Editorial: new year, new mayor

An elephant lurks during City Council election of new officers

Outgoing mayor Greg Scharff assists newly appointed mayor Liz Kniss in helping her put on her red jacket, a signature color of the council member, as she takes her new seat as mayor during a meeting on Jan. 8, 2018. Photo by Veronica Weber.

The surprise, if one can call it that, wasn't the unanimous election Monday night of Liz Kniss as mayor of Palo Alto for the third time. There was never any doubt that she was the most suited and best qualified to step up to lead the council in 2018 or that she would handily win.

The surprise was the council's choice for vice mayor and the regrettable commentary from both the dais and audience on the nearly one-year long investigation, still underway, by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) into Kniss' reporting of her 2016 campaign donations.

Regardless of what differences of opinion exist on the council or in the community regarding Liz Kniss, even her opponents realize that she enjoys the broadest political support in Palo Alto of all nine current members of the council. She was the top vote-getter in 2016, has never lost an election and has a political and personal network vastly more extensive than her colleagues.

She has developed that support through an instinctive ability to understand the political dynamics of a divided community and how to advocate or build support for a position without denigrating those with differing views. On a council with an abundance of strong-willed stubbornness that can drift into disrespectful and divisive personal attacks, Kniss is a calming, respectful and gracious presence. She rarely leaves those with whom she disagrees feeling marginalized or put down. She has proven herself as a fair and effective mayor twice before and as a previous president of the county Board of Supervisors.

With a 5-4 philosophical split on the council, the choices for mayor from the majority side were Kniss, Cory Wolbach, Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine. With those options, it was inconceivable that anyone other than Kniss would be elected. None of the alternatives would have received any support from the four-person minority block and probably would have at most garnered three votes total.

While the FPPC investigation is looking into possible serious violations of campaign-finance disclosure laws — delayed reporting of major campaign donations, largely from developers, until after the election — raising it as an issue that might be cause for later reconsidering Kniss' election as mayor, as Councilman Tom DuBois did, was inappropriate and a political miscalculation. It accomplished nothing except to add a regrettable cloud over what is largely a ceremonial and celebratory passing of the gavel. He received no support and moments later ended up joining his colleagues in electing Kniss.

DuBois' comments drew critical remarks from some public speakers and an ill-advised response from Kniss. Kniss sought to minimize the import of the FPPC ("it's only a commission"), pointed out that the complaints under investigation were anonymous and reminded the public that three other members of the council (Fine, Tanaka and Holman) have had complaints lodged against them.

The dismissive tone of Kniss and some public speakers attempting to minimize the allegations show a troublesome lack of respect for the purpose and importance of California's campaign finance and disclosure laws. It will remain an elephant in the room until the outcome is announced.

The surprise vote for vice mayor, which is usually where whatever suspense there might be is going to emerge, was quickly determined through a pre-emptive move by Wolbach, the person who was seen as the logical choice given his being the most senior of the remaining majority members.

But to his credit, Wolbach sought immediate recognition from Kniss when she opened nominations for vice mayor and nominated Eric Filseth, frequently a political opposite of Wolbach. He explained he could "count the votes," and thereby avoided a competition between himself and Filseth that he was destined to lose on a 4-5 vote because outgoing mayor Greg Scharff had decided to support Filseth.

Scharff's decision to support Filseth was bold and magnanimous. Scharff's first few months as mayor were characterized by his use of the chair to too-often marginalize the four-person council minority for the sake of governing efficiency. Instead of trying to bring people together after a hard-fought and contentious 2016 election, he contributed to the ill-will and tension both on the council and in the community, and he came to regret it.

By mid-year, Scharff pivoted and spent the second half of the year seeking to bring the council together, making sure that minority views weren't quashed and capably bringing the long process of revising the city's Comprehensive Plan to a successful conclusion.

His support of Filseth not only reflected Filseth's impressive work as chair of the council's Finance Committee but was a gesture to his political adversaries and an acknowledgment that how the council works together is as important as the decisions it reaches.

With the City Council being reduced from nine to seven members at November's election, next January's mayoral election will occur in a different and uncertain political climate. We hope it follows a year of council work that seeks balance, compromise and solutions with less personal drama and more collaboration and mutual respect.


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48 people like this
Posted by Campaign Laws Need Your Support
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2018 at 6:33 am

We should all be upset by allegations of campaign finance illegalities in our local elections. We want honest politicians at all levels of government. Not only do violations of campaign laws taint the very outcome of our elections, but the misguided attacks on those who want laws upheld embolden yet more violations by officials of all sorts of laws.

The allegations against Kniss appear to be very serious and clearly not just a paperwork error. The Weekly should applaud, not disparage, all who are willing to stand up for honest government, including on the dais and on these pages.

