By Douglas Moran
Behind contentious local politics: Failed and toxic leadershipUploaded: May 30, 2017
The crucial threshold was crossed 4 years ago when the demonization of people with other perspectives became a deliberate tactic. This tactic, and related divisive and abusive behaviors, continued into the Council campaigns in 2014 and 2016 and spread into additional policy debates. People only recently aware of the contentiousness will benefit from knowing this history, otherwise they may think of it as recent, isolated aberrations and thus amenable to fixing.
The misrepresentation of others' positions has become so extreme that it qualifies as fraudulent. Such as categorizing balance growth as no growth. Such as creating false dichotomies to denigrate others (This fallacy has overlapping ones and subcases, such as "excluded middle", "false choice", and "all or nothing"). For example, if person X doesn't agree with Y's approach to problem Z, Y fallaciously claims that X is opposed to any and all attempts to solve problem Z. A related tactic is to denounce the concerns and perspectives of others as illegitimate, if not fraudulent. For example, during the recent ADU debate, calls to properly vet and debate the new proposal was characterized as subterfuge to block that proposal.
This divisive rhetoric and tactics were accompanied by major changes in Council campaigns. A Super PAC (in 2014). Massive spending by some candidates (2014 & 2016). Large loans by some candidates to their campaigns (2014 & 2016) and delayed reporting that served to hide who the contributors were until after the election. Increased involvement of regional interest groups, especially by the county Democratic Party in what is supposed to be a non-partisan election.
The attitude of some Council members about their role and responsibilities seems to have changed: from being elected to serve the city's many stakeholders and other interests to being advocates for a small subset of special interests. For example, the Council of 2012-2014 stacked the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC). Previously, this Commission's primary role was represent the community in vetting the Staff recommendations before they went to Council. That Council replaced people who had knowledge, expertise and deep ties into the community with those whose apparent "qualification" was their ideological bent and bias toward faster development.
You see this in the current Council majority which doesn't hesitate to ambush the public and other Council members with un-vetted proposals, taking on the appearance of nothing more than raw power politics.
My goal here is to show patterns using some of the better illustrative examples--better in the sense of being both significant and easy to explain. And as the title indicates, the focus is on the role of some local leaders--official and unofficial--both in failing in their responsibility to push back against abusive conduct, but more often in being a major part of that misconduct (hence "toxic").
Presenting the basics of this pattern involves a cumulative total of details beyond the interest of most readers. Consequently, I have tried to make this blog more accessible by breaking it into sections for the various parts of the pattern, and within each of those having the basic explanations in the primary text and using footnotes(foot#1) for additional details and collections of links to supporting documents, such as news articles, earlier blogs. My hope is that this helps you find the aspects you are interested in, and skip those you aren't.
That tipping point four years ago was the Maybell Upzoning/Senior Housing. I suspect many of you are tired of hearing about Maybell. I am not going to repeat the details of that issue, nor will I permit re-fighting of that issue in the comments (off-topic). Instead I will outline the dynamics of that debate that made it so divisive. What I found most interesting is that the divisiveness didn't begin during the campaign on the referendum, nor during the earlier official hearings. Rather, it began during the early public outreach--when residents were asking questions and expressing tentative concerns.
Before presenting the Maybell dynamic, I give a quick overview of the long-term dysfunctional treatment of residents during decision-making on many major process. This created a sense among many active residents that the system was rigged against them, and an apparent sense among the powers-that-be that they could get away with it. Near the bottom, I present a specific example precursor (Arastradero) because demonization was occurring at the individual level, and the leaders in those meetings failed to throttle it.
Comments are encouraged about these patterns, both other perspectives and expansions on what is written here. Please remember that my perspective is limited by where I stood and who was talking to me. However, have your comments be responsive to what is written here. Also recognize that to get this down to being merely very long, I had to do lots of selecting and cutting.
I expect some to condemned me, and commenters, for adding to the contentiousness by describing what happened. Before you do so, ask yourself whether one should stand up to bullying--of yourself or others--or ignore it and hope the bully eventually tires. Or worse, ask if that position is analogous to telling the victim "Stop hitting the bully's fist with your face." Identifying bullying is a first step in combating it. Similarly for other bad behaviors.
Off-topic: National politics: I expect that many readers will see interesting and relevant parallels to what has happened in national partisan politics (officials, candidates, parties). While that may well benefit your thinking about the local versions, I am going to have to declare it off-topic here because the back-and-forth on such comments would almost certainly drowned out any discussion of the local situation. However, you can start a discussion elsewhere, for example a new topic on Town Square Forums, and publicize it here by adding a comment with the link to that discussion.
The duration of the current situation--both generally and specific tactics--and the downward trend indicate that it is unlikely to be reversed by the political Establishment or other insiders. More residents need to be actively stand up to the abuses of power and the bullying. A few will take leadership roles, sometimes only for an individual incident. More importantly is for others to visibly support them--otherwise they will be dismissed as "the usual suspect" or fringe opinion. Even if you can't do that, you can help by making your friends and neighbors familiar with this pattern so that the next election doesn't produce more of the same.
----The generic precursor----
The tipping point came after many years of residents feeling that they and their concerns weren't getting fair hearings, with a process that was rigged against them. Sometimes the lack of due respect was subtle; other times it was obvious.
