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.