35 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 12, 2018 at 8:25 am

The title of this editorial should be "New Year ... Old Mayor" as Kniss has already been mayor before. I don't think this choice of mayor bodes particularly well for the results of next year's council actions... although as a longtime politician at least Kniss will have an interest in at least appearing more even handed than Scharff was throughout his term. Next council election is going to be critical to determine the town's direction. I think bringing up the election campaign finance violations was actually appropriate and Kniss's reported tone of response exactly explains why. The alleged violation is such a direct slap in the face and so obviously not an innocent mistake by a veteran politician that it is insulting to the voters to imply it isn't a significant black mark against her serving as mayor.

38 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 12, 2018 at 10:10 am

Nice article but I disagree with the editorial opinion of Mr. DuBois. I think the folks who rightly admire him will appreciate his polite candor and appropriate acknowledgement that violating the law might be a real issue for some folks in an elected leader.

It is a fact that Ms Kniss is under investigation by the FPPC for violations of election laws.
She is under investigation of violating laws that are in place to protect and inform the public. In fact with her vast experience in elections and a competent campaign team it is not easily understood why such mistakes were made.

It remains to be seen what penalty the FPPC will impose
But there is no denying laws were broken she has admitted so.

I'm sure many of us will enjoy Ms kniss' demeanor this year compared to the snarky attitude of the last year.

But don't kill the messenger for politely stating a truth

11 people like this
Posted by C-
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2018 at 10:17 am

One Party Government = tyranny and corruption.
Nothing new here....

19 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 12, 2018 at 10:22 am

Kniss again! "Be careful what you ask for...."

31 people like this
Posted by Citizen Cane
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2018 at 10:42 am

This editorial gets virtually every single thing wrong.

1. Yes, DuBois is totally politically tone deaf and wretched at his job. However, he's not wrong about the serious appearance of impropriety by Kniss and the fact that when the FPPC comes back if it finds she violated the law it would look really crappy if she was mayor. Why was he wrong to say that? Isn't he elected to say things even when they ruffle feathers?

2. Then Kniss made his point by saying, essentially, who gives a crap about the law? I am above the law, it's just a little thing. Pretty much, that was grounds for not electing her mayor or anytihng else. She openly mocked and flouted the law right there before your eyes. But for some reason instead of praising DuBois for stating the obvious, which is that she's an entitled [portion removed] politician who cares zero about the public finance laws, you attacked Tom, the (admittedly terrible) messenger.

3. Then you praised Greg Scharff for nominating Filseth as if that was a reach across the aisle when in fact it was a reach around because Filseth has gradually been moving over and has been subject to flattery and sycophancy from Scharff and the pro-development crowd. This was his reward. All this means is that Filseth has changed his position. If there's an iron law of Council it's that Greg Scharff is for Greg Scharff so if you see him doing something that appears to be against his interest, you are a few puzzle pieces short of understanding it and you need to try to figure out how this was in the interest of Greg Scharff.

Wholly terrible editorial. Liz Kniss is not some elder statesman. Come on. Praising her "extensive network?" Who wrote this. Gawd.

38 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2018 at 11:05 am

Annette is a registered user.

It is disturbing to read an editorial critical of Council Member DuBois for addressing an issue as significant as campaign finance. Isn't that something the public should expect from its elected officials? Surely it isn't better to pretend issues do not exist. What Council Member DuBois did may not have been a politically astute move, but so what? City Council is supposed to be about public service, not politics.

Kniss' remarks in reply were the surprise to me. "I'm not the only one" and "it's only a Commission" aren't the best defense. Nor is it comforting to be reminded that the dais is populated by multiple people who have come under investigation of the FPPC. Think about it - how hard is it to correctly report campaign income?

Like this comment
Posted by Sea Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2018 at 12:05 pm

Sea Seelam Reddy is a registered user.

We have a beautiful city.
We have a of good leaders including Liz.

Stop this garbage about accusing Liz until the report comes out.

We elected two most bright people Liz and Eric. Let us honor them and support them to get some great things accomplished.

Make Palo Alto envy of sister cities.


2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 12, 2018 at 12:31 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@ Citizen Cane

Cory Wolbach nominated Eric Filseth for vice mayor, not Scharff, but I didn't know until I read the article that Cory knew he wouldn't get enough votes to be elected vice mayor. Scharff apparently told him in advance, or he found out another way, that Scharff would support Filseth. Then Cory did the right and honorable thing by nominating Filseth. I think this has a good chance of working out very well for our community Hmmm! Now, how do I get my fingers uncrossed?....Ah, there, I just did it.

I'll just let all the foo foo rah about the FPPC investigation, Tom's comments, and Liz's response, wash away. Let's get going CC, with all the issues you have before you!

Liz might carry some baggage, but she is undeniably the most experienced and well connected member on council...including her relationship and involvement at city, county, and regional levels. And the other good news is that Joe Simitian was just elected Chair of SC County's Board of Supervisors. Liz and Joe are close friends, and long time...very long time...friends, and you can bet he will do everything in his power, being a PA resident, to look out after our interests with Liz at the helm in PA.