Residents who became active on an issue became largely inured to this treatment, but there would be an underlying anger. However, there would be upticks when a new batch of residents became involved. Their first reaction to this treatment would be that it was an aberration and will be dealt with once it comes to the attention of civic leaders, whom they assumed would act responsibly. But as disillusionment set in, they would become frustrated and then angry.
The recurring problems in the process included:
- A developer's presentation that had self-contradictory claims and claims that fell apart with only a few simple questions.
- Reports by consultants and City Hall that were transparently biased, containing glaring misrepresentations, omissions and other flaws.
- Treatment by City Council that was deferential to the developer and dismissive of residents. Similarly for the treatment by Staff. Similarly for the recent Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC). Aside: This was a recent change by the PTC--before this, residents were often impressed by the knowledge and conduct of the PTC, only to be disappointed by City Council.(foot#2)
- Transparent favoring of insiders, such as statements of the form that speaker (personally) knew the developer and trusted them. Left unsaid was the reason that they were waving off the analysis and facts presented by residents: Were they regarded as irrelevant, untrustworthy or incompetent?(foot#3)
----Tipping Point: Maybell Upzoning/Affordable+Market-rate Housing----
The Maybell Upzoning proposal involved market-rate housing and affordable senior housing, and the referendum on this was 2013 Measure D. This proposal came with the usual bad behavior expected of a development proposal (above). What followed might well have been avoided if the leadership of Palo Alto Housing Corp (the developer) had been properly prepared going into the public outreach meetings and had properly addressed questions and public concerns. Did they not understand that once you get caught in a number of deceptions and falsehoods that you have destroyed your credibility? Or did they think that they could bull their way through? Or ...
Remember that the details of the issue(foot#4) are off-topic here.
What changed? Demonization was added to residents having their concerns disregarded, dismissed and disparaged. Very early in the considerations--well before the first public hearings--various of the outspoken advocates for the Maybell project characterized those who raised concerns as having various vile motivations, including using standard code-words for racism. The most common claim was that residents "wanted to maintain an exclusive neighborhood". This came not from the people who are quick to label as "racism" virtually anything that they disagree with. Rather, it came from people who were well familiar with the neighborhood and who well knew that the slur was false. They knew that the neighborhood already contained multiple affordable housing complexes as well as the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, and multiple apartment buildings that had lower rents. Within the PAUSD elementary schools, Barron Park ES served the most subsidized meals. BPES also had a high number of English-language learners.
It is one thing to be lied to, but very much worse to be publicly lied about.
If the Maybell project's advocates had had responsible leaders, they would have stepped in and denounced these accusations. Instead, there are indications that the leadership originated them or were early adopters. Regardless, that leadership exacerbated the problem: They added to the demonization of those that disagreed, or who even questioned the project: They portrayed the opponents' concerns as illegitimate, often with implications of dishonesty. That is, the articulated concerns were merely cover for those opponents' real agenda, with the clear implication that the opponents knew their agenda to be deplorable. This slur continues to this day, seeming to propagate out mostly from Palo Alto Forward.(foot#5)
To my recollection, this was the first significant, sustained local use of this tactic. And it seems to be the beginning of current prominent tactic by the pro-development advocates of characterizing opponents either as peddling fear or being dupes of those who are.(foot#6) And they campaigned using claims that they had acknowledged to be false during the earlier meetings. Worse, some of those claims were cynically used to denigrate the opponents, for example, as uncaring.(foot#7) And they seriously misrepresented the arguments of the opponents. While these sorts of distortions often occur individually in a dirty campaign, there is a cumulative effect. Once a threshold has been crossed, they add disproportionately to the intensity of the conflict.
Reminder: This is not a re-fighting of the issue, but using just enough examples to give readers a sense of how and why it was a turning point.
One would have hoped that City Hall would have applied its expertise to provide assessments of relevant claims--pro and con--thereby supporting the voters in making their decisions. However, City Hall was so blatantly partisan that it lost all credibility. Many of the new-to-local-politics residents naively believed that the government had a duty to all its citizens, and this betrayal added to the emotions. One example was the claim by the project's advocates that 46 units could be built under the current zoning, and pointing out that that would have worse impacts than the proposed project.(foot#8) Several residents with experience in zoning were unsuccessful in finding any credible layout yielding anywhere close to this number of units, and the project's advocates refused to provide anything beyond an over-simplified back-of-the-envelope calculation.(foot#9) Reality Check: The developer to whom PA Housing Corp sold the property chose to build 16, not 46, housing units there. This should not have been a surprise to PA Housing Corp: The developer is the husband of its CEO. And there were other developers sitting on their board. The hypocrisy of PA Housing Corp using this major exaggeration while accusing the opponents of using fear was rankling.
On the other side, various City Hall officials were upset by the opponents portraying them as having done a backroom deal. This came about from those opponents looking for an explanation for the bullying being directed at them and for a seemingly sham public process. They found various indications that the decision had already been made.(foot#10) Plus, it was shortly after the backroom dealing on 27 University Avenue (Arrillaga towers) that was later the subject of a scathing Civil Grand Jury report.(foot#11) I unsuccessfully tried to get the opponents to abandon the accusation because I thought it was counterproductive--it wasn't persuasive to undecided citizens while antagonizing the officials.
