Editorial: Let the campaigns begin

Hotly contested city and school elections await Palo Alto voters

Buckle your seatbelts. This fall's Palo Alto City Council and school board races are likely to be among the most substantive and consequential political races in recent history.

With the candidate fields now settled after Wednesday's filing deadline, it is clear that both races will feature unusually intense debate over the performance of each body and on controversial and emotional policy and governance issues that elude consensus.

The behavior of the candidates and their supporters will determine if the campaigns will be dominated by intelligent and respectful debate over these issues or by polarizing mudslinging, whisper campaigns and simplistic platitudes.

By fluke of term limits and political ambitions, the City Council race will have just a single incumbent, Liz Kniss, running for re-election and defending a voting record. Mayor Pat Burt and Councilman Greg Schmid are termed out after serving nine years and Councilman Marc Berman is running for state Assembly. That means that at least three and possibly four challengers will be elected to the council and will join three (Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach) who were just elected two years ago. (The other council members are six-year veterans Greg Scharff and Karen Holman.)

In the diverse field of 10 are Lydia Kou, who was edged out for a seat by just 135 votes by Wolbach two years ago, three current or former planning commissioners (Adrian Fine, Arthur Keller and Greg Tanaka), a Library Advisory Commissioner (Don McDougall), a Human Relations Commissioner (Greer Stone), an airplane-noise activist (Stewart Carl), a commercial real-estate broker and community volunteer (Leonard Ely III) and two who have run previously and finished near the bottom of the field (John Fredrich and Danielle Martell).

The council race promises a robust debate over the direction of the city at a time of continuing community concern over the amount of development -- and the traffic and housing problems it has helped to create. The regional housing crisis, which is being made even more acute by the office developments that Peninsula cities have approved in the last few years, will be front and center in the campaign, and there will be much talk about the need to build more and higher density housing.

If the community's sharply divided response to the resignation letter last week by Planning Commissioner Kate Downing is any indication, there is a lot of confusion and disagreement about what governmental actions can slow or reverse the current housing-affordability situation. The more than 300 comments on Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum suggest that this topic will be a dominant one in the upcoming campaign. While there is an absence of historical perspective and thoughtful reasoning in Downing's chastising statement, she articulates a frustration many feel -- that Palo Alto and the region are becoming more and more exclusive and increasingly unaffordable to any but the wealthiest.

Candidates will need to stake out clear positions on whether and how Palo Alto can have any meaningful impact on the problem and how to address a transportation infrastructure that is inadequate even under present conditions.

Meanwhile, in the race for Palo Alto Board of Education, three of the five seats are open, and two incumbents are seeking re-election -- Melissa Baten Caswell and current President Heidi Emberling. They will have to defend a board with a controversial track record over the last five years.

Emberling is seeking her second term, while Caswell, first elected in 2007, is running for a third term after serving for nine years (due to the change from odd-year elections to even-year elections). On a board with no term limits, Baten Caswell is only the second incumbent in more than 40 years to run for a third term, following retiring trustee Camille Townsend, who is stepping down.

The incumbents will face scrutiny over the district's financial management; the handling of school capacity, class sizes and curriculum changes; student stress-reduction strategies and attention to student voice; the Office for Civil Rights and internal sexual harassment investigations; criticisms of the special-education program; and the performance of Superintendent Max McGee during his first two years, among many other issues.

Four challengers are taking on the incumbents: private investor and school volunteer Todd Collins, educator Jennifer DiBrienza, Cisco engineer Srinivasan Subramanian, and Jay Cabrera, a Gunn High School graduate who came in last with under 3 percent of the vote in the 2014 school board race.

There is a lot at stake in both local elections, and with the presidential race on the ballot, there is great hope that more voters than ever will tune in to these local races and cast informed ballots. At a time of angst and conflicting community sentiment about the direction we are headed as a city and a school district, we are hopeful that by Election Day the candidates are offering voters clear choices on both policy matters and leadership style.


