Guest Opinion: District council races could halt negative campaigning trend


Our recent City Council election left me wondering if I was living in Palo Alto or in some gritty big city governed by cigar-chomping pols. Last-minute infusions of big money poured in. At least one direct-mail hit piece befouled my mailbox. It even got to the point where the web identity of one organization was hijacked by an opponent.

All of these events were seasoned by some of the most disingenuous statements since the 1942 classic film "Casablanca," in which smilingly corrupt police Capt. Louis Renault declares he is "shocked, shocked" to find gambling at Rick's Café Américain.

I know complaints about money and "truth-in-campaigning" aren't new to Palo Alto politics. But a perfect storm seems to have blown through town this election cycle, and a lot of people are worried about what's going to happen next. It's time to consider some new ways of deciding who gets an office at City Hall.

The fundamental cause of our electoral angst is the election of council members citywide. Under this system each candidate is forced to reach out to about 44,000 voters and rely on self-interested groups to finance expensive, shallow campaigns.

There is a solution: District City Council elections would minimize the kind of nasty campaigning we just endured and better honor Palo Alto's neighborhood-oriented civic personality.

The incoming City Council generally reflects the dominant demographics of Palo Alto: white, educated, professional. The election winners and incumbents appear aware of seminal issues confronting the city, especially growth. But their opinions on how to mold the city's future are broadly drawn and attempt to apply solutions without recognizing the diverse and distinctive needs of our 36 neighborhoods.

For instance, everyone who lives in Palo Alto is concerned about crowded streets and parking shortages. But people living in College Terrace probably see the issue from a perspective separate from those living in Professorville. Rules governing alternative dwelling units are almost undoubtedly perceived differently by those of us living in Barron Park, where residential lots are often larger, than in Downtown North. People in neighborhoods filled with iconic Eichler homes might be deeply concerned about two-story house construction, while many of us in other parts of town have made at least a grudging peace with the notion.

Neighborhood conflicts over how to solve the city's problems can be dismissed as arguments between the "haves" and the "have mores." Even so, that doesn't mean different ideas must be bundled up and labeled with meaningless nouns. District elections would create forums for people, not "ists."

Electing council members by district would give every resident a specific point of contact -- someone who lives nearby and understands how policies will directly affect their everyday lives. A district representative would bring that neighborhood perspective to colleagues and city staff when solutions to citywide concerns are discussed. Not every neighborhood's want and need can be met when setting policy. But district representatives would be more directly accountable to their constituencies and work harder to ensure specific nuances are considered.

Assume the council would stay at nine members. Each would represent about 7,000 residents living in a geographically defined area, rather than all 65,000 people. (With a seven-member council, set to debut in 2018, each would represent about 9,300.) Reaching relevant voters would cost far less than today, so a more economically and ethnically diverse slate of candidates would automatically be fostered. PACs and interest groups could still get involved, but big-money donations would be all too obvious and speak loudly.

With a smaller geographical area to cover, candidates would have a greater opportunity to meet directly with voters. Town hall-type meetings and debates would be more important to campaigning than mailers featuring big smiles and cute puppies. Best of all, voters would be better able to directly take the measure of the people who want to earn their trust.

Some might argue that neighborhood associations already offer at-large council members localized opinions. However, these groups take stands regarded as broadly representative of a neighborhood's residents when in fact they often are those of a dedicated cadre of leaders and a small formal membership. Under a district system, a larger number of people would own direct access to candidates and elected officials, who would be pretty much bound to at least consider their ideas.

There are many questions to answer. How would district lines be drawn? How would the new system be phased in? Would fewer council members, elected by district, achieve the representation of nine chosen at large?

There are any number of good answers to both questions. And there are many good examples of successful transitions. San Francisco switched between district and citywide elections twice in a 20-year period. Vastly larger Seattle created a hybrid system. Many California school districts have made the change to district representation. Given the intellectual and city-staff resources available in Palo Alto, I am sure all concerns can be addressed.

"The Palo Alto Process" of decision making -- even though mocked for its seemingly endless discussion and study -- embodies the desire to consider the greatest number of opinions and ideas. District council elections would show respect for the inclusiveness that is a hallmark of our city. Such a system would expand the diversity of opinions, reduce factionalism and moderate the influence of money in the selection of Palo Alto's leaders.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Writer Bill Bucy has lived in Barron Park since 1987 and can be reached at

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4 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2016 at 9:12 am

Great suggestions. Change begins at home. Start today. If the first proposal doesn't work, revise it and start again. You can't expect others to do it, but if you lead, you will find people to help.

5 people like this
Posted by Misleading identification
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2016 at 11:33 am

If I'm not mistaken Bill Buce is an architect.
If so, it is reasonable to suppose he is more sympathetic to the construction industry than people who are not thus connected.

It is misleading to identify people just by where they live and leave out their lifetime commitment to an occupation.
For example, it would be like identifying a Wealth Attorney only as a "Former Mayor" or a real estate lawyer simply as a "Vice Mayor".

4 people like this
Posted by Eric
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 18, 2016 at 11:55 am

Great suggestions. I like the idea.

3 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 18, 2016 at 12:08 pm

Something to consider seriously. From the sounds of it, it would make sure a wider part of our city (whoops, I meant to say town) would be represented. I had never heard of that concept, but it is interesting.

6 people like this
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Bill Bucy is a retired journalist and accustomed to checking his facts and his spelling before making public statements.

8 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2016 at 1:19 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

The concept of 7 districts in 2018 is an overdue structural improvement to our city government. Citizens would feel more connected. Issues would be less abstract to motivated district voters. I can think of several more structure improvements but this concept would be at the top of my list.