Another source of aggravation was that officials and other members of the political Establishment thought they weren't being treated with the respect they deserved. This may have been different notions of due respect.(foot#12) In their pique, they made the situation worse by seeming to ignore that much of the opponents' anger came from being bullied.
In response to being pummeled, the opponents put out publicity that included overstatements and oversimplifications. This is a predictable occurrence in such situations: Groups being pummeled feel that they have to do such in order to be heard, and the reasons to play fair have been greatly reduced because such groups don't see their opposition being willing to behave honestly and honorably. Of course, this can create a feedback loop where both sides repeatedly escalate.
----Dismissing the results of the referendum----
A month after the defeat of the Maybell Upzoning, Council had a discussion entitled "A Conversation on the Future of the City".(foot#13) The Establishment Councilmembers displayed a mix of denial and open resentment of the results. Councilmembers Klein and Berman were openly dismissive of the results, and rationalized why the results should be ignored. There were lots of smaller statements that had substantial potential for being seen by the opponents as dismissive or arrogant. I can't say how many of these arose from those Council members persisting in being out-of-touch with the broader community.
One suggestion from residents was to have a moratorium on certain classes of new development to allow City Hall to catch up on measuring and assessing impacts and adjusting planning policies. This was part of Susan Fineberg's statement at this meeting. Although a moratorium is by definition temporary, Councilmember Price argued against it as if it were a permanent halt that was being advocated (@4:19:45). She goes on the express concerns about the very issues that motivated the call for a moratorium. This instance may simply have been cognitive dissonance. However, less than year later, she joined a Super PAC (below) where this falsehood was a prominent part of their advertisements. And this falsehood quickly became became a standard part of the political Establishment's tactics: To portray calls to have balanced growth or to limit the rate of growth as a no-growth position. How can debates not be contentious when one side adopts being dishonest about the other's positions as a core of its arguments?
This discussion also marked an early instance of disparaging older residents that became common in the social media comments of people clustered around Palo Alto Forward (PAF). This disparaging attitude spread to parts of the political Establishment which is intertwined with PAF. The comment was made by Michael Alcheck, who had been on the Planning and Transportation Commission for about 16 months (since August 2012): "I don't think that the individuals that are over 55, and over 65, and over 75 always necessarily vote for what they really want. I think that they vote against change a lot because it's scary,..." (foot#13)
----2014 Council Campaign----
The 2014 Council Campaign continued the downward trajectory. The divisive conduct carried over and expanded. The campaign of A. C. Johnston, who was recruited and mentored by Liz Kniss, provided an example of the political Establishment adopting the attitudes and tactics of Palo Alto Forward and similar groups: His campaign in both in his literature and his speeches characterizing opponents as "afraid of the future" (multiple variants of wording).
Super PAC: This campaign saw the first intrusion, to my knowledge, of a Super PAC (officially an Independent Expenditure Committee). Super PACs were enabled by the Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court, and they aren't subject to many of the regulations and public reporting of conventional PACs.
This pop-up Super PAC seemed to exist only for running ads immediately before the election--ads which endorsed the Establishment candidates (Johnston, Scharff, Shepherd, Wolbach) and made false statements about the Residentialist candidates. Most of the people listed as part of the Super PAC were prominent supporters of the Establishment candidates, if not members of their campaign teams. (foot#14)
There was a long history of various organizations endorsing candidates, organizing volunteers for candidates, and encouraging and making contributions to candidates. Some of these chose/needed to use conventional PACs. Examples of such groups are the Sierra Club, labor unions, professional associations (such as Realtors), and local political parties and their committees. Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ) was one such group--it produced and distributed a scorecard on the candidates. Scorecards are common for organizations doing endorsements, with some distributing them only to members and others distributing them more widely. The candidates who were endorsed by PASZ in this scorecard reported the distribution costs as a non-monetary contribution.(foot#15) This included the ones who didn't use the scorecard as part of their campaigns.
Campaign spending: Campaign expenditures exploded, although this wouldn't become a significant public issue until the 2016 campaign. In earlier years, breaching the $30K threshold was unusual and noteworthy, and seemed to involve significant fund-raising from outside Palo Alto. In this campaign, 5 of the 8 serious candidates reported raising $21-26K as of the 10/18 reporting deadline, which was the last one before the election. These were Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman, Nancy Shepherd, and Cory Wolbach. Of the other three:
- Greg Scharff reported raising $84K, including $50K in loans, with subsequent contributions and a $10K loan. Total Expenditures thru 12/31 were $97K.
- A. C. Johnson reported raising $48K, including $10K in loans, with subsequent contributions and a $10K loan. Total Expenditures were $59K.
- Lydia Kou reported raising $36K, and received $6K in non-monetary contributions. (foot#15) Total Expenditures were $36K. Kou had by far the most contributors--193 vs 94-147 for the other serious candidates as of 10/18--and the majority of her contributions were of $100. For some more details and a more general discussion, see(foot#16)
Intrusion of regional politics: City Council elections are officially non-partisan (relative to political parties). As recently as 10 years ago, Palo Alto had a registered Republican on the Council and most people were unaware of it. While various county Democratic Party organizations would endorse candidates, it was very low key--voters could easily find the endorsements if they looked, but they weren't prominent. This very noticeably changed in 2014.