25 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2018 at 1:02 pm

We can't have more housing without first improving our infrastructure and transit options.

I continually hear about the increased number of daytime residents in town, but I hear nothing about numbers of those leaving Palo Alto for work each day. The Caltrain lots are full long before 9.00 am and just seeing the number of people waiting on the train platforms each morning show that many who live here use trains for their commute. The onramps to the highways are also busy each morning.

Increasing housing is a fine idea, but hibernating inside their homes is probably not what people want to do after work.

To make Palo Alto vibrant we need to provide basic infrastructure improvements and increase the quality of life by increasing recreational, medical, shopping, personal business and other things that people do to live their lives. Building more and more pack and stack housing is not going to make life pleasant for any of us otherwise.

Unless the mayor and CC start putting those of us who actually live in Palo Alto first we will just be worsening the already poor situation. I do not believe she has the integrity to do this.

Palo Altans for Common Sense.

30 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 12, 2018 at 2:56 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

I agree with other commenters here. Since when is expressing the truth that Kniss has yet to be cleared by the FPPC "inappropriate and a bad political move". It looks to me more like Tom DuBois is looking out for his constituents.

37 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2018 at 3:03 pm

"...with her vast experience in elections and a competent campaign team it is not easily understood why such mistakes were made."

Mistakes? Surely you speak ironically.

Kniss' reporting "mistakes" were coolly, cynically calculated to conceal her sugar daddy developers until the election was history.

23 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2018 at 3:07 pm

"One Party Government = tyranny and corruption.
Nothing new here...."

As a lifelong Democrat I must agree 100% with you. The local Democratic party is thoroughly corrupt.

14 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 12, 2018 at 3:22 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@ Resident

Re infrastructure....I invite everyone to come down to my end of town and observe the installation of bulbouts, or whatever the traffic engineers call them, and the roundabout at the Ross Rd and East Meadow intersection. Your tax dollars hard at piss off drivers and endangering lives of young bicyclists riding to school! We're not England. Putting in a roundabout on a narrow neighborhood street intersection is insanity, in addition to the dangerous calming devices installed at the YMCA entrances/exits.

23 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 12, 2018 at 7:56 pm

Liz Kniss is a consummate politician. Tell people what they want to hear. Liz Kniss told voters she would not take financial support from developers. Then she quietly reneged, not only taking developer money but not reporting it as required, plus loaning campaign money much of which was quietly repaid after the election by developers.

We will never know how many votes she would have had if she had acknowledged how much financial support developers where giving her.

12 people like this
Posted by Eternal Vigilance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2018 at 9:42 pm

Both Scharff and Kniss got RE-elected by misusing representations of Bob Moss’s support. In Kniss’s case the deception went further with the hiding of developer contributions. TheFPPC said Fine misled the public. They aren’t going to do anything about it - that’s up to the public.

I have voted for Kniss before and deeply regret it. I will lend a hand in the recall but someone has to get it rolling.

6 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 20, 2018 at 9:35 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

The Weekly’s reporting, just prior to and immediately after the city council’s 2018 election for mayor, and related to the still-open, 10-month FPPC investigation, was both proper and relevant. But in its post-election editorial, there is an incorrect parallel between its criticism of Councilmember DuBois’s valid comments and the dismissive responses of Mayor Kniss.

There is no question that there were violations in the Re-Elect Liz Kniss for City Council for 2016’s reporting to the FPPC:

(1) Occupations and employers of contributors were omitted,

(2) A contribution of $1,000 or more (from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee) was not reported within 24 hours,

[These two violation categories were also present in the Greg Tanaka for Palo Alto City Council 2016’s reporting, resulting in the candidate signing an “FPPC Stipulation, Decision, and Order” last September and agreeing to pay a fine of $733.]


(3) Six checks, covering a total of about $12,000 from the campaign committee, were made out to candidate Liz Kniss; a total no-no.

The anonymous complaint submitted to the FPPC in January 2017, after end-of year campaign statements were filed and made public, raises other FPPC regulation questions, including whether:

(a) Other pre-election contributions of $1,000 or more were also not reported within 24-hours, and

(b) Other contributions made in the final pre-election reporting period, that extends up to 16 days prior to the election, were not in the overall filing for that period due five days later.

A simple request for copies of cancelled checks from the committee’s bank account should be able to resolve these questions.

So why is the FPPC’s process for this investigation taking so long?

Is the agency understaffed to handle its current caseload, including this matter for which there appears to be relatively straight forward questions and answers?

Or perhaps, do the violations rise to a higher level requiring more senior FPPC staff as well as campaign committee legal counsel in order to bring the parties to final decision and acceptance.

In this case, a key component may be the issue of intent.

In the boilerplate used in the Tanaka campaign ruling, underneath the “Description of Violation” section, and to the right of the last of the four check boxes, it reads “Found no evidence of intent to conceal.” It was checked in the Tanaka decision.
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