2/3/12 Study and Budget Issue Workshop Summary

Well, this was a lot of fun.

We started the afternoon with a very brief big-picture view of our finances and the challenges and improvements that we’re experiencing.  There was good news and bad.  The bad was obviously the dissolution of our RDA, but we’re also apparently going to lose $500k in transit-related money.  The good is that the economy has truly turned the corner, and our revenue is reflecting that.  So it was suggested that we will be able to absorb the loss of the RDA largely just through the improved revenue picture.  We’ll know more about this on Friday.

We then got into the study issue votes.  I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to try and relate what happened step-by-step.  Instead, I’m going to go through the study issues, give you my take, and relate what decision Council made.  I’ll start by saying that I pretty much took on the role of “the enforcer” during this session.  I was the one who aggressively drove drops and defers, and I took the bullet by leading on a couple of tough calls.  This was a philosophical thing.  Different people approach study issues in different ways.  One philosophy seems to be that study issues are Council’s opportunity to say “hey, what if…?”.  But that’s not the way I approach study issues.  To me, the city has a core mission to provide certain expected services – public safety, public works, library, parks, and so on.  That’s supposed to be our focus.  So to me, the “what if?” question tends to be nothing more than a distraction from our core mission more often than not.  So I tend to support study issues that try and fix aspects where we are failing in our core mission in some way, and I tend to resist the more pie-in-the-sky issues.

I’m also very sensitive to our fiscal situation.  Those two concerns are the main reasons why I ended up being “the enforcer” this year.

Another note.  My strategy for doing study issues is to come prepared with my rankings of the issues, then I adapt based on the support or opposition by colleagues.  I pretty aggressively defend the items I support, and I do my best to minimize the issues that I think should be dropped or simply delayed.  There are ways to vote to make this happen.  For instance, if an issue I support has strong support from colleagues, I’ll lower its ranking when the voting occurs – if it already has four first-place votes, then a fifth first-place vote won’t matter to it, and I can instead use that first-place vote to strengthen a study issue that I care about but which has less support from colleagues.  My goal isn’t to vote strictly according to my priorities – it’s to most effectively get the issues I care about approved for study, and to keep the city from spending resources studying issues that I don’t think we should do.

First up was the Office of the City Attorney.

OCA 12-01 Consideration Of Ordinance Barring Council From Voting On Issues Involving Individuals Or Organizations Contributing To Councilmember’s Election Campaign: this is the kind of issue that sounds really good but has all kinds of problems and false assumptions.  In most cases, councilmembers don’t pay any attention to contributions at vote time.  I’ve certainly never taken them into consideration, and I’ve never had a single contributor come back and say “now you owe me”.  There is always the possibility of abuse of influence when you’re talking about politics.  But I haven’t seen it myself (and apparently neither has any other city in the county, since this kind of ordinance doesn’t exist elsewhere).  We’re already required to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and that’s already pretty effective.  So my preference was to drop this issueCouncil vote: drop.

OCA 12-02 Consideration of Whistleblower Ordinance For Board and Commission Members: staff made a compelling argument that volunteers aren’t employees, staff has no power over volunteers, and this isn’t necessary.  I agreed, and my preference was to drop this issueCouncil vote: drop.

Office of the City Manager

OCM 11-01 Consideration of Transitioning to All-Mail Ballot Elections:  this is possibly a very good idea, but it’s one that we cannot adopt unless we give up using the County Registrar of Voters and run our own elections.  I don’t think we want to get into that, and I also think there’s a lot of value in having the County run our elections as a much more neutral party.  If the County can ever support this, we should do this study issue.  Until then, I favor dropping itCouncil vote: drop.

OCM 12-01 Consider the Viability of Developing a Financial/Economic Based Sister City Relationship with an Overseas Entity:  this one divided the council.  Proponents argued that we should be doing everything we can to enhance business in Sunnyvale, which is a compelling argument.  But I’m not a big fan of the sister city concept in general – it seems more than anything to be used elsewhere as an excuse for people to take trips to interesting other cities.  And private groups in Sunnyvale are already doing a pretty impressive job of bringing overseas interests to Sunnyvale (Plug and Play is particularly effective at doing this).  So I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: drop.

