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Examining Candidates' Donations: Palo Alto City Council

Uploaded: Sep 29, 2020
Scanning who is contributing to which candidates can provide insight into what each candidate has done, what can be expected of them, and how they are regarded. Thursday (9/24) was the filing deadline for reports on campaign finances for the most important of the reporting periods during the campaign. This period -- July 1 to September 19 -- has the most activity. Unfortunately, unless you have been close to the center of a campaign team, the listings of expenses may not provide enough information to be illuminating. The useful action is in the donations (technically called "contributions"). It's not just who is donating how much to a candidate, but the collective of donors that indicates how broad and deep a network the candidate has in the community.

In the Appendix, I provide links to a range of spreadsheets that readers may find illuminating. However, because I am working on the campaign of one of the candidates (Lydia Kou), I will not be providing any critiques or comparisons of the candidates based on this data.
Sneak-peak: My ^Excel workbook containing my summary of the candidates' reporting of donors^. This workbook has multiple worksheets (spreadsheets) that differ only in the ordering of the candidates along various dimensions, such as total donations, number of donations, donations from outside Palo Alto, $50-$100 donations.
Revision available: v1.1.
Obsoleted by revision: "Correction needed/pending: I inadvertently included 39 unlisted donations in the "Approx # Donations" field for Lydia Kou while not having that number for the other candidates. See the explanation in the spreadsheet of the difficulty unlisted donations creates."

One of the recurring questions in this campaign as been "Who runs Palo Alto: The City Manager or the City Council?" Recognize that Councilmembers have no paid staff -- The City Manager is the gatekeeper between Councilmembers and City Staff. For analysis and recommendations beyond the City Manager's recommendation, Councilmembers turn to community members for different perspectives, out-of-the-box thinking, and the local knowledge needed to adapt generic solutions to the specific project.

The donors can give you insight into which candidates may regard a seat on City Council as a launching pad to higher office. Or as a means to get attention from regional and national media. While you should be skeptical of who a candidate claims they will represent, the collection of donors can reveal who those donors believe the candidate will actually advocate for with their votes and other actions.

Comparing the list of endorsements to the donors to a candidate can be interesting. For example, is the endorsement of a candidate from an official outside of Palo Alto based on any experience with that candidate, or could be a quid pro quo, for example, "I endorse you and you endorse me"?

I am dissatisfied with the template that Palo Alto Online/Weekly has long used for reporting these reports.(foot#1) It provides a smattering of notable donors and the largest donations. But it can mislead the reader into thinking that the mentioned donors are distinctive for that particular candidate. For example, it mentions as $5000 donation (from G. Leonard Baker) to one candidate, but doesn't mention that that same donor on that same day gave the same amount to another candidate and slightly less to another.

----Escalating costs of campaigns----

Through 2005, a candidate could run a competitive campaign on less than $20K, although most had budgets in the low- to mid- $20K. There were often voluntary campaign limits. My recollection is that 2005 was the first time a Council campaign had more than $30K (Peter Drekmeier). The next big change was in 2014 when one candidate spent over $100K, largely because he used professional campaign staff, rather than the traditional volunteers.

It was hoped that spending would return to previous levels, but in the next Council election, the mid-September financial reports revealed that the pro-growth candidates were collecting large sums, and had a substantial lead over the balanced-growth candidates. My recollection is that all of the former had at least double what one of the latter had. This initiated substantial fundraising by the latter, to which the former responded by raising even more. The result was worse than in 2014 because multiple candidates had received over $90K in donations (recollection).

2018 was a tiny bit better. The top four candidates for the three seats raised:
• $88,830: Cory Wolback (incumbent, defeated)
• $68,488: Alison Cormack
• $62,454: Tom DuBois (incumbent)
• $57,649: Eric Filseth (incumbent)
Two Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs) spent $19,442 on mass mailers supporting Alison Cormack, for a combined spending of $87,930 on her campaign.

----Independent Expenditure Committees (IEC)----

These are groups that are legally required to operate independently of the candidates' campaigns. There is supposed to be no coordination or communication between the IEC and the candidate's campaign, including both the candidate and the campaign staff. However, the lackluster enforcement of election laws has seen this purported "independence" decline from needing "plausible deniability" to an insulting level of "implausible deniability".

In my 2014-11-02 blog "^A reprehensible political ad^", I wrote of an IEC created by major participants -- including Honorary Co-chairs -- in the campaigns of the pro-growth candidates. It spent $7270 on a burst of newspaper ads during the final week of the campaign. These were ads that would have been "inconvenient" for the candidates to have run themselves because they violated campaign ethics rules. Even more ridiculous than a non-independent IEC was the theme of the ads: Roughly, vote for our slate of candidates because they aren't a slate, but the other guys are!!! Was this noted in the newspapers, other than my blog? Of course not. It involved too many of Palo Alto's political elite.

