Editorial: Unraveling the Palo Alto election results

The voters have spoken, but what have they said?

In the wake of national election results that have triggered widespread anxiety about the implications for the future of the country, the outcome of our local elections seems small in importance.

But we can't let the results of the Palo Alto City Council and school board races stand without comment, as the impacts of this election are not without significance.

It would be easy -- but a mistake, we believe -- to interpret the outcome of the City Council election as some kind of important shift in voter attitudes on growth. To do so requires believing that distorted, black-and-white accusations that opposing candidates (or their supporters) made about one another are true; that candidates intentionally misled voters in describing their actual positions; and that the newly elected council members will act contrary to their more nuanced campaign statements when sworn in.

It also assumes that the three newcomers, Greg Tanaka, Adrian Fine and Lydia Kou, are beholden to certain interests in the community rather than to crafting solutions through understanding, negotiation and compromise.

To the community's detriment, the eight leading contenders in the election formed into two competing camps that baited voters to pick a side. It positioned the race as less about the individual qualities, viewpoints and expertise of the candidates and sought to oversimplify the choices for the purpose of electing a dominating majority of loosely aligned viewpoints.

In effect, the slates enabled the less well-known and less experienced candidates to hitch themselves to those with more widespread political support in hopes of riding their coattails. It should surprise no one that the only incumbent in the race, Liz Kniss, was easily the top vote-getter. She has successfully represented the city for two earlier terms on the City Council, two terms on the Board of Supervisors and for another term on the council, and she has a loyal and extensive group of supporters who ran a predictably effective campaign.

The three candidates who aligned themselves with Kniss -- Tanaka, Fine and Don McDougall -- successfully tapped into Kniss' north Palo Alto establishment base and waged a joint advertising campaign unlike anything seen in modern Palo Alto politics.

The group and its allies also pressured the county Democratic party to endorse it and successfully made housing a central issue in the campaign and falsely painted its opponents as anti-housing.

By contrast, the other group, consisting of Kou, Arthur Keller, Greer Stone and Stewart Carl, failed to craft a cohesive campaign message beyond broad-brush exaggerations of the positions of the Kniss slate on development issues. Instead of running a campaign that took credit for changing the balance of power on the council in the 2014 election and successfully achieving widely supported limits to new commercial development and new measures to address parking and traffic, this group chose to paint their opponents as being in the pocket of developers and in support of a return to overly permissive development policies. In was an overreach that backfired.

The assumed result will be a modest shift from a 4-4 split on the council, with a swing vote (Pat Burt), to a 5-4 split tilting back toward the city's political "establishment." But with such politically inexperienced newcomers, the outcome of key issues cannot be predicted and will be highly influenced by community opinion. With all the winners on-the-record expressing the need for continued constraint on new commercial development and a focus on innovative housing to serve lower income residents, we hope for few 5-4 votes and for more actions that meet with widespread community support.

By contrast, the Palo Alto school board election left nothing to the imagination. For the first time in decades, an incumbent seeking re-election was defeated and another finished in third place behind two first-time challengers (Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins) -- an unprecedented rebuke.

Heidi Emberling, who has served one term, will step down after narrowly losing the third place slot to Melissa Baten Caswell, who chose to go against long-standing tradition and seek a third term.

To underscore voter unhappiness with the performance of the board, almost 6,000 votes were cast for Srinivasan Subramanian, who withdrew from the race only days after having declared but too late to be removed from the ballot. He ran no campaign.

It is impossible to know how much voters were reacting to the recent budget mistakes and the controversial approval of three-year union contracts and administrator pay raises, or if they were expressing a broader discontent with the board's handling of numerous other problems and controversies, but they left no doubt about their desire for new and better leadership.

In this year of political turbulence and angst at both the national and local level, we should be grateful for those who have committed the time and energy to serve in such a challenging climate. Holding public office is not easy in Palo Alto and every candidate steps forward with the best of intentions. We don't always agree with the processes or the results, but we thank them for the sacrifices they make to serve.


