Editorial: At risk of misleading voters

When does tactical ballot language become dishonest?

Conducting surveys of registered voters in advance of putting tax increases or bond measures on election ballots has become a standard tool of city governments, school districts and other groups to determine a measure's likelihood of success.

A research company is typically hired to test voter attitudes on both the amounts to be raised and reactions to arguments for and against funding measures. The results provide valuable information for elected officials and greatly influence the amount of proposed tax increase or bond measure revenue that is ultimately placed on the ballot. Such polling is a legitimate and important tool in guiding elected officials so as not to overreach and risk the rejection of a measure.

But increasingly these same polls are also being used to determine the words, statements or phrases that best resonate with the voters surveyed and that will increase the chances of success. And, as last week's brief Palo Alto City Council discussion on the ballot language for a proposed increase in the hotel tax showed, city officials are walking a dangerous line in developing ballot language that is less than transparent at best and dishonest at worst.

To his credit, Councilman Greg Tanaka challenged city staff on the proposed ballot language for the measure, which was before the council for final approval.

Tanaka objected to the description stating the revenue from the tax increase would be used "for vital city services such as ensuring modern, stable 911 emergency communications, earthquake-safe fire stations and emergency command center; improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety; ensuring safe routes to schools; maintaining city streets and sidewalks; and other city services."

He correctly pointed out that the actual rationale for raising additional money through this tax was not to fund city services but to fund several major infrastructure projects, including the new public safety building and parking garages, and he questioned why the ballot measure didn't simply spell this out more clearly.

The answer he got from City Manager Jim Keene was honest but concerning.

Keene admitted that the language was crafted because it polled the best among likely voters and was designed to favorably influence the outcome. He also defended its accuracy by pointing out the fact that the city's dispatch center, where 911 calls are routed, is located at City Hall, which has long been viewed as seismically unsafe for mission-critical services that must be able to operate after a major earthquake.

He incorrectly stated, however, that "we would lose our communication and our 911 system" in the event of an earthquake, since the city has a highly touted mobile command center with all the equipment necessary to keep these systems in operation.

Tanaka questioned whether the ballot language amounted to fear-mongering and a "bait and switch" since it failed to even reference funding of the new public safety building or use the frequently discussed "infrastructure" needs of the community. Why not just be honest about how the money will be spent?, he asked.

We agree with Tanaka and are disappointed that not one of his eight colleagues joined him in revising the wording to make it a more clear and accurate description of the intended use of the additional tax revenue.

After gaining no support, Tanaka ended up casting what amounted to a protest vote against putting the measure on the ballot and was joined by Karen Holman and Lydia Kou, who had previously opposed the tax increase because they preferred the city look at scaling back the infrastructure plan or use other funding sources to raising the transient occupancy tax from 14 percent to 15.5 percent, as will appear on the ballot, or to 16 percent, the amount initially proposed.

With years of discussion and widespread agreement among civic leaders that these infrastructure projects are needed and overdue, the primary issue has been how to raise the money. Earlier this year, the council decided on the option that saddles hotels and ultimately visitors with the tax rather than seek a bond measure or impose new taxes on property owners or businesses in general. It is a tactic that many cities are using since voters have repeatedly demonstrated a much greater willingness to increase a tax on hotels than on themselves.

Having already chosen this easier method, the City Council should have sought to be extra careful about accurately describing the reasons for the tax hike. In choosing instead to be guided by polling results, the city opens itself up to potential legal challenges when the measure passes but more importantly suggests that the ends justify a little shading of the details.


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17 people like this
Posted by Misled
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 11, 2018 at 1:07 pm

Several of the council members also said that the highest TOT tax in the state was at 16%... however, this is a lie. The highest TOT tax is still Anaheim at 15%. Are council members allowed to lie about facts and mislead the public on ballot initiatives?

Three of the eight council members are running for re-election. I don't think anything deserve another term. This swamp needs to be drained.

