5/8/2012 Council Summary

Pretty long meeting, not unexpectedly.

We started the evening with a closed session involving a liability issue.  Can’t say much about that.

We then went to a joint study session involving VTA’s Bus Rapid Transit proposal.  I can’t do justice to the presentation, which had lots of details, but I’ll recount what I can remember.  VTA is proposing building a bus rapid transit route from San Jose to Palo Alto, with the middle stretch from Santa Clara to Mountain View having center dedicated bus lanes.  Basically, the two center lanes (one in each direction) would be converted to bus-only, except for left-hand turn lanes, to dramatically decrease the bus travel time and encourage people to move from car travel to bus travel.  But the project would also result in some traffic diverting to other roads, specifically Evelyn, Fremont, Central, 101, and 280.  There are some serious challenges with road widths.  Some sections would require getting some sort of easement to provide the turn lanes, the car and bus lanes, and minimum sidewalk widths.  There are short sections without enough space for bike lane continuity.  And so on.  One significant benefit is the reduction in greenhouse gases that would result.  VTA states that the project will cost Sunnyvale no money.  Unfortunately, I thought the whole study session was a bit rushed, without people really having the time to explore a lot of topics that need to be explored.

In short, VTA is asking us to vote to 1) not support BRT, 2) support BRT, or 3) support BRT with conditions.  And since VTA is extremely interested in getting Sunnyvale’s support for this, they suggested that they would be strongly motivated to meet most conditions we’re likely to attach.  We’ll be voting on this on May 22nd, I believe.

After this, we returned to Chambers for the general meeting.  First up was an annual event, the Lakewood School Color Guard leading us in the salute to the flag, always fun.  This was followed by the announcement of the winners of the Centennial Writing Contest.  And I was wrong about the scope – there were, I believe, more winners of this than there usually are for the Fire Safety Poster Contest.  But former mayor Hamilton moved things along briskly, and it was a good event.   After a couple of public announcements, we got a special presentation from three students from Homestead High School’s AP Environmental Science, explaining the problems caused by expanded polystyrene packaging (styrofoam).

The consent calendar came next, and one of my colleagues pulled the list of bills.  The balance of the consent calendar was approved on a 7-0 vote, and then the list of bills was approved on a 6-1 vote (I agreed).  We then went to public comments, and there were a number of speakers.  One of them pointed to a possible legal problem with our prior designation of certain areas of Priority Development Areas, which prompted me to ask staff to bring back more information on the item, to see if there is any risk to us.  We specifically approved the PDAs believing that the designation has no down-side and no potential obligation to us, but the speaker’s comments may have shed some doubt on that.  We’ll see.  Then it was on to general business.

Item 2 was the proposal to reject lease bids for the Raynor Activity Center and declare it surplus and available for sale, and it was naturally the elephant in the room.  This issue was made more complicated because a resident distributed a flyer to some 1600 households claiming the City was proposing to sell the property to a developer (the implication being a residential developer, I guess), which was completely false.  So we’d been receiving emails for the past couple of weeks along the lines of “how dare you build more housing there!”.  There were even some that said “how dare you sell the park for housing!”, which was really far from the truth – this only involved the Raynor Activity Center (where the old school buildings are), and not the park itself.

So basically, here are the details of staff’s proposal, which came from Council direction:

  • Reject the two lease proposals.
  • Declare the property “surplus”, a necessary first step before selling the property.
  • Start a 60-day period during which public agencies can express an interest in buying the property.  We must negotiate in good faith with any such agencies, but we are not required to accept an offer from such an agency.  This whole thing is a legal requirement.
  • Inform interested parties that only Public Facility uses are considered compatible (meaning not commercial or residential) – in short, that we don’t intend to rezone the property or allow for alternate uses.
  • Extend the leases of the current tenants by one year.
  • Commit to placing the proceeds of any sale into an infrastructure reserve fund (separate from the general fund), intended for major renovation or replacement of the Civic Center buildings (library, city hall, or public safety)

There were naturally a number of speakers, most of them opposing the sale, but somewhat divided between the notion of expanding Raynor Park or accepting one of the lease proposals.  One speaker from a Montessori school stated that they didn’t offer a lease proposal because they didn’t know that the proposal might include joint use of the adjacent park, which caused some consternation.  Staff later sent us a copy of the RFP, showing that it did indeed mention that joint use of the park is an option with that property, so I don’t know why the Montessori folks didn’t know that.  There were a couple of speakers from the German International School of Silicon Valley, one of the lease bidders, disappointed that the recommendation wasn’t to accept their bid.  They’re still interested in the property,

