In the last Palo Alto City Council election in 2009, with 14 candidates, voters overwhelmingly reelected Larry Klein to his second four-year term after he had previously served two terms in the 1980s. Klein was the top vote getter among a field of 14 candidates and the only incumbent in the race.
This year, it is former council member Liz Kniss who wants to return to the council after having served 11 years in the 1990s followed by 12 years as a Santa Clara County Supervisor. She is termed out from running again for supervisor, and, ironically, is able to run for council this year only because she successfully urged a change in local elections to even-numbered years.
With a new city manager, a severe economic crisis and a council made up of no one else who had served more than two years, back in 2009 the city needed Klein's historical perspective and knowledge, experience and his willingness to be blunt with city staff when necessary.
But with a council that over the last three years has coalesced, matured and worked well together through some very challenging years, the need for the likes of Klein and Kniss is lessened today, and therefore Kniss's prior experience on the council should count far less in this race. Some might even argue that her past service works against her, since her political insider status fails to broaden the community perspectives represented on the council.
Among the other five candidates in the race, two are incumbents (Pat Burt and Greg Schmid), two are candidates who ran unsuccessfully in 2009 (Tim Gray and Mark Weiss) and the fifth is attorney Marc Berman, at 31 the youngest candidate.
Unlike in the 2009 race, when 14 candidates vied for five slots, this year the field is the smallest in memory. Weiss says he is not spending any money in his campaign and Gray is limiting himself to a modest amount of his own funds. As a result, both are long-shots, and many political activists have proclaimed that there is not a real race this year.
Two events four years ago indirectly define this race: the hiring of City Manager Jim Keene in September 2008 and the world-wide economic collapse that began with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy that same month.
The city hired Keene when the developing recession was only beginning to impact Palo Alto, but as he started the city was slammed by economic forces that has preoccupied it ever since.
At the strong urging of the council, Keene was not only faced with cleaning out a severely underperforming management group but also working with the council to implement financial measures to address unprecedented declines in city revenues.
Thus the last four years have been dominated by the dual challenges of cutting back personnel, benefits and services, while taking steps to encourage new economic development. While there have been some serious missteps along the way (the tree-cutting on California Ave. and the Alma Plaza development are just two examples) for the most part the council has worked cohesively with the city manager to prevent greater economic calamity. Unfunded pension and retiree health obligations approved by past councils remain huge and complex problems, but the city has been well-served by the council's actions over the last few years to begin rolling them back.
The Stanford hospital expansion was successfully negotiated, meaningful reductions in employee compensation and benefits were achieved, binding arbitration was repealed and the investment in city infrastructure, led by the new library/community center construction and renovations, was increased at a time other cities were cutting back.
With a more welcoming city attitude toward development, motivated by the need to boost the local economy and shore up the city's revenue base, and with investment capital and commercial lending rebounding, the next city council will have some important choices to make.
If recent development proposals are any indication, who we elect to the city council this year may matter a great deal in determining the future character of the community.
We believe both incumbents, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, are worthy of another term. In many ways they are opposites, with Schmid, an economist, a believer in process, careful study and especially reluctant about development without clear financial benefits for the city, and Burt, a business owner-entrepreneur, preferring to immerse himself in the details of an issue with an eye toward improving what the staff has recommended, often to the point of micromanaging yet usually with beneficial ideas.
Schmid often finds himself alone on issues and unable to persuade his colleagues to his point of view, but his perspective is often unique and valuable and his analysis usually sound. He approaches every issue like the economist he is.
Burt distinguished himself as mayor in 2010, leading efficient meetings by being firm -- yet not shutting down debate -- when his colleagues began bogging down the discussion. As a council member, he is always well-prepared and puts his nine years of Planning Commission experience to good use. He is an effective leader, although sometimes his strong opinions make him appear insensitive to those with differing viewpoints.
Our choice for one of the two "open" slots due to Yiaway Yeh and Sid Espinosa stepping down is Marc Berman, whose passion for public service almost led to his running for Assembly in 2010 until he determined the field was too strong for him to be a viable contender.
Berman, like Yeh and Espinosa, would bring the perspective of a younger generation of resident to the council. Raised in Palo Alto and a Palo Alto High School graduate, Berman served on the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission and impressed us with his solid knowledge of the issues and with the breadth of support he has obtained in the community. He has not staked out any bold positions on city issues, preferring instead to simply raise concerns about things like neighborhood parking, new development and the future of the Cubberley site, without committing to specific solutions or actions. Rather than a shortcoming, we find his approach to be one reflecting a commitment to studying issues and listening to the public rather than standing for a set of specific outcomes. On a nine-member council, these qualities will serve the community well.
For the final slot, and with some reservations, we recommend Liz Kniss. Kniss has grown tremendously since she was first elected to the council in 1989 and her public health background is unlike that of any other candidate or current council member. More than most of the current council, Kniss thrives on networking and listening to community members and their concerns. She believes the council has been too easy in negotiating with developers and is not happy with the new proposal by John Arrillaga to build four office towers at 27 University Ave. Her three terms as county supervisor gives her a unique perspective of regional issues and challenges.
While we are strong believers in developing new leaders to guide the community, the gap in experience between Kniss and Tim Gray and Mark Weiss is simply too great.
For voters looking for an alternative to Kniss, either out of principle or because of her views, Tim Gray is the best alternative. Gray is a CPA and financial consultant specializing in recovering overpayments by companies that have gone through mergers or acquisitions. He lives in south Palo Alto with his wife and three school-age kids, and he wants to contribute his financial skills to the city's budget issues and to evaluating development proposals. He is concerned that the council is too responsive to developers and that continuing to approve new commercial development will lead to the city being forced to provide more housing to compensate for the jobs being created and that will lead to unwanted intensification.
The sixth candidate, Mark Weiss, is a Gunn High School graduate and a music producer, arts advocate and writer. He believes both the city's pension and infrastructure problems have been "oversold" to the community, and that city workers have shouldered too much of city budget cutbacks. He believes the council gives too much weight to developers and opposes the practice of granting development rights in exchange for public benefits.
This year's council race is not as competitive as we would have liked given the governance challenges that lie ahead. We believe that Pat Burt, Greg Schmid, Marc Berman and Liz Kniss are the best choice for dealing with these issues and recommend their election on Nov. 6.