The Peoples Right to Know – Living in Vehicles Ordinance

Palo Alto city attorney Molly Stump

In April of this year, when Molly Stump was chosen as Palo Alto’s new city attorney, we were encouraged that the inherited local governmental process of decisions made behind closed doors would change. Ms Stump professed to be in favor of open and transparent government.

We are still waiting for signs that her perspective has gone viral within the rest of Palo Alto’s city government. The inherited manner of doing business within government (AND in business) involves small groups of individuals attending a series of meetings to come to a determination about a perceived problem.

Too often, it’s easier to think of creating laws that “protect me” from social problems rather than laws that contribute to solving social problems.

Take, for example, the ordinance to ban living in vehicles within Palo Alto City limits. City records obtained through the California Public Records Act request by attorney Aram James revealed that a series of meetings were being conducted on this topic.  Homeless in Vehicles – Enforcement aspects

Other documents received from the city attorney’s office contain email addresses of community members inviting them to attend a “Living in Vehicle Meeting” on June 30, 2011.

How those community members were selected is unclear. Presumably, these are the individuals who initiated the meetings to propose an ordinance. What is clear is that transparency had not yet been considered for these meetings.

This raises a question about transparency in government. Should local government meetings be open to the general public from the beginning of a proposed ordinance, or should meetings be held erstwhile in private until the idea and language of the ordinance is ready to be presented to the public, at which time invitations to attend meetings will be extended?

Of course, the latter sets up a scheme in which an ordinance is ready to be sent through to fulfill the wishes of its proponents, making it much more difficult to reshape Allowing the public to openly participate from inception and throughout the process may completely reshape or even kill a proposed ordinance early on.

The debate on homeless in vehicles opens to a wider debate on government procedure. While Molly Stump’s views on open government hadn’t been able to influence the process for the proposed ban on living in vehicles, let’s encourage our city council members to break with history and make open and transparent government a reality with future ordinance proposals.

Results of Attorney Aram James – California Public Records Act – Key Document Disclosure

Living in Vehicle Issue January 13th 2011 Agenda

Living in Vehicle Issue June 30th 2011 Agenda

PAPD Surveillance Vehicle Dwelling Map

Pending city ordinance not yet approved

Living in Vehicle – Enforcement Aspects


August 30th, 2011 – Update on Palo Alto’s Planed Vehicle Ordinance

Hi Curtis

The September 12th date is fast approaching would you send a brief outline for publication as to recent developments and or progress?  This would be greatly appreciated.


On Aug 30, 2011, at 8:49 AM, “Williams, Curtis” <> wrote:


We will not be presenting anything to the Council or the Policy & Services Committee on that date. Instead, we are scheduling a community forum on September 15th (Thursday) to discuss the issues and brainstorm solutions.

We expect the meeting to be held at the University Church in College Terrace (1611 Stanford Avenue) at 7:00 p.m. We will finalize the date, time and place by the end of the week and put an ad in the Weekly, post and distribute.

The earliest we could possibly get to Policy & Services is at their October 11th meeting, though it could be later. Thanks for checking in.

Curtis Williams

Editors note: Mr. Williams has been extremely open and candid on all vehicles ordinance planned discussions.  This is a fine example of open government and transparency and model to follow.


4 Replies to “The Peoples Right to Know – Living in Vehicles Ordinance”

  1. Mary,

    Thank you for your timely and thought provoking article. In terms of open government and transparency there are three pillars which support our first amendment right to criticize those who are in non-compliance of open government transparency.

    The three pillars of the first amend here in California or in other words our working tools for lifting the veil of secrecy of local and state government are as follows:

    (1). The first amend itself and subsequent case law interpreting it applicability to pubic discourse. The key or core element for our work is set out in New York Times v Sullivan–the right and in fact the duty to criticize and scrutinize government officials even vehemently if need be to be sure said officials are working for the public good as opposed to for their own self interest.

    (2) The Brown Act requiring notice of legislative meetings and governmental bodies a right to public comment and a right to access to the records and documents being used to by the governmental body to made public laws and decisions.

    (3) The CPRA California Public Records Act allowing citizen access to all public records reflecting upon how our government is being run access to records so we the people can monitor our own government.

    1. Mary,

      In the interest of open government and transparency we are including and releasing key documents obtained by attorney Aram James through the California Public Records Act (CPRA) which is the Federal equivalent of the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) on a state level shortly.

