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Following major county initiatives, Los Altos council tackles local aid

McKenzie Park” width=
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A new sign at McKenzie Park on Fremont Avenue informs visitors of the playground's closure.

As the coronavirus outbreak and resulting shelter-in-place order continue to wreak havoc on the public health infrastructure and the economy, the Los Altos City Council Tuesday (March 24) responded to actions taken at a county level earlier in the day.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved allocating $3 million to two emergency funds through Silicon Valley Community Foundation, one to aid the regional coronavirus response and the other to support an urgency ordinance banning eviction of tenants who cannot pay their rent through May 31.

With funds directed to the most vulnerable in the Bay Area’s 10 counties, and the no-eviction ordinance applying to all county land, the Los Altos council and staff discussed via the online Zoom platform how to expand on relief efforts at the city level.

After editing and approving its 2020 Strategic Priorities, the council conferred with city attorney Jolie Houston about the ordinance, which took effect immediately – a move largely driven by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order that empowers local governments and their police forces to temporarily prohibit residential and commercial evictions.

The county-disbursed funds, partially matched by the city of San Jose, will go toward food, clothing and meeting other essential needs of the people most affected by the crisis, including health-care and gig workers, according to SVCF’s donation page, formed in partnership with “trusted community-based organizations.”

Houston described the county’s urgency ordinance as “balanced” compared with some other “overreaching” city ordinances being drafted prior to the Tuesday board meeting. She made clear that the ordinance delays but does not relieve tenants of their responsibility to pay rent or restrict landlords from collecting rental fees. She asked those in the area who can pay – even a portion – to do so as an act of good faith.

The council agreed to create a frequently asked questions page and post it to the city’s website so that residents and merchants have a communal understanding of acceptable practices through the end of the temporary moratorium on evictions.

Running at maximum capacity

Following a request by Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng to consider a moratorium on land-use applications, the council opted to take a “wait-and-see approach” based on what city planning staff can handle while working remotely.

Both City Manager Chris Jordan and Community Development Director Jon Biggs told the council that city employees have been processing and working on applications from home and can continue to do so. If one or two staffers fall sick, however, their output would decrease and Jordan and Biggs would likely approach the council to request the moratorium on applications.

Lee Eng pressed ahead in advocating the moratorium, noting that the Mountain View City Council decided to “postpone development items at this time.” After Mayor Jan Pepper clarified that the Mountain View council’s ban applied only to housing projects, Jordan said Los Altos city staff could be reallocated to fill any gaps if applications stack up and create a bottleneck.

Houston informed the council that Newsom has considered amending the California Public Records Act (CPRA) to ease the strain on city governments. Currently, staff is required to respond to all records requests in 10 days. City associations, including the League of California Cities, have asked Newsom to strike that requirement and implement other streamlined rules to enable staff to focus on tasks at hand, such as educating the public on the coronavirus. Any changes to the CPRA also could relieve staff from adhering to development-related timetables.

Journalism-centered organizations joined the First Amendment Coalition in asking Newsom to reject any amendments to the CPRA amendments. While understanding that trade-offs must be made during emergencies, the organizations do not support allowing governments to suspend all CPRA requests for the time being.

“The coronavirus pandemic is not California’s first major crisis, and the Legislature has never authorized the suspension of the California Public Records Act,” representatives of 11 transparency-minded groups said in a letter. “It enacted that law specifically ‘to safeguard the accountability of government to the public, for secrecy is antithetical to a democratic system of government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”

City reorients responsibilities, staffing

Jordan concluded the meeting by quickly moving through a PowerPoint presentation on emergency measures the city is taking after week one of quarantining. With a reduced need for staffing in essential departments such as police and maintenance, Jordan and his team implemented the following temporary measures.

• The Los Altos sewer maintenance team is now on call, working when needed to reduce potential contamination among staff and between staff and residents.

• All public facilities are closed as of Tuesday, including playgrounds, bathrooms and tennis courts. One or two city parks have no doors or gates, so the city will post signs to ensure no one uses the equipment.

• The Recreation and Community Services department is now handling most of the city’s coronavirus response and is exploring tools to mitigate the effects. Director Donna Legge is working directly with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and his associates on #SiliconValleyStrong, a countywide campaign to ensure food distribution to the area’s at-risk residents and to amplify volunteer relief and recovery efforts. For more information, visit bit.ly/2wDmilp.

• Legge and her staff are working with Community Services Agency to meet local needs and to make sure CSA has enough volunteers and donations. Beyond food distribution, the city is collaborating with local school districts to determine whether one of their facilities or a city facility can reopen and serve as a certified location for child care for the children of first responders and medical personnel.

• Engineering staff is working with contractors on the Los Altos Community Center project. Most crews are still on-site as they are considered essential, but the electrical subcontractor has suspended work. All contractors involved have been notified that it is acceptable for their employees to take a leave and to postpone operations; temporary delays will not financially harm the contractors or the city. It is likely that the timeline for the multimillion-dollar city gathering space will be pushed back.

• The Community Development department has been making fewer inspection visits because staff members do not have access to hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in the wake of product backlogs.

The Town Crier will continue to follow the city of Los Altos’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. Visit losaltosonline.com later this week for coverage of a city hall round-robin conference call on the crisis. For more information on the city’s actions discussed during last week’s call, visit bit.ly/2WHSPBF.

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