There was skullduggery in the county Democratic Party endorsements: One Residentialist candidate was disqualified from consideration based upon a false accusation from within the Democratic Establishment--one which they refused to remedy once revealed.
Reminder: Discussion of parallels to national partisan politics is off-topic here.
Some members of the county Democrat Establishment used email and social media to portray balanced growth/slow growth/Residentialist candidates as right-wing or connected to various Conservative and Libertarian organizations. One memorable instance was the email claiming that these candidates were being funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers. As ridiculous as this might seem, it did get circulated and forwarded. I heard of it from Democratic activists who were supporting the balanced growth position and were offended by it.
----2016 Council Campaign----
The tone of this campaign was set early by the leaders of Palo Alto Forward, first in the hoopla around the resignation of Kate Downing from the PTC, and then an essay equating Mayor Pat Burt and candidate Lydia Kou to Donald Trump. Councilmember Cory Wolbach endorsed this essay and added "I ran for office in 2014 at a time of ascendancy for the local conservative political movement known as 'Residentialism,' which openly opposes housing growth and which thrives on the politics of fear, anger, and false blame ." (emphasis added) and subsequently added "ignorance" to the list. And, of course, the old go-to of "NIMBY" (Not In My Backyard).(foot#17)
There continued to be the well-established expression of contempt for people with other viewpoints, such as them wanting to return Palo Alto "to a sleepy college town", "to the 1950s", "Mayberry" (a fictional town anchored in the 1930s-1950s) ... For amusement, do some trivial arithmetic: A 23-year-old who bought a house in 1960 would now be 80; a 33-year-old who bought in 1950 would be 100. Does Palo Alto Forward and the political Establishment have such contempt for residents to think that we wouldn't notice how preposterous this characterization of Residentialists is, even without doing the calculation?
The next major divisive statement came from the Chamber of Commerce, in a non-endorsement endorsement of the Establishment candidates. A Palo Alto Weekly editorial said "The Chamber of Commerce embarrassed itself and did the community a disservice when ..." and "containing blatant inaccuracies and mischaracterizations" and "triggering acrimony".(foot#18)
Eight former mayors: A much lesser event is probably more significant in the long-term. Eight former mayors distributed a letter under the guise of it coming from concerned prominent citizens when it fact it was a very partisan attack ad from supporters of the Establishment candidates. The Weekly characterized it as "Bigger on innuendo than fact". The innuendo was baseless, that is, a smear.(foot#19) That these individuals should do this was not surprising--four of them had been involved in the Super PAC in the 2014 election (above). What disturbed me was the lack of even visible tsk-tsk'ing from the broader Establishment. While it is usual for Establishment members to extend great forbearance to each other, this was way over the line, and committed what is normally an unpardonable sin: Being so blatantly hypocritical that it brings disrepute and/or derision to the Establishment.(foot#20)
The county Democratic Party increased its intrusion into this supposedly non-partisan election. According to multiple reports, the endorsement process was controlled by a very narrow group: One that supports large-scale building of housing without regard to impacts. Palo Alto Forward was part of this group, with the endorsement committee was dominated by people from San Jose of the same mindset. Because Arthur Keller supported balanced growth, he was disqualified. His long history of activism for Democratic causes and doing large-scale fundraising counted for nothing. In contrast, the Democratic Party endorsed two Establishment candidates who had only recently converted to being Democrats (in time for the campaign): Tanaka (formerly Republican) and Fine (formerly No-Party-Preference). These endorsements allowed the Establishment candidates to run ads--complete with pictures of other Democratic officeholders--implying that they were the official Democratic Party slate,
----2017 - Bad governance----
Palo Alto Online/Weekly has done a good job of summarizing the key bad governance of the new regime (Scharff, Kniss, Wolback, Fine, Tanaka).(foot#21)
In addition to these bad-governance actions, there has been a contemptuous attitude of them not needing to provide coherent reasons for their actions. For example, on the ADU issue, the primary topic of the 4/17 meeting was whether to wait to give Staff a chance to provide an assessment of the changes as the basis for an informed decision. Their arguments against waiting were:
1). There is such a big demand for housing that we need to have people start building ADUs immediately, and
2). There is so little demand by property owner to build ADUs that few, if any, will be built, and therefore we will have enough time to fix any problems in the proposal.
So which is it?
Another example: Councilmember Wolbach told people requesting a proper assessment of his new proposal that they should have raised their concerns about it way back when the PTC held hearings. I am assuming that he doesn't think they possess a time machine, but rather is blaming them for not anticipating months/years in advance what he was going to do. Hypocritically, Wolbach saw no reason that he himself should have had anticipated his own proposal and submitted it at that earlier time.
Yet another: Wolbach ran in 2014 on a platform of restoring civility, but continues to do the opposite. For example, PAUSD BoE member Todd Collins served on the District's enrollment committee and shared that expertise with the Council in a letter whose analysis ran counter to Wolbach's advocacy. Wolbach blasted that letter as "hyperbolic and inaccurate"--just an attack, no explanation.(foot#22)
Then there was Mayor Scharff who rejected the need for a general rule based upon a single very exceptional example. The normal response is to ensure that your process allows for legitimate exceptions, not to claim that because there might be worthy exceptions, you can't have a rule.(foot#23) I don't think that the regime thinks we are so stupid as to not detect these absurdities, but rather that it doesn't matter to them that we do. They have the power, and that's all that matters.
