Unusual opportunities exist this fall for qualified and motivated newcomers to seek and win seats on the Palo Alto City Council and the Board of Education, and now is the time for them to step forward.
Four City Council seats will be open, with two of those belonging to incumbents (Pat Burt and Greg Schmid) who have served eight years each and cannot seek re-election due to term limits. The third, first-term Councilman Marc Berman, is running for state Assembly and can only run for council if he is not one of the two top vote-getters in the Assembly primary in June. That leaves Liz Kniss, who is completing her first four-year term (of a second stint on the council), as possibly the only incumbent in the race.
This year's council election is also important because in two years only three seats will be on the ballot due to the 2014 voter approval of a reduction in the council size from nine to seven. That creates the probability that there will be three incumbents (DuBois, Filseth and Wohlbach) running for the three seats in 2018 and a much more limited opportunity for new candidates.
The openings this year therefore give newcomers just the kind of opportunity that term limits were intended to create -- a chance to run without having to defeat an incumbent.
With the shift in the council majority after the November 2014 election having put slow-growth "residentialists" in control by a shaky 5-4 margin, the outcome of this year's election could maintain or solidify the current political split or swing the council back to a more development-sympathetic majority, which provides both camps strong incentives for fielding good candidates and setting the stage for important policy debates.
The school board election is made more complicated by the absence of term limits. Three of the five seats are on the November ballot, but thus far only one incumbent, Camille Townsend, has announced that she will not be running for what would have been a fourth term.
Melissa Baten Caswell, finishing up her second term and ninth year on the board, has said she hasn't yet made up her mind, while first-term trustee Heidi Emberling has told supporters she intends to run for re-election but has yet to make a public announcement.
Townsend did the public and the schools a big disservice in 2012 when she became the first school board member in at least 40 years to ignore the long-standing tradition of stepping aside after two terms. We hope Baten Caswell doesn't make the same mistake by attempting to stretch her tenure to 13 years. Merely considering seeking a third term has a chilling effect on those considering running, the opposite of what is best for the community.
Turnover on elected local public bodies is the lifeblood of democracy. It is what fuels new ideas, opens up access to underrepresented segments of the community and prevents administrators from becoming too close to the officials to whom they report.
It is a common impulse for an elected official with eight years of service to believe his or her experience and historical knowledge is essential to the body and more valuable than the perspectives of a new member coming in green. Yet in the 25 years of term-limit experience on the City Council, during which many popular and outstanding council members left after serving eight years, no one can seriously look back and argue that the city wasn't stronger for the turnover and resulting diversity of talent and viewpoints.
Former Palo Alto school board trustee Don Way tried unsuccessfully in 1997 to persuade his colleagues to put a term-limit measure on the ballot to ensure predictability of incumbent retirement and not leave it to chance that future trustees would voluntarily conform to the traditional two-term maximum. His colleagues at the time, Susie Richardson, Amado Padillo, Julie Jerome and John Tuomy, didn't see the need for it, and the proposal was quickly forgotten since no one until Townsend had failed to adhere to the voluntary practice of relinquishing their seat after two terms. It may be time to revisit the issue.
The harsh reality is that incumbency, absent malfeasance in office or major controversy, is worth at least 10 to 15 percentage points in a local election, forcing interested challengers to start behind before the campaign even begins. Without term limits, and especially in a community as rich with talent as Palo Alto, this advantage undermines the desirable rotation of our representatives and creates no predictability of opportunity.
As but one example, two years ago, when school board incumbents Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom chose not to seek third terms, an outstanding field of four candidates vied for the two open seats and engaged in important discussions on many difficult and complex policy issues.
In the Palo Alto community there are many highly engaged citizens who have talents and experience to bring to either the council or the school board. We hope Baten Caswell follows the long-standing tradition of stepping aside after two terms and that the open seats in both local races draw strong fields and give voters real choices about the direction of the city and school district.
The editorial was edited to correct an error in the number of potential City Council incumbents that could run in 2018 (3 instead of 4.)