OCM 12-02 Consider Moving From Odd-Year Elections to Even-Year Elections: this has been an increasingly divisive issue in recent years.  On one side, proponents point out greater voter turnout in even years and the decreased cost, and I have to agree that those are strong reasons to switch.  I also think it’s just a matter of time before the cost of odd-year elections becomes prohibitive.  But even-year elections will also dramatically change the nature of Sunnyvale politics – much for the worse, I’m confident.  When you double the number of likely voters in an election, you also double the cost to run a campaign (due to mailers, mostly), which forces candidates to raise a lot more money in order to succeed.  And that added money won’t come from residents – it will invariably come from groups.  Switching to even-year elections will make it considerably harder from grassroots candidates to be viable, and it will shift candidates’ focus too far away from residents’ interests for my comfort.  But just on a more practical level, we only just had this study issue and voted on it a year ago.  To me, this has been addressed and finished for the time being.  So I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: ranked #1 of 1.

OCM 12-03 Consider Elimination of Numbered Council Seats: this is one that I’ve been wrestling with for the past couple of years.  Our numbered seat system creates some artificial oddities, some of which benefit Sunnyvale, some of which don’t.  And there have been debates back and forth on this for decades (quite literally).  It’s pretty common for this study issue to come up immediately after an election, particularly when an election turns out to be somewhat heated.  Currently, I oppose this – barely.  Numbered seats make it easier to vote out an incumbent, if that’s the electorate’s will (we’ve voted out three incumbents in recent years, while most cities that run “top N” elections haven’t).  Numbered seats makes the election a bit more heated, but it makes Council more civil (you usually won’t end up serving with someone you campaigned against).  But it’s hard to argue with some of the down-sides of numbered seats, particularly the game-playing with seat selection that happens during every election, and it won’t take much for me to change my mind on this.  Regardless, for now, I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: drop.

Community Development Department

CDD 09-11 Review of the Housing Mitigation Fee: I was torn between deferring and dropping this, but I see some value in it, so I favored deferring itCouncil vote: defer.

CDD 11-02 Downtown Development Policies for Parking: staff made a compelling argument to me on this one.  The new downtown developer may have interesting ideas for the unplanned portions of the downtown, and it is probably worth waiting until we know more about the developer’s plans.  At the very least, the developer should be a part of the discussion.  So I favored deferring thisCouncil vote: defer.

CDD 12-01 Requiring solar panel installation as part of re-roofing projects: as much as I like encouraging solar installations, this item propose just way too steep a burden on homeowners, probably to the point of preventing them from being able to afford basic roof upkeep.  So I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: drop.

CDD 12-02: Possible Nomination of Non-Residential Properties to the Heritage Resource Inventory: possibly interesting, but I was trying to keep the list of action items low for this year.  I favored deferring or dropping this, but I wasn’t willing to advocate for a drop (I would have followed someone else’s efforts to drop it).  Council vote: defer.

CDD 12-03: Cultural Heritage of Sunnyvale: pretty much the same as CDD 12-02 for me.  I favored deferring thisCouncil vote: ranked #6 of 6.

CDD 12-04 Recognition of the Technological Events and Innovations of Sunnyvale:  I just wasn’t a big fan of this one.  My vote: dropCouncil vote: drop.

CDD 12-05 Food Truck Location and Operation Requirements: I thought this was one of the top issues, since I’ve seen areas where this is affecting our brick-and-mortar restaurants.   I ranked it #3 in advance, and I bumped it to #2 for the voting when a more important issue showed broad support among my colleagues.  Council vote: ranked #4 of 6.

CDD 12-06 Regulations for Telecommunication Facilities Located in the Public Right of Way:  I wanted to rank it, but I was going to rank it low until I saw the public support for it in my survey.  That caused me to take a second look at it, and I ranked it #4Council vote: 3 of 6.

CDD 12-08 Use of Redwood Trees Relative to Water Conservation: I thought this was well-meant, but it’s fundamentally a private property owner’s decision.  So I favored dropping itCouncil vote: drop.

CDD 12-09 Pedestrian Plans for ITR Areas:  I was going to rank this moderate to high, until I saw the results of my survey, where this was the most popular item.  So I took a second look.  And ranked it #1Council vote: ranked #2 of 6.