The now-routine vilification by PAF/Establishment of those calling for due process were presented in an earlier blog..(foot#24)
The revelation that Kniss and Tanaka are under investigation by the FPPC (Fair Political Practices Commission) for multiple significant violations of reporting requirements(foot#26) adds to the sense of that they are part of a culture that doesn't regard following the rules as important.
The default courtesy title for elected officials is "Honorable". It should be an acknowledgement, but sometimes it also seems to serve as a reminder. It should never have to be a plea.
----Example precursor: Arastradero Lane Reduction----
I suspect that the organized attacks became feasible because of long festering problems with such attacks by individuals. The biggest failures were by City Staff or the consultants leading the meetings: They routinely failed to rein in or admonish the offenders. Since the offenders were often those supporting what Staff was advocating, this was often interpreted as Staff condoning bullying to discourage and silence dissenting perspectives. In these meetings, there was often some pushback from the residents in the audience. Sometimes it was effective, but often it wasn't: The combined weight of Staff and the allied advocates was too much to overcome.
The result was that bullying and similar tactics were seen to be effective by organized advocates, and ordinary residents became sensitized to being subjected to these tactics, and frustrated by having their perspectives and priorities suppressed.
The Arastradero Reconfiguration/Re-striping/Lane Reduction meetings were a good example of this. Additionally, it was centered on the same neighborhood as the Maybell Upzoning. The primary issue was the safety of Gunn students biking up Charleston--for whom Arastradero was the most convenient route. I will call their parents Group X. However, the proposed changes were expected to displace commuter traffic onto Maybell Avenue--one block away--which was the route for Gunn students biking up Meadow. The displaced traffic would also affect all levels of students from the neighborhood walking and biking to their schools (JBES, Terman, Gunn). Group Y were their parents plus neighborhood residents who daily observed the safety issues of the school commutes. Group Z were the residents of hemmed-in neighborhoods for whom Arastradero was an essential route. Many of these residents were also in Group Y.
The meetings saw multiple individuals in Group X hurling vile accusations against the other groups, both as responses and as interruptions. For example, they asserted that other residents didn't care about the safety, or lives, of children. Concerns raised by the other groups were dismissed as fictitious, and only cover for those people wanting to drive 50 mph on Arastradero, as if that were even possible during the morning rush hour (8-15 mph). One particularly memorable interchange involved an elderly woman with a cane telling Staff that the morning congestion made it difficult for her to get to her physical therapy class at Cubberley (2 miles away). One of the more rabid individuals in Group X shouted at her that she should bicycle to that class. Characteristically, neither Staff nor other members of Group X intervened to tell that offender that she was way out-of-line. Protests by the other groups went unheeded. Various residents, frustrated and angry at the bullying, walked out of the meetings, declaring them to be shams.
After one of these ugly meetings, I talked to a resident who I thought Group X would listen to, and encouraged her to intervene when particularly offensive behavior occurred. She declined, explaining that those people were so emotional that trying to get them to behave more civilly would only make matters worse. Furthermore, she thought that they were so locked into their perspective that they wouldn't be open to suggestions that their behavior was being counter-productive. I reluctantly agreed that she was probably right: There was too much momentum for even influential residents to counter-act, unless Staff was willing to back them up (which they weren't).
Reminder that--contrary to the Establishment narrative--the frustrations arising from these meetings weren't transferred to the Maybell Upzoning, but rather primed residents to see the maneuvering and the attacks against dissenters as yet another instance of a system rigged against the typical resident, and not an aberration or unintentional.
----PTC is stacked/hijacked and goes rogue----
The Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) had long been a stepping stone to City Council. It gave Commissioners experience dealing with the complexities of key issues. Equally important, it demonstrated to the electorate how those people dealt with the various stakeholder groups, and their overall decision-making skills. As residents, the Commissioners routinely asked sharp questions of Staff reports, pointed out problems, and make suggestions for improvements. They also played an important role in listening to, and acting on, residents' complaints about issues that had been ignored or misrepresented in the Staff reports. Of course, the actual PTC couldn't, and didn't, always live up to this ideal,(foot#27) but typically it was close-enough.
Starting in Summer 2012, this was changed. Commissioner Susan Fineberg was widely respected
- for her knowledge of the issues and City policies (including the Comprehensive Plan),
- for her conduct in meetings and her decision-making, and
- for her long and deep ties in the community.
Council chose to replace her with Michael Alcheck, who was none of these. His civic experience was focused on San Francisco, and he was a strongly pro-development. His biases were such that many with other viewpoints complained of feeling unfairly treated at the PTC.
This was repeated in December 2014 when the lame-duck City Council replaced Arthur Keller--who was similarly highly qualified and widely respected--with the totally unsuitable Kate Downing. Downing not only lacked the necessary temperament, knowledge and experience, but had a disinclination to deal with facts, competing perspectives and stakeholder interests--she seemed driven by ideology based on alternate facts. She is best known for a series of opinion piece and interviews at the time of her resignation from the PTC (August 2016) that received international media attention because they were well-designed as click-bait (the old "Sensationalism sells. Don't let facts get in the way of a good story!").
