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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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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 went 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.

The Guidelines (Web Link) for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center,
on Jan 20, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Hi Doug,

Happy new year.

It is telling that no one has posted an opinion about your thoughts on slates.

Here is what I experienced getting involved as a Commissioner, and what may be going on with other people.

20+ years ago, my kids were little, my now ex-wife and I both had full time jobs, and time was scarce. We got involved in the usual youth sports activities--AYSO, Little League--but really knew nothing about City or School District issues.

I joined site council at my kids' elementary school. I got involved in board positions in my kid's baseball and softball leagues. Some controversy around playing fields--a land use issue--got me on a task force to help figure some things out and provide a recommendation to City Council. That was my first exposure to City Hall.

I ended up on the Parks and Recreation Commission for 9 years, and did consider a run for City Council. I truly enjoyed my time on the Commission, and also could see the sorts of pressures and time requirements a Council member must endure. Since I was running a small business and getting divorced, I concluded I could not make such a commitment.

My story is one that applies to someone who spent some time as a appointed official. There are many ne people in town who fund raise and offer their time to various community activities, and have no appetite for the scrutiny and the ambiguity that a Council member faces.

I think it is significant that many recent Council members of great stature have left after only one term: LaDoris Cordell, John Barton, Peter Dreckmeier, Hillary Freeman, among others

You have an interesting idea, and methinks as you "chum" for candidates, you will find the fishing is less bountiful than any of us would like.

Posted by Current council, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 24, 2014 at 11:39 am

I believe the pro-development faction on the council is in effect a slate. [[Portion removed by blogger: ad hominem attack on a Council member.]]

Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Aug 21, 2014 at 4:20 am

Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
0 minutes ago

I request your vote (one of the five) for city council Nov 2014 election based on our plan below.

You are welcome to suggest/add/delete/modify ideas.

"Our Palo Alto" means to me the following

1. MOROTORIUM on new commercial construction/tall builds/eye sores
2. Keep PALO ALTO the way it has been since 50 years
3. Solve TRAFFIC problems we have
4. ZERO crime goal
5. Respect elderly/children/students by creating a safe place to live
6. Be OPEN and TRANSPARENT and no hidden business deals
7. Get along with our neighbors; Stanford-Menlo Park-EPA-Mountain View
8. Invite affordable health care for our senior citizens
9. Enough malls
10.Plant more trees; do not kill trees;
11.Transport our school children safely
12.Provide businesses employees to park so they do not need to move every two hours.
13.Be considerate to our Palo Alto workers that leave after their work
14.Alter rules to have students/professors/workers to rent a room
15.Be respectful to our 'less haves' and lift them every way possible
16.Be like Bill Gates/Lauren Powell/Warren Buffet to 'give' to charity causes to solve worlds problems
17.Be innovative; invite ideas to have 10 fold increase in productivity
18.Think to be 22 and be positive; take out the negativity and open for new ideas
19.Hug our trees; cherish our neighborhoods; say hello to neighbors; do not trash in our city
20.Be happy and strive for Palo Alto be a 'Heaven on Earth'


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