Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 17, 2012

Palo Alto sees shrinking pool of City Council candidates

In school board race, four candidates will compete for three seats

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto made the switch from odd- to even-year City Council elections in 2010, one of the goals was to generate more buzz about local contests by aligning them with the higher-profile state and national races.

Apparently, council candidates didn't get that memo.

The city's first council election since the switch has attracted the smallest pool of candidates in nearly two decades, with only eight local residents pulling nomination papers from the City Clerk's Office (one of the eight, well-known environmentalist Bob Wenzlau, has since decided not to run). Three of seven potential candidates financial consultant Tim Gray, concert promoter Mark Weiss and panhandler Victor Frost also ran in 2009, where they finished 11th, 13th and 14th, respectively, in a 14-candidate pool.

The race for four seats on the nine-member council also includes incumbents Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, former two-time mayor Liz Kniss and Marc Berman, an attorney who served last year on the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission and who has already amassed a campaign chest of more than $22,000.

On the education front, the candidate pools are similarly small.

Four candidates newcomers Heidi Emberling and Ken Dauber and incumbents Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend will compete for three seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education.

Similarly, four candidates will vie for three seats on the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees. They are incumbents Joan Barram, Betsy Bechtel and Laura Casas Frier and newcomer Geby Espinosa, who recently was unsuccessful in her June primary challenge to Assemblyman Rich Gordon.

In the Palo Alto City Council race, only Burt, Schmid, Kniss and Berman by Wednesday afternoon had submitted their nomination papers with the required 25 signatures and had these signatures verified by the Santa Clara County Office of the Clerk Recorder. Weiss had filed his papers but had not undergone the verification; Gray was still gathering signatures on Wednesday; and Frost, a frequent candidate, had not submitted his nominations paper as of early Wednesday. The deadline to file was 5:30 p.m., after the Weekly's press deadline.

City Clerk Donna Grider said the pool of candidates is the smallest she has seen since joining the city more than 13 years ago. According to data from her office, every election since 1997 but one has attracted more than 10 candidates. The lone exception was 1999, when only eight people ran. The last time the council had seven council candidates was 1995, the year soon-to-be-outgoing state Sen. Joe Simitian was running for re-election.

There were also seven council candidates in 1993, the year in which Kniss was elected to her second term on council. Not that Kniss needed the shallow pool. In 1989, when she first joined the council, Kniss was one of 17 candidates.

If either Frost, Weiss or Gray fails to complete the nomination process, the city would have the smallest candidate pool since 1985, when current Councilman Larry Klein was enjoying his first council stint and running for re-election. He was one of six candidates vying for five seats.

Kniss, who is about to conclude her final term on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, had urged the council in 2010 to change election years so that they line up with state and national election, a move that she said would generate more excitement for local races and save money by allowing consolidation of elections. The council voted to put the measure changing the election years on the ballot, and the voters subsequently approved it.

This year, voters will have a chance to select their council members along with the U.S. president, state legislators and a host of state and local measures, including Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to raise taxes, a Santa Clara County-proposed 1/8-cent sales-tax increase and a Palo Alto measure that would allow three medical-marijuana dispensaries to set up shop in the city.

While it's tough to find a definitive explanation for the dearth of candidates in this year's election, Gray suspects it has something to do with the candidates already in the field. Burt and Schmid are both incumbents while Kniss is a household name on the local political scene. She was the first candidate to announce her run for council, and the endorsements on her campaign site read like a Who's Who of the political establishment.

While the 31-year-old Berman is a relative newcomer when compared to Kniss, his list of endorsements is also sizeable and growing. Assemblymembers Rich Gordon, Jerry Hill and Mike Honda have all endorsed him, as have current Councilman Klein and current Councilwomen Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd.

Gray said he believes that the strong name recognition of the four front-runner candidates may have deterred others from throwing their hat into the race.

"Often times, when a name like Liz's or someone else who is high-profile in terms of traditional city service, like Marc Berman, comes along, people think they're pretty much anointed. They're the 'Chosen Ones,'" said Gray, who was spending his Wednesday collecting signatures and planning to submit them to the City Clerk by the end of the day.

Wenzlau, who last year spearheaded the successful Measure E campaign to "undedicate" 10 acres of parkland in the Baylands and make them available for a waste-to-energy facility, briefly flirted with the idea of running. But he told the Weekly Wednesday that he had since reconsidered and chose to remain focused on his environmental-consulting business, Terradex.

