Local Blogs

By Douglas Moran

Candidate Slates for City Council: Time to reconsider?

Uploaded: Jan 18, 2014

Slates of candidates for City Council could address two major problems with Council elections: It could allow a broader range of candidates to compete, and it would provide voters with better information on the candidates positions on issues.

Slates have long been frowned on by Palo Alto's political establishment. The argument has been that slates would create voting blocks on Council, rather than each Council member making his own decision. But there is an underlying presumption that Council decisions should be a collaborative process assessing the facts of the individual situations.

Yet if you look at what actually happens, there have been virtual slates for as long as I can remember. There is often substantial coordination between campaigns, starting with significant overlaps in people working on campaigns. And there are often shared events, partly a mutual endorsement and partly a result of shared organizers. However, most voters are unaware of this, beyond seeing leaflets for a group of candidates appearing as a bundle on their doorstep.

And the virtual slates continue after the election. If you watch Council meetings, you become aware that there are Council members that seem to have had preliminary discussions among themselves, and that seem to often have the same or very similar positions. There is nothing wrong with this--it doesn't violate the Open-Meetings laws unless a majority of Council members are involved in the same discussion (including "serial meetings"). Except the hypocrisy. In the early 2000s, two newly elected Council members, Hillary Freeman and Yoriko Kishimoto, would meet with an experienced Council member, Nancy Lytle, to go through the packet, in essence, a study session. The political establishment when apoplectic, although their fury was probably not about the collaboration itself, but rather that collaboration made these three more effective, and that these three were insurgents, represent interests of residents against the establishment.

When I was considering running for Council (in 2005), I asked a variety of current and former Council members how they handled the workload. Common advice was to focus on a few issues and for the rest to identify Council members that you generally agree with and then simply follow their lead. In several ways, this is worse than having a publicly identified slate.

So what are the potential advantages of having slates? As a member of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), I have worked on multiple candidate questionnaires and candidate forums. Candidates strenuously resist make meaningful statements on even mildly controversial positions, much more than generic political candidates. (foot#1) I settle for asking questions to have the candidates display their knowledge of various issues, and then take what they choose to say, and not say, to infer their likely positions.

Slates by their very nature require their members to declare what it is that they have in common. And once you have even a single slate taking positions, there will pressure on the other candidates to take public positions, either by declaring their own, or by criticizing those of the slate.

Having self-declared slates doesn't require that all candidates belong to one. Nor does it require full slates, for example, the 2014 Council election will be for five seats, but a slate might consist of only two or three candidates.

Slates may encourage non-establishment candidates to run. For someone considering running, there are two big cost-benefit questions. First, are your chances of winning worth the costs in time and money of the campaign? Unless you have seriously considered being a candidate, it is easy to grossly underestimate how much it takes to be a serious candidate. Second, if you are elected, what are your prospects for being effective, and is that commensurate with the costs of serving? Or will the establishment marginalize and frustrate you?

One of the basic problems in a Council campaign is getting the attention of the electorate, and this has been made worse by the shift of elections from odd to even years. A slate allows those candidates to reinforce and build on what each other are saying, potentially reducing the cost of getting enough attention from the electorate to be seriously considered.

Slates also make it easier for voters to select enough candidates with similar perspectives, priorities and goals for them to be effective. Recognize that effectiveness in Council is not just votes, but the debate, the questions asked of Staff during the hearings, and the preparation for that debate a votes. Remember that Staff reports are not an unbiased assessment of the issues and options, but advocacy for a particular result. This puts an additional burden of knowledge and critical thinking on Council members. Facilitating study groups can help Council members overcome this disadvantage.

So what do you prioritize the tradeoffs? Are there additional advantages and disadvantages?

Note: I am not aware of anyone else currently discussing this topic. However, since there are various conversations going on about recruiting candidates, this could be part of those discussions.

---- Footnotes ----

1. There are legal constraints on candidates taking positions on specific projects, but many candidates stretch this to extremes as a justification for not taking positions on broad and general policy issues.

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