Measure D: No on reducing council size
Talk of reducing the size of the Palo Alto City Council from nine to seven has come and gone for decades, but has never generated enough traction to get on the ballot.
This year, with great ambivalence and on a slim 5-4 vote, the City Council put Measure D on the ballot to let voters decide. It has stirred almost no voter interest and very little campaigning.
Even Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who pushed last year for putting both the council size reduction and increasing council term limits on the ballot, now says she has no position on the proposal even though she voted to place it on the ballot. And Councilmember Marc Berman, who also voted to put Measure D on the ballot, said at the time he wasn't sure it was a good idea.
If enacted, the size of the council would be reduced in 2018, when the candidates we elect next month will be up for reelection. Instead of five council slots in that election, there would only be three, so theoretically there could be four incumbents running for three slots, a situation sure to discourage additional candidates.
Proponents of the measure, who are mostly former office holders, argue that other cities do just fine with five- or seven-member councils and that Palo Alto's unusually large council drags out meetings late into the night, is costly and inefficient.
The real issue, which proponents acknowledge privately, is that they don't believe there are enough qualified candidates interested in serving to sustain this size governing body, and that unless the size is reduced less capable people will wind up getting elected.
Although reducing the size of the city council to seven is unlikely to cause real harm, or alter the direction of city policy, there is very little evidence to support any of the arguments in favor of the measure.
The length of city council meetings is far more dependent on agenda planning and the skills of the mayor. Meetings should never go past 11 p.m. and uncompleted agenda items should be postponed, just as they are in meetings of any other organization. We would much prefer that solution to the problem of late meetings than reducing the size of the council.
Opponents argue that reducing council size not only decreases the diversity of voices, but could present problems when one or more council members must recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest. If, for example, two council members had Stanford conflicts, it could reduce the effective size of the council to five for any matter involving the university.
Proponents of council size reduction couldn't have picked a worse time to push this proposal forward. The division in the community over current and future development has inspired a large pool of candidates in this year's council race, aided by two incumbents stepping down.
The fact that support for the measure comes almost entirely from those who have held office or already have political influence in the community and not from neighborhood leaders or others who have an equal interest in good, transparent government leads us to believe Palo Alto is not ready for fewer voices representing them on the city council.
We don't rule out the possibility that in the future a reduction in size might become non-controversial and beneficial. But in the heat of today's political environment, it's bad timing.
Measure B: Yes on increasing hotel tax
Palo Alto Measure B would increase the city's transient occupancy tax, the tax added to hotel bills for visitors, from 12 percent to 14 percent.
The increased revenue, estimated to be more than $2 million a year, would go into the city's general fund, but in placing the proposal on the ballot the City Council has made clear the money will be allocated to addressing infrastructure needs, including seismic upgrades to fire stations and other street and parking improvements. It is an important piece to a broader strategy of funding infrastructure improvements.
Opposition has come from the Chamber of Commerce and the hotels whose guests will have to absorb the additional 2 percent tax. They argue the increase will put Palo Alto hotels at a competitive disadvantage to those in other cities where the tax is less, and question the rationale of using these tax revenues to fund infrastructure projects.
The tax increase, which only requires a simple majority vote, is a politically easy way to generate an additional couple of million dollars a year. Two percent of a $200 hotel room amounts to an additional $4, surely not enough to change any visitors' decision on where to book a hotel room.
While not the optimal way to fund needed city services, it has become a convenient strategy for cities as a way to avoid the two-thirds approval requirements for raising the property tax under Prop. 13 or passing a bond measure.
Vote "yes" on Measure B.
Measure C: Yes on updates to utility tax
Palo Alto currently generates about 7 percent of its general-fund revenue, or some $11 million, from the 5 percent utility tax that was approved by voters in 1987.
Measure C updates the ordinance by broadening the portion of the tax targeting landline telephone bills to reflect all forms of telephone communication services, including cell phones, "voice over internet protocol" and other technologies that enable point-to-point communications.
The change is intended to be revenue neutral, and includes a reduction in the telecommunications tax rate from 5 percent to 4.75 percent and the elimination of some discounts for large volume utility users that were part of the original utility-tax measure.
The only opposition are taxpayer advocacy groups and the Libertarian Party.
Most other cities with a utility tax have already updated its provisions for today's communication technologies. Vote "yes" on Measure C.
Re-elect Brian Schmidt to water district
It is unusual, if not unprecedented, for a candidate running for a seat on the nine-member board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District to spend several hundred thousand dollars to get elected.
But that is what's happening in entrepreneur Gary Kremen's bid to unseat incumbent Brian Schmidt to represent Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Gatos in District 7.
Kremen, who is politically connected and himself a major campaign donor to many local elected officials and the Democratic party, has loaned his own campaign $250,000 through the end of September and already spent more than $300,000.
This high-powered politics is new territory for incumbent Schmidt, who has raised just $13,000 and has been completely blind-sided by Kremen's high-spending bid.
Kremen has come out aggressively against Schmidt and says he will take that same approach if elected in dealing with the operation of the water district. Every meeting of the district board will be a "job interview" for the agency's CEO, Kremen promises, just like the private sector.
He has a litany of criticisms of Schmidt and the district, including not focusing enough attention on the drought, not doing enough to pressure the Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency, to approve badly needed flood-control measures for San Francisquito Creek, and not undertaking needed seismic upgrades to the county's reservoirs. He also objects to the fact that revenues from a state water tax aren't being fairly distributed throughout the district.
Kremen, who is the founder of Match.com, is currently board president of the 6,400-customer Purissima Hills Water District in Los Altos Hills and founder and chairman of WaterSmart Software, a company that sells consumption monitoring software to retail water suppliers. The software produces reports that tell consumers how their water use compares with similar households and offers conservation suggestions. He has also started a solar energy financing company.
Schmidt, who ran four years ago as a reform candidate critical of district management, is an environmental lawyer who has spent 15 years working on environmental and water issues, in part as the former legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills. He rejects Kremen's criticisms and says he's been part of a board majority that hired a new CEO, lowered director pay and established more transparency by moving board meetings to the evenings. He points to the work he has done on flood protection and habitat restoration, and especially to help forge broad support for the San Francisquito Creek flood-control work and fighting for its passage in front of the water board.
With Palo Alto's water supply coming entirely from Hetch Hetchy through the San Francisco Water Department, the Santa Clara Valley Water District's importance to the city is primarily in the flood control and creek habitat work where Schmidt has been most active.
Mild-mannered and earnest, Schmidt provides a sharp contrast to free-wheeling entrepreneur and political activist Kremen. Both have the smarts and technical knowledge and interest to serve the district well, but with drastically different styles.
Kremen would shake things up and bring politics much more into play, perhaps for the good. But we object to the excessive amount of money he is spending and don't believe Schmidt has done anything to warrant kicking him out of office. He's been a hard-working and committed board member, doing a more than satisfactory job at representing north county's interests. He just happens to be the one in the way of Kremen's political ambitions.
We recommend re-electing Brian Schmidt to the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors.
Our earlier election recommendations
Palo Alto City Council (See editorial published Oct. 10.)
Karen Holman (incumbent)
Greg Scharff (incumbent)
Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education (See editorial published Oct. 3.)