It is only the second time in the city's history that no incumbents are in the race — the first was in 1991. With such a large gap to fill, the critical task facing Palo Alto voters Nov. 6 is finding the right mix to give the 2008 City Council the oomph it needs to meet some of the most serious challenges of leadership in recent city history.
As usual, Palo Alto faces tough questions regarding future development and its impact on schools, housing and transportation. With the residential build-out of the Hyatt property, the new Campus for Jewish Life, Alma Plaza and other projects, there is increasing skepticism among residents over community benefits of more housing.
Stanford's proposal for rebuilding its adult and children's hospitals and the city-initiated expansion of the shopping center will have major community impacts that the next council must address with great care.
And issues that figured prominently in the 2005 council race remain: infrastructure needs, revenue challenges and internal city management problems that can't seem to be put behind us.
In spite of some noteworthy successes over the last few years (Children's Library renovation, Mayfield soccer fields, storm-drain projects, Heritage Park) a growing number of residents have lost confidence in the council and the staff to efficiently manage and lead the city.
The new council must be able to rebuild the community's belief in the city's ability to get things done. Shaken by a series of utilities and harassment scandals and harsh city-auditor reports about library and public-works operations, many citizens have adopted a skeptical — some even cynical — view of city operations, based on a recent survey and focus groups.
The city still faces a huge shortfall in funding for rebuilding and upgrading of its infrastructure. A pending report on the city's "infrastructure deficit" is expected to detail $200 million in projects, double the last report from the mid-1990s despite a big catch-up effort in recent years.
So comes Nov. 6, with four seats wide open — enough to make a real difference in whether the 2008-2009 council is able to provide the decisive direction Palo Alto now needs in key areas of management and operations. Among the 11 candidates are several who have the background to serve residents well, although only one, Planning Commissioner Pat Burt, has traditional city government experience within Palo Alto.
Other than varying in their critical assessment of how well the city is managed, we did not find a major divide among the candidates over issues. Each emphasized the need for greater discipline in the way the council makes decisions and each stressed his concern about the impacts of both additional housing development and of the Stanford hospital and shopping center projects. The candidates are all sensitive to the need to increase revenues for the city and are all supportive of a library bond measure and other infrastructure investment.
While we are impressed with the individual credentials of several candidates, we believe four stand out as having the right mix of hands-on community experience, personal attributes and abilities to operate as part of an effective whole:
* Sid Espinosa, director of philanthropy at Hewlett-Packard, has through his work and volunteer activities established strong relationships and a solid reputation throughout the community. He demonstrates a depth of knowledge of local issues behind a surface charm and friendliness. His background interest in public policy (since his Harvard days), his engagement in civic issues from youth services to finances and the Art Center, and his approach to "setting clear expectations" for management convince us that he is the best of the field.
* Pat Burt, current chair of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, clearly has the strongest base of detailed knowledge of both city development projects, trends, politics and city operations in general. He isn't afraid to take a strong stand, as he did for additional retail at Alma Plaza, nor is he an uncompromising absolutist. He has a solid footing in neighborhood-level leadership and can provide a voice that is both informed and impatient when it comes to providing stronger city leadership and direction.
* Yiaway Yeh grew up in Palo Alto, served as student body president at Gunn High School, and did a tour with the Peace Corps. He has been a consultant to municipal governments and currently works for Harvey Rose Associates, a well-regarded public-sector consulting firm. Yeh is attuned to the importance of dialogue among stakeholders of any issue, but his professional background also drives him to get things done.
* Dan Dykwel, a local Realtor, has built his base of support primarily through his involvement in the schools and community volunteering. He is current president of the districtwide Council of PTAs and has served on the Palo Alto Recreation Foundation board. He was active in both the narrowly unsuccessful Measure D library bond effort and the successful Measure A parcel tax for schools. He was a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force that reviewed the need for a new public-safety building.
Five of the other candidates have impressive backgrounds and are qualified to serve.
Tim Gray is a business consultant and CPA with a specialty tax practice and worked previously for the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital, where his wife still works.
Mark Nadim is an engineer and native of Iraq who has lived in Palo Alto 21 years with his wife and daughter.
William "Bill" Ross is an attorney with extensive experience providing land-use and other legal advice to governments and unions. He served as a planning commissioner years ago in Pasadena.
Greg Schmid, a former member of the Palo Alto school board, is an economist and strategic-planning consultant.
Donald "Smokey" Wallace is an engineer who has worked with large and small high-tech firms in Silicon Valley, including serving as vice president for corporate engineering at Adobe.
We believe that four candidates stand out as the best able to strengthen the cohesiveness and leadership capacity of the City Council.
Their mix of backgrounds, precise knowledge of city issues and expressed determination to address decisively key city issues convince us that Sid Espinosa, Pat Burt, Yiaway Yeh and Dan Dykwel would make the strongest additions to the Palo Alto City Council.