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By Douglas Moran

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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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City Council Candidate Forums: Not worth watching

Uploaded: Oct 7, 2014
People interested in learning about the City Council candidates have asked me if watching re-broadcasts or webcasts of the public forums (LWV and PAN) would be informative. I have to say "No". Look at my blog post on the LWV forum to see how much I had to stretch to find something "interesting", and then look at the PA Weekly/Online article on the PAN forum to see how little could be said about it. There just isn't enough "meat" for the time required.

What you could learn there is better found elsewhere, starting with the candidates' own websites. Or you may wait until the Weekly publishes the candidate profiles?probably Friday?which will include the videos (on YouTube) of their interviews (they have already done this for the School Board candidates).
Note: I have no knowledge of what is in the videos, nor the questions asked. Only their anticipated appearance.

The following explanation of why I can't recommend the forums is meant to help readers in seeking out better sources, and for those who decide to watch the forums to be better attuned.

The basic problem is that forums are poorly suited to what you want to learn Council candidates, especially when you have 12 candidates. I know how incredibly hard it is to come up with good questions, and how hard it is for candidates to come up with good responses because I have worked on both sides: as a forum organizer and someone preparing candidates for forum (non-overlapping to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest).(foot#1)
And sometimes candidates choose to play it safe when presented with questions intended to allow them to differentiate themselves.

Council's core responsibilities and tasks revolve around oversight: oversight of formulation of the strategic vision, oversight of policy formulation and oversight of operations (execution). Yet the great temptation in forums is to ask questions about details of specific policies or issues. For example, at the PAN forum, candidates were asked how they would create more parkland. I don't know of a good answer to this, or even a good set of alternatives. Consequently, the responses from the candidates didn't have a basis for giving a sense of what they would do if elected. A good forum question takes a situation where there are well-defined choices and asks the candidates to talk about their priorities in making their choice. What you should be listening for in such responses is not just the specific choice, but the candidates' values and how they approach the choice. There was little/none of this at either public forum. (foot#2)

Some of the questions about policy and issues are not even intended to allow candidates to show their knowledge, but are transparent attempts to get the candidates to "go on the record" supporting the position of the questioner. For example, the question about a $15 minimum wage that occurred at the LWV forum.

A very big problems with the forums is a lack of follow-ups to what the candidates have said. This is the fault of the Palo Alto electorate: Candidates who question, challenge or critique other candidate's statements get predominately negative feedback?that such behavior is "not civil". Consequently, candidates are extremely reluctant to do this, and forum organizers have learned not to bother. Example in (foot#3). Without follow-ups, you can be listening to little more than a disjointed version of the candidates' stump speeches.

The PA Weekly's editorial making endorsements for the School Board states "That is what this election is all about: repair and healing" and this is probably a major issue in the Council elections. Many of the candidates address this to varying degrees and from different angles, but there were no informative questions about this. If follow-ups had been allowed, there were two prime opportunities during the LWV forum for this to happen. One would have been in response to Greg Scharff's statement that PC (Planned Community) zoning should be eliminated because the public had lost faith in it. The second would have followed up on the explanation by Scharff and Shepherd (incumbents) that City Hall chose not to pursue a bond measure for the Public Safety Building because polling had shown there wasn't quite enough public support for a bond. Instead City Hall chose to use Certificates of Participation (Wikipedia) (which don't require voter approval). I would have loved to hear various of the candidates either diagnose how the disconnect/loss-of-faith occurred or what their proposals were for fixing it.
Aside: In assessing the likely effectiveness of a proposed solution, I find that listening to its proponent's diagnosis of a problem is a better indication than simply hearing the recipe. If you, dear readers, are going to a candidate's event, you might want to be prepared to ask them probing questions about this, and to be "uncivil" enough to follow-up if they give only vague generalities.

How time is rationed out during a forum also makes it hard to get a sense of the serious candidates. For example, 2 hours divided among 12 candidates is 10 minutes each. Both the LWV and PAN forums were somewhat longer than 2 hours, but also had considerable overheads that cut into the candidates' time. Plus when a candidate's speaking time is split into 1 minute chunks, there is a lot of wasted time. My estimate is that you are listening to less than 6 minutes of useful talk from each candidate, and that is shorter than the standard stump speech given at a candidate's event such as a "coffee". Moreover, if you go to such an event, you can also ask questions and listen to responses to questions from other attendees.

