Palo Alto officials received a welcome reminder last month that democracy is alive and well within city borders.
The City Council was holding a special meeting Sept. 21 to select a recruiting firm that would help the city find a replacement for outgoing City Attorney Gary Baum. Council members were interviewing Bob Murray, whose firm Bob Murray & Associates recruited Baum and City Manager James Keene. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd asked, "What did you find the most challenging aspect of hiring in Palo Alto, and how do you think this will play out with finding an attorney for us?"
Without skipping a beat, Murray told the council over the speakerphone that Palo Alto's "unique dynamic" is that people in the city tend to participate in local government far more than elsewhere.
"The whole issue of how people are engaged and involved in the community is the thing that distinguishes Palo Alto from almost all of our clients," said Murray, whose firm has worked with cities and counties throughout the state.
Murray's pronouncement sounded like music to the ears of the council, which listed "civic engagement" as one of the city's top priorities in 2008 and 2009, routinely watches the Council Chamber fill up during its Monday night meetings, and relies on citizen task forces for assistance with the city's most contentious decisions.
In August, the council took an even bolder step to bolster civic participation -- one that would kill a century-old tradition. At its Aug. 2 meeting, the council voted 5-4 (with Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilmen Greg Schmid and Larry Klein dissenting) to place an initiative on the November ballot that would shift local elections from odd to even years. If voters approve Measure S, each member of the current council would get a one-year term extension and local elections would take their place alongside county, state and national elections.
Proponents of Measure S, led by former Palo Alto mayor and current Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, argue that the measure would bring two major benefits to the city. First, it would significantly bring down the costs of local elections by consolidating them with other elections. Kniss estimated the change would save Palo Alto about $1 million over 10 years.
More importantly, the switch to even years would promote local democracy by significantly boosting voter turnout, Measure S backers claim. At a recent interview with the Weekly, Kniss and Councilman Greg Scharff both pointed to voter-turnout statistics that showed participation soaring in even years and floundering in odd years. In 2008, for example, 89 percent of Palo Altans hit the polls, compared to only 40 percent in 2007. The average turnout in the past four even-year elections has been 71.25 percent, compared to 43.2 percent during odd years.
As an example of the disparity, 31,566 Palo Altans voted on Measure N (Palo Alto library bond) in 2008, while only 14,308 voted on Measure A (the city's business-license tax) in 2009, proponents state in their official ballot argument.
"We have always pushed voter participation," Scharff said. "If you look at 30,000 people voting versus 15,000 people voting -- that's really dramatic."
Councilman Greg Schmid, the most vocal opponent of Measure S, isn't buying this argument. Just because more people hit the polls during even years doesn't mean they pay much attention to local issues or even bother filling out the local ballot, he said. And even if they do vote for local issues, it doesn't mean they have carefully considered them before casting their votes.
It's also quite possible, opponents say, that the 2008 turnout had less to do with the election's even year and more to do with the fact that Barrack Obama was on the ballot.
By having elections in odd years, the city allows residents to focus exclusively on local initiatives and City Council candidates, Schmid told the Weekly. A switch to even years would greatly favor incumbents by making it difficult for new candidates for local offices to catch the citizenry's attention, he said. As a result, there would be fewer candidates running for local offices, he said.
"Here we are in the midst of Silicon Valley, in the midst on an engaged social-network world, and we're telling people we don't want them to vote every year," Schmid said. "It's the wrong direction to go, especially for a community that's so engaged and for a council that should be sensitive to those engagements."
Councilman Larry Klein raised a similar issue during the Aug. 2 council meeting. Having local elections in an odd year enables citizens to "have a community discussion about where they want the city to go" and to choose their council candidates accordingly, Klein said.
"The attention certainly would not be paid if the council (election) is one of 10 or 15 elections conducted in an even-number year," Klein said.
Palo Alto isn't the only city grappling with the change, Kniss said. Half Moon Bay, which is in San Mateo County, is also now considering a change to even years, she said. Its proposal, like Palo Alto's, will be on the ballot as Measure S. Besides Palo Alto, Cupertino and Sunnyvale are the only cities in Santa Clara County that hold their elections in odd years. Gilroy and Los Altos had recently switched their elections to even years.
"Most of the county is already there," Kniss told the Weekly. "Out of 2 million people in the county, only 200,000 are left voting in odd-year elections."
But Schmid argued that Palo Alto voters already turn out in greater numbers than their counterparts in other communities and claimed that a switch to even years would significantly reduce not just informed voting but active participation in local issues.
To stress his point, Schmid cites 1987, the year he became involved in local politics. That's the year Palo Alto's school board, which included Kniss, voted to merge Gunn and Palo Alto high schools and to convert Gunn into a middle school. The proposal outraged local school activists, who launched a grassroots crusade against the merger and who helped elect two anti-merger newcomers, Diane Reklis and Henry Levin, to the five-member school board (incumbent board member Joe Simitian, who voted for the merger, barely survived re-election after finishing third in the polls).
Shortly after the election, the new school board voted to rescind its earlier vote, effectively killing the merger idea. After months of excruciating tension, the Gunn community breathed a sigh of relief.
Schmid said he was impressed by the voters' ability to unite behind a complex issue involving housing, economics and demographics, and to effect change. At a recent interview with the Weekly, he wondered aloud if the citywide debate of 1987 could have been possible during an even year, when gubernatorial, presidential and Congressional candidates (not to mention judges, sheriffs and other lower-profile candidates) also vie for the voters' attention.
"Would this have happened if this was a general election?" Schmid asked. "Could you have that kind of attention to local issues like economics and demographics?"