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23 people like this
Posted by Term limits needed
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2016 at 9:04 am

We have term limits on the City Council, which means that there are opportunities for fresh voices and perspectives to come on the Council. We need them on the School Board. With at least 3 credible candidates even for only 1 open non-incumbent seat, there are probably others who would have come forward had Caswell stepped aside. Even with her role in the excessive raises and the budget shortfall, and the terrible decisions on OCR, she will probably win just because of the incumbent advantage. 2 terms is enough for the School Board and the City Council. The School Board should take up this change NOW.

21 people like this
Posted by Civic Priorities
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2016 at 10:21 am

The Bay area has a water crisis. There is no housing crisis, it has always been unaffordable here and everywhere in the Bay Area.. In some ways it's easier now because interest rates have been artificially low for so long. The crisis is the *displacement* of low-income people because of all the new development, people who face greater pressure from more development, not less.

Places like East Palo Alto which are relatively affordable had to put a moratorium on development until they can get more water. We should be giving them some of our water, and put a moratorium on building until the water crisis truly is solved, not just eased for a year. Residents still have to restrict water usage, and even so, things got pretty perilous before last winter. We should be starting to think about reducing the temporary population of people who come here during the day, by considering in the long term how to convert some if the overbuilt office space into restoring the deficit of retail and civic needs. Apparently people have forgotten the problems of empty office space during the last downturn.

Building more doesn't guarantee the workers will live here, it just guarantees more gridlock, more displacement of lower income people and higher average rents, overstressed infrastructure and resources like water (how many workers are showering at work or at all those day gyms that have displaced retail rather than at home? and why should residents have to conserve more to support that?). Building more only guarantees dangerous unaddressed emergency conditions for residents if an earthquake and fire happen during the work day. And it means we continue to treat the actual crisis, the water crisis, like we can ignore it forever.

PAF has a sibgle inded goal, which is to densify Palo Alto, not think holistically about the community and solving problems. They have talked enough to make it clear that they think building more solves every problem, but it just doesn't follow.

I want to see our civic priorities like basic services, water and the environment, put front and center again, because the building lobby has had its way for far too long. There is a story out right now about how residents have even been subsidizing the approcpval provess for rich developers.

I'm tired of the illogical and slick flimflam pushing development on us when I can no longer even grow a vegetable garden and haven't for years. I will be voting for Kou, but right now nothing is clear about the rest [Portion removed].

10 people like this
Posted by Denial
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Aug 19, 2016 at 10:53 am

@Civic Priorities
"There is no housing crisis,"
Just like there is no climate crisis?

The rest of your comment is an interesting mix of mudslinging & misinformation.

19 people like this
Posted by Moderates needed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2016 at 11:23 am

The housing crisis is real, and Palo Alto has a real opportunity to address it. Just as importantly, we need to move past the divisiveness of Measure D and the fights over affordable housing, and come together to address our housing crisis productively.

We need moderates on the City Council who have demonstrated experience and who can work with others.

I am a fan of Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka as Planning Commissioners. Although each one of them made decisions I didn't agree with, both have demonstrated good instincts and common sense. Adrian Fine in particular has shown a strong interest in reducing traffic while allowing more housing - something that I think all of us in Palo Alto can agree upon.

Liz Kniss has also struck a moderate tone in these last two years, and we are going to need her experience with County and regional government as we try to improve traffic. Traffic is a regional issue, not a local one, and we have to make sure the regional organizations are working for us. This is an issue Kniss has spoken passionately about.

11 people like this
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2016 at 11:29 am

Another thing: although Measure D certainly left a great deal of bitterness and division in its wake, it's proponents were careful to claim that they were not against affordable housing in general - just this affordable housing this time.

