Ten days after Liz Kniss cruised to an Election Day victory, picking up more votes than any other candidate, contributions continued to flow into her campaign chest.
But unlike the checks that Kniss had received in the months leading up to Nov. 8, most of the new contributions came from developers, builders and property managers, some of whom have been doing business in Palo Alto for decades. A $500 contribution from developer and land-use consultant Jim Baer -- who has developed dozens of "planned community" projects throughout Palo Alto -- was reported as having been received on Nov. 18. The same date is attached to a reported $2,500 contribution from the California Association of Realtors and a $1,000 contribution from Joseph Martignetti, board member at the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing, which develops low-income housing.
There was also a $999 contribution from Charles "Chop" Keenan, whose downtown developments include Whole Foods, Aquarius Theatre and the Varsity Theatre building that now houses Hana Haus. The check, along with three other $999 checks from employees Keenan's company, were all reported as having been received on Nov. 20.
Thoits Brothers, a development firm, contributed $1,875 to the Kniss campaign, and Hatco Associates LLC -- an entity affiliated with Thoits -- gave another $1,250 (both were reported as received on Nov. 20). Other checks that, according to the Jan. 11 campaign filing, were received on Nov. 20 include $999 from Premier Property and a pair of $250 contributions from two employees of Jones Lang LaSalle (a commercial real estate company). Palo Alto Improvement Company gave $1,875, with the amount also reported on Nov. 20.
Altogether, the 27 checks received between Nov. 18 and Nov. 26 total $19,340, with about $16,000 of the total coming from developers, builders and real estate professionals. While the total is dwarfed by contributions that Kniss' opponents in last year's competitive council race received, these contributions stand out because -- unlike others -- they weren't reported until well after residents cast their votes on Election Day.
The contributions are also notable in another way. Several candidates in the race -- most notably Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine -- were assailed during the campaign by their ideological opponents for receiving "too much" cash from builders. Kniss, by contrast, was largely immune from these criticisms. Though she enjoyed an early fundraising lead in late September and early October, developers made up only a tiny fraction of her supporters. Instead, her list of contributors included former mayors, council members, business executives, neighborhood leaders and even some land-use watchdogs (Bob Moss among them).
State law requires candidates to report within 24 hours every contribution of $1,000 or more that comes from a single source. However, that requirement only applies to the period between Aug. 10 and Election Day. Large contributions that the candidate received after Nov. 8 are not subject to the 24-hour rule. They do, however, need to be listed on the campaign committee's semi-annual filing, which covers the period between Oct. 23 and Dec. 31.
The regulations mean that if checks from Martignetti, Hatco Associates, Palo Alto Improvement Company and Thoits Brothers were received after Nov. 8, the Kniss campaign did not have to legally report them until this month. If they were received before election, the campaign by law was required to report them within 24 hours.
The check from the California Association of Realtors, a political action committee, is listed on Kniss' form as having been received on Nov. 20, well after the election, which means it did not need to be reported before the election. Yet the filing from the committee itself (see page 49) indicates that that it made its donation to Kniss on Oct. 18, which means it should have been disclosed before the election.
When asked about the late reporting of the developers' contributions, Kniss said her intent during most of the campaign was to avoid accepting money from builders. But with candidates Arthur Keller and Lydia Kou -- who favor less aggressive city-growth policies -- receiving more than $100,000 from five local families and her own campaign faced with a $20,000 deficit after Election Day, Kniss changed her stance.
"I think it was clear, since we ended up with two sides in the elections, that they (the developers) were interested in supporting us," Kniss told the Weekly. "And I was willing to be supported when I was $20,000 in the hole at that point."
Yet several developers told the Weekly that they made their contributions well before the election. Baer said he issued his check to Kniss on Oct. 26, nearly two weeks before Nov. 4. Keenan also recalled that Kniss had asked him for money in the late days of the campaign and that he made the contribution shortly before Election Day.
"She came to me late, saying, 'I want some dough. Can you help me?'" Keenan said. "I said 'fine.' I couldn't respond right away because I was in the middle of a closing but I ultimately did.
"I do remember that she didn't think she needed to raise the dough, but then she realized that she did."
There is nothing particularly surprising about the fact that developers supported Kniss in her re-election bid. Since she re-joined the council in 2012, Kniss has had a mixed and moderate record on issues relating to growth. She was part of the five-member majority to support new developments at 441 Page Mill Road and the former Olive Garden site on El Camino Real, both of which were were approved by 5-4 votes. But she also voted against a proposed Mercedes dealership in the Baylands and was in favor of an annual cap on new office development.
In explaining her reluctance to solicit developer' contributions earlier in the campaign, Kniss cited the negative perception that many in the community have of builders.
"One of the reasons I really hesitated on these contributions is because developers really do feel that they are kind of second-class in many ways," Kniss said. "They are reviled, and it's a shame. I'm very aware that in this community, people are questioning developers' (contributions) like they're some sort of bad people."
She also noted that although at least some of the checks were sent in late October, they weren't reported until after the election because her campaign treasurer, Tom Collins, was undergoing rehabilitation after a surgery and was away from home for several weeks in early November. Once he returned, he deposited the checks and reported them accordingly, she said.
She also pointed to her record as proof that she hasn't been influenced by developer contributions and that she isn't "in the pockets" of developers. Her contributors, she said, "wanted to support people who are interested in Palo Alto continuing to thrive and they want to continue to do business here."
Kniss isn't the only winning candidate who reported a late contribution from a developer. Tanaka, a former planning commissioner who finished second behind Kniss in the election, received a $4,500 check from Andrew Wong, whose family has been trying to construct a four-story mixed-use building at 429 University Ave., former site of the boutique Shady Lane. The project has been mired for the past two years in an appeal process, with the council voting in May 2015 to send it back to the drawing board.
On Feb. 6, the downtown project is set to return to the council, which now has three new members (Fine, Tanaka and Lydia Kou) and no longer enjoys a narrow "residentialist" majority.
While Tanaka's finance reports show that the check was received on Nov. 12, Elizabeth Wong, the applicant on 429 University, told the Weekly that the check was sent out before the election. She also emphasized that the contribution was made not to sway Tanaka on the project but to support his vision for Palo Alto. She praised Tanaka for his work on the planning commission.
"It's not tied to the project," Wong said. "I think the city is going down a very negative slope and it is a way to try to bring the city back to what it should be.
"Contributions like this will be made as long as necessary to bring the city back to its senses."
Tanaka, for his part, said he wasn't aware of the $4,500 check before the Weekly alerted him about the contribution. Fundraising for his campaign, he said, was coordinated by volunteers, without direct involvement from himself.
Tanaka also said he has never spoken to the Wong family about the University Avenue project, though he said he knows Andrew Wong and was aware of the fact that he was considering contributing. He also rejected the notion that the contribution would impact his decision on the downtown project.
"I make decisions based on merits of projects and that's it," Tanaka told the Weekly. "I look to see if there is support from residents and if it makes sense for the city or not."