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7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2016 at 8:52 am

One influence missed here is the weight of community leaders like Bob Moss. In the last election, Greg Scharff used a supportive quote and photo of Moss heavily in his advertising and it was highly effective (even though Moss did not actually endorse him). I think that gave Scharff credibility in his about face of beliefs for the election.

For this election, Moss did have a sign for Kniss in his front yard and did not have positive things to say about Arthur Keller. I think given the neighborhood by neighborhood results, it's very likely Moss's opinions had a significant impact on the final result. He is known by all sides and has a long history of intelligent contribution to our town.

14 people like this
Posted by Self-serving Liz
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2016 at 8:59 am

Liz Kniss constantly talks about wanting gender diversity on Council and even said she asked 35 women to see if they would run, I now know why they didn't.

Liz Kniss, instead of aligning herself with Lydia Kou and Danielle Martell, chose to run with a bunch of men. Why?

You could say their positions are not aligned, but, Liz Kniss changes positions with the wind. Wasn't she all what the residents want the residents get before the elections and during campaigning. It will be interesting to see what she does now.

But back to gender diversity, Liz Kniss is not about helping women, it is only about what she can get for herself. She wants to be Mayor again and having puppets serves her purposes.

4 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2016 at 9:04 am

Just to point out something that has come up before. There seems to be an almost direct ideological equivalence with this new Council versus the members being replaced. I think what is notable is just how similar the Council will be.

Schmid => Kou
Burt => Tanaka
Kniss => Kniss
Berman => Fine

The generalizations don't really work, either, except maybe in Fine's case (I remain open to have my mind changed but am not holding my breath given Fine's rhetoric). Tanaka was the only City leader to speak frankly about Maybell and vote against the plan, earning him an immense following by neighbors who felt absolutely smeared and attacked during that political season and later. The fact that Tanaka and Kou can overcome those attacks and gain election without controversy is a good sign for our community getting beyond the wrong political attacks in that election, too.

Well, that or whatever happened last time when the IT head at the registrar disappeared the day of the election with a harddrive involved in counting never got worked out LOL.

4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 18, 2016 at 11:38 am

There is an overall discontent with the high growth group in the overall bay area communities. In Cupertino they voted down the Sandhill Group rebuild of the Vallco Shopping Center. Overall there is a realization that we can only sustain a measureable amount of growth given the amount of transportation, land, water, and support activities required. Another thought here is that the tax base of any city is not enhanced by developer built housing. Especially if by a non-profit organization. Recognize that non-profits and foundations have a role in the community but housing is not one of them. A section in San Francisco is rejecting a homeless housing venture as inappropriate for the area in question being proposed by a church group.
We need to sort out who is proposing any housing development and what the resulting tax base is in order to support the services required for the housing.

7 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 18, 2016 at 11:54 am

Well done. The editorial conveys my thoughts almost identically. I'm not a slate minded/addicted person and try to do research on all the individual candidates...what they say and positions taken. I was privileged to meet the Liz Kniss team at a private gathering hosted by good friends. All of them impressed me. I saw no signs of them being monsters wanting uncontrolled growth in all areas, commercial and housing. I think PASZ pushed too hard on that.

I'm looking forward, optimistically, to the coming years as being very productive ones, and truth be known, the opposing slates were really more in agreement than they portrayed and what all the nasty online commenters and posters portrayed.

And as far as Adrian Fine's rhetoric goes? Get over it. He is not a threat to anyone. Remember Trump's rhetoric that got him elected? He's now backing way off on that because he knows what it takes to be an effective President. I'm fine with Fine.

18 people like this
Posted by live and let live
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2016 at 1:00 pm

On the school board front, this is just a reflection of what happened at the national level where voters felt disenfranchised by the board, district and a superintendent that doesn't even try to acknowledge parent's concerns.

When faced with that, change, no matter how risky, can't be any worse than what they are currently experiencing with the status quo.

9 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Sounds like we should have voted Sandhill Properties out of Palo Alto, just as Cupertino did!

There is still time to do it and have a special election!

2 people like this
Posted by Naive citizen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2016 at 5:03 pm

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of University South
on Nov 18, 2016 at 5:15 pm

Sorry, have to disagree. This wasn't a vote for "excessive growth" by any means, but it was a vote against residentialism.