In preparing a candidate for a forum, a good campaign committee will not only identify the likely questions and rehearse the candidate for those, but will prepare the candidate for not being the first one to answer the question. If 2-3 other candidates with similar views have already covered your top talking points, it is very hard to say something incisive and memorable, especially if there have been intervening speakers.

The forums also suffered because there had already been a lot of "convergence" in what the candidates were saying. There was the blurring of differences in positions, and there had been some adopting of popular positions. This is to be expected in a political campaign (because I am working on a candidate's campaign, I won't be commenting on the specifics). There has also been a lot of "borrowing" of phrasings and other ways of talking about the issues. Some of this almost certainly was the candidate being a "sponge", unconsciously adopting a somewhat better way of stating an existing position. Other is ? Consequently, I would warn the viewer to not be overly influenced by stagecraft because it is a poor indicator of performance on Council. I have seen great one-minute performances from candidates who had no more depth than that, and mediocre one-minute performances from candidates who hadn't learned to cope with the format (this is a minor negative, but not a disqualifying one). The PAN forum moderator introduced one round of questions as the "lightning round", acknowledging its relationship to the quiz show format.

I have been quite harsh on the forum format, so you might ask why I was on the organizing committee for multiple forums. Partly "The triumph of hope over experience" (Samuel Johnson on second marriages). Partly that despite the severe limitations, the partial successes did provide useful information to the electorate. Partly that they filled gaps for which there weren't better alternatives.

---- Footnotes ----
1. As a forum organizer, I would employ the following technique: When someone proposed a question to be asked of the candidates, I would ask them to give a good reply and time it. If they couldn't fit their answer in the available time, it was unfair to the candidate to ask it, and unfair to the audience to waste their time listening to the attempted responses.
A common technique for preparing a candidate for a likely question is to first let them respond without time limit, and then critique. Repeat, pushing the candidate into more concise and targeted responses until you get to the time limit (one minute for these forums). The result is often ugly: A candidate who started out demonstrating intelligence and knowledge gets reduced to what sounds like only a mindless rote answer. Sometimes you can fix it; sometimes you start over.
2. Because these sort of good questions are hard to come up with, they are rarely asked. Since candidates often don't expect them, they don't recognize what is being asked and don't give illuminating answers. So these "good questions" often turn out to be bad questions.
3. Example: When Nancy Shepherd said that the Our Palo Alto meetings were her response to the disconnect between City Hall and residents, only one candidate, Mark Weiss, was critical (he called them "a sham"). The forum format didn't allow/encourage the other candidates or the organizers to ask her about what was so different about these outreach meetings?a significant factor in the disconnect was that residents found their input being ignored in earlier outreach meetings and hearings ("Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.").
I have multiple previous blog entries on the problems with these outreach meetings and hearings: Visioning or Potemkin Villages? (2014 May 8), and
"Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to", Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 (2013 December 3-6) and
Listen for Yourself: An index into "A Conversation on the Future of the City"

The Guidelines 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.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by resident, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 8, 2014 at 9:47 pm

The best guide to future voting by council members is how they voted in the past.
Forums reward experienced polished speakers and the well-rehearsed, not necessarily those who will represent us best.

Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 9, 2014 at 4:29 am

Hello Doug

You have removed my comments that I posted 2 days back.

I am a candidate, I can meet with you and discuss my plan.

In the mean time, I am for Integrity + Innovation with keeping "Palo Alto we LOVE" culture.


Posted by sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 10, 2014 at 4:09 am

Hello Palo Alto citizens:

I respect PA Weekly picks/recommendation for the five out of twelve.

However, you have your own mind; and have every right to really think a lot more that what the Weekly say.

I request/plead for your vote for the following reasons I stated in the voter information pamphlet. I am making case for ME/I because you will gain from my 'get tough' on 'Integrity' and 'Openness' and 'Innovation'. I have the energy and training. This is not a place for new comers that are light on training and experience.

Below, I provide my proposed agenda; my character references that people that have known me since 25 years back.

Ultimately it is your choice and I would like to earn your vote:

Our proposed plan:
-I am for 'openness and transparent governance'. No more hidden agendas.
-No tall building that are eye sores; keep/make Palo Alto a Green city.
-Beautify Palo Alto and respect our trees.
-I am for innovation; design/implement technology to solve our transportation, health care and school issues.
-No new taxes; strive to lower taxes; not raise taxes.
-Not many new laws- use existing; Smart spending; controlled and careful growth; fix pot holes; paint street signs.
-Solve traffic problems; goal is zero deaths on our Palo Alto roads. Implement innovative methods for transporting our young children, college students, and seniors. ?
-Keep the spirit of Palo Alto that we know; invite new innovators like Theranos, VMware and other that are around us.
-No projects that lower the quality of neighborhood and property values. Keep our town cleaner; remove trash -fines for littering. Refurbish old buildings and use innovative energy
-Make Palo Alto 'the best city it can be in USA' for this size of town.
A Boeing/Hughes retiree-BE Mechanical, MS Industrial Engineering
Studied under Peter Drucker@ Claremont Graduate School.