The resulting PTC became a problem in many other ways: Many meetings were canceled for lack of a quorum, short meetings were achieved by shortchanging analysis and considerations of facts, and a backlog of issues that needed vetting before going to Council built up. The peak of the toxic behavior came in August 2015 when the PTC thumbed its nose at Council, and acted like it was part of the Chamber of Commerce, advocating for developers.(foot#28)
Some balance has returned to the PTC as positions opened up and the appointments were made by a Council with more representation from the Residentialists.
However, that PTC's willingness to so openly and blatantly abuse power was a significant factor in poisoning the political environment. And it was a precursor to what is happening now on Council.
1. Footnote on footnotes:
These footnotes provide a collection of links to news articles, editorials, my blogs... These links are not meant to be authoritative, but rather are the links I could easily find that would serve as good-enough introductions. To help you find the relevant sections in the larger articles, I provided quoted passages and Find/Search terms. Apologies for the inadequate formatting, but the blogging language wasn't intended for articles such as this, and thus doesn't provide support beyond trivial formatting.
If you have a link that should be added to one of these collections, please include the footnote number (or title) when you provide it in your comment.
2. Treatment by City Hall:
An eloquent statement by former Planning and Transportation Commission Susan Fineberg at a Council meeting shortly after the defeat of the upzoning: To get to the text and a link to video, use the find/search on "Fineberg" in my blog "Listen for Yourself: An index into 'A Conversation on the Future of the City' ".
This has also been a major theme in my blogs. Some examples:
"Why not 'constructive engagement' with City Hall?", 2014-10-23.
" 'Flawed' process is normal, 2014-09-05", .
"In Defense of 'Incivility' ", 2014-10-14. Abusive uses of calls for civility. "Civility run amok: Lies are bad ... so don't you dare point them out."
and "Guest Opinion: Improving Palo Alto's stakeholder group process" by John Guislin, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-11-09.
My blog "Replacing the defunct Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 1: Cronyism and Corruption", 2015-08-18.
4. Summaries of the Maybell issues:
From residents' perspectives: "Guest Opinion: A neighborhood perspective of Maybell Development" by Joseph Hirsch, Palo Alto Weekly, 2016-07-15.
My blog: "Measure D (Maybell Rezoning): Cutting through the noise", 2013-10-11.
The section "The Unlearned Lessons of Maybell" at the end of this recent blog -- "Affordable Housing: Complexities", 2017-02-21 -- covers many of the points here, but in a different context: affordable housing.
PA Weekly Assessment: "What's Measure D really about? The Weekly checks the facts in the divisive election measure", 2013-10-11.
Note: The characterization of the public outreaching meetings in late 2012 and early 2013 relied only on an openly biased source: "A mid-January meeting didn't turn up neighborhood dissent, according to Housing Corporation board member Jean McCown." I was at those meetings, and there was considerable skepticism and concerns expressed. At the end of the first meeting (2012-09-12), I had an extended discussion--to no avail--with the CEO of PA Housing Corp (Candice Gonzalez) about the likely controversies and problems in her presentation (contradictory claims, claims revealed to be deceptive when questioned).
5. Hidden agenda slur:
"The 'You're despicable' style of politics, 2016-09-22" with Search/Find term "casual".
6. Example of treating opponents' issues as illegitimate, including "Fear" :
Palo Alto Weekly "Guest Opinion: Senior citizens counting on 'yes' vote for Measure D" by Lisa Ratner and Jean Dawes, 2013-11-01 (days before the election). The authors were writing as President and VP of the Board of Directors of Palo Alto Housing Corp (PAHC), which was "the developer".
"Measure D has pitted the need for affordable homes for 60 senior citizens against pent-up frustration in Palo Alto about growth. In capitalizing on this frustration, opponents have not fought fairly, but have encouraged confusion and stirred fear."
and "If you support affordable senior housing, vote yes on Measure D" by Mayor Greg Scharff, 2013-10-04.
"Opponents have tried to link Measure D to citywide issues about development, 'PC' zoning, increased traffic, pedestrian-safety issues, or just a general frustration with traffic and parking.// Please do not be influenced by the rhetoric and false accusations, or allow unrelated complaints to influence your judgment about Measure D. Measure D is about one thing and one thing only -- if you agree or disagree that Palo Alto needs more affordable housing for our senior residents."
First note the implicit denial that there were significant safety, traffic and parking issues related specifically to this project--this conflicted with the substantial public record. The support that came from outside the neighborhood was not "general frustration" or people wanting to make a statement, but rather that this project's problems with the design and decision-making were familiar and credible to voters because it had happened so many times across the city.
Second, despite this being my neighborhood, I hadn't known most of the residents who powered the opposition: They were new not just to development issues, but to local politics. Hardly a manipulative, nefarious group with a hidden agenda.
7. Campaigning on false claims:
From the above GuestOp by Ratner and Dawes representing PAHC: "preference is given to those working or living in Palo Alto" and "Measure D is about one thing and one thing only -- if you agree or disagree that Palo Alto needs more affordable housing for our senior residents."
