The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday jumped into the city's politically charged debate about office development when it issued a statement characterizing some candidates for the City Council as “anti-business” and others as worthy of support.
The statement, which was emailed to the Chamber's members, also alleges that Mayor Pat Burt has called for a “ban on tech workers” and expresses concerns about “a slate of candidates who have vowed to pass strict, anti-business measures which could jeopardize your success.”
Though the Chamber's statement doesn't name the candidates in the “slate,” it does single out four candidates whom readers should consider supporting: Liz Kniss, Adrian Fine, Don McDougall and Greg Tanaka. The four have recently been endorsed by the Democratic Party and are generally seen as being more amenable to growth than the slow-growth “residentialists” in the race.
The latter category includes Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou and Stewart Carl. All have received endorsements from some or all of the council's slow-growth members: Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid. Carl has proposed a moratorium on office development and, along with Kou, expressed skepticism about the city's proposed transportation-demand-management programs as a way to combat traffic.
Keller, a former planning commissioner with a long history of challenging developers, has proposed imposing traffic-reducing requirements on Stanford Research Park in order to avoid it being subject to an office cap.
Another candidate, Greer Stone, has proposed that downtown space be made available to employers with 50 or fewer employees, as part of an effort to preserve the city's status as an incubator of startups.
The Chamber's letter calls the upcoming election, in which 11 candidates are vying for four seats, as one that may “impact your business for decades to come!”
“The upcoming Palo Alto City Council election is a critical election for anyone doing business in Palo Alto,” the letter states. “Of some concern is a slate of candidates who ... are calling for strict regulations on business, from how many people can work in an office, to what kind of work they can do in an office, to requiring a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for every change in the use of a commercial rental space.”
The Chamber also alleges in its letter that the current mayor has “called for a ban on high tech workers in the downtown district” and that some candidates, if elected, “could create a majority on the council to pass such a ban.”
“Such a prohibition would mean businesses with employees who support our local businesses and economy might leave Palo Alto to other cities that would be happy to welcome them," the letters states.
While it's not unusual for the Chamber to take positions on local issues (the nonprofit opposed the city's failed effort in 2009 to establish a business-license tax and raised concerns about another planned business tax earlier this year), it has traditionally stopped short of publicly endorsing candidates. That seemingly changed this week, though the Chamber also indicated in the statement that its preference for the four candidates is actually not an “endorsement.”
“While the Chamber of Commerce does not endorse candidates, we do think there are several smart people running who have a more balanced approach and a stronger appreciation of the way business works, and who would work to protect and promote local commercial enterprise, big and small, from over-regulation,” the statement said.
“Check out the following candidates whom we think you might want to support. Then consider volunteering to make phone calls, talk to your customers, put a campaign sign in your window, notify your employees who vote in Palo Alto, and consider making a contribution to those candidates who have a more reasonable and measured approach to dealing with our housing, traffic and parking problems.”
When asked about the Chamber's decision to support four candidates, Chamber CEO Judy Kleinberg emphasized that the statement was not, in a legal sense, an endorsement of the candidates. Kleinberg said the Chamber's bylaws don't allow endorsements.
“Legally, we are not endorsing anybody,” said Kleinberg, a former Palo Alto mayor herself.
The Chamber's bylaws, however, allow the group to do “anything up to that point,” Kleinberg said. This includes speaking out on issues and matters that are happening in the community, she said.
She also noted that it's the Chamber mission to “advocate for business interests so businesses are in a place to thrive and do well.”
“We have felt over the last couple of years that the forces in the community that are not helping businesses thrive but are basically putting businesses in jeopardy have been more prominent,” Kleinberg said. “Consequently, with this election, there are many candidates who we think have a more balanced approach to sustainable business growth and to the kinds of issues that would help businesses continue to prosper.”
When asked about the allegations of an anti-business “slate,” Kleinberg pointed to the fact that two candidates appear to have coordinated their campaigns. For evidence, she pointed to the fact that the campaigns of Arthur Keller and Lydia Kou are both managed by Pat Markevitch, former parks and recreation commissioner.
The statement provoked a sharp rebuke from Burt, who called it “as vitriolic and divisive as anything I've seen in the community in a couple of years.” He disputed the Chamber's characterization of his position on downtown's tech firms; rejected the nonprofit's assertion that there a “slate” of anti-business candidates on the ballot; and dismissed the notion that the Chamber did not “endorse” the four candidates it singled out in its statement.
“It's clear to any reader that it is in fact is an endorsement,” Burt said.
Burt called the Chamber's take on his position on downtown tech firms “fundamentally wrong.” He has publicly said in the past that he does not believe the downtown zoning code, under “literal reading,” allows research-and-development use such as coding firms. Burt said his aim is to upgrade the zoning code downtown so that it would, for the first time, allow high-tech workers.
“The real distinction is that our zoning was designed so that big tech companies are in Stanford Research Park and downtown is a general business area,” Burt said.
“Downtown developed into being a startup environment of business support services and smaller finance companies supporting tech, along with tech startups.
“These days, a couple of very large companies downtown have been squeezing out almost all the startup businesses in the ecosystem, and we've heard countless stories from businesses that were part of the ecosystem that have been squeezed out.”
Burt said the goal is to have downtown serve as a startup-incubator environment, rather than being “essentially a technology park for one or two.”
But Kleinberg pointed to the various comments Burt has made in recent months in interviews with national publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He told the Times that big tech companies are “choking off downtown” and he told the Journal that too many jobs are threatening to make the community less attractive.
“The mayor has been quoted in everything from the Wall Street Journal to local newspapers as saying he believes big, high-tech businesses don't belong downtown and the way to get them out is to ban that kind of business code,” Kleinberg said.
The Weekly has created a Storify page for its coverage on the Palo Alto City Council election.