4 people like this
Posted by Term limits
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 11, 2018 at 6:26 pm

Misled- Holman is termed out so that is a start

21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 12, 2018 at 12:26 am

Can anyone confirm that the proposed tax of 15.5% would be the highest in the state of California? Councilman Greg Scharff incorrectly stated on a city council meeting that the city of Healdsburg is at 16%. Their TOT is actually 14% and they have an additional 2% "Tourism Tax" that is designated specifically for tourism improvements. The proposed tax increase by the city council conveniently goes to the unrestricted general fund. What happened with the money that was collected when the same tax was increased in 2008 and then again in 2014? Fool us once (or twice). No more

11 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 12, 2018 at 10:47 am

Online Name is a registered user.

It's the second highest after Healdsburg; that's why they lowered it to 15.5%.

7 people like this
Posted by Leopold
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 12, 2018 at 11:16 am

I am in agreement that Healdsburg's TOT is 14%. There is a separate 2% tax added to that, but we need to compare just the TOT do an "apples to apples" comparison. The proposed 15.5% would still the highest in the state of California.

6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2018 at 1:00 pm

So what if Anaheim charges xyz% tax? This is about taxing travelers staying in Palo Alto. If they do business at, say, Stanford, will they stay in Anaheim to save a couple of $$ tax? Get real, people.

8 people like this
Posted by You are karen
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 12, 2018 at 2:42 pm

Curmudgeon-- but they could stay in Menlo park or mountain view and save a couple of dollars.

10 people like this
Posted by Peter
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 12, 2018 at 5:38 pm

I work for a hotel in Mountain View so full disclosure here. But yes, the difference in tax rates between Palo Alto and Mountain View could potentially be 55% (10% vs 15.5%) so paying 55% less in hotel tax by staying in Mountain View sounds appealing, especially if you are a company that spends tens of thousands of dollars a year in hotels.

24 people like this
Posted by Misguided
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 12, 2018 at 5:47 pm

The whole idea of charging as much tax as we can get away with is misguided. It’s not as if the money would be used wisely.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2018 at 5:48 pm

"Curmudgeon-- but they could stay in Menlo park or mountain view and save a couple of dollars."

Right. A couple dollars tax savings is always the primary consideration in booking my business travels.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm

"... the difference in tax rates between Palo Alto and Mountain View could potentially be 55% (10% vs 15.5%) so paying 55% less in hotel tax by staying in Mountain View sounds appealing, especially if you are a company that spends tens of thousands of dollars a year in hotels."

Aside from the (rather too common) fallacy in your maths, you also fail to consider the most important quantity--the dollar amount of the extra tax. As you ought to know, it's based on the hotel's pricing structure. Hotels in competitive areas such as this tend to price competitively for comparable levels of service. If the PA hotels find themselves losing overmuch business because of the tax, they will adjust their pricing accordingly. Supply and demand in action.

2 people like this
Posted by You are
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 12, 2018 at 6:11 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2018 at 7:35 pm

[Post removed.]

22 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 12, 2018 at 7:49 pm

They could have reduced the tax if they had not squandered $9 Million on Ross Road.

39 people like this
Posted by Ends Means
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2018 at 10:26 am

This deception is nothing compared to how the City lied on the Maybell referendum language which created discord remaining to this day. San Francisco had a similar referendum at the time that had to be honest because they have an impartial ballot process, so rejecting that rezoning (despite lots of ads claiming it was an affordable housing peoject) had an even greater majority than here.

It is illegal for cities to advocate in election materials. They can advocate outside of the election process but it is illegal to electioneer in ballot materials. They were never held to account during Maybell or High Street. Why should this be different when it is less serious? Palo Alto needs an impartial ballot process like the one SF has, tailored for Palo Alto. SF is also a charter city. It would not be difficult to adopt a similar pricess which has worked there for 30 years.

I am voting against this because emergency services is a core function of City government and should be the focus of normal expenditures, and it is a cheap shot to raise unusual special taxes to pay for them that way, even as the City is spending millions to make it next to impossible to safely turn right onto Maybell from Arastradero, etc. There are so many ways the City could have dedicated money for a new police building but squandered millions. New drapes for City Hall, unwanted road furniture on Arastradero that will impede emergency vehicles, etc, have been the priority.

I hope we have learned from the last bait and switch from the school district that the money will not be used as promised unless there is a binding promise in the language, and there isn’t. The City could have paid for a new safety building if it had prioritized safety, which it says in so many ways it does not.

