In the final weeks of their respective campaigns, City Council candidates Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine were fighting off allegations from their opponents that they were beholden to developers and that they want to see the city grow significantly in the years ahead.
But even if Tanaka and Fine aren't exactly "pro-developer," new campaign-disclosure documents suggest that many local builders and property managers are very much pro-Tanaka and pro-Fine. In the weeks before and after Nov. 8, each candidate received several large contributions from builders, real estate professionals and developers, including in Tanaka's case one whose controversial project is about to be reviewed by the council.
Much like incumbent Liz Kniss, Tanaka received a windfall from developers after Oct. 22, the date by which contributions needed to be reported before the election. As such, these payments were not required to be disclosed until late January.
For Tanaka, a former city planning commissioner who finished second after Kniss in an 11-candidate field, the late contributions totaled $47,895, more than half of the $84,670 total that he received during his campaign and far more than any other candidate reported in the final filing period, which stretched from Oct. 23 on Dec. 31. The lion's share of Tanaka's new contributions came from builders and property managers, some of whom gave $5,000 checks.
Tanaka received last-minute, pre-election contributions from developers John McNellis ($500) and Charles "Chop" Keenan ($999). Keenan's employees Mark Gates, Perry Palmer and Joyce Yamagiwa contributed $999, which is $1 shy of the amount that would trigger a separate reporting requirement (known as form 497, which must be filed within 24 hours) in the days before the election.
Chasen Rapp, son of developer Roxy Rapp and partner in Rapp Development, also gave $999 to Tanaka.
Like Kniss, Tanaka also received a $2,500 contribution from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee (CREPAC). Unlike Kniss' campaign, which acknowledged its Oct. 18 CREPAC contribution well after the election, Tanaka's campaign noted its receipt of the Oct. 20 donation on a 497 form on Nov. 4.
Meanwhile, those who contributed after the election (when one no longer has to file separate disclosure for contributions of $1,000 or more) offered much higher sums to Tanaka's campaign. KG-Brannan, LLC, an entity registered as a "real estate investment" company, gave Tanaka $5,000 on Nov. 20, as did Vittoria Management, a local property-management company. Another $5,000 came from John Challas, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as an "independent real estate professional."
Other real estate professionals who made late contributions to Tanaka include Barry Krupowicz ($500), Zachary Trailer ($500), R&M Properties ($650), Mike Powers ($500) and Monica Arima ($250).
Tanaka also received $3,500 from R&M Properties and $1,000 from Benjamin Cintz, whose family owns four properties in Palo Alto and who has been critical of the council's recent efforts to require retail on the ground-floor of commercial parcels.
Tanaka's biggest and most controversial contributions, however, came from the Wong family, which has been trying for more than three years to win the council's approval for a four-story, mixed-use project at 429 University Ave. The project, which won approval in 2015 but then was sent back to the drawing board after a resident appealed it, has been running into various obstacles since, with the Architectural Review Board voting in October to reject the most recent design.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the project on Feb. 6.
As the Weekly previously reported, Andrew Wong contributed $4,500 to Tanaka on Nov. 12, which brought his overall contributions to date to $5,000. On Thursday night, Tanaka told the Weekly that he has instructed his campaign to return the money.
Both the Wong family and Tanaka had told the Weekly last month the contribution is in no way linked to the application. Elizabeth Wong said they gave to Tanaka because "we need impartial and forward-thinking members on the council so we can have a better future for Palo Alto."
"I think the city is going down a very negative slope, and this is a way to try to bring the city back to what it should be," Wong told the Weekly, when asked about the money.
Tanaka also told the Weekly last month the donation will not influence him on the project. His campaign fundraising, he said, was handled exclusively by campaign volunteers, with no participation from himself. He decided to keep himself out of the fundraising precisely because "you don't want this kind of conflict of interest."
"I want to make sure I'm fair and impartial," Tanaka said.
But Michael Harbour, the appellant who challenged the project, sees the contribution from the Wong family to Tanaka as highly problematic. Far from promoting an "impartial" council, as Wong maintained, the money creates a perception of a conflict of interest for Tanaka, Harbour told the Weekly.
"I'm very concerned about the size and the timing of the donations, immediately before Tanaka is reviewing the project," Harbor said.
Harbour said he's notified the City Attorney's Office and believes there is sufficient evidence to require Tanaka to recuse himself from the deliberation.
Tanaka said Thursday evening that he had spoken about this issue with City Attorney Molly Stump, who told him that he has no conflicts and that he is free to participate in the review (Stump did not respond to the Weekly's inquiries). Even so, he said he decided to return the funds to avoid any perceptions of a conflict.
"The only reason I'm returning it is because of the proximity," Tanaka said, referring to the relatively short amount of time between the contribution and the council's review.
Fine, meanwhile, received fewer and less sizable late contributions in his successful bid for a council seat. He received $999 checks from Keenan, Gates, KG-Brannan, Rapp, Palmer and Yamagiwa, as well as $1,000 from Benjamin Cintz, $900 from Jay Paul Company and smaller contributions from several employees of Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate company. Other developers and real estate professionals who contributed to him were Jim Baer ($499), David Kleiman ($250) and R&M Property ($650).
Only three of Fine's contributions were $1,000 or greater, with $1,000 from Cintz and Joseph Martignetti and $2,500 from CREPAC. Fine reported receiving the Oct. 20 CREPAC donation on Oct. 24, apparently within 24 hours, as per the Political Reform Act.
Overall, he received $25,724 between Oct. 23 and Dec. 31, according to his filing, about a third of the $77,267 total that he raised during his campaign.
When asked about the late contributions from developers, Fine said he didn't request any of the funds. However, neither was he surprised. The goal of his campaign's fundraising was to get enough money to pay off the $15,000 loan he made to his own campaign.
Fine also maintained that he did not promise anyone anything in return for the contributions.
"Everyone in this city, including applicants and appellants, wants a fair hearing," Fine said, when asked about the late contributions.
He also stressed that there is nothing inappropriate about these funds: "There is no there there," he said.
"I think it's a complicated system and it seems like everyone played by the rules," Fine added.
When asked why so many of his contributions total $999, Fine said he has no theories on the matter.
Lydia Kou, who also won a seat on the council, reported $1,248 in late contributions, mostly from residents who gave her small checks. The largest contributions were $500 from local resident Don Nielson and $200 from Councilman Eric Filseth.