City Council Candidate Forums: Not worth watching | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

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.