But I guess after the last CC election, we have a lot of voters in town who believe it’s okay for the electorate to be misled with no repercussions to the deceivers. We should not be surprised when they govern this way.

27 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 13, 2018 at 11:05 am

Online Name is a registered user.

The telephone polling on the ballot initiative to curb office growth was laughable in its absurd bias and a shameful use of our tax dollars.

Among the "arguments" against was it was anti-jobs, anti-tech, anti-education and anti-health care. Some of those "arguments" relate to Stanford Research Park, Stanford Medical and the university as in "Do you support/oppose weakening Stanford Medical's ability to provide world-class heath care."

Further, it literally characterized the petitioners as a "small minority of extremists" ignoring that former mayors and council members backed the initiative and echoing the comments made by 2 CURRENT council members.

24 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 13, 2018 at 11:18 am

Annette is a registered user.

Such shenanigans contribute to why satisfaction ratings are dropping and trust is eroding. Sadly, they have become too common.

On the tax: VITAL is a compelling word, used no doubt to convince busy voters that this is a good tax for a good purpose. And how convenient that people who vote for it can avoid paying it b/c they are, after all, residents. Kudos to Tanaka for challenging the ballot language and to Kou and Holman for taking the position that we should at least CONSIDER* scaling back the infrastructure plan that the revenue will SUPPOSEDLY fund. That is a very reasonable suggestion on their part, particularly when one considers some of the "improvement" projects that have been undertaken recently.

Palo Alto considers itself iconic and a leader among cities. How about earning that self image by spending within our means and not having to AGAIN turn to visitors to help fund what we obviously cannot afford?

*The last time Holman and Kou asked that CC at least CONSIDER something, the issue was renter protection. They, and their colleague DuBois, were slapped down by the Council Majority, including Wolbach. The looming Hotel President evictions are a painful reminder that the suggestion to CONSIDER protections had merit. I think it is time for our City Council to release itself from the bonds of our version of partisanship and make cooperative decisions that are in the best interests of the residents of Palo Alto.

15 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2018 at 11:28 am

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

CC is making our town into a 'tax everyone but us' and over regulated 'fine happy' town. TOT, soda, solo drivers, idling, and on and on. Regulate, fine, tax!! I'm sure there will be others. Tanaka has it right. We should be open and honest about specific use of new taxes...what will they be used for? and a tracking system to monitor and follow the money. What rely should happen is for us citizens to accept the responsibility and burden of taxes for own needs. And to think carefully about 'feel good' projects, some very expensive ones which there never was never a crying demand for (everyone should ride bikes or walk?).

Projects that have been proposed, but never funded, like the bike bridge over 101 at Adobe Creek. How many people are suffering to any degree because it's not there. What's the expected ridership, based on, yes, those famous polls/surveys that have become so popular.

It's understandable why CC is shy about proposing taxes on us registered voting citizens. It's not a popular thing to do and still expect to get votes when running for office or re-election.

11 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2018 at 11:32 am

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Thanks Annette! The infrastructure wish list is too long. Santa's bag is just not big enough!

20 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 13, 2018 at 12:39 pm

At this point, I plan to vote against this tax increase, primarily to protest the unethical methods City Hall is using to mislead voters.

21 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2018 at 2:46 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Ok, I admit it, I'm old. But I remember a time when I could trust some politicians. They used to say you didn't want to watch the back room sausage being made. But it appeared to result in decent sausage. Now it's just slander your opponent as your tool for victory.

Now my cynicism knows no bounds. I know this is a national issue and has nothing to do with Palo Alto, but the way that the Republicans managed to block Barack Obama's Supreme Court nomination, while trying to rush through Kavanaugh's before the midterms is just appalling.

And I am still left with a very bad taste in my mouth about how large donations by developers were not revealed to the voters of Palo Alto until after our pro-growth majority was safely in their seats.

In short, I don't trust them, and plan to vote no.

4 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2018 at 5:23 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

If you'll forgive a couple misspellings and grammatical errors in my first post, all these ideas for raising money to pay for things we need or want reminds me of Trump when he said Mexico would pay for the wall. Remember that??

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