      May this “Peoples Right to Know” article serve as an example of the power of the law and the revealing of critical information which would have otherwise have been kept in secret.

  2. I write in response to the Daily Post article “Neighbors don’t want any more car campers” on page 4 of the Thursday August 25, 2011 issue.

    The writer quotes “rumors…that the city is considering a plan to herd … car campers…to [a] parking lot… where a few folks already live out of their cars.”

    I would like to remind your readers that such ideas are exactly what Mr. Riddle says they are—rumors.

    As for observable facts, they are stated in the article by Tammy Truher, a resident who says of the campers –“…we’ve never had any trouble with them…”

    According to the article her email is based on another email that is based on “a newspaper article that stated one alternative would be to corral campers …” I believe that to be incorrect.

    In the discussions I have participated in and witnessed—with Community Cooperation Team members (formed to respond to find alternatives to the possible ordinance) and the City Council—several possible sites were mentioned as places that vehicle dwellers could park and not be in front of someone’s house. I never heard anyone suggest that ALL the mobile residents would be “corralled” into any one location.

    The “worries” expressed in the article are founded on very little. Yes, there could be more vehicle dwellers there.

    Think of it as more people to police the area, more people to keep on eye on the the City’s property. I recall your attention to Andre Belton—a long-time camper—who saved the City at least $40,000 with his early morning warning of a fire at the temporary Palo Alto Library last summer.

    This story is an excellent example of how a wisp of a rumor can get pumped up and before you know it become a serious fear.

    But rumor and fear are not the whole of this or any story.

    People sometimes get the idea that homeless=trouble. Or as Ms. Truher might put it, MORE homeless=trouble. Well, there’s another side to the story.

    Not only are there unsheltered good deed doers like Andre Belton, there are more. There’s Joe Bailey. He parks his RV at John Bouleware Park. He polices his area every morning. He even bought a weed whacker for the tall grass on the curved lot across from the park. The other morning he was out there weed whacking the long weeds with his new weed whacker—when a police officer drove by, gave Joe the thumbs up sign, and left. Within a week a City truck came along and did what Joe had been doing but over a larger area. By his good example, Joe had gently encouraged the City to do even more good deeds.

    People who are on the street know they have to be a little neater, pick up papers they didn’t drop, be extra good citizens because they know that people worry over nothing, blow a rumor up into a crisis, and think that those with less money cause more problems.

    The City is not planning to move all the vehicle dwellers to Ms. Truher’s neighborhood, nor any other. It’s unlikely all the people now living in vehicles would all move to any one location. People have to live near their jobs and can’t afford the gas to drive all over the City.

    The City is looking for alternatives to an oppressive, criminalizing ordinance. Finding places for car dwellers to park is but one of many options being discussed. The point of all the discussions on the part of many well-intentioned people—in City government, in the streets, and in the normal, average, million-dollar homes of Palo Alto—is to find solutions that include all members of the community, represent the rights and dignity of everyone, and make the City a better, more wholesome place for all Palo Altans.

    What the City IS planning is a community forum to get people’s suggestions, ideas, and concerns relating to people living in vehicles. Members of all groups and neighborhoods are to be invited to express themselves. The City and many in the community are working on finding alternatives to an ordinance that would criminalize people for being so poor they live in vehicles. One of the alternatives being discussed is for people to park in hospitable places instead of in neighborhoods.

    Other places being considered for people to park are: church parking lots, industrial sites, and some vacant lots. No one has suggested that all vehicles would end up getting parked in one place.

    So, boys and girls, what we have here are two paradigms: the rumor-fear way of looking at things or the Joe Bailey, good-citizen, weed-whacking approach.

    Whichever one of those paradigms you spend your time thinking about is the way your life will be.

    It’s all up to us. We can decide to worry and fret (which accomplishes nothing but filling the time with stress) or try to contribute to finding solutions that benefit everyone.


    Chuck Jagoda

  3. First of all, who is this guy Jagoda and why does he put comments in the thread that have very little in common with the other posts in the thread? This is called “off-thread posting” or OTP and is the cyber equivalent of red herring planting.

    Secondly, mad props to Mary Stuart for writing such a fine and useful article and posting the documents of interest.

    Thirdly, mad props to Mark Petersen-Perez for publishing all this refreshing info. I can feel the rush of fresh air and it is good. Extra props to Mark for breaking tradition and publishing a well-edited article.

    Fourthly, mad props to Aram James for continuing his role of chief gadfly, champion of free speech, and advocate for those who have no advocates.

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