Beyond Palo Alto, Menlo Park resident Chengzhi "George" Yang, a Republican and a software engineer, and Gordon are squaring off to represent Assembly District 24, and Assemblyman Jerry Hill and former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber are vying for the new 13th State Senate District seat.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Chas, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2012 at 9:45 am

Public servants used to serve the public. That is long lost in Palo Ato. Money and power and the quest to control more of both is all that is valued.


Posted by Jo Ann, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 16, 2012 at 10:12 am

The other papers have had recent articles on how Palo Alto's unfunded pension liabilities equal more than $9,000 per resident and how our city is WAY out of line vs other CA cities.

I'd like to hear comments from all of the candidates on what they're going to do about it.


Posted by Mark, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 16, 2012 at 11:27 am

I'de like to hear comments from all of the candidates on what they think about burdening Palo Alto with high utility bills and bonds to fund the pet projects of environmental cults.


Posted by Disappointed, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm

It makes sense now to reduce the size of our City Council from 9 to 7. Lets see a reduced City Council, capable of making good decisions, instead of the endless chin wagging and procrastination.

Our present City Council is one of the worst we've ever had and the two worst are running again!!! There will be blanks on my ballot!!!


Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Moving the election to the even years is yet another policy area where Liz Kniss (as well as the Weekly) got wrong again.

The Weekly failed to mention that Kniss is being termed out of her County Supervisor office, so she had another motive for moving the elections so that she can have another elective office she can run for.

In previous odd year elections, which had around 14,000 voters, candidates would raise around $20,000 - $30,000 to run. In an even number year election with a presidential race, there are 38,000 voters. Tha amount of money needed to have an effective campaign could easily be $60,000 - $90,000. This means special interest groups will have a bigger influence on our city election (the prize being spending the $152+ million annual city budget).

I would like to see

(1) specific details from candidates on spending priorities, and that means which services & programs they would target for reductions
so that more investment can be put into infrastructure.

(2) how they would have voted on the rezoning & variances of PC zoned projects that have been approved over the last few years

(3) traffic mitigation plans

(4) what policy changes they would propose to make the city staff & bureaucrats more responsive to the residents, and not the special interests.


Posted by Harry, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Going from 9 to 7 is a must.


Posted by What's-In-It-For-Me?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2012 at 8:42 am

> Going from 9 to 7 is a must.

People have been talking about this for a coon's age .. but nothing ever comes of it. Palo Alto is too politically fragmented for most people to see anything but their own self-interests.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2012 at 8:50 am

It would definitely be worth a reporter's time to look into this further. The fact that both school and city elections are giving us very little choice is indeed worrisome. It is interesting that this has occurred since the change from odd to even years, but there must be more to it than that.


Posted by Frank, a resident of University South
on Aug 17, 2012 at 9:51 am

What has occured is that a small group of people in Palo Alto control the Council and they systematically eliminate all threats to their power base. It is a war that most decent citizens of Palo Alto are not willing to fight.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 11:07 am

There is another factor: the constant vicious and angry criticism that is prevalent from so many points of origin.

Why would anyone want to subject themselves to the 24-hour "dump on that person" mindset? Let's see, I can receive little pay and long hours to be a council member, get abused by public comments or via online forums...or...I can keep & maintain a quiet and private life, enjoy my family and my free time.

The common sense answer is obvious. Which is, unfortunately, what lacks in most of our government and school district meetings and decisions --- common sense.


Posted by poor mitt, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 17, 2012 at 11:29 am

" get abused by public comments or via online forums."

You would have a potentially valid point if you could show that council members actually read this and other forums.

As usual, Liz Kniss has manipulated the council to further her own selfish goals. She convinced them to change the election date so that she could assure herself of a council seat come november. After all, she is termed out of her present post and she feels that she is owed a new elected post.


Posted by Really? , a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 17, 2012 at 11:46 am

Crescent park dad

You would also be more persuasive if you were not one of the nastiest most uncivil posters on this board. You have relentlessly attacked Ken Dauber and accused him of all kinds of things all the while protesting about how people who put themselves out there are attacked. You need to reflect on your own conduct and stop calling the kettle black. At least Dauber is willing to publicly stand for his beliefs and values. He's not just an anonymous poster sitting around tearing others down without having to take responsibility. That's the difference between being a leader and not. If not for that leadership there wouldn't be a school board election at all and I personally applaud him for that. I also like most of his ideas.