Neighborhoods occasionally get over-weighted representation. North Palo Alto tends to have greater representation least north of Oregon. In 2017 we will have 2 new councilpersons representing relatively tiny College Terrace neighborhood for next 4 years.

Bill Bucy: Send everyone your contact information. It appears that others want to join your movement. Sign me up NOW!

8 people like this
Posted by Thanx, Neilson!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2016 at 1:27 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Buchanan! Every other city is divided into districts, and city councils are comprised of one representative from each district.

The way this city is run by the overwhelming majority of representatives from north of Oregon is just plain nuts-- as well as overwhelmingly lopsided.

The Palo Alto city council's representation is downright unAmerican!

4 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2016 at 4:03 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

In his comment, @misleadinginformation executes the standard Residentialist ad hominem attack which they make when they don't like people and / or disagree with them - which is to attack their credibility by asserting that they are corrupt and have a conflict of interest.

But it turns out Bill Bucy is a journalist! But Bill must KNOW developers, right? Or his son works for Palantir!

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2016 at 6:39 pm

At-large elections tap our full talent base, whereas you're SOL if your district can only run turkeys.

1 person likes this
Posted by Misleading identification
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 20, 2016 at 1:16 am

My apologies to Mr Bucy.
I confused your name with that of a local architect, spelled differently but I believe pronounced like yours.
And thank you for the gentle admonition.

2 people like this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2016 at 2:01 am

One of the structural reasons for the imbalance between north and south on the Council is the disparity in wealth. Council participation is volunteer and essentially unpaid. Wealthy residents can afford this, less wealthy residents from the South who may be working 80 hours as Palo Alto house poor cannot.

I have heard the other side of this, which is that (according to a regional environmental activist I know) you can get little Napoleons who dominate their neighborhoods. However, simply requiring as many members north of oregon as south of oregon, and giving the last seat to whichever side clearly has fewer civic assets than the other, might make things more fair.

@DTN Paul,
Your snide comment about Palantir would be more effective if Palantir hadn't taken over so much of downtown for its campus, at the expense of a vibrant downtown for residents, and if Palantir employees and their spouses, such as Kate Downing, had not taken such an aggressive tack to advance their desire to densify housing around their compound. No one else mentioned Palantir above except you, but now that you have, it seemed necessary to point out the falsity of your attempt to make a backhanded claim that they aren't engaged in taking over downtown and shaping Palo Alto for their selfish interests. When they move away, I'm sure much of the negative Council campaigning will move away with them.

4 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2016 at 9:26 am

District representation is an interesting idea, however, the proverbial devil is in the details. It may or may not prove promising in terms of addressing some of the shortcomings in our system.

In any event, I do not see district voting, in and of itself, as a means of campaign finance reform or remedy to negative campaigning.

Regardless of which neighborhood they represent, city council members would still vote on issues that effect all parts of Palo Alto. Citizens and special interest groups would still work to elect and lobby the people who advance their concerns.

2 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2016 at 9:42 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

To clarify my comment supporting districts. #1 There are other structure issues to debate in conjunction with pros and cons of districts. #2 Any debate would start with better public understanding of persistent governance problems such as "low" turnout of registered voters, eligible voters who do not register and mind-numbing council meetings.

We are fortunate to have an annual surveys of Palo Alto citizen attitudes. Results from mid-summer 2016 survey is slowly grinding itself into sunlight in January or February 2017. It will give all of us objective information to chew on.

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2016 at 12:40 pm

"One of the structural reasons for the imbalance between north and south on the Council..."

Don't overlook the South's consistent failure to elect the candidates it has. Did you, for example, vote for Arthur Keller?

2 people like this
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 21, 2016 at 8:01 am

Many interesting comments here. To address a few:
1. If my research is correct the incoming council will have a majority from south of Oregon or at least be tied with the north.
2. So many council members from the south belies the notion that only wealthy northerners can afford to serve.
3. That three of the new council members live within about a half-mile of each other bolsters the case for district representation.
4. I believe intelligence and talent are reasonably well-distributed throughout our relatively homogenous community.
5. District elections alone won't eliminate the influence of money, but will reduce it's impact.

3 people like this
Posted by CW
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2016 at 11:23 am

I apologize in advance if this seems rude or insensitive.

But the problem with district elections is that there won't be enough qualified candidates to run in some districts. Often the number of competent candidates running for council equals the number of seats available.

I worry that some districts will have no capable candidates, and then a kook signs up to run -- and wins.

What if the people in a district end up having to choose between Victor Frost and Danielle Martell? Or between John Fredrich and Jay Cabrera?

In some council elections in the past, we've barely had enough good candidates to fill the openings. With district elections, you run the risk of having no serious candidates from which to choose.

District elections work in big cities because each district has a couple of hundred thousand people. That's a much larger talent pool than the 7,000 or 9,300 proposed by the author of this op-ed.

Another problem -- I don't want to vote for just one person for council. With district elections, you only get ONE VOTE. This year I got to vote for four people. Two years ago, we got to vote for five people. Why would I want my choices to go from four or five to just one?

Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:23 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

How do you see this working Bill. We have staggered seats to provide continuity. So every election half the residents have no vote and the other half have just one vote. That does not seem a recipie for broadening participation or interest. I also agree with CW above.

Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:23 pm

No no no.

District elections have been a disaster for moderate thinking in San Francisco. Now you get fringe candidates that only require a tiny percentage of voters to be elected. Palo Alto is entirely too small for district elections.

I might be open for a mix of district and at large, but 100% district? No way.

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

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