There was one bit of excitement that involved me.  The flyer I mentioned earlier stated that Council had voted 4-3 in closed session to take certain actions.  So when the flyer’s author spoke, I asked him whether the information was incorrect or there was a closed session leak.  He stated that he believed the information to be correct, citing two unnamed sources.  That prompted me to ask the Assistant City Attorney to take note of the possible closed session leak.  Closed session leaks are serious and very damaging to the city, since they can undermine the city’s negotiating position on labor negotiations, property negotiations, any number of ongoing legal issues, and so on.  Just the perception that there are leaks hurts us in a lot of ways.  So if someone is leaking that information, it’s important to find out and exclude that person from future closed sessions (something that we can legally do – even it it’s a Councilmember who is doing it).  I don’t know what, if anything, will come of that.

After that, we had some more questions and we got to the voting.  The initial motion was to not declare the property available for sale, and that motion failed on a 3-4 vote (I dissented).  The second motion was to return the whole process for further lease bids (in part based on the public input), and that failed on a 3-4 vote (I dissented again).

Then the motion was made to accept staff’s recommendation.  I seconded and promptly offered some friendly amendments.  First, that possible joint use of the parks should be made clear in the description of the property (accepted, and probably unnecessary).  Second, to investigate the possibility of making “right of first refusal” part of the sale – a condition that says that if the buyer ever decides to sell the property, the City must get the first opportunity to buy back the land (accepted, and the first time anyone had mentioned it – I got that suggestion from a resident).  Third, to make sure that when this returns for another public hearing, staff provides a minimum of two weeks public notice, while also widening the notification radius (which would otherwise be 300′ from the RAC) (accepted).  And this vote passed 4-3 (I agreed).

There were a number of issues I had to weigh on this, some of them known in advance, some of which came up later.  I’ll try to run through them, and my thoughts on them.

The use of the land – this was the big issue.  We needed to choose something that is compatible with the neighborhood.  It seemed clear that that means either the current use (school or day care) or a park.  No other option I’ve heard of makes any sense, so I was only going to support one of the two.

The claim that joint park use wasn’t communicated well to prospective lessees – I questioned the City Manager, who said that joint park use was a part of at least one of the lease proposals.  I didn’t give much credence to that claim when I heard it, and none at all after the CM’s comment.  And as I said earlier, I later saw the original RFP and saw the statement it made about joint park use being an option, so I was right to dismiss this concern, I think.

The notion that we could have counter-proposed and negotiated better lease terms – this one is hard to get into without talking about closed session stuff.  It’s always possible that the process could have been a little better, or that there were miscommunications.  This kind of process is never perfect.  I believe that we tried very hard to come up with a good lease option.  And I took this option very seriously, because I don’t like the notion of selling city property.  A good lease option was my preferred choice, if it could work out to the city’s satisfaction.  In short, I wanted this option to prevail, and I was very disappointed that it didn’t.  So I didn’t discount this option lightly.

The option of maintaining the property and increasing the size of Raynor Park – I understand why this option appeals to the residents so much (as well as to three of my colleagues).  It seems easy – just make the park larger, and it keeps the property in our hands.  And we can always change the use again later if we do this.  But understand that maintaining park land is not cheap.  And every study we’ve done shows that on a per-capita basis, the highest concentration of parks is in the south, and the greatest need for more parks is in the north.  Expanding Raynor Park makes it that much more difficult to fix the park problems that we have, because it takes both construction and operational money that is needed in the north and dedicates it to Raynor.  When we’ve been consciously directing the overwhelming majority of housing growth north of El Camino Real, choosing to commit park resources to the south is a slap in the face of northern residents, who are already underserved, who already have relatively few neighborhood services, and who also just lost their pool this year.  If we’re going to focus housing development in the north, then that has to be the focus of our new park development efforts as well.  Adding 3.7 acres to Raynor means not adding 3.7 acres of park land where the need is much greater (at least right now).

It’s important to understand the money aspect of the two approaches.  Converting the RAC to a park will cost us both a significant amount of capital funds to demolish the buildings and build the park, and a significant amount of money to operate the park forever.  Selling this property costs us zero capital funds to fix up the property (the buyer pays for that), and it costs us zero operating funds to maintain the property, while also generating significant capital funds to fix some significant problem elsewhere.  This is a significant factor, which I had to balance against the list of unfunded priorities in the city and the potential impact to the Birdland neighborhood.

