Palo Alto Weekly
News - December 27, 2013
The disrupters — or the upholders?
In the year when federal contractor Edward Snowden leaked National Security Agency secrets and ran off to Russia, Palo Alto saw its own crop of newly minted civic activists, who took on City Hall, the school district and the old ways of doing education. Some may have viewed them as disrupting the status quo, while others may see them as upholding the values that have made Palo Alto great. Here are a few of this year's activists.
Cheryl Lilienstein and Joe Hirsch
It took dozens of volunteers, about 4,000 signatures and about 8,500 "no" votes to shoot down the City Council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue, but no two residents played a larger role in the citizen revolt than Barron Park residents Joe Hirsch, a former planning commissioner, and Cheryl Lilienstein, a physical therapist. As the spokespeople for the "Vote Against D" campaign, they helped lead their side to decisive victory and prompted the City Council to reconsider the city's development process.
Over the past year, Downtown North resident Neilson Buchanan has become both a leading expert and the most persuasive speaker on the subject of his neighborhood's parking shortage. By diligently counting parked cars in his neighborhood at various times of the day and determining how parked up each block is, the former hospital CEO has given city officials and residents a new tool for dealing with the city's most pressing problem. Other neighborhoods, including Evergreen Park and Ventura, have since adopted his method to document their own woes.
Call him old-fashioned if you'd like, but Douglas Smith has no love for glassy office buildings that look like they were pulled out of a cubist painting and that are increasingly popping up in downtown Palo Alto. A proud traditionalist, Smith circulated a survey this year to gauge local views on modern architecture and was happy to see a majority of residents agreeing with him. He concluded the year by appealing two modernist developments. While the City Council ultimately rejected the appeals, his action enabled other residents to join the chorus of criticism and added a spark to the city's heated debate over design standards, which promises to spill over into 2014.
Family of a bullied middle school student
If it weren't for the family of a disabled Terman Middle School student, a federal investigation into the ongoing bullying of the student may not have come to the public's attention. In advocating for their student's needs, the family came forward with a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that showed the school district failed to protect the student. The documents included an agreement signed by the school district to improve how it handles bullying complaints, which Superintendent Kevin Skelly hadn't provided to the Board of Education.
Even as Palo Alto online-education companies, such as Udacity and Coursera, continue their push to bring advanced education to those around the world who otherwise can't afford traditional university tuition, old-school brick-and-mortar universities and colleges are considering how they can keep from being left behind. Linda Thor, Foothill-De Anza Community College District chancellor, welcomed a state grant to create an "educational ecosystem" that will integrate the online offerings of all 112 of California's community colleges.
Posted by Neighbor,
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm
I know the players involved and what happened, and Cheryl was stating accurate information. Lawn signs on the No side did disappear, and I know where and the honesty of the people who reported them missing. The No side had very little campaign money in the beginning, so every well-placed sign was known. Ultimately, the Yes side spent around $120,000, and they began well-funded. The No side had to turn a ragtag, broad based neighborhood grassroots effort into a real campaign, and Joe and Cheryl did a lot of heavy lifting. The No side did not begin with a professional campaign firm, and much of the $20,000 they ultimately had wasn't available at the start (they only spent $15,000 ultimately).
Cheryl is an honorable person and was just asking the Yes side to tone it down. Jerry Underdal and Winter Dellenbach, and a few others, were quite caustic and ad hominem online, attacking those on the other side personally. The No side, I felt, was a lot more measured overall. The election is over and you are still trying to wage it. Please stop, it only furthers the negative hole PAHC people dug for themselves, by association.
The No people did complain about the City and PAHC colluding to represent the rezoning as already PC zoned to the state funding agency that decides who gets federal and state tax credits, even though the site was never actually zoned PC throughout all of this. If anything needs to be looked at further, it's the City's continuing to fill out third party verification forms for those tax credits, because
1) if the City had not provided that verification, and continued to do so, PAHC would not have qualified for that round and would have had to wait for the next round, i.e., they would have had time and leeway to work with the public and make more substantive compromises that could have allowed the project to go forward ultimately. Instead, they went for broke on essentially that plan, it was all in black-and-white for the state.
2) The tax credit allocation for funding is competitive, and other projects in usually less wealthy communities lost out in the review process for their tax credits. The process doesn't judge runners up in case anyone is found to not actually have qualified (since I guess the thought of a City providing false information doesn't seem to be on their radar), so the money will not now go to other worthy projects in cities that almost certainly will not be able to provide that housing because of what our City did, the committee is done awarding the grants this year and that's the end of it.
3) When neighbors qualified the referendum, the City Council had the choice to read the handwriting on the wall and set aside the ordinance, or they could have chosen a less expensive election cycle. Instead, they chose the most expensive election cycle, the only one that would have allowed them, if they won, to continue the whole development process as if the public wasnt there (remember their application to the tax credit committee was represented as the property having PC zoning, as CEQA appeals expired, etc, none of which were true). The consequence to Palo Alto taxpayers was the City Council and staff having zero incentive to work with residents to come up with a substantive compromise, but a great incentive to spend $660,000 of taxpayer money to hold an election they did not have to hold. Remember they had the choice to set aside the ordinance and work with neighbors. If they won the election, though, as they felt they would, they would pick up without missing a beat, as if the public never mattered, and the public processes were mere window dressing.
