Downtown Parking: Process and Facts not Politics and Opinions

As we have seen recently, politics often involve opinions, personal attacks instead of relying on thoughtful process and facts. But we are not here to talk about what happens at the state and federal level; we prefer to talk about what is happening in our own town, Los Altos.

So why are we talking about process and facts? Because those matter to ensure good policy and good government. As many of you will recall FOLA raised concerns last January about the process used by the downtown parking committee. Upon investigation the City found that the committee was in violation of the Brown Act.

Further, the City was supposed to cure this violation by looking at the facts, assumptions and recommendations that the committee put forth in its draft final report. When we raised this issue initially it was not a personal attack against the individuals involved on the committee, it was a condemnation of a process that was flawed in many ways. But Brown Act violations were only a portion of our concern. The committee did not invite City staff to develop the information or the initial facts the committee used to formulate its findings and recommendations. That information was developed by the committee members and had no staff oversight or review. That is just bad public policy and is unprecedented for any prior committee or commission we know of in Los Altos. Our concerns were compounded by the fact that the committee did not include anyone who had a different perspective about increased density in the downtown.

Following FOLA’s recommendations and that of the outside counsel used in assessing the Brown Act violations, the City had the draft report reviewed by an outside consultant. Unfortunately, the scope of the review did not include any independent verification of the facts or underlying assumptions, many of which we find suspect. Instead, it appears that the consultant merely assumed that all the facts presented in the Parking Committee’s report were true, even though some simply are not. For example, our parking problem was caused because “the sale of City property that had been available for public parking”. The truth is that the unpaved lot now occupied by the new building at 400 Main Street was a temporary parking lot added while Safeway was being built and before the public parking spots were added to their garage.

In addition, there are a number of key assumptions that are not validated by critical analysis. While the report touts the virtues of a parking-in-lieu program, it does not address whether what was proposed would ever be financially viable. Do we want to have the City on the hook for millions of dollars because not enough development occurs to pay for those very expensive parking spots? Good process demands that good work be done. You don’t get an “A” just for completing an assignment. It needs to be the right work and it needs to be done correctly.

So why are we talking about old news? Because the city hired a consultant to review the work of the downtown parking committee. Only one small problem. The consultant did NOT review the facts to ensure that the information collected was complete and accurate. The consultant did not review critical assumptions that were made. In fact, the consultant didn’t even bother to visit Los Altos to see our downtown nor apparently did the consultant get copies of any of the other studies and reports that had been completed over the past 10 years. Are you surprised by this? We are. Are you concerned that the consultant report is essentially useless as an independent evaluation of the committee’s work? We are. Are you disappointed that they City wasted money on a useless report? We are.

Tomorrow this matter is before the City Council on Tuesday January 24th. We know that at least one Council member has publicly stated that he wants to Council to bless the consultant report and implement parts of the downtown parking committees recommendation as it relates to parking-in-lieu. We believe this is wrong given the Brown Act violations, the flawed process, and the questionable conclusions. We also believe that the visioning process should proceed forward and that any decisions on changes to parking should await the results of that effort.

It is incumbent upon the Council and City staff to make sure the community’s interest are best served. Good process helps ensure that outcome.