I want to look beyond the bitterness of the past. If candidates like Lydia Kuo and Arthur Keller want to win my vote, I'm open to them. I just want to see them propose a positive vision for the future of Palo Alto that shows how they plan to address the housing crisis. And I'd like to see a recognition that the people who are struggling to live in Palo Alto today - many of them renters, many of them people I've known for a long time who have been residents for a long time - are not the entitled whiners that many Palo Alto Online commenters have painted them but real people worth of respect.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2016 at 11:50 am

Which candidate is going to talk to VTA about their poor attitude to Palo Alto? Which candidate is going to attempt to sort out the grade crossings?
Which candidate is concerned about infrastructure?

Without infrastructure improvements, everything else is secondary.

17 people like this
Posted by Holly Ward
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 19, 2016 at 11:53 am

"The behavior of the candidates and their supporters will determine if the campaigns will be dominated by intelligent and respectful debate over these issues or by polarizing mudslinging, whisper campaigns and simplistic platitudes."

YOU can contribute to this by requiring commenters to use their real names. Town Square has devolved to a bunch of shills for one person (or issue) or another promoting their own agenda.

17 people like this
Posted by There's a choice
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2016 at 12:13 pm

This election presents a choice between isolationists (mostly Kou; to some extent Keller) who believe that Palo Alto needs to find a way to pull up the drawbridges, and regionalists (Fine, Tanaka, McDougall, Kniss; maybe others) who believe that Palo Alto is part of a region and needs to work on regional solutions.

Housing is the main flashpoint between these two viewpoints. The isolationist solution to jobs: housing imbalance is to reduce jobs. The regionalist solution is to increase dense housing in transit corridors while investing in transportation.

8 people like this
Posted by Jim Colton
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 19, 2016 at 2:20 pm

Jim Colton is a registered user.

I agree that there's a clear choice. We can densify the city further by continuing to approve new office developments, bring more more employees into Palo Alto and further stress our overstressed infrastructure. Or we can limit office development, improve our infrastructure and address the housing issues that we already have. There are suitable candidates for both approaches.

4 people like this
Posted by City council choices
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 19, 2016 at 2:41 pm

City council campaigns are always dominated by simplistic platitudes. There is really never any real discussion about the issues. The candidates all parrot how wonderful palo alto is. Questioning another candidates view is considered a personal attack. Our campaigns are vanilla.
However the weekly alway presents unbalanced coverage of the issues. Go back and read their on sided articles on buena vista as an example. The weekly hitches their horses that will provide them the most benefit and rides it u til the end.
As for hollys request. That will never happen. Already there are fewer postings on the forum, since Johnson introduced his pay me or else you do not get to read articles policy. So requiring people to use their own names will be the death knell of TSF ( not that that would be a big loss).

6 people like this
Posted by AgreeToModerates
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 19, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I agree we need moderates on the council. Liz Kniss, Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller are my votes so far. All 3 candidates seem to be striking a moderate tone of reasonable growth at a pace the community can absorb.

I disagree that the issue is simply traffic. This is really about the character of Palo Alto - do we need to redevelop and rezone to allow much more density? Or do we live with our primarily single family home city? Radical redevelopment or absolutely no growth is not a moderate position.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2016 at 4:25 pm

Obviously all the PAF candidates and their supporters will position themselves as "Moderates". I bet we hear that word a lot. But after the election they'll go back to the regular PAF agenda.

9 people like this
Posted by John Guislin
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 19, 2016 at 4:31 pm

I am in full agreement with Holly Ward - require commentors to use their real names. Anonymous rants do not serve anyone.

If you lack the courage to make your position known or the skill to defend it, then just keep it to yourself.

6 people like this
Posted by Cate
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Surely no one thinks Palo Alto Forward is moderate - their official position (2015, 5-page letter by steering committee submitted to city council) strongly advocates NO limits on commercial development - a principal driver of the need for more and more housing). PAF is highly pro-development, both commercial and residential which is crazy. Any candidate it supports must in turn support building big, dense and high, subverting any gains to smartly and sensibly add to our housing stock.

