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.