CDD 12-10 Consideration of Non-residential Parking Requirements: I found this important, just less so than other issues on the list.  So I ranked it #5Council vote: ranked #5 of 6.

CDD 12-11 Consider Adding Criminal Background Checks to Below Market Rate (BMR) Program Qualification Process: this was tough for me.  I was persuaded by resident feedback that this needs to be looked at, because of the potential for the city to create a bad situation for neighbors through negligence or inaction.  But staff made a compelling argument that there’s little that we can do (although there’s reason to dispute staff’s recommendation).  In the end, this was a cheap study for us to perform, and I’d rather that we did too much examination of this issue than too little.  I ranked this #2 in advance, dropping it to #3 when some of my colleagues spoke strongly in favor of it, and it was clear that it would be ranked high regardless.  Council vote: ranked #1 of 6.

Environmental Services Department

ESD 11-01 Ban the Use of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Food Containers: this was top of my list.  EPS is a “bad actor” on the environment.  It can be recycled, but only if it’s clean, which food containers never are.  EPS is usually beyond the reach of cities to regulate (electronics packaging and the like), but food containers are, since they’re under the control of local restaurants, over which we have some jurisdiction. Food containers are an instance that is specifically permanent, specifically non-recyclable, and specifically under our control, so it’s very well-suited for municipal action.  So I ranked this #1.  It actually wasn’t the most important item to me (maybe #3), but I expected resistance from colleagues, which happened.  Council vote: ranked #2 of 3.

ESD12-01 Community and Operational Greenhouse Gas Inventory: This was also important.  The first step in managing the environmental impact of our residents and our own operations is to understand what that impact is.  That way, we know what our “worst practices” are, and we can target them first.  My rank: #3Council vote: ranked #3 of 3.

ESD 12-02 Sustainability Demonstration Fund: I thought this was well-meant, but it flew in the face of our 20-year budgeting process in a number of ways.  So I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: drop.

ESD 12-03 Impact of Sea Level Rise on Land Use: this concerns me a lot, particularly with our plans to deal with our obsolete water pollution control plant (located directly on the bay).  I favored deferring it for one year, simply to keep it clear of more important issues, and because I think it can wait a year.  Council vote: defer.

ESD 12-04 Community Solar Program: this had two components, and we tinkered with it on the dais.  Part A is to look at forming collective purchasing power for residents through some sort of association.  Part B is to form a city solar array and have residents buy into it as an alternate power source.  The two are really only related because of the word “solar”, so there was a move to break this up.  I initially moved to drop part B entirely, but I was persuaded to move B into DPW 10-09 (Reliable Power Options), which Council supported.  I ranked part A of this #2Council vote: ranked #1 of 3.

Library and Community Services

LCS 09-01 Explore Opportunities to Develop a Community Theatre Based in Downtown Sunnyvale: I didn’t like this one at all.  Don’t get me wrong – a downtown theater would be great.  But our infrastructure problems are so great – many hundreds of millions of dollars in necessary but unfunded projects that must be done, that we have no business pursuing this, particularly in this economic environment.  I described this as an “I want a pony!” item, and I favored dropping it.  One of my colleagues pointed out that the argument for this was much more compelling when we had the possibility of the old Abyss site as a location for a theater (which isn’t the case now).  Council vote: drop.

LCS 12-01 Consideration of a Veterans’ Memorial Honoring Sunnyvale Veterans who Gave Their Lives in Service to the Country in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam Wars: tough call.  I think this is a noble idea that we just can’t pursue right now.  So I favored dropping it (my criteria for “drop” was “we shouldn’t do it in the next two years”).  Council vote: drop.

LCS 12-02 Review Effectiveness of Existing Art in Private Development Policies and Practices: this was proposed by me, so I favored it strongly.  We require new developments to spend a lot of money in on-site art.  But there may be value in allowing developers to simply give us some of that money for art in public spaces, rather than spending all of the money on private property.  And since the art requirement is burdensome for developers, they may be willing to give us the money and let us do some of the art acquisition, rather than having to do so themselves.  The end result should be artwork that is more spread out across the city, rather than being focused on private property.  It should be win-win.  I favored ranking it #1Council vote: ranked #1 of 1.