4) The forms are filled out by PAHC at least under penalty of perjury, the forms are not informal about the facts and requirements, there are millions in federal and state monies at stake.
5) The City's continuing to participate in the funding application process in this way provided strong incentive to also inappropriately and probably illegally advocate for the Yes side in the elections materials via the City Attorney's ballot bias.
Democracy has checks and balance for a reason. When so much pulic money is at stake, private corporations, even nonprofits, should be subject to the same standards of transparency and they were not. The lack of accountability and transparency allows for-profit interests too much cover to use the situation to their benefit at the expense of the public (recall that nearly 60% of the property was a market-rate development, from which all the profits from the sale of the upzoned houses would have gone to the for-profit developer). And it almost certainly cost Palo Alto taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some other affordable housing project in a needier community or communities their funding.
The Weekly reported neighbors' first complaints, and passed on Candace Gonzales' claims as fact without any support, yet called neighbors' contentions "claims" even though they presented official state documents obtained via public records act requests. Neighbors provided evidence of City employees improper behavior in City Council but were ignored by the press. Thus, the misrepresentations to the state continued and the project was ultimately awarded money (now returned) because the state continued to evaluate the project against other projects with untrue information provided by City employees.
This had consequences to our taxpayers, and shame on our media for not delving into that. This really should be triggering an investigation into City staff ethics and performance. All of the newly involved citizens should care about this.
Posted by Neighbor,
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 28, 2013 at 4:18 pm
You apparently did not bother to read the entire story you linked to:
The Weekly actually reported both Gail Price and Candace Gonzales saying they had signs stolen from their front yards. Those were direct claims of theft. Cheryl was, as a spokeperson, relaying separate reports she had received on sign stealing, and other reports of misbehavior. The Weekly didn't ask any other residents, and thus actually seem to have bent over backwards to represent the Yes side's claims disproportionate to the No side.
There was no preferential treatment by the Weekly. You are having trouble processing what happened because you (unlike the No side) never took the other side's interests or points seriously but instead chose to attack people. The Weekly and the other newspapers had to look at both sides. You are attacking the Weekly and Cheryl Lilienstein with unsupportable claims about bias in the reporting about yard signs, an issue that is irrelevant now anyway. The City Attorney used its position to write a grossly biased ballot. If we need to be rehashing anything from the campaign, we should be rehashing that.
Because in San Francisco where an impartial ballot committee uses input from both sides in a public process, their ballot language for a nearly identical Måeasure, Measure C, asked if the developer should be allowed to violate the height limit by 80 feet (the specific violation of the law enabled by the ordinance), even though the ordinance provided $12 million for affordable housing. That Measure was won by opponents with 67% of the vote, as opposed to won by 56% of the vote by opponents in Palo Alto, despite SF being even more liberal. In Palo Alto, the ballot basically asked voters to vote for or against seniors, even though the direct consequence of the ordinance was a series of zoning changes (changes to the law, which is what an ordinance does), an increase in height limit, a violation of required parking spaces, violation of daylight plane, violation of density, etc, just as in SF. But in Palo Alto, the City Attorney got to write the ballot question. The consequence of this manipulative and biased ballot question is that many people assumed the ordinance was to allow an affordable development where it presumably wasn't allowed before (the change in the law allowed by the ordinance), even though that was not the consequence of the ordinance and no such change in law was at issue, and thus that Palo Alto is a place that rejects affordable housing, hurting the cause of affordable housing in this town.
As for "attacking" Jerry Underdal and Winter Dellenbach -- it is not attacking them to comment on their behavior of attacking people on the other side personally throughout this. I wrote: "Jerry Underdal and Winter Dellenbach, and a few others, were quite caustic and ad hominem online, attacking those on the other side personally." And I don't just mean TownSquare.
I witnessed many exchanges online and on neighborhood lists, and I never saw anyone on the No side saying things like STFU and go away to their opponents or attacking them PERSONALLY as the Yes core people did. Even the false charge of NIMBYism, overused and misplaced, was a personal attack. People on the No side mainly went after actual misbehavior, people on the Yes side mainly went after their neighbors. That's just an observation. If it's not true, maybe you can get Winter and Jerry to retract or apologize for some of the truly nasty things they wrote to and about their neighbors?
As for the Weekly being about money -- in case you hadn't noticed, the Yes side had $100,000 more to spend and took out major ads. The Weekly endorsed the Councilmembers based on their statements, which they have not lived up to, but even so, they endorsed Measure D based on Measure D, not on past Council endorsements. I voted for all those people on the Council, it's too bad I can't take it back now.
What are you accomplishing by this one-sided spleen venting, "rupert"? You're only continuing the divides in the community, and tainting the reputation of PAHC by association, when they badly need to work on reaching out to the community. The desire to work with them truly is there, you are only continuing to keep the wounds open and raw by this pointless and unfounded venting of your own spleen.
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