Editorial: A dearth of candidates

Non-competitive local races are a threat to democracy and to healthy debate of important issues

With just 12 days remaining before the Aug. 15 extended filing deadline for candidates running for City Council and Board of Education, the November school board election is in danger of being cancelled entirely and the City Council race is looking uninspired.

The school board situation is particularly disturbing, in light of the fact that the last election in 2009 was cancelled when only the two incumbents ran for re-election. The last contested election was five years ago, unprecedented for a community in which the school system and the education and welfare of our kids are so highly valued.

It's certainly not due to overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo. There is no lack of critics of both the school board and the City Council. Vigorous and at times acrimonious debate has occurred in the community over many issues, ranging from the new school calendar to city approval of new development in excess of zoning limits.

The City Council election offers two open seats due to the decisions by Yiaway Yeh and Sid Espinosa not to seek second terms. Incumbents Greg Schmid and Pat Burt, finishing their first terms, have both announced they will run for re-election.

Former councilmember and termed-out county supervisor Liz Kniss and attorney Marc Berman were the only additional candidates until this week, when three unsuccessful previous candidates, Tim Gray, Mark Weiss and Victor Frost either filed or took out papers to run.

If no others step forward to file, that means that Kniss and Berman will face opposition from three candidates who have not previously been able to win any significant support in the community.

Especially with the loss of Espinosa and Yeh, the two youngest members of the council, we would hope for additional qualified candidates in the race. There are many Palo Alto residents who have served on commissions or in advisory positions and who are capable of stepping up to the council, and we hope to see a few more of those faces come forward in the next two weeks.

There is an even bleaker situation for the school board election, where three of the five seats are up for election and one incumbent, Barbara Klausner, decided against seeking a second term.

Camille Townsend, who is completing nine years on the board and who only narrowly won re-election in 2007, surprised many by announcing she would seek an unusual third term. Melissa Baten Caswell, elected to her first term in 2007, is also running for re-election.

Thus far only one person, Heidi Emberling, a Juana Briones parent, PTA leader and parent educator, has declared her candidacy.

Noticeably absent are any candidates from among those in the community who have been pushing the school board to respond more aggressively to address student stress and emotional well-being, although those are among the concerns Emberling has raised. The parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has both developed impressive data in support of its positions and made many uncomfortable by its assertiveness and blunt criticisms of district administrators, has so far not put forward a candidate. We hope they will, since that is the only way to ensure a public discussion on these issues and for all candidates to clearly articulate their views so they can be held accountable.

We are also anxious for a competitive school board race so that Palo Alto's philosophy of "site-based" decision-making can be more publicly discussed.

In her announcement that she would not seek a second term, Barbara Klausner cited this "strong culture of site-based decision-making and concomitant deference to the superintendent" as a source of frustration for her, as "key pedagogical and programmatic decisions are developed, refined and evaluated primarily within our schools, and the board, as reflection of our community's values, has adapted its role to fit that culture."

Klausner has raised a very important and largely heretofore unaddressed issue: What are the roles of the school board, superintendent and school principals with regards to policy matters, how did this culture of pushing important matters down to individual schools evolve, and is this practice serving us well? How can board members provide leadership on important educational issues if our established process is for those issues to be worked on at the school site level and then wind up in front of the board when fully developed?

Elections and campaigns are important, sometimes more important than who wins. They require incumbents to defend their records and votes, and allow challengers a forum for critiquing the performance of those in power.

Of all places, in a city and school district where hundreds of citizens volunteer on dozens of boards and committees for the betterment of the community, Palo Alto voters deserve vigorous and substantive debate over our past and future.

We hope in the next 12 days a few of these citizens decide it is their time to take their participation to the next level.

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Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 3, 2012 at 7:46 am

I agree that we need new candidates for the school board. There have been governance issues in PAUSD for years, going back to Mary Francis Callan. The board does not want to take on hard issues, that's why we have site-based control. We need new blood on the board. While I was skeptical of We Can Do Better, on the other hand, the fact that they have data and do their homework makes them better than people who just scream about Manderin Immersion or the calendar. Whether you agree with them or not they make sense. I think having at least one dissenting voice on the board would be very positive. I hope Ken Dauber or Wynn Hausser will run.

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Posted by Michael
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 3, 2012 at 9:41 am

Wayne Martin, please run.

You'll have support from me and a lot more like me who are bristling at the thought of Berman (a pro-labor attorney) and Kniss (a career bureaucrat who is beholden to special interest unions) on the council enriching the city employees on the backs of the next generation.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2012 at 10:10 am

I would like to see Susan Fineberg run; she had a "resident's" view on the Planning & Transportation commission - so much so, that the Friends of Developers of the current City Council would not re-appoint her, even though she is Vice Chair of the commission, and instead went with two newbies (one a real estate attorney).