Candidates have long worried about an IEC swooping in just before Election Day with a vicious hit piece and not having enough money to counter it in time. How devastating this can be is demonstrated by the number of local activists that still remember such a hit piece against Dolly Sandoval in the 2000 County Supervisor election (against Liz Kniss).

This threat has encouraged candidates to raise $10-15K more than your budget called for "just in case" -- last-minute communications can be very expensive.

However, with early voting -- mail-in and in-person -- now spread out over many weeks, the last-minute hit piece has greatly reduced impact, but the IECs can be expected to find a replacement tactic (they always do).

----Loans to your own campaign----

It is not uncommon for a late- or slow-starting candidate to loan their campaign a significant amount of money with the anticipation that this will be paid from donations once they ramp up. This is reasonable, but prone to abuse. For example, a candidate's loan to their campaign can be used to hide donors that they don't want to disclose during the campaign because they would provoke a negative reaction among the electorate. For example, the candidate gets commitments from such donors early in the campaign and makes the loan to be able to use those committed funds. After the election, the donors hand over their checks to pay off the loan. By the time the next election rolls around, most of the electorate has forgotten and the media refuses to publish it -- it's old news/ancient history.

---- On commenting----

If you are writing a long comment, do not write it inside the comment box here, but rather write it elsewhere and copy-and-paste it into here. Every now and then, a comment will disappear during the SUBMIT process. This has happened to me and to others, but it has been reliably reproducible. I have suspicions that it involves interactions between the security and ad-blocking settings of browsers (I use three different ones) and the ads being presented at that moment (they often have dicey coding).

----On appropriate comments----

This is not an opportunity for readers to shill for their favored candidate(s)
or rant against candidates they oppose.
The topic of this blog is how one might find interesting and useful information about candidates from these financial filings.
Pointing out unusual or unexpected aspects is acceptable,
but please try hard to avoid having it become shilling or ranting.

----Appendix: Exploring the data yourself----

The data on contributions received by the candidates in the City Council election are available at the City Clerk's pages on the City of Palo Alto website. You can use ^this link^, or go the the Clerk's page "Elections" and in the final section entitled "Campaign & Conflict Laws", click on ^NetFile Public Portal^. Then make your selections on that page.

I have already downloaded much of that information and crunched the numbers along various dimensions. This is the Excel workbook mentioned in the opening. It is my ^Excel workbook containing my summary of the candidates' reporting of donors^. This workbook has multiple worksheets (spreadsheets) that differ only in the ordering of the candidates along various dimensions, such as total donations, number of donations, donations from outside Palo Alto, $50-$100 donations.
Revision available: v1.1.
Obsoleted by revision: "Correction needed/pending: I inadvertently included 39 unlisted donations in the "Approx # Donations" field for Lydia Kou while not having that number for the other candidates. See the explanation in the spreadsheet of the difficulty unlisted donations creates."

For people interested in contributions received by candidates, there are two forms of primary interest. The first is Form FPPC 460: The campaign disclosure statement for a period. There have been two reporting periods this year:
• January 1 through June 30, with a filing deadline of July 31.
• July 1 through September 19, with a filing deadline of September 24.
The next report covers September 19 through October 17 and is due on October 22. The report after that isn't due until after election day.

The FPPC 460s include other financial disclosures, such as expenses.

The second reporting form of interest here is Form FPPC 497. In the 90 days before the election -- starting August 5 this year -- if a candidate receives a cumulative total of $1000 contributions from a single contributor, the candidate must report it on this form and file it within 24 hours. These contributions are also included on the FPPC 460s covering the dates of the contributions.

I have combined the Form 460 for all candidates into a ZIP file for each reporting period:
• ^July 1 through September 19^
• ^January 1 through June 30^ plus Tanaka's 460 for the last half to 2019 because that 460 includes $13,000 in contributions on the day before the beginning of the reporting period. Not only did this result in those contributions not being present in the first 460 for 2020, but not appearing in the cumulative year-to-date field, which is usually treated as campaign-to-date.
You do not have to unZIP these files. Windows Explorer will treat a ZIP file as if it were a directory, allowing you to open and copy files in the accustomed manner. Some web browsers also provide transparent unZip'ing.

The FPPC 460 is made available as a PDF file, using a font I find annoying -- it's like the programmers decided to emulate an old typewriter rather than a modern font designed for readability on a computer display.

If you want to do comparisons across candidates, you can also download an Excel workbook of multiple worksheets (spreadsheets) that cover the period from the beginning of the calendar year to the time of the download. I have downloaded a copy one hour after the reporting deadline.

