In what may be remembered as a new low point for a Palo Alto City Council with many previous low points over the last two years, the council bickered late into the night Monday over whether one of its committees should even discuss rent-stabilization strategies among other means of addressing the plight of renters in the city.
Every resident of Palo Alto who cares about the quality of their representation should devote an hour to watching the council's "discussion," which begins just before the five-hour mark of its Sept. 10 meeting.
It is a perfect illustration of how much animosity has developed between some council members and the ways in which honest debate is being highjacked by opaque political maneuvering.
The issue under consideration was a proposal by council members Tom DuBois, Karen Holman, Lydia Kou and Cory Wolbach to have the council refer to its Policy and Services Committee the topic of how the city might strengthen "protections" for renters.
In what he proudly described as a "compromise" reached over the summer after opposing a similar action last October, Wolbach agreed to join with the others in proposing the referral, which directed the committee to "at least" review the city's existing ordinances that provide protections to renters and comparable ordinances in the Bay Area; evaluate relocation-assistance requirements when renters are displaced; consider how to improve enforcement of the city's current requirement that landlords offer a one-year lease; and consider other "updates" to existing renter protections.
As discussion began, DuBois proposed adding a sentence to clarify that the committee's discussion should include the "full range" of possible rental protections, including rent-stabilization measures such as caps on rent increases or other forms of rent control. According to DuBois, that had been the intent of the four when they agreed to co-author the council-colleagues memo.
What followed was a concerted effort by Scharff, Wolbach and Fine to not only defeat DuBois' proposed addition but to accuse him of reneging on an agreement (Wolbach), introducing fear into the discussion (Wolbach), radically changing the proposal (Fine), turning a non-divisive issue into a divisive one (Scharff), misleading his colleagues (Fine), being extraordinarily disingenuous (Fine) and trying to exclude newcomers to the community in the way some are trying to keep immigrants from coming to the United States (Scharff).
Eventually, DuBois' amendment failed on a 4-4 vote, with Tanaka joining Wolbach, Scharff and Fine against Kou, Holman, Filseth and DuBois on the other side. (Mayor Liz Kniss left the meeting stating she had a conflict because she owns rental property.) Later, on a 7-1 vote with Tanaka opposing, the council sent the matter to its policy committee, which Fine chairs, with clear direction that it was not to consider rent stabilization.
Wolbach cast himself as the pragmatist who was simply looking for a compromise that could actually pass the council by steering clear of any consideration of rent control. That reasoning lost its credibility, however, when Wolbach himself stated that he had understood the original proposal to not explicitly prohibit the committee from considering all forms rent-stabilization measures and a strong statement that he wants the council to "tackle" tough issues.
Scharff argued against DuBois' amendment, stating that it was an "emotional" and divisive topic, but then proposed his own amendment to have the committee consider applying any recommended new rental protections to properties with as few as two rental units rather than the five proposed by DuBois and his three colleagues. That change, which passed, drastically expands the number of potential property owners affected and is a cynical attempt to increase emotion and opposition to tougher measures. It also, perhaps intentionally, may result in Holman and Tanaka joining Kniss as conflicted out of participating in the future due to owning rental units.
So which is it? Do we tackle tough issues or do we avoid a discussion because it is too emotional or controversial?
With renters occupying almost half of the dwelling units in Palo Alto and soaring rents threatening the economic diversity of our city, the council needs to step up and be open to the full range of options. Limiting future discussion to only the least controversial and the least impactful means of helping renters is an abdication of leadership.
Whether rent caps or other versions of rent control should be adopted in Palo Alto is, hopefully, a debate for another day. But four council members, Scharff, Wolbach, Fine and Tanaka, did everything they could to prevent even a discussion of those options in the future.
By only being willing to study the most modest renter protections, the council is inviting a political revolt with far-reaching social, political and electoral consequences. Council members had a chance Monday night to frame and guide a full and open debate and sadly showed they weren't up to the task.
Editor's note: The editorial has been updated to reflect that Karen Holman was one of the four authors of the colleague's memo, not Eric Filseth.