I requested a very few friends to provide 'character' recommendation.
Here is a 'glimpse' of it:

John Spradling, a friend from Torrance known him since 1990:
William S Johnson
Publisher - Palo Alto Weekly
I've known Seelam Reddy and his family for nearly a quarter century. I knew his mother, who passed recently, a kind, honest and good person, just like her son. Seelam will serve the citizens of Palo Alto well. Let me cite an example. Five years ago I was hospitalized with a rare viral caused autoimmune disorder that the local physicians had not seen prior. Upon hearing of my illness Seelam spent an entire day phoning medical contacts within his family's circle of physicians and associates to see if they could be of assistance. I didn't ask him to do anything, he took it upon himself to try to help me while I was hospitalized and extremely sick. That's the kind of person Seelam is, and that's the kind of person you want as a Palo Alto city council member. I strongly recommend your organization endorse Seelam for the City Council position, he'll do his best to serve the community.

Jon Chaykowsky, Manhattan Beach, known him since 1999

Dear Mr. Johnson,
My name is Jon Chaykowski and I wish to communicate my sincerest endorsement for Seelam Reddy for City Council.
I have known Seelam since 1999 as a business associate and then a friend. I worked along side of him when he was the Project Manager of Hughes Aircraft Company's efforts to address the Year 2000 crossover issues addressing the company's computers, plus its satellites in space and earth tracking stations at many locations around the globe. This was a major concern for the company, because of the many complex computer systems that must operate continuously and without a single hiccup. The number of worldwide systems, both commercial and military, that depended upon continuous communication was large. Seelam Reddy was in a position of great exposure to and expectations by Senior Executives at Hughes and different satellite companies using our satellites. Internally, there were numerous disciplines under his purview and his responsibilities required both technical and inter-personal skills to have all parties and activities run smoothly. I was there with him during the year long lead up and also through the actual event across many time zones. I observed a very professional and skilled leader. Clearly, Seelam Reddy would be an asset to your City Council.

Personally, Seelam also is a very special person. He is a very pleasant and caring person. More importantly, he is a friend who one can count upon.

As for a resident of Palo Alto, he surprised me in his fondness of this community. Recently, when I visited him, Seelam was a one-man salesman for the community. I live in Manhattan Beach and enjoy its many pluses. However, through an extensive walking and driving tour through Palo Alto with - and by - Seelam, I gained a large appreciation for his new community and Seelam's sincere feelings for Palo Alto. Two things were obvious. Seelam Reddy thinks Palo Alto is the place to live and I know that Palo Alto is fortunate to have him in Palo Alto.

All of the above said, my opinion in a nutshell is that the residents of Palo Alto would be wise and rewarded by electing Seelam Reddy to City Council.


Jon Chaykowski
Cherie De Gomez, a friend and co-worker since 1996
Dear Mr. Johnson,
Seelam Reddy and I have been co-workers and personal friends for the better part of 15 years. Through that time, I have come to know his character and his work ethic which are both beyond reproach. I worked as a personal assistant to the head of Information Technology at Hughes Aircraft Company and then also at The Boeing Company. Seelam was always held in high esteem and was often selected to work on projects that were vital to our company. I remember as far back as the Year 2000 project that he was hand selected to assure the company?s success. Since then, he was chosen consistently to work on valuable data intensive projects.
His care and concern for people is always evident as he judiciously knows when and how to exert his influence properly, weighing the situation?s outcome based upon both fact and feeling, using both his intuition and wisdom.

I strongly believe he would make an outstanding city councilmen and that you should seriously consider his candidacy.