My recollection is that this prominent falsehood was the one that infuriated the opponents the most. At multiple public meetings, PA Housing Corp claimed that regulations and grant conditions largely prohibited them from giving priority to Palo Alto residents, and they displayed no interest in doing so in the limited situations where it was possible, as well as displaying no interest in trying to get exemptions. Furthermore, questions were asked about why the proposed senior housing wouldn't turn out similarly to other affordable housing complexes managed by PA Housing Corp--predominantly people with no prior connection to Palo Alto. The answers indicated the PA Housing Corp regarded that result as proper, if not desirable (such as, Palo Alto needs to providing housing for people from around the region who want to live here). PA Housing Corp's position was that their claim was true because it would be possible for a PA senior to get one of these apartments by signing up on the waiting list, with a typical delay of more than 5 years. The people asking the questions--who became opponents-- were the ones strongly pushing for the facility to be one that would support keeping locals in the community, while PA Housing Corp gave no indication of caring about anything more than the total number of units. Yet, PA Housing Corp's campaign ads presented the reverse.
"If you support affordable senior housing, vote yes on Measure D" by Mayor Greg Scharff, 2013-10-04.
"Right now there are hundreds of senior citizens on waiting lists for affordable homes in Palo Alto -- people who want to live in the community where they have lived and/or worked for many years."
This was not a true statement. I was at multiple meetings where this number came up, and PA Housing Corp's answer was that they didn't know how many such people there were and that the data they collected from applicants (on the waiting list) didn't allow them to determine this.
8. Maybell: claim of 46 units possible:
"If you support affordable senior housing, vote yes on Measure D" by Mayor Greg Scharff, 2013-10-04.
"A private developer building under the existing zoning would likely construct 46 residences, all of which could be three- to four-bedroom homes. Common sense tells me that 46 families will generate more traffic and impacts on the surrounding neighborhood and in the neighborhood schools than would 60 affordable one-bedroom senior apartments and only 12 families." (emphasis added)
A slightly weaker version--"could build up to"--is found in the above GuestOp by Ratner and Dawes representing PAHC.
9. Fact-checking 46 housing units:
Part of above: "What's Measure D really about? ..."
My blog "... Cutting through the noise" gives a brief summary (Search/Find term: "46").
However, I wasn't able to find the original, full presentations in my archives.
10. Accusation of a backroom/done deal:
"Editorial: A backwards process on Maybell project: 'Not a done deal' defense rings hollow for proposed senior-housing development", 2013-05-17.
My assessment was that there wasn't an explicit deal, but rather a sense of support and deference between insiders along with the dismissal of the input of outsiders.
11. Backroom dealing: 27 U Ave/Arrillaga:
"Four office buildings, theater planned for downtown Palo Alto: City partners with developer John Arrillaga on new plan to transform site near downtown Caltrain station", Palo Alto Online, 2012-09-20.
Subsequent Grand Jury report and City Hall's response that came after the Maybell Referendum, but supported the validity of the public's concerns at that time:
"Palo Alto slammed for lack of transparency on Arrillaga proposals", Palo Alto Online, 2014-09-20.
"Palo Alto admits mistakes in negotiations with developer: City agrees it followed a 'flawed' process in 2012 talks with John Arrillaga over property sale, proposed development", Palo Alto Online, 2014-09-04.
12. Different notions of "due respect" for officeholders:
There is a range of attitudes about the connection of official positions and the respect due those officeholders. In an authoritarian scheme, the office confers a requirement for respect for the officeholder. A different attitude is that respect is to be earned (voluntarily given), and officeholders are given respect on an until-demonstrated-otherwise basis, that is, the fact of them holding office is treated as an indication of a track record of deserving respect.
13. Council discussion of defeat of referendum:
"Listen for Yourself: An index into 'A Conversation on the Future of the City' ", 2013-12-13. This provides links into what I thought were the more noteworthy parts of this meeting.
14. Super PAC:
My blog: "A reprehensible political ad", 2014-11-02.
15. Non-monetary contributions explained:
These are expenditures by individuals or groups separate from the candidate's campaign but that benefit the candidate. A common example is an ad supporting the candidate by such an individual or group. Another example is non-reimbursed, non-trivial expenses incurred by the host of a meet-the-candidate or fund-raising event. These are reported similar to monetary contributions because to do otherwise would allow candidates to hide contributions and expenditures that are normally part of a campaign.
16. Campaign Fund-raising (2014):
My blog "Follow the money: Coverage for the next campaign", 2014-11-09.
17. 2016 attacks on Residentialists:
My blog "The 'You're despicable' style of politics", 2016-09-22.
18. Chamber of Commerce Non-endorsement Endorsement:
"In a rare move, Chamber picks favorites in Palo Alto council race...", Palo Alto Online, 2016-10-04.
Search/find "embarrass" in "Editorial: Keller, Kou, Kniss and Fine for Palo Alto City Council", Palo Alto Weekly, 2016-10-21.
19. Letter from Eight Former Mayors:
Body of the letter.
"Huge political contributions spark outcry, suspicion: After Kou and Keller get about $100K, the city's former mayors warn of 'undue influence' in local politics", Palo Alto Online, 2016-10-21.
"Bigger on innuendo than fact" in "With Election Day looming, Keller and Kou lead race for cash: Two slow-growth candidates have each raised more than $90,000", Palo Alto Online, 2016-11-04.
"...disappointing for its sweeping assertions and innuendo" in "Editorial: Keller, Kou, Kniss and Fine for Palo Alto City Council", Palo Alto Weekly, 2016-10-21.