Posted by Mike, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm

It's not just the public that lacks respect for the opinion of others. Pat Burt, Larry Klein and Greg Scharff go on the attack when they disagree with a statement made by another Council Member or a member of the public. Burt, Klein and Scharff pepper their language with occasional pleasantries, but when in a disagreement, they lack civility. When our elected officials behave so poorly, why should we expect more from the public?


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

So many conspiracies, so little time.

Any one who would join Council for the money as the first poster suggested would be in for a big surprise. The pay is $600/month, for which you must commit yourself to easily 15 hours of meeting, not including additional meetings as liaisons to other bodies plus community meetings, plus the time to review each meeting's Council packet which is like 6" thick. A former Council member told me he dedicated his Sundays to reading that behemoth. You'd be lucky (or maybe negligent of your duties) if you only worked 30 hours a month, for a maximum of $20/hour. The it's not worth doing for the money.

Crescent Park Dad was at least right about the abuse larded on Council and Staff, I submit as evidence most of the preceding posts.

The only reason to join Council is the same reason its always been: a commitment to public service and a desire to improve your community. People define improvement differently, and candidates need a large number of people to share their vision in order to be electable. That means the broad views on council are roughly representative of those shared by the voting public.

There is no cabal controlling council. Members of the public who get involved in their community's public life may meet and befriend councilors. People who are intelligent and articulate may have more influence than a babbling fool--and that's preferable if you hope for reasoned policy. Council members will consider many conflicting views, and in the end will make their own decisions based on insight and values.


Posted by poor mitt, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Cedric demonstrates how out of touch the environmental zealots in our city are (remember that Cedric also recently stated that city council should get into the business of deciding what kind of stores are allowed to open in the city--in a misguided effort to "support" local businesses--as if chain stores are lining up to open in Palo Alto)

Anyway, Cedric confuses criticism and disagreement withthe council as "abuse". While our city staff is well known for their foibles which cost us, the taxpayers, money, he claims that that is "abuse" also when we call attention to it!!!

As for a cabal controlling council--we all know who ends up getting elected--some work their way up through the city commissions and then demonstrate their total lack of suitability for being on the city council (Burt/Holman). some manipulate the system to change election dates to benefit themselves (kniss).

So, Cedric, is the "long hours" the reason Peter quit after 1 term????


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I should have reread the posts in this thread. I correct myself: some (not most) the posts are abusive. However, public officials get plenty of abuse in these forums in general.

I thought my own post was quite civil, yet 'poor mitt' calls me an 'environmental zealot', he calls Kniss selfish and manipulative, and he calls Peter's not running for a second term (because he had a new born, by the way) "quitting". I call poor mitt's language abusive and uncivil.

I ask you to join me in attempting to elevate the tone in this forum, and to handle our disagreements in a more civil and respectful manner.


Posted by poor mitt, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm

"I thought my own post was quite civil, yet 'poor mitt' calls me an 'environmental zealot', he calls Kniss selfish and manipulative, and he calls Peter's not running for a second term (because he had a new born, by the way) "quitting". I call poor mitt's language abusive and uncivil."

You see, Cedric proves my points--first about being out of touch and second about claiming that all criticism is "abusive and uncivil".
Well, IMHO, I consider you an "environmental zealot"--I think you are so focused on the "green" issues (that our city loves to be the leader in) that you lose sight of the cost and the big picture.
As for Kniss--I think many will agree that her reason for pushing for a switch in election years was to ensure that there would be an election avaliable for her to run in--I consider that selfish. And she did manipulate the system for her own benefit. As the article points out that are less people running this year, despite Kniss' claims that it would generate more excitment.
Then we come to Peter--he chose not to run for re-election, to the disppointment of many (not me, BTW). I said he quit. Quite an innocuous choice of words. However, for Cedric, this is an example of abuse and incivility. Really--so we are back to where we started, with people out of touch with the real world labelling criticism and comments as being "abusive and uncivil". How amusing.

"I ask you to join me in attempting to elevate the tone in this forum, and to handle our disagreements in a more civil and respectful manner."
A good start would be for the kettle to stop calling the pot black!!!!

Sorry, Cedric, but you are wrong again (whoops, I used the word wrong to describe Cedric--is that abusive???)


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Let me add perspective as someone who once seriously explored running for Council (in 2005). It is very difficult in an off-year election and I extrapolate extraordinarily difficult during an even year.

1. You need a core campaign committee of at least 4-6 people that will spend an incredible amount of time on the campaign and many more that will spend varying amounts of time. During an even-year election, many of these people, especially those with the skills and inclinations to be core members, are unavailable because they are working on campaigns for higher offices.

