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Paul Myers

Shadow of Her Former Self: Betsy Bechtel, a former councilmember, now sits on the Palo Alto Standby Emergency City Council, the Bay Area's only existing backup body.

The Secret Seven

Here's a group of public officials so shadowy even the people in it aren't sure what it does. But rest assured, if all hell breaks loose, they'll be in charge.

By Loren Stein

SILICON VALLEY'S McEnery Convention Center lies in ruins, its orange and blue tile facade even more unrecognizable than when it was in place. Beneath the rubble lie 463 of the region's top civic officials, who had gathered for an ill-fated meeting of the Association of Bay Area Governments. The apparent terrorist attack has crippled the workings of local government and paralyzed decision making and emergency-relief efforts throughout the Bay Area, as well as in Silicon Valley.

But miraculously, one city in Santa Clara County quickly and calmly comes to the rescue. A group of experienced leaders convenes an emergency City Council, which had been put in place for exactly this type of catastrophe. They not only take immediate control of the reins of their local city government but also name interim leaders to take over every other city in the county.

Welcome to the post-9/11 terrorist world, where Palo Alto rules. Sound farfetched? Well, as things stand right now, it could happen, thanks to an obscure state law and an inconspicuously appointed group that could wield enormous power in an emergency: the Palo Alto Standby Emergency City Council.

After surveying half a dozen cities in Santa Clara County, it appears that only tiny Palo Alto has had the foresight, or sufficient paranoia, to create a seven-member backup City Council ready to step in at a moment's notice and make strategic decisions to keep government running. With the chaos and pandemonium that would surely follow a catastrophe, these select few could even find themselves responsible for choosing temporary mayors for other cities within 150 miles.

The irony is, almost no one in Palo Alto seems to know much about the shadow group. "This even confounds me," says former City Councilmember and unofficial Palo Alto historian Gary Fazzino. "I will admit [that] in my 30-plus years of being around City Hall since high school, I don't recall any, literally any conversation about the standby emergency council. I've been mayor twice, and I'm not even sure of the selection process. And no one's ever come to me. I'd be perfect for that group! What a great capstone to my career!"

The law creating the standby emergency council has its roots in the Cold War, dating back almost 40 years to 1963, one year after the Cuban missile crisis. (The city's municipal code contains a brief description; the city charter gives the council authority to set it up. Palo Alto, like San Jose, is a charter city; it can adopt rules that are city-specific.) The best guess is that it was enacted in response to nervousness over a Russian attack. "It's a creature of the Cold War era that lives on," says Fazzino. "Given the atmosphere in the country during the early '60s, it doesn't surprise me at all. We were building bomb shelters, and civil defense in case of a nuclear attack was a real issue."

The seven members were chosen, it appears, to lifetime terms--or until they ask to be taken off. One of the members has been onboard for some 20 years.

What's odd, Fazzino notes, is that in the years between the Cuban missile crisis and 9/11, Palo Alto has not taken succession and governance issues in the event of a major disaster very seriously. "You'd think we'd have a conversation about it after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 or after the Palo Alto floods in 1998, but we did not," he says.

The Chosen Few

Emily Renzel got selected for the standby emergency council in 1991, when she stepped down from the Palo Alto City Council. "Well, I can't tell you a whole lot," she laughs, but proceeds to give it a try. "If councilmembers are lost or out of town or unavailable and decisions have to be made, you bring in the emergency council, who are familiar with city operations and can make intelligent decisions about what to do," she says.

"My guess is we'd be called to the emergency operations center in the basement of City Hall [in police headquarters]," she says. "It would take a pretty extraordinary event." They would need at least five councilmembers to reach a quorum, and she believes the last members off the council would be called first. "That's really all I know, " she says, adding, "Please, whatever you use, put 'She surmised.'"

The group hasn't had a single meeting, although many of the members have been on the standby council for more than 10 years. All seven members of the emergency council are former city councilmembers and mayors.

"We haven't had a little class on being emergency councilmembers," Renzel says. To everyone's best recollection, the group has never had to step up to the plate for anything, and while no one has lost any sleep over it, they all hope they will never get the fateful call.

"It would be very difficult," agrees Betsy Bechtel, an emergency councilmember since 1989. "The only time the backup council would be used is when something very serious or dreadful was happening." Nonetheless, she says, "It was somebody's great idea that we should have this."

Whose great idea? No one quizzed on the subject seems to know, or if they do, they don't want to talk about it. (Repeated calls to the city attorney went unanswered.) Even three-time Mayor Ed Arnold, who sat on the City Council from 1961 to 1971, when the emergency council was established, doesn't know.

"Everyone should have one," he says dismissively. "It doesn't hurt to have people appointed who you know will be in charge." But he adds, "Palo Alto should re-examine the thing, particularly at this point in history."