The residentialist bloc in the current Council has taken a host of extreme positions in the last two years, and it finally caught up with them. Dozens of volunteers turned out to canvass for these candidates and the vision of an inclusive Palo Alto that they shared.

It's no surprise for the Weekly to interpret the results this way, as it indicates they don't need to rethink their opposition to market-rate housing or even to affordable housing at Maybell. But the rest of Palo Alto has rethought.

6 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2016 at 5:17 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "The three candidates who aligned themselves with Kniss ... and waged a joint advertising campaign unlike anything seen in modern Palo Alto politics. // The group and its allies also pressured the county Democratic party to endorse it and successfully made housing a central issue in the campaign and falsely painted its opponents as anti-housing."

This misses the extensive and very successful negative campaign in social media (including email) by the leadership of Palo Alto Forward and related others. This began well before the Council campaign ramped up. The vitriol and outright venom of this operation was notable, as was the participation in it by a significant faction of the local Democratic Party establishment, and acquiescence of the office holders and larger party apparatus. One of the very negative lessons of this Council campaign is that such negative campaigning will be largely ignored by the press. A related lesson is that valid critiques of other candidates by the candidates will be condemned as "negative campaigning" (actually only some candidates will be so condemned; others get a free pass). Since critiques and attacks are going to happen, the lesson is to have it done by unaccountable surrogates and to do it in places that the newspapers don't cover. Since candidates have limited ability to counter falsehoods (advertising is very expensive), lying about candidates by such operations is a low-risk-high-reward tactic. In other words, the choices by the Weekly (and other papers) are implicitly encouraging "fake news" operations.

Like this comment
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 18, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Congratulations Winners.

We have a great city council with new additions of Lydia, Greg and Adrian.

Lets get a mayor that can lead us. Karen Holman did a great job in 2015. She will be a superb choice.

Lets make Palo Alto the best place to live in California and USA.


13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 18, 2016 at 5:33 pm

The thing that surprised and discouraged me the most was the active participation of the local Democratic Party in an explicitly non-partisan election. I expect all the candidates were Democrats, and Keller at least had been active in local party efforts in the past. So for the Party to actively take sides, and support a slate (not even individual candidates), spoke volumes to me. This is a turn toward factions and partisanship, and away from good local government.

8 people like this
Posted by Darwin
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2016 at 5:35 pm


I find your remarks to be sexist and ignorant. Why should anyone align themselves with their own gender or race simply because of they are of that gender or race? What's you've basically stated is that all women should vote as a hive mind regardless of issues.

6 people like this
Posted by Pro-housing
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 18, 2016 at 6:27 pm

It seems quite possible that housing concerns did play a factor, given that housing affordability was the top concern of recent polls of Palo Alto residents.

Also, it is possible that residents who are concerned about housing would be concerned about strategies to strictly limit growth, since adding housing supply is an important strategy to mitigate price increases across the region. Even though any one jurisdiction alone cannot solve the regional supply problem, it will take efforts in multiple jurisdictions, and voters may have wanted Palo Alto to contribute some of its share.

Lastly, it seems possible that voters concerned about housing would be less positively disposed toward the Kou campaign since the candidate had helped lead the opposition against the Maybell project. While opponents argued that opposition to Maybell was about everything other than affordable housing, the effect was to kill a 60-unit affordable senior housing project.

9 people like this
Posted by 6djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 18, 2016 at 6:48 pm

I don't want to have to explain the defeat of the Maybell project again, but it looks like I will have to since "Pro-Housing", like several others, have not looked into the details of Maybell and may not want to. The senior housing proposed on Maybell was on the narrowest section of an already narrow street that hundreds of kids use going to and from three schools. I avoid that street already because traffic is at a crawl when it is choked with hundreds of bicycles in the street. It simply wasn't a good place to put 60 units and the associated cars. The neighborhood proposed compromises with fewer housing units but the City Council simply wouldn't listen. The only reasonable action then was to defeat the original, impractical plan.