Sincere Regards,

Cherie de Gomez
Irfan Patthan, a VMware R&D Engineer
To the folks of Palo Alto Weekly,
I am writing today to share my professional experience with Seelam Reddy. I met Seelam while working at VMware, Inc where he was one of the Project Managers dealing with Acquisitions & Mergers and also leading other projects. I work in the Data Center so any Acquisitions or Relinquishment of Companies that had their systems in the Data Center we were the group to get them IN our OUT.
Mr. Reddy would contact us weeks and sometimes even months in advance to give us a heads up that we should be expecting hardware in or systems would be leaving the Data Center. He gave us adequate time to prepare and helped us out in the whole planning process and making sure we had enough information. When we didn't have enough information he would set up meetings between the parties which could provide the information and whoever needed it to eliminate the amount of back and forth going on. During his time at VMware, Mr. Reddy helped make the process very smooth and completed his tasks professionally. While working on these processes I got to know Seelam more on a personal level and have kept in touch with him and consider him to be a great asset in both the professional and personal world.

- Irfan
Mark Goldhamer
William S. Johnson

Publisher, Palo Alto Weekly

I am a former coworker of Seelam Reddy during his employment in the Information Technology department at Boeing. He was the project manager for the acquisition of Frontier Systems, an unmanned helicopter company, and I was the technical subject matter expert assigned to integrate the IT aspects of the company into Boeing. We worked with each other on other projects as well, but an acquisition tends to be the kind of work where every type of unknown pops up when you least expect it and I got to see Seelam handle them all in a competent and efficient manner.

I could talk about other work situations, but I?d like to relate one of my own experiences in running for office because it touches on how Seelam?s candidacy will be considered.

In 1992 I ran for Fountain Valley school board. We had issues at that time with how closed schools would be handled?..whether to build houses on those sites, etc. We also had issues about at what grade the district would identify children for the Gifted And Talented program. And we had a problem assistant superintendent who the teachers were unhappy with because she publicly lied about more than one issue. The teachers union agreed with my positions on all the issues but would not endorse me even though they only partially agreed with the views of the candidates that they did endorse.

Their reason for not endorsing me was that they didn?t think I was going to put up a serious campaign because I publically stated that I would not be posting lawn signs (Fountain Valley already bans signs on public areas). In the end, the endorsed candidates won, though I was only a few hundred votes behind. The endorsements, not the lawn signs were a big factor. I walked most of the district prior to the election and actually had people tell me that even though they agreed more with my positions on the key issues, they were going with the teacher?s endorsements.
So, please look at Seelam?s positions and decide if that is what you want or not?.your endorsement will matter.
Mark Goldhamer

Dear voters

Thank you and enjoy the Columbus Day weekend!
God bless you all.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 10, 2014 at 9:14 am

To Sea Reddy

I like you a lot. I believe you a lot. I think you have great potential as a city councilor, but not yet. Give it a few more years.

In the meantime, I suggest you spend the next few years getting to know the nuances of Palo Alto. I suggest you attend as many council meetings and school board meetings as you can. I suggest you read as much as you can in the papers and online, particularly on Town Square. I suggest you go to high school football games, Little League games, and meet as many ordinary people as you can.

Get to know the Palo Alto issues, the school boundaries, the dog parks, the commutes, the Baylands, Foothills, etc. So that when you speak you understand what you say from the perspective of Palo Alto rather than from wherever you lived in the past.

Good luck to you, there needs to be more like you in Palo Alto.

Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 13, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Dear 'resident'

Thank you for kind words. I totally agree every word you wrote.

I respect your assessment.

I am about 63. I am diabetic since 1994; doing ok.
Time is running out.
I workout every day. I am energetic and have the motivation to serve.

Also, I am relatively fast learner; I finished high school at 15.
I met Ronald Reagan in Abilene, Texas at a pancake breakfast in Spring of 1975 when was attempting to take republican primary in 1976.

I met Jimmy Carter at the Americana Inn in Manhattan, NY in 1976 July 8 or 9 when he was nominated for democratic ticket in 1976.

I am a political and policy junkee (I used to be glued to TV channels on Sunday mornings.

So, there is article today, in wall street journal; in the op-ed area; about 'other people have done more than Columbus did to USA benefit' after he discovered US (he thought it was india).

SO, Similary, I say this to the voters; I came to US in 1973 fall; came to Palo Alto during Chrismas 1973. Palo Alto was never out of my mind. I wanted to be here long before, I was able to move here; as I had 2/3 children to take care of, being a single parent; got through tough economy (1991-1997) real estate down; lay-offs at Northrop, and Boeing.

I am here as soon as I could, Jan 2012 working for VMware as a consultant.

So, I will be humble; will work to learn quickly; as God may not have me around in 2016 or by 2018.

Life is short and I will hang in there!

It is not in my hands! It is for the citizens to get decide if they want me to represent them.

Thank you again for kind words.


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