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Editorial: See who the Palo Alto Weekly is endorsing, and why
When Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd took their oaths of office five years ago, budget deficits, the future of compost and high-speed rail were the issues dominating City Hall.
The city was squabbling with its labor unions over benefit reforms and fighting with businesses over a proposed business-license tax. Parking shortages had not yet made their transition from a general nuisance to a full-fledged crisis. "For Lease" signs blighted storefronts throughout downtown.
These days, as the three seek fresh terms, two of them -- Scharff and Shepherd -- emphasize the council's success in dealing with these challenges. Scharff touts the fact that city revenues are on the rise and that after years of talk, the council finally has both the strategy and the resources needed to tackle the city's infrastructure backlog. Shepherd recalls the council's success in fighting high-speed rail's proposed "Berlin Wall" and its approval of Stanford University Medical Center hospital expansion.
Both makes no bones about it: Despite a few missteps, they are proud of the council's record and more than willing to defend it. Though the global recovery from the Great Recession had much to do with the city's recent uptick in hotel- and sales-tax revenues, both believe the council deserves some credit for balancing the city's books.
"We're out of the financial crisis and we're moving forward," Shepherd said at an Oct. 2 candidates forum.
But if Scharff and Shepherd are running on the council's record, Holman is in many ways running against it. As the stalwart voice of residentialist skepticism on the council (and before that, on the Planning and Transportation Commission), Holman spends almost as much time talking about what the council should do better as she does in recapping its accomplishments. She is a staunch critic of most major developments that have received approval in recent years; she voted against almost all of them. And while she does not officially belong to the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, she's had a "meeting of the minds" with its leaders. In recent weeks, the group officially endorsed her, effectively cementing her status as the one incumbent running against the incumbency.
On most issues, her views and interests are aligned with those of the citizens group. Last week, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning released a survey that considered each council member's vote on 20 land-use issues and rated them based on whether they are "pro-resident" or "anti-resident." Not surprisingly, Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid scored the highest, with 85 percent (29 percent more than the next highest council member).
Much has been made in the current election climate about the two camps currently vying for council supremacy: the residentialists and the "establishment." But while the former camp, as epitomized by Holman, generally opposes dense developments and (more broadly) the urbanization of Palo Alto, Shepherd and Scharff both demonstrate that the latter is harder to define. The former was a PTA volunteer who was propelled to the greater stage by anxieties over high-speed rail. The latter was a virtual unknown at City Hall before running an energetic campaign in opposition to the business tax. True, Scharff and Shepherd mayors in 2013 and 2014, respectively -- presided over the council at a time of rapid growth and, consequently, rising tensions and intense debates. Scharff served as mayor during the Maybell revolt, while Shepherd took the helm just in time to deal with the repercussions. Both participated (along with the rest of the council) in non-disclosed meetings with developer John Arrillaga in 2012 -- meetings that were the subject of a scathing report from the Santa Clara County Grand Jury in June. These controversies have shaken up the council, prompting criticisms, apologies and promises of reform.
Even though critics often lump Scharff and Shepherd together in the ill-defined "establishment" camp, they have not been in accord on every issue. Scharff, for example, led the city's successful effort to eliminate binding arbitration for public-safety workers from the City Charter; Shepherd opposed placing the change on the ballot. Shepherd proposed placing on this year's ballot initiatives to reduce the size of the council and extend term limits; Scharff opposed both.
Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning has given each low scores on its scorecard of "pro-resident" votes, which is devoted exclusively to land-use and transportation issues and which penalizes both Scharff and Shepherd for supporting recent projects such as 101 Lytton Ave., 3159 El Camino Real and the redeveloped Edgewood Plaza (Holman voted against all three).
Each also took a hit for supporting the idea of jointly developing a downtown garage with developer Charles "Chop" Keenan, though whether this really qualifies as an "anti-resident" vote is debatable. And Scharff and Shepherd are more than willing to debate these points and defend themselves against their slow-growth critics.
"Every vote I took was with the intention of increasing the livability of Palo Alto and making sure our neighborhoods, schools and community are a fabulous place to live," Scharff said at the Oct. 2 debate.
Of the 12 people running for City Council, here are the incumbents.
Click on the names of the candidates below for profiles on each.
To read about where the Incumbents stand on issues including development, transportation and housing, see the Weekly's PDF edition.