2. Fundraising: Unless you want to pander to the special interests, this is hard, consuming time and immense emotional energy, especially for those to whom begging does not come easy. During an off-year election, many citizen campaigns have difficulty getting enough money to do the basics to reach the _likely_ voters. In an even-year election, these expenses skyrocket.

3. Visibility: Surveys of PA voters in 2007 and 2009 indicated that the most important factors in voters decisions were the candidate statements in the Voter's Guide and the PAWeekly endorsements. Trying to get visibility of who you are and what you stand for beyond that is very expensive and time-consuming. With the much larger number of likely voters in the even-year election, I question whether it is possible for a normal candidate to reach a large enough portion of those voters in this manner to make any difference.

4. Ability to make a difference if elected? For a Council member, it takes an incredible amount of effort to make a small different. Part of this is the format of Council meetings, partly caused by the large number of participants. Part of this is Council's long history of refusing to have Staff prepare reports that actually facilitate decision-making -- City Manager reports are typically advocacy for a particular choice, and we have had Council members who acknowledged publicly that they found an issue confusing so that they were simply going to follow the City Manager's recommendation.

-----
The conjecture that the name-recognition of the incumbents, Kniss and Berman scared off other candidates seems to be nonsense. Look at previous elections where there were similar high-profile candidates who didn't scare off challengers, much less guarantee the election of those prominent candidates. Instead, what we have is that in an even year election, it is much, much harder to overcome the advantages of name recognition and money.

BTW: All this was brought up in the lead-up to the 2010 Election that approved the switch. Real debate didn't happen because it got swamped by other campaigns.

BTW: Cedric's estimate of 15 hours/week for Council members is a lower bound. I have heard repeatedly from Council members that if you are serious about serving, it is close to a full time job.


Posted by Ignore him, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Me thinks that Cedric doseth complain too much!. Isn't he one of peter's chief acolytes?


Posted by KB, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

The City Council? Who are they? Never met one. Never heard anything about them, except what I read in the Weekly. Never received anything in the mail from any of them, or from any part of PA government except the utility. No wonder no one wants to run for it.

When I lived in Chicago, I knew who my alderman was, I knew where his streetfront office was, I'd run into him at least once per year, I got mail from him every few months telling me what he'd done and what was going on at City Hall, etc. Now I live in PA, which is 1.5% the size of Chicago, and city government is a mysterious non-entity. When I lived in SF, same story with my local supervisor. Your average Joe in PA probably doesn't know anything at all about the Council. So it never occurs to them to run.

One way to fix it would be to put in some neighbor districts -- say five neighborhood councilmembers and four at-large members. I think they're all at-large now (again, who knows? maybe it's on some website...). Then you'd at least stand a chance of knowing who 'your' councilmember was and what they did, and it would probably make campaigns for those seats a lot less expensive.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Good post, Doug. When I first heard of the measure to move the election year, it seemed like a good idea, as it would save a bit money and potentially involve more citizens in voting for their Council members. But then for the same reasons you raised I changed my mind. It would be more expensive for candidates, more difficult to raise money and get volunteers, and just get the attention of voters focused on the larger contests.

It could be fewer people are running because of recent economic struggles: people want to focus on jobs and family rather than spend all that time in a thankless low pay high pain job...


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

@KB: you can learn more about your city at CityOfPaloAlto.org


Posted by Mark, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 18, 2012 at 1:41 pm

@Cedric - You wrote "When I first heard of the measure to move the election year, it seemed like a good idea, as it would save a bit of money."

That savings did not materialize because you and your band of "environmentalists" forced Measure E onto the ballot. You are part of a group of self described "people who are intelligent and articulate" that wasted taxpayer money. You supported a change in election years, something that is a potential game changer, and you now acknowledge that you had no real understanding of the potential effects.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 19, 2012 at 2:17 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Mark, I will attempt to remain polite despite your goading.

I did not place myself into the category of "intelligent and articulate" people, but if you would like to ascribe me to it, I will thank you for the complement.

As for your cherry picked quote, apparently I did not make myself sufficiently clear that I changed my mind and came out against the change in election years _before_ I cast my vote. Before voting, I thoughtfully consider all the arguments, and try to make an educated choice. That includes the possibility of changing my mind if the evidence warrants. I will give you the courtesy of assuming you do the same, and that you don't just go with your gut.

Because of the change of council election years, we had to gather twice as many signatures to qualify Measure E for the ballot. I guess some how we "forced" 6,000 people to sign those petitions, and "forced" two thirds of the electorate to vote yes. (Note that the turnout for that off-year election was very high.)

