By Douglas Moran
Subverting open, fair and honest debate (Measure D)Uploaded: Oct 26, 2014
Perhaps the most instructive piece about the current election can be found in a one-paragraph aside in the Palo Alto Weekly Editorial recommending a NO vote on Measure D (to decrease Council size from 9 to 7): "The real issue, which proponents acknowledge privately, is that they don't believe there are enough qualified candidates interested in serving to sustain this size governing body, and that unless the size is reduced less capable people will wind up getting elected." It also speaks volumes about why Palo Alto politics has become so contentious, and the dynamics of the current Council contest.
Normally, the proponents of a change, especially one as fundamental as Measure D, are expected to make a solid, logical, fact-based case for that change. The proponents didn't just failed at this, but were negligent in their attempt. To get a sense of this read the whole of the Weekly's recommendation. You may also want to supplement this with my earlier blog posting.
In the debate (video)(foot#1) , the proponents' spokesperson is Walt Hays, and his (prepared) statements are presumably representative of that group (his approach is in line with his history). It makes multiple misrepresentations of the opponents' arguments, including:
?He claims the opponents "would require Council people to be concise" (enforced by the chair) (at 2:10). False. The opponents talk about adopting standard meeting management techniques that facilitate (and encourage) more concise discussion. There is a fundamental difference between the two. Hays introduces himself as a retired lawyer, and he well knows about such distinctions. No way that this confusion was inadvertent.
?The proponents' argument that other cities have fewer council members is a good reason to examine if Palo Alto could do with fewer members, but it is not evidence of that. Hays and the other proponents of Council size reduction refuse to engage in discussion of Council workload, and what that means for Council size. Throughout his initial presentation and wrap-up, Hays repeatedly misrepresents the opponents as making the argument that Palo Alto is "so special", enunciating it as quoted and with a dollop of sarcasm, disparaging them for argument they aren't making.
Note: It is absurd and incongruous for Walt Hays to be attacking anyone for claiming Palo Alto is "special". In advocating for his pet projects, Hays routinely goes before the City Council arguing that Palo Alto is, and needs to be, "special", using phrases such as "world-class", "lighthouse to the nation", "national leader", set an example?
?In comparing the size of City Council in Palo Alto to other cities, he cites his experience in 1969-1973 serving on the City Council in San Jose without regard to how much things have changed in 40 years, and as a basis for deriding the opponents' concerns about current workload as hubris about being "so special" (at 4:15).
?He warps the opponents' well-founded concerns about the number of duties outside of Council meetings into being about the length of Council meetings (starts at 2:40).
The proponents' pervasive misrepresentations in their arguments for Measure D make a convincing case that Measure D is not remotely about what they claim it to be. Add to this is that they are unwilling to provide meaningful answers, much less defend, their primary claim about the benefits of this measure "Increase Productivity and Efficiency?"(foot#2)
The Weekly's quote above adds even more weight to that assessment.
Another version of that surfaced in the Daily Post editorial on Measure D (October 17): "One argument is that having nine seats allows the voters to make mistakes when electing council members. They can elect mediocre, do-nothing council members and the consequences are low because there will always be three or four council members to do the heavy lifting. But with fewer spots on council, presumably the better candidates will win." You need look only at the last sentence to understand how utterly dishonest this claim is?yes, it richly deserves to be labeled "dishonest". The opponents of Measure D have prominently and repeatedly pointed out who would not have been elected if Measure D had been in place, and that list refutes that supposed hypothesis (although "hypothesis" is the wrong word for something that was already been falsified). For example, in 2009, both Shepherd and Scharff would have lost. So we have the spectacle of a political Establishment endorsing both Shepherd and Scharff for Council and endorsing Measure D with the argument that means that Shepherd and Scharff shouldn't have been on Council to begin with. Again, "spectacle" is the wrong word?this disregard for evidence and logic/consistency is painfully routine.
A lesser part of the dishonesty of that argument is the first two sentences. It takes the actual argument for being prepared with a cushion should a problem arise (for example, see my blog entry under "?deadwood?"), and cynically twists it into being a license to elect "mediocre, do-nothing council members." I am hardly the only one making this argument for being prepared: Larry Klein (3 times mayor, 17 years on Council) made it in his introductory speech at Greg Scharff's campaign kick-off. He argued for the reelection of Scharff saying that the experience of incumbents was needed because you often didn't know how new members would pan out until after they took office. (foot#3)
The Weekly's quote is also very interesting for the phrase "less capable people" (recognize that this may not be a quote from the proponents, but the reporter's interpretation of what he was hearing). An interesting exercise is to look at the pattern of endorsements for Measure D and those for the various Council candidates and think about what "less capable people" actually means to the proponents.