20. Hypocrisy of Eight Former Mayors:
The core concern of this letter was that the Residentialist candidates were receiving enough money to match the big spending campaigns of the Establishment candidates--the near-final totals had the four Establishment candidates together receiving about the same as the four Residentialist candidates, with the late contributions pushing the Establishment total up from insignificantly larger, with the top two Residentialists receiving slightly more than the top two Establishment candidates. The first campaign reporting period ended 9/24 and set the tone for campaign spending. At that point, the fundraising for the top 6 candidates was
- Tanaka (Establishment): $47K
- Kniss (Establishment): $46K
- Fine (Establishment): $36K
- McDougall (Establishment): $25K ($22-27K is the old normal)
- Keller (Residentialist): $25K
- Kou (Residentialist): $17K
(from "Tanaka and Kniss take fundraising lead in council race", Palo Alto Online, 2016-09-03).
It was this gross disparity that triggered the large donations to the Residentialist candidates--viewed by those contributors as leveling the playing field.
Notice that the Eight Former Mayors didn't object to the big spending of three of the Establishment candidates, nor of two of them in 2014--Scharff at $97K, Johnston at $59K. In an apparent attempt to mute the hypocrisy, the Eight Former Mayors phrased their concern in terms of individual donations, but they also misrepresented history.
The message came through loud and clear: They were shocked and appalled that the big money from their established network wouldn't be enough to crush the opposition, because supporters of the opposition included some willing to contribute big money.
21. Bad governance:
"Editorial: A council adrift: Bizarre and poorly conceived 'symbolic' proposals are wasting time and disrespecting the public process", Palo Alto Weekly, 2017-05-05.
" 'Young gun' Councilmembers out of step with community expectations; want start-up companies in residential neighborhoods", 2017-05-13, issue 3 of Palo Alto Matters newsletter. Facebook and subscribe for emails.
"Strong opposition by Wolbach and Fine stalls Council agreement to consider school impacts in City land use decisions", 2017-05-13, issue 3 of Palo Alto Matters newsletter.
"Council opts for up to 4,420 new homes and 11,500 new jobs by 2030 // Council responses to community uproar over displacement of citizen input into the Palo Alto's long-term planning document. City charts course for housing and jobs growth amid concern about school impacts and few controls on commercial development.", 2017-04-09, issue 1 of Palo Alto Matters newsletter.
The CompPlan ambush: "Editorial: A reckless majority", Palo Alto Weekly, 2017-02-03.
Retreating on the CompPlan ambush because of widespread outrage: "Editorial: Making amends", Palo Alto Weekly, 2017-03-24.
Overview of ADU ("granny cottages") ambush:
"Hundreds protest major changes to residential neighborhoods, approved without analysis or public input", 2017-04-24, issue 2 of Palo Alto Matters newsletter.
"Palo Alto finds compromise on accessory housing", Palo Alto Online, 2017-04-18.
22. Wolbach attack on BoE member Todd Collins: paragraph 3 of
"Editorial: Making amends: Admitting its January 'irrationality,' council backtracks on Comp Plan", Palo Alto Weekly, 2017-03-24.
23. Rejecting rule-allowing-exceptions:
In the 2017-04-17 Council meeting on ADUs, @5:04:21 Councilmember Holman argued that because ADUs could be in the front, compatibility between the ADU and the house would be important. Mayor Scharff respond with an example (from Duke University) where "a purely modern building put between two Gothic buildings, attached to them...it looked really fantastic". Recognize that this was probably the work of a top-tier architect, not the sort that would be designing a 500sf granny cottage. Notice also that Holman's expressed concern was about ADUs in the front of the lot, but Scharff dismissed it by citing ADUs in the back.
24. ADU meeting, expected vilifications: repeat of link:
The link to this blog was provided earlier in the main text but is being repeated here as a convenience.
"Why contentious local politics: More examples from ADU at Council", 2017-04-18.
25. Tanaka-Fine's urgent response to old fake news:
Search/Find "absurd" in "In shifting land-use vision, city embraces its tech roots: City Council affirms coders' rights in zoning code; stops short of allowing startups in homes", Palo Alto Online, 2017-05-02.
"Editorial: A council adrift: Bizarre and poorly conceived 'symbolic' proposals are wasting time and disrespecting the public process", Palo Alto Weekly, 2017-05-05.
26. Kniss and Tanaka being investigated by FPPC:
"Editorial: A necessary investigation", Palo Alto Weekly, 2017-03-17.
27. PTC ideal and shortcomings: My blogs
"Replacing the defunct Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 1: Cronyism and Corruption", 2015-08-18. "Recreating the Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 2: Credibility and Confidence", 2015-08-23.
"Amid policy clashes, Palo Alto council to meet with planning commission: Joint session on Nov. 30 offers chance to air grievances, consider improvements", by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online, 2015-11-24.
"Council tries to narrow rift with planning commission: Palo Alto council members offer words of criticism, encouragement to their top land-use advisers", by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online, 2015-12-01.
28. Rogue PTC:
"Planning Commission slams Palo Alto's proposed office cap: Commissioners say proposal unfair to developers, ineffective in reining in city's pace of growth", Palo Alto Online, 2015-08-12.
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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