What kind of city should Palo Alto strive to become?
A cosmopolitan hub of world-disrupting innovators or a leafy community where children play on the streets? Should it become dense enough to support more mass transit and affordable-housing developments or should it fight to retain the pleasant suburban atmosphere that led many residents to move here?
These questions loom over the Nov. 8 election, which is as much a contest between values as it is between the 11 candidates vying for four seats. The stakes are particularly high this time around. In addition to the usual Palo Alto council duties -- setting utility rates, crafting development policies, authorizing bike projects and reviewing citizen appeals -- the new members will also be making several decisions that will linger well beyond their four-year terms. They will, in all likelihood, adopt the updated Comprehensive Plan, the land-use bible that will form the basis for all zoning decisions until 2030. It will also hire a new city manager, with James Keene recently declaring his intention to retire in 2018, when he hits his 10-year mark. It will grapple with complex regional policies, including Caltrain upgrades and housing quotas, while making lasting decisions about local services, whether the size of the new animal shelter or the design of the city's new public-safety building.
Some of the candidates profess to be agents of change, while others promise to protect the city from it. Three -- Stewart Carl, Arthur Keller and Lydia Kou -- adhere toward the latter and are receiving overwhelming support from the "residentialist" side of the city's debate over land use. All three favor, to varying degrees, continuing and potentially expanding an annual cap on new office development.
Greer Stone, the chair of the city's Human Relations Commission, also tilts toward slow-growth policies -- including maintaining the city's 50-foot height limit for new buildings. He believes the city's encouragement of more accessory-dwelling or "granny" units will be doomed without better enforcement of the potential violations. Like others on the residentialist side, he thinks the city should focus its new housing on priced-out teachers, first-responders and the community's most vulnerable residents.
Others candidates -- Adrian Fine, Don McDougall and Greg Tanaka -- favor a less restrictive approach to development and a wider range of housing options. All have the backing of the Democratic Party establishment and of the council's moderate wing. All are calling for new approaches and a robust community conversation to achieve housing solutions, whether it's through neighborhood-specific "area plans" (Fine), a "housing summit" (Tanaka) or good old-fashioned public hearings (McDougall). Fine and Tanaka, as planning commissioners, have both criticized the city's new office cap as too "blunt" a tool. McDougall is open to allowing some office growth, provided new developments meet a set of "sustainability" requirements.
John Fredrich, a retired Gunn High School civics teacher running in his sixth election, proudly stands outside of the political establishment. He solicits no donations or endorsements and likes his democracy with a small "d." He is critical of city leadership, wants to "demote" the Architectural Review Board and believes the council has been negligent in protecting the city from rampant office development.
Liz Kniss, the sole incumbent in the race (the other three seats are being vacated by Mayor Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, who are terming out, and Marc Berman, who is running for state Assembly), is his opposite in just about every respects except election experience. A household name in the regional Democratic Party, the former two-time mayor has more than two decades of public service under her belt and is now running in her 10th and final election.
Rounding out the field are two candidates who have designated themselves as the "outsiders." Real-estate broker Leonard Ely III says he's tired of watching the council study everything to death without producing any real solutions. Danielle Martell, who last ran in 2005, is equally tired of watching the council completely ignore issues she cares about most: the safety of children at Rinconada pool, illegal immigration and the violation of her constitutional rights by city leaders.
This year's election also presents an unusual milestone: It's a swan song for Palo Alto's nine-member council. Thanks to a ballot measure voters passed in 2014, this is the last election in which voters will be electing members to a nine-member council. Starting in 2018, the number of council seats will be reduced to seven and each voice will become slightly louder and potentially more influential.
The candidates, for their part, hardly need to be reminded of what's at stake. Each believes the voters on Nov. 8 will play a critical role in shaping what Palo Alto will look like years from now, and for decades to come.
"This is an election about Palo Alto's future and the type of community we want to raise our children in," Stone said at a recent candidate forum.
No one could disagree.
View profiles of each candidate below, as well as video endorsement interviews the Palo Alto Weekly conducted with each candidate and answers from the candidates on five issues facing the City of Palo Alto.
*Candidate Martell did not participate in the endorsement interview or candidate forums
The Weekly has created a Storify page for its coverage on the Palo Alto City Council election.