The incorruptible Arthur Keller is hardly an isolationist. His notion of a healthy community is expansive, not exclusive. He's been shown to be the smartest guy in the room over and over - his many years on the Planning Commission allowed his to actually learn the intricacies of land use and planning. Just occupying a seat on the Commission doesn't allow one to absorb this by osmosis as much as the other 2 commission candidates want us to believe.

3 people like this
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2016 at 5:55 pm

@Moderates Needed

"Adrian Fine in particular has shown a strong interest in reducing traffic while allowing more housing - something that I think all of us in Palo Alto can agree upon." Really? Sounds a bit like: I have a strong interest in reducing my waist size while allowing myself large pizzas and a pint of ice cream each night.

3 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 20, 2016 at 11:32 am

I wish people and newspapers would stop using meaningless labels such "moderate", "isolationists", or "regionalists". These labels may unnecessary convey negative undertones to the average voter. Instead, let's talk about and inform residents of the positions of these candidates without labels. For incumbent candidates, let's inform the public of their past positions and performances - not their current positions a few months before elections. This type of information would have come very handy in past elections when I foolishly voted for Liz Kniss and Marc Bergman. These two candidates say one thing few months ahead of an election to later recant and vote as they please. I have found them to be quite disinterested and disconnected in many of the City Council meetings. This is another reason labels are so ]meaningless. [Portion removed.}

Like this comment
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 22, 2016 at 2:43 pm

My bet: all of the candidates will speak in favor of more housing if they hope to be elected to CC, have a future in government at higher levels, and a long career in politics. And, if I'm correct, two candidates are renters and will appeal hard to other renters (and they are a sizable number of our residents) for more housing and affordable housing and for their votes. I imagine the thinking is that more housing will cause rents to be lower, either landlords will be forced to lower their current rent rates, or at least won't raise them. Sadly, more housing alone won't cause that to happen because there still won't be the supply needed.

And if current renters think that newly constructed units will be cheaper than where they now live, that probably also won't be the case. New construction is very expensive and builders/developers will charge rates accordingly to maximize their profit. Mortgages on apartments built in the 50's and 60's have already been paid off, and even though they have to be regularly maintained and occasionally upgraded, those costs are much less than new construction.

Just a hypothetical to make my point: When we moved to PA in 1961 we rented a 2 bdrm 1 bath apartment at 3153 Alma for $125/mo. I'm guessing that that apartment is renting for at least $3,500/mo now. Same sized units in new construction projects in the downtown area near the big office developments will probably go for $4,500/mo.

I don't have a solution, but we should all be watching and listening to the candidates very carefully. Don't be taken in by platitudes and simplistic answers/solutions to the problem. Candidates with those kinds of responses will get a quick thumbs down from me. And truth be known, there may be no solution other than to wait for another business cycle (downward) to happen. Then there will be empty offices, lots of 'Apartment For Rent" signs up. Then all those looking for more affordable housing and lower rent rates will be happy...except those out of a job. And home prices will fall when foreign buyers pull out to find better investment opportunities elsewhere.

Maybe I should apologize for a downer sounding post, but it is my response to all the posters who are self proclaimed experts on anything/everything, and especially the housing issue. It was not that many years ago when I'd drive on Alma and see dozens of signs saying 'For Rent', 'Vacancy', 'For Sale'. To think that could never happen again? I was laid off twice during my working career, the last one after working for the company I loved for 27 years and that's when I called it "quits". I just didn't want to go back to school to become a computer scientist, programmer, or coder. It's tough to accept, but it's part of life...highs and and downs. There aren't that many of the young tech workers who have gone thru that, and good for them. And I'm not into labeling them as 'entitled'. They just wonder why they can't have what we have without knowing or wanting to hear about sacrifices we made to get it. That's normal thinking. They are smart and will learn and adapt to life's lessons I'm sure.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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