And with her experience on the Planning & Transportation commission, the "in crowd" cannot say she lacks knowledge.

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Posted by Longtime resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 3, 2012 at 11:31 am

The city council is too big--a group of 9 is unwieldy. Time to reduce the council to 7 members. This is the perfect opportunity.

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Posted by Small Town Living
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2012 at 11:37 am

Does it really surprise the PA Weekly Editor that people will not step forward and run for City Council? Breakdown the scenario; (1) Liz Kniss is running. She maneuvered for the PACC election to be changed to even years(this year), as opposed to the traditional odd numbered years(2011)just in time, as she is being termed out of the County Supervisory office. She lobbied that PACC elections held during even years, and during the general elections would be less costly than those held during odd numbered years. Her timing seems rather self serving, and basically a conflict of interest; (2) The other "in person", Berman did not run in 2009 probably because so many other "in people" were running and he did not have a chance at that time to win - now it will be a cakewalk for him to win; and he is supported by current council person Nancy Shepherd - and look at his list of monetary contributors - more in crowd people in Palo Alto, and surrounding communities; (3) Two incumbents are running, and normally, incumbents are guaranteed a win - look at Klein in the 2009 election; (4) The Palo Alto community does not normally support anyone for PACC unless they have so called served their time, and paid their respective dues on a local board or commission, as if only those experiences suit people for the PACC which is really non-sense; (5) Face the fact that the community is steered, and run by a few hundred people; and what they view, and vision for the city is what happens, including who is elected to council. There is no democracy in small city/town local politics, so for people who are not apart of the circle to step forward ends up being wasted effort, and wasted dollars spent. However, all that being said, the city runs, and in the final analysis, most of the decisions that are made, and ideas that are implemented, in general serve the residents rather well, and when they don't people at least show up to council meetings, and speak up!

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Posted by Pa parent
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm

This editorial paints a bleak picture. There will always be room for improvement
Pertaining to the school board I think listening to what Barbara Klausner had to say is important. However it is the structure of the relationship between the board and the district because of the leadership at the district that in my opinion is one of the root causes of inaction.

The role of a school board member is thankless. It requires long late hours. Unfortunately because of this it limits the number of people who can commit - who have full time jobs, young children at home etc.

I think that this editorial is a little concerning because of the call for WE Can Do Better subscribers to run. Instead of calling for a subset of people to run specifically from this group who has indeed been controversial in it's attack approach, a call for anyone with students who are currently enrolled in PAUSD is a more appropriate call. The tone of this editorial is one of panic and one that is trying to strike fear in people. Fear is a deadly motivator.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Not running for these positions shoes some sense in the community. Being a public servant in Palo Alto makes one a target for bullies, and the local paper takes sides with the bullies, as in the above article. If you're one of the bullies, you wouldn't want to put yourself up for election since you know all too well what a target you will become if elected. Easier to take shots from the sidelines. I know, go ahead and remove my comment. . .

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Posted by Ryan
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm

The problem is that anyone with any decent business sense (the type of civil servant this town has been severely lacking) is too busy creating value in the private sector to commit their time.

That leaves us with council members who are more often than not politically ambitious (IE more likely to sell themselves to the union special interests -- see: GAIL PRICE) and out of touch with basic notions of efficiency. Why would we continue to overpay our city workers so much and continue to sell out future generations otherwise?

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Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 4, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Point of fact, I was Student Body President at Terman Middle School in 1977. I was Nelson Rockefeller Center Fellow in public affairs and policy from Dartmouth College covering council meetings in Mountain View and Santa Clara while Berman was still in short pants, in 1984. By 1996, I was on the cover of your Palo Alto Weekly for community leadership; maybe Marc Berman attended some of the teen programming I organized at Cubberley in those years, 1994 through 2001. And it's a moot point to compare my modest results in the 2009 election that Mr. Berman didn't participate in. Ironically, I jumped in in 2009 responding to an op-ed like this one.

It’s not that Palo Alto needs “more candidates” for the upcoming election --- I beg to differ. There is, however, a lack of residentialist and uncompromised voices in local debate and self-governance. Special interests here, especially commercial real estate moguls and deal-makers, hold too much sway and have too much say, and fill a Democracy gap, the difference between what we were taught in school, what our Founders foresaw, and what we actually have settled for.

Whether I run or not, whether I “win” or not, I stand with a significant number of people who have serious concerns that we are being poorly served, but not in the ways you describe. Your coverage barely fathoms the real dearth. We need a new residentialist platform.

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Posted by Carolyn
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Please tell me who will eliminate car camping in Palo Alto. I will vote for them!