Extending the park is still not a bad idea, and if a good sale option doesn’t present itself, I’m open to taking a second look at this. And this is still an option for us even after a sale.  By attaching a right of first refusal, we will probably have the opportunity to buy this land and expand the park in the future, should we have the need and the resources to support it.

The option of a branch library – something I’ve heard a couple of times.  The basic problem with this is the same as the park proposal, but more so.  With the proximity of the Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, and Cupertino libraries, the vast majority of Birdland already has relatively close proximity to library services.  In comparison, the residents of the north don’t have a library within 3, 4, and sometimes 5 miles of them.  Building a branch in the south but not in the north is a real imbalance of services.  Further, Birdland residents have frequently complained about traffic through their neighborhood, and libraries are serious traffic generators.  If residents are concerned that additional housing would cause traffic, then they should have the same concern about a branch library (although there are obviously beneficial aspects of a branch library).  I’m (obviously) a huge proponent of libraries, so again, I didn’t discount this notion lightly.

The notion that the proposal to sell the RAC was all driven by the need to pay for salaries or benefits – this is pretty laughable on its face.  The City Manager just rolled out his proposed budget and 20-year plan.  The proposed budget is balanced for 20 years, we pay off our unfunded liability in 17 years, we restore various services immediately, and so on.  From what I’ve read so far, it’s a great budget, and a good first step toward recovering from the past three years worth of service cuts.  And the budget plans to do all of this without spending a cent of money from a RAC sale or any other land sale on any salaries or benefits.  The budget places any money from an RAC sale in an infrastructure reserve, untouched for the length of the 20-year plan (mostly because we don’t yet have an exact sale price, and we don’t yet have a specific capital project to devote that money to).  The City Manager made it clear in his transmittal letter – we must not use one-time funds like this on operational expenses.  One of my colleagues said the same thing during the vote.  And I believe it myself, rabidly.  It’s always possible that some future council could do something stupid with this money, but I don’t believe it will happen (and I’ll be there to speak if they ever try it).

Let me put it this way.  In the two years I’ve been involved in this issue, not once have I ever heard anyone say “we need to sell the RAC to pay for salaries”.  Not a hint, not an explicit word, nothing.  This accusation makes for a great sound bite, but it’s not based in reality.

The notion that the City Council could change the zoning at a future date and allow some less compatible use – this is a tough one.  It’s possible.  If some development-friendly, neighborhood-unfriendly council comes along in future years, it could happen.  And this is true with any number of other properties throughout the city.  Some property owners never stop trying to increase the value of their property, and sometimes this happens all at once, sometimes they nickel-and-dime their way to their end goal.  There’s no way to protect against this except vigilance by residence and responsible councilmembers.  I made the public statement that I will never vote for housing on that property, and I intend to stick to that.  I don’t have a better answer than this, unfortunately.  If you trust a majority of your elected leaders, hopefully that’s good enough.  If you don’t, then there’s not much I can say to make you feel more comfortable anyway.  We built as much protection against abuse into our motions as we could.

Anyway, the bottom line is that this is just the beginning of the sale process, and nothing is set in stone.  We still have to go through the bidding process and see who ends up with the best bid, and there will be more time to consider our options and change course yet again if it doesn’t work out or if a better option shows up.

We then heard item 4 out of order – the continuation of the hearing regarding the taxicab franchise approval.  Staff reported that the owner is now in compliance, so we voted 7-0 to approve the franchise with some pre-negotiated modifications.

We then went back to item item 3, which involved this year’s HUD and CDBG distribution, plus a conditional loan commitment for the rehabilitation of Garland Plaza.  This is always a good item, because it’s an opportunity for a lot of non-profits to let the community know about the services they offer.  We had a number of speakers, and then we voted 7-0 to accept staff’s and the H&HS Commission’s recommended distribution.

We then jumped to item 5, possible positions on the June ballot measures.  With very little discussion, we jumped to the votes.  We were looking at the following issues:

  • Proposition 28 – changes to the state’s term limit structure
  • Proposition 29 – tobacco tax
  • Measure A – changes to county jail authority
  • Measure C – West Valley – Mission Community College Bond
  • Measure H – Cupertino Union School District bond

After some discussion around Proposition 28, a motion was made to support all five issues, but it failed on a 2-5 vote (I agreed, mostly out of curiosity but without a lot of confidence – there were too many proposals that I knew certain people would dislike).  So then I moved to support Prop. 28, and that motion passed 4-3.  A motion was then made to support Measure H, and that motion also passed on a 4-3 vote.

And that was about it, after the usual closing comments.  The meeting ran about 4 1/2 hours, not including the study session and closed session.

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