Palo Alto's council candidates have plenty of quibbles when it comes to growth and development, but on Tuesday they found themselves almost completely in agreement on an issue that had not surfaced until now: raising the city's minimum wage.
Ten out of 12 candidates for the City Council who answered (and asked) questions at a forum Sept. 30 said they would support raising the local minimum wage to $15 per hour or whatever amount is deemed "livable wage." A few said they'd go further than the $15 proposed in a question from the audience.
"Fifteen is not enough. How about $25?" asked Mark Weiss, a concert producer who is now in his third consecutive council campaign.
Incumbent Greg Scharff noted that other area cities, including San Jose, have recently passed a wage increase.
"I think Palo Alto should definitely be doing this," Scharff said.
His two fellow incumbents, Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwoman Karen Holman shared his view.
"This is a very progressive community and sometimes it's a little surprising, some of the things we haven't yet addressed," Holman said. "I think this is one of them."
Challengers Tom DuBois, Lydia Kou and Eric Filseth -- all opponents of last year's Measure D and all members of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning -- reached the same conclusion. Filseth, a retired executive in the semiconductor industry, qualified his answer by saying the city should first carefully study the issue to determine what a "livable wage" is in Palo Alto, a position that was also shared by candidate A.C. Johnston, a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster. Cory Wolbach, a legislative aide to state Sen. Jerry Hill, was more concrete and said he would support $20 an hour, while Wayne Douglass, an advocate for the homeless, said "at least $15."
The only two of the 12 candidates who didn't support raising the local minimum wage were retired Gunn High teacher John Fredrich and retired aerospace engineer Seelam Reddy. Fredrich acknowledged that the wage should be $15 or more but said he favors "federal action first, state action second and finally local action." Reddy was much more fixed in his opposition.
"It's un-American for someone to tell you how much the wage should be," said Reddy, who then added that companies should voluntarily increase salaries to the needed level.
The discussion on living wage was one of few points of a general consensus, with distaste for high-speed rail and enthusiasm for allowing more "granny units" at existing properties also making the short list. The 12 candidates are running for five seats on the nine-member council. In addition to the three incumbents seeking fresh terms, the council will have two open seats. Councilman Larry Klein will be termed out after this year while Gail Price has opted not to seek a second term. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the forum brought more than 120 people to Congregation Etz Chayim in south Palo Alto for an occasionally tense discussion of local issues and regional pressures.
Things got particularly heated during a portion of the forum in which candidates were afforded the chance to ask other candidates questions. While the segment included a few unexpected inquiries (Weiss asked Scharff to compare Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.), Scharff and Shepherd each fielded tough questions from challengers, with Filseth pressing Shepherd on the council's plan to pursue a new police building through "certificates of participation," a mechanism that doesn't require a vote but entails a higher interest rate. The alternative, a general-obligation bond of the sort recently used to rebuild local libraries, requires approval from a supermajority of voters. Shepherd said the council didn't think it can get the supermajority.
"I prefer a bond. That's exactly what I'd like to do," Shepherd said. "But there wasn't that security in being able to do that."
Filseth characterized the city's action as one that went around the residents who didn't want to spend money on the new police headquarters. But Scharff later pointed to polls that showed the majority of the residents are willing to pass a bond for a new police building, though the rate falls just shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed for the bond.
"You have a small minority not letting the majority of Palo Alto residents get what they want," Scharff said.
Scharff was asked by Johnston about his votes in favor of commercial developments. Scharff responded that he had voted for only one "planned community" project: the four-story building at 101 Lytton Ave., and noted that in addition to being "fully parked," the development provides $2 million in "seed money" for the city to build a new garage.
Later in the forum, when asked about his top issues, Scharff said that in addition to fixing the traffic and parking issues, he'd like to abolish the planned community zone entirely. The community, he said, no longer trusts the zoning designation, which allows developers to get zoning exceptions in exchange for negotiated public benefits.
"I do not see how the (planned community) process can continue as a viable alternative when there is no trust in it," Scharff said. "Therefore, I think we need to eliminate it."
When asked about her top issues, Shepherd talked about the need to update the city's Comprehensive Plan, its guiding land-use document. She called the effort (which kicked off in 2006 and which the city hopes to complete by late 2015) "most challenging and most important because there's a lot of angst about what's going on now.
"Most of the projects in play and getting developed now are under conforming zoning as the Comprehensive Plan articulated it in 1998," Shepherd said.