The failures and misrepresentations of the proponents take on a different appearance in the light of the Weekly's quote in the opening. The decision to reduce Council seems to have been made informally behind the scenes by a portion of our political Establishment, one that excludes the perspective of many residents (look at those endorsing it). By withholding their apparent motivations, they have prevented there being a fair and honest debate on the merits.
With lack of transparency in decision-making being a major factor in the intensity of the current election, how could they make the same mistake yet again? A sense of entitlement? That would explain why their leaders/spokespeople are so peeved and so quick to resort to misrepresentations when challenged to explain their positions on the issues.
Another perspective emerged from a discussion about this I have had with a variety of people: That that portion of the political Establishment doesn't understand that they aren't being open, fair and honest. They don't understand how limited their social circle and network is, and thus they believe that they are in-touch with all perspectives, and that their tiny circle is representative of all of Palo Alto. For example, you might be amazed at how many of that Establishment speak as if most Palo Altans live within easy walking distance of the University Avenue downtown. Or that most Palo Altans have owned their current homes since the inception of Prop 13, and consequently they are paying very low property tax and can easily afford bond measures. (foot#4)
This is a classic Silent Majority syndrome: The Establishment knows best, the (silent) majority is with them, and dissenters are a group that is tiny, unrepresentative and illegitimate (and thus deserving to be dismissed and disparaged).
Look at the endorsements for various measures and candidates, and you will often see long lists of former officials?some so very, very former that most people don't remember exactly when they were in office. Disengaged but still regarded as influential/authoritative is a dangerous combination. If they aren't in a position to critically examining what they are being told, such people often unknowingly endorse and propagate a wide range of falsehoods, rather than serving a sanity check or firewall. This danger is commonly referred to as an "echo chamber" or "bubble". For example, the rumor that some Council candidates were being funded by the Koch brothers (oil billionaires who are big-money supporters of big conservative and libertarian causes) reportedly spread widely among local Democratic Party activists before encountering a few who said "That absurd. Just think about it."(foot#5)
---- Footnotes ----
1. Debate sponsored by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center as part of their Election Coverage.
2. From their ads and the ballot pamphlet statement. Full text of the ad running (in rotation) at the bottom of Palo Alto Online web pages such as this one:
Yes on Measure D
Increase Productivity and Efficiency by Reducing the Palo Alto City Council from 9 to 7
3. Despite arguing for the importance of being prepared for Council members who don't carry their weight, Klein is a prominent supporter for reducing Council size.
FYI: For Council, Klein has also endorsed Johnston and Wolbach, both of whom lack the experience he strongly advocated for, and Shepherd (incumbent).
4. Council member Liz Kniss said something close to this during 2012 LWV candidates forum (video on YouTube). Also, realize that roughly half of the housing units are rentals. In case you are wondering about duration of home ownership in Palo Alto, the last chart I saw was much too long ago to be relevant today.
5. In addition to the logical absurdity, the candidates had recently filed financial disclosures publicly identifying the sources of all donations of $50 or more. Donations of $1000 draw the attention of the press, as do large expenditures.
Palo Alto City Council challengers see influx of cash: Lydia Kou, A.C. Johnston lead the way in campaign contributions (PA Weekly, 10/7).
If you want to see for yourself, the campaign filings can be found by going directly to NetFile Portal?do not go to the City Clerk's Elections page because this link is hard to spot, and what you are likely to select are blind alleys. Once there, go to the bottom of that page and expand the "11/04/2014 General Election" to "Candidates" and then "Council Member". You will have to open the entry for each Council member in turn. You are primarily interested in the latest Form 460: They show the totals for donations and expenditures. If you are interested the details of donations, you need to look at the 460s for each reporting period. Form 497 (if any) is also of interest?these document donations during the late phase of the campaign that require immediate reporting because of their size (threshold $1000).
Update: You can download the raw data in a spreadsheet (.xlsx) which is useful if you are searching for specific types of donations, for example non-PaloAlto, over a certain threshold (eg $2000). The spreadsheet is very wide and you will need to delete/hide columns to make it vaguely readable. The button to download this spreadsheet is at the top of the NetFile Portal page mentioned above. Note: The spreadsheet does not include data from candidates who submit hardcopy forms (Eric Filseth is the only one doing so in this contest).
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.