Uploaded: Friday, October 9, 2009, 11:46 AM
|Corey Levens wants to change the way the City Council conducts its business.
Levens, a corporate attorney, said he's grown frustrated and disappointed watching council members legislating from the bench, micromanaging projects and struggling to reach labor agreements with city workers. He also thinks the council has grown lackadaisical about attracting new businesses to Palo Alto.
A Chicago native, Levens has been living in Palo Alto and Stanford University for more than 20 years. In the mid-1990s, he owned and operated two stores specializing in children's clothing, toys and accessories. He sold the stores -- called Once Upon a Child -- in 1998 and turned to corporate law ("I wanted more free time," he says half-jokingly).
Levens, 53, said his years in retail taught him a great deal about the challenges of owning a small business. As a result of his retail experience, he now holds special esteem for business owners.
"I really have great respect for these people," Levens said. "It's not until you own a business that you can really understand and respect what these people have to go through."
He believes the council has an "anti-business philosophy" that takes for granted that businesses would continue to want to come to Palo Alto. Levens feels otherwise.
To him, the current business-tax proposal is the most obvious example of the council's short-sightedness toward businesses. He opposes Measure A, which is based on employee count, saying it would create an incentive for business owners to cut staff.
He said he would support a business tax based on gross receipts, provided businesses would have to pay a smaller amount than they would in surrounding jurisdictions.
Levens said he doesn't believe the city shoulders a responsibility to promote businesses. In a Palo Alto Neighborhoods questionnaire, Levens said he didn't expect the city to manage the mall where his store (when he owned one) was located, give him subsidies or determine what stores would be located near his. In his opinion, the city should focus on providing essential municipal services.
"What I did expect was that the city would efficiently and professionally provide basic services, such as police and fire protection, that the trash would be collected regularly, and, most of all, that the city would not make doing business more difficult than it inherently is."
Levens also criticized the city's method for negotiating with the Service Employees International Union -- negotiations that have dragged on since May and prompted a one-day strike on Sept. 24. The city and the union remain at loggerheads over the city's proposal to cut workers' pension and health care benefits -- a proposal the labor union has vehemently opposed.
Levens said the city was rash in calling for benefit reductions -- which is one of the most sensitive subjects for the labor union. He said the city should have solicited more input from the labor union on how to cut costs and should have made a greater effort to preserve good relations with the union. Then, if needed, the city could have proposed changes to some of the benefits.
"They picked the one issue where there can't be real compromise, and now they're driving to the edge of a cliff and waiting for someone to cry, 'Chicken,'" Levens told the Weekly.
At other times, he said the council negotiates too much. He was appalled by the council's recent discussion revolving around plans to upgrade the Downtown Library. After discussing shelf sizes and collection levels, the council ultimately voted (after 12:40 a.m.) to request revisions to a plan presented by staff and vetted by several volunteer commissions.
"It's an example of how a well-thought-out plan is worked on by hundreds of people over several months, and then it's presented to the council," Levens said. "Then the council, in their all-knowing powers, changed it."
The library episode was especially frustrating, he said, because one of the major priorities for the council is "civic engagement." But in this instance, a small but vocal minority convinced the council to ignore the months of work by another group of citizens, including Library Advisory Commission members.
Levens dislikes the city's tendency to scrutinize every detail of proposed projects -- a process that's become commonly known as the "Palo Alto process." He got his first taste of the infamous process in 2003, when he and his wife tried to remodel a home and experienced a significant delay. That's when Levens first started thinking about running for council.
Now, he hopes to get elected so that he could represent small-business interests, tackle the city's projected $10 million deficit and protect the city from the potentially dramatic impacts of the proposed high-speed rail. Though he said he would need more information before he could make a judgment on the lattermost controversial project, he said he opposes any high-speed-rail design that would involve a wall stretching along the Caltrain corridor.
Levens said he moved to Palo Alto with his wife, Anjini Kochar, because they felt the city reflected their values and offered a great place to raise a family. For a little more than a decade, they have lived in the city's Green Acres neighborhood with their two daughters, aged 17 and 19, and 12-year-old son.
But Levens said he's been disappointed to see the same group of people going to different campaign rallies and seeking the same commission seats year after year (a group he has heard other people refer to as the "Palo Alto 400"). He hopes voters will choose him in November to bring a new voice to the decision-making process.
"As a new candidate, and one who has not sought or accepted the endorsements of former or sitting council members, I believe I can bring a sorely needed and long overdue new voice and new perspective to the Council," Levens wrote in the questionnaire.
— Gennady Sheyner
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