Members are unclear about the length of the term and whether they are rotated. They're not even quite sure how they were selected, as Palo Alto is swarming with past councilmembers and mayors who have not been designated as emergency council. While Palo Alto's city website says the group is composed of former city councilmembers who expressed a willingness to serve, many admit they didn't show any enthusiasm for the role. Some got a call from city staff, but others simply discovered one day that they had been elevated to the rank of coolheaded, can-be-counted-on-in-a-crisis leader.

"I just found myself listed there, I certainly didn't ask for it," says Larry Klein, who's been a standby member since 1989. ("It's hardly worth the effort to get off the list," he adds.) Klein ruminates that their call to arms would come in the aftermath of a very unusual calamity. "It would have to be a pretty selective disaster that somehow kills off the entire City Council but saves or doesn't affect the standby council," he says. But he admits, "After 9/11, things that didn't seem possible now seem possible."

"I have complete confidence in the people on that list," says Jean McCown, who found herself on the emergency council in 1997 and, as such, is its newest member. "They understand the functions of the city and can get together quickly and take the steps needed without much ramp-up time." No one worries about what the group does until the day it's needed, she says.

But Gary Fazzino thinks that a working plan might be helpful. "It makes sense to pull them together and talk about responsibilities," he says. "Review with them what's in the emergency plan and, in the event of a disaster, what decisions could they be asked to make and what decisions they can't make." A manual would be good to have, he says, so if all top city staff are lost or killed, they'd know how to appoint replacements legally.

As far as whether democratic principles are at stake here, they all scoff at the notion. Duly elected people selected these folks, they say, and standby councilmembers were elected at one time. "Once again, Palo Alto has got more process than any other neighboring community," says Fazzino. "We prepare for any eventuality!"

Silicon Slack

In much the same way that the federal government shuttles Vice President Dick Cheney to and from secure secret bunkers and underground strategic command centers during heightened states of alert, local cities have had to think along the same lines.

The goal, of course, is to make sure the lines of command are preserved, the wheels of government keep turning and disaster recovery can proceed apace.

But as far as dealing with a total annihilation of city officials, things appear a little fuzzy.

Although Silicon Valley may have lost some of its cachet as a potential terrorist target since the dotcom crash and recession, it's still an epicenter of high-tech innovation and an economic driver, says Palo Alto Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva, who oversees the city's Office of Emergency Services. And Stanford University remains a vital political and research center that attracts dignitaries from all over the world, he says. Besides, terrorists may not even know the boom is over.

Yet when several officials representing different cities in Santa Clara County were queried as to whether they had an emergency standby council like Palo Alto's, they didn't know. They had to check first, and it turns out none of them do.

"It's a very interesting idea, a pretty wise thing to do, because they have the experience," says Marsha Hovey, Cupertino's emergency services coordinator.

In a disaster, it turns out, there would be an immediate need for the council to convene and vote. In order for the city manager to declare a state of emergency--which brings in state and federal services--the City Council needs to vote on it within seven days, says city of San Jose spokesperson Tom Manheim.

In San Jose, the City Council can appoint temporary members to serve in an emergency. There are lines of succession for all elected officials and staff positions, he says. (For example, the city manager can take over for the mayor.) If everyone is wiped out, he says, the city clerk will call for and conduct a special municipal election. "But theoretically, if nobody in government survives, that's an interesting question," he says.

That's where the 150-mile rule comes in. If the City Council is lost or killed in a disaster, the responsibility first goes to the chair of the county Board of Supervisors, explains Lynn Brown, coordinator for Mountain View's Office of Emergency Services. If the supervisors can't step in, the chair of a county board or a mayor within 150 miles (starting with the nearest and most populated city) can appoint temporary officers for the leaderless city and, if needed, manage the jurisdiction. This is where Palo Alto's emergency council could, if need be, reign supreme.

Like Palo Alto's backup council, the arcane law, part of the state's government code, was passed during the Cold War to prepare for a wide swath of destruction, says Brown. "The idea is, if the big one comes and we're suddenly radioactive dust, then you need somebody to handle the affairs of the city."

All Santa Clara County cities have an emergency preparedness program up and working. San Jose has one of the finest programs in the country, boasts Frannie Edwards-Winslow, San Jose's director of emergency preparedness.

"From an immediate standpoint, whether there's a terrorist attack or an earthquake, everything will function whether or not there's a City Council," says a confident Doug LaMar, coordinator for Sunnyvale's Office of Emergency Services.

Others are not so sanguine. "I worry about [a disaster] all the time," says Cupertino's Hovey. "Everyone is busy with their day-to-day lives so they don't take the time to think about it. We're the ones who imagine the doom and gloom so we're relatively safe and able to respond. I'm the conscience of the city. I do the what-ifs."

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From the November 27-December 4, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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