As I analyzed the data in these spreadsheets, I saved versions that might save others time and effort.
• In these versions, I have deleted worksheets that seemed of little/no interest. To get the spreadsheets to not spread beyond the edges of my computer display, I delete columns that were unlikely to be of any relevance to my readers. I also did Excel's "HIDE" on columns that I had no use for, but leaving them just in case.
• The headers on columns were what you would find in the database's design document. I changed many of these to ones that were more "friendly" to my expected audience.
• I changed the width of various columns to reduce the space used.
• I re-ordered (sorted) the rows to support how I expected people to use the various variants.
• I reordered columns to support readability for the expected use.

NetFile's explanation of this Excel workbook is provided in:
• ^FAQ^ (Frequently Asked Questions).
• The ^names NetFile used in column headers^ (before I modified some of them).

The downloads:
• The ^raw download of the workbook^ from NetFile.
• A ^reduced version^ where I deleted worksheets and columns, hid some columns, and changed the headers on some columns.
• The reduced version ^that separate the entries for each candidate, ordering them chronologically^. This includes a worksheet for Form 460s and one for Form 497.
• The reduced version ^that orders contributors by name^ so that you can easily see which candidates each contributor is supporting. Again, worksheets for Form 460 and Form 497.

1. "^City Council incumbents maintain cash edge in crowded Palo Alto race^, Palo Alto Weekly, 2020-09-25. "

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
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 particularly 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", do not 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.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


 +   12 people like this
Posted by Sunshine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 7:28 am

Sunshine is a registered user.

This is a very worthy labor Doug. Thanks for saving me that time.
I would like all of the new, BMR housing that some are calling for the be build right next door to those who espouse it so vigorously. Most of us who own single family homes do not want a large multi story home built next to them as it will block the sunlight.
Keep up the good work Doug.

 +   6 people like this
Posted by Midtowner, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 9:26 am

Midtowner is a registered user.

Your spreadsheet includes unitemized, internal information about Lydia Kou's campaign, making the number of donors look larger and average donation look smaller than the public information available from other campaigns. You should at least reach out to other campaigns and ask for their internal numbers so you can make a fair comparison.
[[Blogger: I have updated the summary spreadsheet to point out this error and that a correction is required/pending. I inadvertently copied the wrong number into the spreadsheet -- one that included 39 unlisted/unitemized donations. There may be errors in the other candidates' entries because my "number crunching" was repeatedly interrupted. I included the underlying data so anyone interested can double-check the numbers in my summary.

@Sunshine I live in a single-family home in an R1 zone, and I'd gladly have a multi-story apartment complex next to me. People being able to afford housing is more important to me than whether or not there's extra shade. (Also, it hit 100F yesterday and I don't have AC, so more shade would be nice).

 +   8 people like this
Posted by George Jaquette, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 11:07 am

George Jaquette is a registered user.

Doug- Fascinating analysis, and really helpful data. In line with your guidance about comments, understanding the source of donations to each candidate is really insightful. If you sort your data by the size of the donation, it shows that Tanaka has received all eight donations of $5K or greater; he has also received thirteen out of the fourteen largest donations. Many appear to be from developers and one is from a real estate PAC.

 +   9 people like this
Posted by Novelera, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 1:38 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Thanks for this, Doug. It's hard not to rant! I am really tired of the "virtue signaling" by the pro-growth members and wanna-be members of our City Council.

It feels to me like they enjoy the developers' campaign contributions that help get them on the council. But they then try to cloak this in a veil of "affordable" housing, knowing, if they know anything at all, that a sufficient amount of said housing would never be built because it's not profitable.

 +   5 people like this
Posted by Observer, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 1:50 pm

Observer is a registered user.

Doug: You look to be very knowledgeable about the FPPC. Can you shed any light on why they have produced absolutely no conclusions re the complaints about Liz Kniss's campaign donation misdeeds since they occurred in 2017? Thanks.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 5:35 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: George Jaquette

I have added an Excel workbook sorted on donation size.

There are differences between the two worksheets (spreadsheets) within that workbook.

• "A-Contributions" covers the period of 01-Jan through 19-Sept.
• "497" covers the period of 05-Aug through 25-Sept and includes loans to the campaigns (Templeton 02-Sept to own campaign).

 +   12 people like this
Posted by Follow the money. Who is Templeton, really?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 9:15 pm

Follow the money. Who is Templeton, really? is a registered user.

The spread sheet is an eye opener. A lot of Templeton's money is coming from out-of-town. Why are these out-of-town donors interested in Palo Alto's local City Council election? Before her campaign, I looked at her Twitter feed. She came across as sanctimonious and angry. Her feed has since been scrubbed. She campaigns as a painfully polite suburban mom dressed conservatively in tweed and pearls. Her watered down platform offers platitudes in place of plans. Sound familiar? Who is she, really? PA Weekly, your good, investigative reporting would be useful here.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 30, 2020 at 5:48 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I have provided for download a revision of the summary: v1.1.

I cannot compute some of the fields from publicly available information. Pending (optional) responses from the campaigns, those fields are marked "pending".

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