Public Safety

DPS 12-01 Taxicabs: Franchises, Regulation, and Enforcement: a worthwhile issue.  I ranked it 2Council vote: ranked #2 of 2.

DPS 12-02 Explore Tools for Resolving Interior Hoarding Conditions at Residential Properties: this was much like CDD 12-11 for me – there’s a good chance it’s pointless, but we should study it and see what our options are anyway, to make sure we’ve done what we can.  I ranked it #1Council vote: ranked #1 of 2.

Public Works

DPW 09-01 Comprehensive School Traffic Study (Combined SI’s School TDM Opportunities & School Zone Traffic Controls and Enforcement): this was just too much of a big-ticket item for me.  Currently, we study traffic near schools on a “biggest problem first” basis.  So we try to stamp out the biggest problems first and foremost, and we don’t worry about locations that don’t seem to be a problem.  This issue proposed performing a comprehensive studying traffic around all 28 schools, problem or not, at a price tag of a half million dollars.  I just don’t think we can afford to do anything beyond our “triage” approach to traffic problems, so I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: ranked #3 of 4.

DPW 09-04: Impacts of Traffic Calming Devices on Cyclist: I just didn’t have a strong opinion on this one, one way or the other, other than not liking the price of some of the options being proposed.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 09-07 Sunnyvale Cyclovia Event: I love this item.  It’s a great concept.  I just don’t see us being able to do it in the next couple of years.  And if I was going to aggressively advocate for dropping issues I thought were less important, I had to do so even when it was a study issue that I like a lot personally.  So I favored dropping thisCouncil vote: defer.

DPW 10-09 Reliable Electrical Power Options: I would like this item a lot if I saw any sign that the private sector cared about this item.  Companies have said that this matters, but not one has offered a cent to help with it.  I find it hard to believe that this issue is truly important if Yahoo!, Google, Juniper, and NetApp won’t spend a cent to help with it.  This item is expensive for us – but dirt cheap for them, if it mattered to them.  And I wonder why this is viewed as keeping businesses away – when Google, Apple, HP, Microsoft, Rambus, and Nokia have all moved in in recent years, and when our office vacancy rate has dropped almost overnight from 54% to below 20%.  So I favored dropping itCouncil vote: ranked #1 of 4.

DPW 11-09 Community Bus Feasibility Study: this is a well-meaning issue that I thought is totally wrong for us to pursue.  First, we’re not in the public transit business.  Second, buses are hugely expensive to operate (agencies which do so end up subsidizing it to the tune of 85% or more).  Third, a lot of companies that would benefit from it already have their own traffic mitigation programs.  I strongly favored dropping thisCouncil vote: drop.

DPW 12-01 Bicyclist Anti-Harrassment Ordinance: staff argued strongly that this was pointless.  I would have agreed if this hadn’t already been adopted in Los Angeles.  I ranked this #2Council vote: ranked #4 of 4.

DPW 12-02 Establishment of 15 Miles Per Hour School Zones and Flashing Warning Signs: I favored staff’s recommendation of a partial drop, partial rank.  But my colleagues were surprisingly supportive of dropping this, so I went along with it.  Council vote: drop.

DPW 12-03 Conditions for the Installation of Colored Bicycle Lanes: way cool, way effective, way expensive.  I favored droppingCouncil vote: drop.

DPW 12-04 Expansion of Bicycle Violation Diversion Classes: I was ambivalent, leaning towards dropCouncil vote: drop.

DPW 12-05 Downtown Parking and Maintenance Management Program: I liked this and ranked it #1Council vote: ranked #2 of 4.

Then we went on to the Budget Issues.

#1 Establish a Budget for Bike to Work Day: it was cheap and probably effective for the money, so I favored keeping it if there was support for it.  And there was.  Council vote: refer to this year’s budget.

#2 Consider Funding the Veteran’s Memorial at Plaza del Sol: I was all over the place on this one, for various reasons.  I would have preferred to defer it, but staff made a compelling argument that it should be supported or dropped, but not deferred.  So I supported it, knowing that we will discuss this in detail later (with all options on the table).  Council vote: refer to this year’s budget.

#3 Pilot Commercial Food Composting Program: I supported this quite strongly.  Council vote: refer to this year’s budget.

And that was about it.

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