13 people like this
Posted by Density increases cost
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2016 at 7:48 pm

Adding to the housing supply in a city like Palo Alto (that is, a built out city with inherent value and with a housing demand an order of magnitude bigger than its current supply) will increase, not decrease the cost of housing in Palo Alto, That's because new housing costs more than old, and dense housing increases the utility of property (thus increasing its cost).

At the same time, building new housing will not eat into the effectively infinite demand enough to impact prices.

3 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 18, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@Naive citizen
No, nobody has pointed that out and I think there's a reason for that.

6 people like this
Posted by Nate
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 18, 2016 at 11:41 pm

The specter of a Trump victory and Hillary's faltering campaign brought a tidal wave of angry Hillary supporters to the polls in Palo Alto. In a backlash against an impending Trump victory they voted for the candidates most aligned with the party machine, and they voted female, with little regard for local issues.

2 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2016 at 12:13 pm

@Pro Housing,
If the supporters of the exact plan at Maybell were so interested in the housing, they should have compromised to make the housing the priority, like the project at 801 Alma did. At the same time as the Maybell debates were raging, there were 20 units of nice housing for seniors in an actual senior facility, with age-in-place provisions, that went empty for YEARS. (if you are so pro housing, where were you to make sure those got filled? It just took a rule change and understanding the actual needs of seniors here.) The developers wanted to ignore the impacts on safety, the neighborhood, zoning, traffic, etc, on the premise that any housing was so important. But they apparently did not think it was so important that they would work with neighbors on a different plan. That neighborhood, with some of the same people, was able to do that when a developer wanted to take over the school at Terman, but they saved the school and got even more low-income housing built. In the past, neighbors also rebuffed a private school from going on the Maybell property, for many of the same reasons, yet are working with a private school on its expansion plans just a block or so away on Arastradero.

It's really disingenuous for the prodevelopment faction to say they are for "inclusion" when their policies drive out existing low-income residents and strain more diverse neighborhoods. The rhetoric is just more of the same like at Maybell: sugar-coated anti-neighborhood, developer-centric. [Portion removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 19, 2016 at 2:59 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

"got even more low-income housing built"

If I'm not mistaken, the original PAHC affordable housing proposal was for about 124 units. Units realized through the Working Group process: 92. Eighty-two of them with HUD Section 8 financing and 10 more with other financing. Per city Housing Element, the earliest conversion (to market rate) date, is 10/24.

"20 units of nice housing for seniors"

Twenty unsold BMR units at Moldaw due to Moldaw's marketing failure has nothing to do with the demand for and utility of 60 units of low-income senior housing at Maybell.

"they should have compromised to make the housing the priority, like the project at 801 Alma did"

The kind of financing that made 801 Alma happen, after neighborhood concerns were raised, was not available at Maybell.

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2016 at 1:02 am

Jerry Underdal,
If the City Council - who knew Buena Vista was on the chopping block - had not committed all the money in the affordable housing fund to help purchase the Maybell property then, the $15 million in City and County funds available to help at BV now could have done far more good at BV when land value was less and the residents rustled up $14.5 million of their own. You also seem to forget that it was Measure D that made the developers rethink BV because the neighborhood had shown they could win a land use referendum. (There was a missed opportunity there to get all that civic action working for BV.) That same money is what is there to help at BV now. [Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2016 at 1:26 am

The twenty Below Market Rate units at Moldaw that went unsold for years had everything to do with Maybell. What was being proposed at Maybell had serious safety problems, was four times the zoning, was under-parked, among much else. The affordable housing was scrunched onto a small side while a zone-busting for-profit development took most of the property, simply because the City refused to make the necessary investment, in fact, no one wanted to make even half the per unit investment that had been made at 801 Alma. There were a hundred ways affordable housing could have been built from that, but proponents refused to do anything but that exact plan! On that exact schedule. Residents said publicly many times that they did not want to have to fight that plan, they wanted to work out something, including that they asked for a working group as at Terman.

