure of his motion to appoint the group, opted instead to expand the role of the Council Rail Committee to include more frequent and interactive dialogue with residents. In addition to participating in high-level Community Workshops, residents can weigh in at Rail Committee meetings typically held Tuesday mornings at 8:30 am (agendas can be found here) and future Rail Committee Town Halls, TBD.

On October 11 (8:30 am in the Community Meeting Room in City Hall), the Rail Committee will revise its charter accordingly. The Committee will also discuss the September 16 Community Workshop in which participants, despite substantial costs and construction impacts, overwhelmingly favored trenching or tunneling the tracks below street level, and will hear a presentation about a trenching project in the City of San Gabriel.

City Tidbits

School District copes with controversy

It’s been a tumultuous month for the PAUSD. Superintendent Max McGee resigned, effective September 28, amid controversy over mishandling of sexual harassment complaints, and administration errors necessitating millions of dollars in district budget cuts.

Faced with $6 million in unbudgeted teacher and staff pay increases due to a missed contract deadline, PAUSD Trustees discussed strategies to mitigate the shortfall, including adjustments to property tax projections allowing a range of flexibility for spending adjustments and use of two reserve funds, a $6 million reserve for opening new schools and an $8 million State discretionary grant previously earmarked for new textbook adoption.

On September 20, the District released a third party report on PAUSD’s handling of a recent student report of sexual assault and subsequent bullying – finding systemic problems resulting in failures to follow federal and state law and district policies, and an intentional practice of communicating through texts and phone calls to avoid creating a public record.

Amid growing community concern over recent and ongoing controversies, the Board voted September 13 to limit public comment at Board meetings for the rest of the school year. Trustees unanimously agreed to reduce allotted time from three minutes to as little as one minute per speaker depending on the number of public speakers at both open forum and for individual agenda items. On a 3-2 vote (Baten-Caswell and DiBrienza dissenting) the Board limited open forum to a total of 30 minutes at the beginning and an additional 15 minutes for overflow speakers at the end of the meeting.

Notable Upcoming Action

October 11, 2017

Council Rail Committee

The Rail Committee will expand its charter to include more engagement with community stakeholders, review feedback from the September 16 Community Workshop #2, and receive a presentation on a rail trenching project underway in the City of San Gabriel. October 11, beginning at 8:30 am (Community Meeting Room, City Hall).

Planning and Transportation Commission

Downtown Paid Parking: The Commission will review the Downtown Parking Management Study and make recommendations to Council regarding implementation alternatives. October 11, beginning at 6 pmClick here for staff report (City Hall). .

October 12, 2017

Stanford Expansion: Public meeting hosted by Santa Clara County Staff to discuss the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) and public comment process for the University’s General Use Permit (GUP) application. October 12, 7:00-9:00 pm (Lucy Stern Community Center Ballroom).

October 16, 2017

City Council Meeting

Stanford Expansion: Council will hold a study session on the impacts of Stanford’s proposed expansion as reflected in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the University’s General Use Permit (GUP) application. October 16, beginning at 5:00 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Please note additional public meetings on the Stanford GUP on October 12 and November 30.

Speed Limits: Council will decide whether to increase speed limits on Deer Creek Road and Easy Bayshore Road, adopt Target Speeds for several streets that will allow speed reduction through roadway design, and reduce speed limits in school zones. October 16, beginning at 7:15 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

Fire Department: Council will consider changes in Fire Department staff deployment to offset reduced payments from Stanford University. October 16, beginning at 8:00 pm (City Hall)Click here for staff report.

Renter Protections: Council will consider a colleagues memo from Councilmembers DuBois, Holman and Kou to strengthen renter protections for Palo Alto residents. October 16, 2017, beginning at 9:45 pm (City Hall). Click here for staff report.

October 17, 2017

Council Finance Committee

The Finance Committee is tentatively scheduled to consider Downtown Paid Parking Study recommendations and strategies for addressing the City’s unfunded pension liabilities. October 17, beginning at 7:00 pm (Community Meeting Room, City Hall). Agenda and staff reports are not  yet available. When posted, you can find them here.

October 23, 2017

Comprehensive Plan: City Council is tentatively scheduled to take final action on the Comprehensive Plan Update. October 23, City Hall. Agenda and staff report will be posted here.

November 30, 2017

Stanford Expansion: Special County Planning Commission meeting to receive public comments on the DEIR for the Stanford GUP. November 30, 7:00-9:00 pm (Palo Alto Art Center Auditorium).