Watch the Weekly's video-recorded endorsement interviews with the candidates at 2014 Election Central: Palo Alto City Council
In a refreshingly issue-oriented City Council campaign that has become a bit of an in-your-face challenge to Palo Alto's political establishment, there are no simple paths to selecting the five best candidates.
While there are no official candidate "slates," the alliances of two groups of four candidates are not difficult to decipher.
Nancy Shepherd, Greg Scharff and newcomers A.C. Johnston and Cory Wolbach have the support of Palo Alto's political insiders -- that group of well-connected and longtime residents, mostly from north Palo Alto, who have dominated city politics for decades. These four are getting money and endorsements from common sources, including other politicians and office holders, and their victories will come closest to replicating the status quo political majority on the council.
On the other hand, incumbent Karen Holman and newcomers Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou draw their support from residents who feel the council majority has drifted badly in the wrong direction by approving developments that have increased traffic congestion, exacerbated parking problems and accelerated undesirable changes in the makeup of our business districts.
Emboldened by their election victory a year ago with the defeat of Measure D, which rejected a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue across from Briones Park (except for Holman, who joined her council colleagues in supporting it), this group is unhappy with the changes it sees happening in the city, particularly the trend toward densification of both housing and commercial development.
That leaves four candidates (John Fredrich, Mark Weiss, Wayne Douglass and Seelam Reddy) running as individuals who have some strong viewpoints -- generally critical of current council policies -- but lack extensive grass-roots support. Voters will find elements of each of their campaign platforms that resonate with them, but none is superior to the other eight candidates.
With this lineup, many voters will probably not cast five votes. They will go with one group of four or the other, depending on their satisfaction with the current City Council majority.
For those who believe things have been going just fine and want a council as similar as possible to the one we now have, then vote for Scharff, Shepherd, Johnston and Wolbach.
For those with high levels of frustration with the council and city management, voting for Holman, DuBois, Filseth and Kou will bring about the greatest change.
We don't believe either group, however, gives us the strongest candidates to guide the city forward and represent the diversity of opinion in the community.
As has been seen over the last year in both words and actions, the council has pivoted dramatically in response to harsh feedback from citizens about its handling of parking, traffic and development issues. There has been a frenzy of activity to address these problems that one could either generously describe as healthy representative democracy in action or, less kindly, as a cynical and politically motivated shift to preserve the current balance of power on the council.
There are also some subtexts to this election worth mentioning.
One is that all three incumbents could deservedly be thrown out for their conduct regarding developer John Arrillaga's office tower proposal for 27 University Ave. and his desire to buy 7.7 acres in the foothills.
The council's participation and acquiescence in secret discussions with Arrillaga and in briefings by the staff designed to keep the public in the dark about his controversial proposals were wrong and legitimized concerns over the credibility and integrity of our local government. That it took a Grand Jury report to elicit apologies, long after the council and staff's behavior was exposed by the Weekly, just adds to the violation of trust experienced by the community.
Another subtext is the conjecture by some that the "challengers" (primarily Kou, DuBois and Filseth) simply want no growth and want to freeze Palo Alto in time. This characterization, fostered by the city's political insiders, now includes labeling them as libertarians or Tea Party members trying to take advantage of anti-development sentiment to win office, where they can then attempt to obstruct and reduce city government. This wolf-in-sheep's-clothes speculation is disturbing both for its lack of foundation and its stealth.
While we have major criticisms of this council, it is important to also recognize they and a new city manager have successfully navigated through very bad economic times, tackled the city's infrastructure needs, made some long overdue personnel changes at City Hall, and reformed labor and pension rules and processes. There are no bums to throw out, but that doesn't mean voters shouldn't carefully assess their effectiveness.
So with this context, we recommend the re-election of two incumbents, Karen Holman and Greg Scharff, and three newcomers, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach.
None of the candidates is without liabilities, but together we think this group would result in a better balance and be more representative of all of Palo Alto than any council in a long time. It would bring onto the council some vocal critics, which is appropriate.
Scharff has been visibly humbled by the rejection of Measure D and the associated wave of criticism of the City Council. While we join those who wonder whether his transformation over the last year is for real, we hope and believe he will be true to his campaign statements and work to assemble council majorities to adopt tough new parking requirements for new buildings, reform or eliminate the planned-community-zone process, expand retail protections, continue to pressure ABAG to change its housing allocation process and be more responsive to neighborhood concerns.
Scharff is smart, carefully studies the issues and is capable of being one of the leaders of a more diverse council if he continues to focus on listening to his constituents. He's made some significant errors in judgment, such as being enamored with large development projects that he thought would bring welcomed "vitality," but he's owned up to most of them and now says he's heard the community. Absent a better alternative, we're prepared to give him a chance to prove it.
We're supporting Holman, DuBois and Filseth because we think their strong views on limiting development reflect those of a large number, if not majority, of Palo Altans.
Holman has almost always been on the losing side of controversial votes and is often disregarded, and sometimes disrespected, by some of her colleagues. Yet she has detailed knowledge of the issues and persistently advocates for tougher treatment of development proposals, more transparency, more proactive planning and support for those in need in our community. In the wake of current community sentiment, the council is actually moving more in her direction than at any time during her four-year tenure.
DuBois and Filseth will bring valuable new neighborhood voices to the council. Both have high-tech business and entrepreneurial backgrounds similar to many Palo Alto residents. Both have done their homework on the issues and share a commitment to not grant zoning exceptions in exchange for dubious public benefits and to improving the way the city reaches out to and engages citizens. As residents of Midtown and Downtown North, they will also represent historically underrepresented neighborhoods.
Advocates of more affordable or subsidized housing worry that DuBois and Filseth may try to obstruct such projects in the future based on their opposition to Measure D, but we believe they realize the importance of the city's long and proud history of income and ethnic diversity and that they will use their positions to craft such projects that will be supported in the neighborhoods.
While new to local politics, Cory Wolbach is the type of resident we should be encouraging to run for public office. A Palo Alto native and product of our schools, he is an aide to State Senator Jerry Hill and is part of a generation that we want to encourage to step up and participate in leading our city. His state government experience will bring a helpful dimension to the council, especially as it wrestles with regional issues such as ABAG's housing mandates. While we were frustrated by his overly vague policy statements early in the campaign, he has now articulated strong support for limiting new commercial development, focusing on how the city can create more affordable and subsidized housing options and implementing additional protections of retail businesses.
We cannot recommend the re-election of Nancy Shepherd, who has disappointed us for what we view as a leadership failure in not using her role as mayor this year to reach out to the community and attempt to heal the wounds from the Measure D election, for not bringing about a more collaborative and cohesive atmosphere on the council in its wake, and for her general defensiveness over council decisions on development proposals. Her work on high-speed rail prior to being elected four years ago propelled her to office, and she deserves much credit for her successful efforts to protect Palo Alto's interests. But for what the city needs now, we think others will be more effective.
Finally, neither Lydia Kou nor A.C. Johnston has demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the issues to be ready to serve. Johnston has no history of community involvement and has lived in the city for less than two years (although he lived here previously during the 1990s.) He was uninformed on the most controversial issues the council has considered in recent years, including the so-called Gateway project at 101 Lytton. That lack of homework is not a sign of someone passionate about serving.
Kou similarly lacks confidence in addressing the issues and in debates has been unable to articulate clear and specific answers to many questions. Both would be more credible candidates in two years after getting more involved and gaining a more thorough understanding of city issues.
We recommend Karen Holman, Greg Scharff, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach as the best combination of candidates to begin the process of reuniting our community.