The independent financial feasibility study (Web Link) indicated that local handling of organic wastes could save Palo Alto $40 million over 20 years, compared to the city's default plan of sending food and yard waste 53 miles away to southern Gilroy. Either you believed the bloated figures thrown around by Measure E opponents and didn't fact check them against the feasibility study's conclusions, or you think allowing the city to explore the option to potentially save $2M/year is somehow "wasting taxpayer money".


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm

>The independent financial feasibility study (Web Link) indicated that local handling of organic wastes could save Palo Alto $40 million over 20 years, compared to the city's default plan of sending food and yard waste 53 miles away to southern Gilroy.

Cedric, once again, did the independent study consider the cost of disposal of human sewage sludge, if the sludge cannot be combined with yard trimmings/food waste compost? My question goes well beyond the assumption of 'zero value' of human sewage sludge (or compost that contains it); I am asking about the cost of eliminating human sewage sludge, if it is rejected by the compost market, because of presumed toxic loads. If human sewage sludge is disallowed from the compost mix, will the incinerator simply be continued? If so, these costs savings from the elimination of natural gas and capital costs of a refurbished incinerator MUST be subtracted from your "$40 million over 20 years" figure.

You need to address this question, Cedric. Thus far, you have not. Where will the sewage sludge go?


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 19, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Craig, you wrote "You need to address this question, Cedric. Thus far, you have not. Where will the sewage sludge go?"

You know as well as I that you have repeatedly raised this question and I have repeatedly answered. See, for instance, a limited sampling:
Feb 2011: Web Link
Aug 2011: Web Link
Nov 2011: Web Link
July 2012: Web Link

However, for whomever other than us who is still reading these comments, in short the cost of disposal of digested sewage, if it is not locally composted, is ~$1M/year, so the annual savings of $2M/year would drop to a savings of $1M/year, maybe more because there would not be the cost of composting the digestate.

Regarding use of composted sewage, see Web Link:

"European legislation on dangerous substances has eliminated the production and marketing of some substances that have been of historic concern such as persistent organic micropollutants. The European Commission has said repeatedly that the "Directive on the protection of the environment, and in particular of the soil, when sewage sludge is used in agriculture" (86/278/EEC) has been very successful in that there have been no cases of adverse effect where it has been applied. The EC encourages the use of sewage sludge in agriculture because it conserves organic matter and completes nutrient cycles. Recycling of phosphate is regarded as especially important because the phosphate industry predicts that at the current rate of extraction the economic reserves will be exhausted in 100 or at most 250 years."

Craig, you'll be happy to know that staff supports the inclusion of gasification in the upcoming RFP. Gasification is a superset of technologies which includes both Plasma Arc (Craig's favorite) and BioChar (supposedly good for carbon sequestration). The Request For Proposals (RFP) will get bids from technology vendors and waste handlers for handling Palo Alto's three streams of organic wastes (sewage/biosolids, food, yard).


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 20, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Cedric,

I have read your various messages, and I still do not get a solid feeling about the cost of diposing human sewage sludge, assuming that it will not be allowed in various compost schemes. You say approx. $1M/yr., but that figure does not appear to be supported by actual data...how many tons, wet(?) or dry (?), transport fees, tipping fees, where, premiums, etc.

I do appreciate that you do not consider plasma arc a combustion procedure (unlike Bob W., thus far). I also appreciate that the City staff will support looking at alternatives to compost, like plasma arc...although I seriously doubt that the political forces in our town will allow the slightest possibility of such rational approaches to actually be employed.

Cedric, you are a fair-minded guy, as far as I can tell. You believe in the 'zero waste', or at least the compost campaign, yet you are willing to at least consider other approaches. On the other hand, you are part of a cabal, includig Bob W. and Peter D., that have their ideological blinders on. You would do yourself a big favor by distancing yourself from those guys.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 22, 2012 at 1:16 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Craig, the cost to dispose of digested sewage biosolids includes all the factors you listed: tonnage, transport, and tipping fees, etc. I won't break it down for you, you can look it up for yourself in the study: check out the Inputs tab or pages (for excel or PDF, respectively), then the calculations for option 2A or 3A (those are the NIMBY options). Scenario 2 is the one to reference as it is more likely to include contingencies and was considered the most realistic scenario.

Fortunately, I don't dump my friends over slight differences in opinion, such whether or not Plasma Arc is incineration.


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