Palo Alto politics has historically been relatively polite, respectful, accepting of different visions for the city's future and lacking in divisive rhetoric.
Vigorous debate always took place, but the views of opposing council members were never characterized as disingenuous nor were colleagues openly disrespected or bullied during council discussions.
Over the last several years, those traditional norms have been steadily eroding, replaced by behavior that seeks to label and marginalize opponents, exaggerate differences and abandon the art of compromise and the value of unifying the citizens of Palo Alto. It is a political trend that is engulfing Washington and is increasingly infecting local non-partisan political bodies, even in a highly educated and engaged community like ours.
This fall's municipal election campaign season will be an important test for candidates but perhaps even more so their supporters and voters. Will it be possible to have an honest community debate over important issues without exaggerated or false claims about candidates or issues, or will we see a repeat of the last two campaigns in 2014 and 2016?
If it were not enough that the city is implementing with this election the reduction of the council's size from nine to seven members, there will be three controversial ballot measures sure to stir up controversy.
With the announcement this week by Vice Mayor Eric Filseth that he will seek a second term, all three eligible incumbents (Filseth, Cory Wolbach and Tom DuBois) and, as of now, one challenger (Alison Cormack) will be seeking one of just three available seats. (There would normally have been five seats up this year, but because of the size reduction, there are only three.) Council members Greg Scharff and Karen Holman are terming out after nine years.
The ballot measures are two voter-qualified initiatives — one to reduce the existing cap on total commercial development in the city and another to impose a cap on the amount local health care providers can charge patients — and a measure placed on the ballot by the City Council seeking an increase in the hotel tax to 15.5 percent.
If the open hostility and tension exhibited by some council members and their political allies during and since the 2016 election is any indication, the combination of a council race and these controversial ballot measures, including a possible competing measure the council majority may put on the ballot to counter the commercial growth initiative, threatens to make this another divisive election season.
Political gamesmanship was on display last week when the council debated (between 11:30 and 1 a.m.) whether the city should pay for a consultant to conduct a broad analysis of the impacts of the growth-cap initiative even though the initiative had legally qualified for the ballot and the council's only real option is to offer a competing measure.
Proposed by Scharff and couched as a desire to conduct due diligence on the fiscal impact of lowering the current citywide commercial growth cap from 1.7 million square feet to 850,000 between 2015 and 2030, it was an obvious politically motivated effort, at taxpayer's expense, to use a consultant to develop the case against the initiative that could then be used to defeat it or win approval for an alternative measure.
With even the city staff stating that the lowered cap was unlikely to have any impact given the rate of development in Palo Alto, and even with a recently completed environmental impact report for the just-updated Comprehensive Plan that addressed most of the issues Scharff wants studied, on a 5-4 vote (Scharff, Kniss, Wolbach, Fine and Tanaka voting in favor) the council approved the hiring of a consultant and the delay — until late July or early August — of council action on the citizens' initiative and a possible competing measure. That schedule means a special meeting needs to be held during the time the council is on its summer break and when it will likely be impossible to gather all nine members.
The acrimony and disrespect was palpable in the council chambers as the night wore on, with Councilman Adrian Fine warning his colleagues against "grandstanding" and more than one council member taking audience members to task for wearing misleading buttons saying "Don't double growth."
Everyone needs to step back and stop this behavior. Citizens should be embarrassed to wear a button that so badly mischaracterizes their own initiative, but their behavior pales in comparison to that of councilmembers who can't seem to curb their impulses to treat those with whom they disagree disrespectfully.
The council's summer break comes none too soon. May they return with cooler heads and work to forge compromise instead of continue to fuel a growing contagion of incivility and snarkiness in our community.