When I pointed out that there was more affordable housing at Terman, it was to point out that there was more, larger, family affordable housing at Terman than was being proposed at Maybell. Just a few blocks away, in the same neighborhood. Some of the same people leading in the Maybell referendum led in the Terman Working Group, so there was real precedent to show the success possible if they had been allowed to do the same at Maybell, as they requested. The point being, the constant caustic whining and blaming of neighbors that never dies, the denigrating (nimby, etc) rather than working with people, bears a great deal of responsibility, and proponents never take responsibility for the essential role of their tactics in the outcome. That is clear since some of the very same people, in the same neighborhood, worked out a large complex of affordable housing and saved the school in a nearly identical development battle. It is clear since some of the same neighbors kept a school from going in at Maybell but are working together with a school expanding just a few blocks away at a more appropriate site on Arastradero.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of your statement about what had been planned at Terman. What I can say is that if not for the Terman Working Group, there would be no neighborhood Terman Middle School today, the school site would be gone, and both already-crowded JLS and Jordan would be 400 students larger each. The school was saved, and more affordable housing than at Maybell was seen into being by some of the very same people who opposed the Maybell rezoning and asked for a similar working group. A working group at Maybell could similarly have saved the orchard and affordable housing, just not originally as planned (perhaps better without 2/3 of the property going to for-profit development, or incorporating other sites nearby.) The neighbors, for example, got the City to put their electrical substation near El Camino, rather than where Briones Park is currently, across from the school. Huge win for Palo Alto. The reason they weren't granted a working group at Maybell came back to the unrealistic deadlines for that exact plan and grant proposal, not because it wasn't eminently possible.

4 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2016 at 1:27 am

All the problems were all handwaved away at Maybell by proponents because of the "need". Yet here was Moldaw with real housing for seniors, going empty for years. If the need for local seniors were so acute, and people cared so much, a subsidy program to invest in the downpayment would have cost a fraction of the public money spent at Maybell for the land. Forty low-income seniors could have been housed immediately, for less money.

The Moldaw units, which were large and could have housed up to 40 seniors, were built for low-income Palo Alto seniors, but no one wanted them. It turned out, not because they cost too much, but rather, because low-income local seniors who wanted to live there had too much in assets. The units went empty for years because no one bothered to examine the demand for those units, despite hammering neighbors at Maybell relentlessly about the demand.

Which is odd because it wasn't the first time BMR units went empty in Palo Alto. The same concern was the case at Maybell. Significant concerns were expressed about whether the units as proposed would meet the need in Palo Alto. If the units were to attract people from outside of Palo Alto, it would have been better to build twice as many units in those places, since the nonprofit developer was a regional provider.

The attitude at Moldaw had been, if we build it, they will come. The proposal at Maybell was not a senior center, it was just housing with an age restriction and some troubling implications to what the residents would do when they became frail and had to leave. The developers at Maybell countered concerns like unresolved safety problems, not with safety analyses, but with empty promises and no data. They never did a market/demand analysis at Maybell even though the law requires it to apply for grants, just as at Moldaw. At Maybell, the facility design followed the funding scheme, not from an analysis of need. If the City had been serious, it would have worked with the neighborhood to come up with an acceptable alternative to fill a need, such as single family housing for disabled community members, something we desperately need in this town that allows virtually all new housing to be built to shut out the disabled. Wheh neighbors got involved initially, they were ready to even work on raising money. Very sad that they instead were forced to just oppose a bad plan.

The financing scheme at Maybell was to sell off the zoning of the neighborhood - not the profit from houses,which would have been far greater, just the zoning - in order to represent that money as community investment in the grant application. If the City Council had been so concerned about that housing, they were capable of making that investment themselves, including from the Stanford funds. The Council and proponents were always capable of changing what happened, including investing enough funding to allow a lower density proposal, with all of the housing low-income rather than two-thirds of the proposal being a for-profit development. The Council were also capable of purchasing the land noncompetitively after Measure D, to allow other proposals or even other nonprofit developers to provide affordable housing there, but of course, no one was interested because proponents had made them all believe that the neighborhood was just nimbys rather than people who had resolved an almost identical issue in the same neighborhood for the benefit of the community (the saved school) and affordable housing.

3 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2016 at 1:33 am

[Post removed.]

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

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