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Posted by air sickness bag
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Mark Weiss,

How would you rate each of the declared candidates (Pat Burt, Greg Schmid, Liz Kniss & Marc Berman) in terms of being pro-residentialists or pro-developers and why?

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Posted by air sickness bag
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 5, 2012 at 9:30 am

how much do you want to bet that the Weekly gives Kniss a ringing endorsement come elction time??? Plus Kniss will have the endorsement of Joe "woodside" Webb.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Aug 6, 2012 at 7:29 am

Mark Weiss says, "...while Berman was still in short pants..."

What's wrong with short pants?

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Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2012 at 11:20 am

Site based decision making was terrible at Barron Park School but has been the best experience at Gunn. I felt that the school board had abandoned us in elementary school, allowing experimental fads to dominate. At Gunn, I wish the school board would leave us alone. The calendar decision was just one example of shallow thinking, especially for our seniors. They did have the wisdom to let us think for a while instead of ordering a guidance upheaval.
We need to watch out for groups, filled with people who have professional agendas of their own, undermining our teachers and our student learning processes. And yes, we are aware that the folks at 25 Churchill has professional agendas too.

Like this comment
Posted by Amy F.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm

It's frustrating at every age level. Elementary schools are overcrowded. It was projected, and now our schools are torn up and over capacity. We have moved in more portables and principals with political agendas.

Yes, having higher class ratios might work, if there is enough aide and volunteer support so teachers can TEACH. Yes, reducing fields and outdoor play areas while adding portables won't physically hurt our children, but that it isn't the standard of quality that we expect or wanted for our children.

There are so few stable schools, without constant turnover in leadership, in environment, in values. That echoes through Middle School, and I cannot speak to High School yet, but I worry, seeing and hearing about the pressures our kids our going through. Serving in a High School as and Aide I felt the pressure, and I was just there to help.

All of these values, these core environmental influences, and the culture of our schools begins with leadership, and it's imperative that we either need to find people or parents we can stand behind and support, or stop bullying ourselves, get in front of our leaders, and without bullying or yelling, talk.

Tell them to listen, or find someone who will. That's what I'm working on, and I ask those in my community to do the same. Media will do what they do, investigate and report how they will, but a passionate community can come together, and so no. I'm not going to take this anymore. And if you feel that way, volunteer, talk (not bully, irate, berate, belittle) to people who are in the positions for now, and find people in our community who you like. Encourage them to serve, like we have Mark Weiss, and help them.

You cannot make a change if you do not take a step towards change.

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Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I couldn't agree more with Common Sense.

The timing is perfect; the need abundantly clear: both exhibited by the council's recent failure to re-appoint her to any of three open P&TC positions and what that portends in terms of future development, careful process, and transparency.

Change needs to start at the top, and Susan Fineberg is The Real Deal.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Maybe the dearth of candidates in PA is directly related to the abuse the community heaps on its candidates and public officers.

How about one of the hypercritical citizens know-it-all stepping forward to serve?

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Posted by citizen
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 7, 2012 at 10:59 am

I wonder how other communities with the "know it all" culture of a major university fare in this regard.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2012 at 11:30 am

As an academic who has lived in several college communities, i know that "town/gown" issues often arise. For the most part the difficulties in the towns I lived in were occasional, and related to very specific project concerns.

--- The resolutions were mutually determined and projects were modified -- and the process did not go on for years with multiple lawsuits.

--- The Universities involved did not have to pay tribute or give campus land to the towns.

Palo Alto takes the "prize" -- hands down -- for the most irrational hostility and outright blackmail of it's university neighbor. The "Palo Alto Process" is a twisted misnomer, stolen and corrupted from HP.

Palo Alto's property values, wealth, and continued draw are a direct result of Stanford's presence and its role in building the intellectual and the tech economy. Without the University, PA would be Burlingame.

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Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2012 at 6:00 pm

To answer a question directed at me, above, follow Fred Balin's suggestion and review the Council's actions to give Susan Fineberg's PATC seat to Alex Panelli and then Dan Garber's unfinished term to Michael Alcheck. At media center site and archive of meetings on video.

Or read about it here: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by vidal
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 8, 2012 at 9:20 am

what's wrong with burlingame?

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

Marc Weiss,

Thanks for your views on where you think each city council member stands; I agree with you on Holman & Schmid being residentialist. I think Shepard & Yeh are more neutral in their records, and the rest (Klein, Burt, Scharff, Price & Espinosa) are pro-developer.

I would consider voting for you if you would focus on the issues and policy, and not the other candidates personal characteristics (like age, etc). I think the Palo Alto Weekly editoral was a disservice to those who decided to run; it should have focused on the policy issues that the council will face in the four years.

Good luck in the coming election

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