A revised Comprehensive Plan would, in theory, lay the foundation for changing the zoning code to address the challenges brought about by rapid growth. Johnston, like Shepherd, called the update of the document a top priority and said it's important for the public to provide its input.
"I think we need an overall plan before we start doing changes to spot zoning or changes to the (planned community) process so we know what the overall picture is before we start looking at little pieces," Johnston said.
All three of the candidates affiliated with Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning made a case for slowing down the pace of development. Filseth, a Downtown North resident, talked about the rapid changes his streets have undergone in the last five years and cited a "disconnect" between City Hall and residents who are averse to the growing level of traffic, congestion, stretched infrastructure support and school crowding.
"My experience with Palo Alto is a moderate-density family town with great services and great schools," Filseth said. "And I think that's what it should be. I think we need to realign with that vision."
Both Fliseth and DuBois argued that the existing Comprehensive Plan doesn't need the types of revamping that the city is seeking. The problem from the critics' perspective is that the city hasn't been following the vision in the existing document and granting developers too many exemptions. Kou said another four years of "growth for the sake of growing" will change the city, she said, to one that is "constant gridlock and crisis mode." The first step in solving the problem, she said, is recognizing that there is one.
"The reason Measure D was defeated was because many of the same problems had occurred so often over so much time and there was just too many people who said, 'No more,'" Kou said.
Wolbach didn't associate himself with either growth camp, instead making a case for more "civility and openness." He praised the city for going forward with Our Palo Alto, an outreach effort aimed at gathering the public's thoughts about Palo Alto's future.
The one issue that succeeded in uniting the candidates was high-speed rail. Everyone ripped the project, with Filseth calling it a "freaking disaster" and saying the state should focus on "regional transportation first, which is much more pressing than getting people between southern and northern California."
"We're not that good at building small things like bike bridges and libraries," Weiss said. "I'm not sure how well we'll do on HSR."
Wayne Douglass generally focused his comments on homelessness, acknowledging himself to be a "single-issue candidate." He joined the campaign to oppose the council's recent ban on car camping, a prohibition that is now suspended because of a recent court case in Los Angeles.
"Six people died on the street last season," Douglass said. "I certainly don't want to see that again. I want to see people housed ... and nobody dying on the street. There is a goal worth seeking."
Even he, however, had unkind words for high-speed rail, lamenting the decision by state officials to "cram everything" through Palo Alto's rail corridor "even if it means eminent domain and destruction of people's homes."
For most of the evening, candidates focused on the threat from local developments rather than Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy project. DuBois said the city needs to stop "digging ourselves into bigger hole" and stop granting exceptions to commercial buildings. He also said he'd like to see a City Hall "culture that is more responsible to residents and also sets clarity."
"Developers and residents alike would benefit from some simple clarity," DuBois said.
Fredrich, for his part, said he'd like some clarity on what exactly the citizens group stands for. Though he also calls himself a "residentialist," Fredrich had supported the Maybell Avenue development that Measure D overturned. He also asked Filseth on how and where he would add the much needed housing. Filseth didn't give any specific locations but said the city should first determine how much housing it needs and then work to identify projects that would "benefit the community."
"I'm waiting for the definition of 'sensible zoning,'" Fredrich said. "You know 'sensible dessert eating' is, 'Don't eat the whole tray.' I don't know what sensible zoning is."
Reddy said Palo Alto's biggest problem is "traffic" and said the city needs to come up with an "innovative way" to address the issue. Palo Alto should look to projects like the Tube in London. Maybe, he said, Elon Musk can help the city come up with a "very innovative way to get past cars." Aside from this innovative new system, Reddy said he would want "Palo Alto to be just like it is."
The three incumbents all emphasized their actions and accomplishments. Holman talked about her 13 years on the planning commission and the council and her consistent record of skeptically weighing -- and often rejecting -- proposed developments. Scharff reminded the crowd that in the past five years, the council has created a plan to finance its infrastructure repairs, invested heavily in fixing potholes, seen its downtown vacancies disappear and watched budget deficits turn into surpluses. Even with the traffic and parking problems, the city is now in a "diametrically opposite position than we were in 2009."
Shepherd said in her closing comments she looks forward to the forthcoming community conversation about how to bring Palo Alto into the future.
"It's the conversation I like to have," Shepherd said. "We really changed through these five years, and I think we're in a much better position to pivot and go directly into some of the interests the community has."
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