News

While raising large sums, council candidates talk of spending limits

Contenders for City Council have seen rapidly rising campaign-cash totals

Palo Alto Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, second from right, answers a question regarding the council's responsibilities to address ethical violations by board and commission members during an Oct. 3 debate of Palo Alto City Council candidates: from left, Pat Boone, Alison Cormack, Tom DuBois, Filseth and Cory Wolbach. Photo by Veronica Weber.

With Palo Alto's political races increasingly turning into big-money affairs, several City Council candidates said Wednesday night that they would support campaign reforms to rein in campaign spending.

In a forum sponsored by the Weekly, all five candidates, who are running for three seats on the council, said they see the growing campaign spending as a problem when asked about the topic.

Candidate Alison Cormack, who led the 2008 bond campaign to upgrade local libraries and has raised the second-highest total so far this year — $59,798 — was blunt in her assessment: The current council, she said, "bears full responsibility for not implementing campaign-finance reform."

Councilman Cory Wolbach said that he had tried to bring forward a colleagues memo to limit campaign spending in the past but that council colleagues who initially expressed interest withdrew their support of the memo.

Wolbach noted at the forum that since 2014, when he, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth were elected to the council, the amount of money being pumped into campaigns has gone up dramatically. During that year, each of the three candidates raised less that $30,000 for his campaign (DuBois had total contributions of $23,859; Filseth received $26,127; and Wolbach raised $25,586). Councilman Greg Scharff and then-challenger Lydia Kou were on the higher end at that time, with Scharff reporting $97,551 and Kou reporting $41,617 raised through the end of 2014, according to campaign-finance documents.

In 2016, Kou (in her second attempt to get on the council) and Arthur Keller each raised about $80,000 to lead the race for cash.

So far this year, Wolbach has already more than doubled the total amount he raised in his first council run. According to the most recent finance documents, he has received $64,758 in contributions, with the latest one coming this week in the form of a $1,000 check from the local firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters.

DuBois and Filseth have also each received far more money in the current campaign than they did during the entire election season in 2014. DuBois has reported $44,465 in cash raised, including a recent $5,000 contribution from resident Jeff Hoel, while Filseth has received $37,673.

Wolbach cited the recent trend and said he wants to see the next council revisit the issue.

"I hope that after this election, we can re-introduce this topic and actually get it done," Wolbach said. "We need campaign-finance reform in Palo Alto. Public financing is the way to go."

The candidates didn't propose any specific schemes for limiting campaign cash, though DuBois pointed to the example of Mountain View, which has a voluntary $24,000 spending cap, with adjustments for inflation. He called the influence of money on politics "corrosive" and said he would support a limit on campaign cash.

"I really think we're talking about very expensive land (and) a lot of big money in Palo Alto and we need to try to limit campaign money," DuBois said.

Cormack raised the fact that other candidates have been receiving $5,000 contributions. These contributions, which have largely come from five local families, helped beef up the campaign coffers of "slow-growth" candidates Keller and Kou in 2016 and are now boosting the campaigns of Filseth and DuBois.

"I think it's inappropriate," Cormack said of the $5,000 contributions.

Filseth, while bemoaning the escalating sums needed to wage a competitive bid, expressed doubt that the city can do anything to rein in spending.

"I don't know if it's something that can be unspooled or just comes with the urbanizing nature of Palo Alto and the region and so forth," Filseth said. "I'm sorry to see us go in that direction, but so be it."

Candidate Pat Boone, for his part, rejected the idea of "money in politics" altogether. He characterized his council bid as a "grassroots campaign" and said the focus of each candidate should be "connecting with the people."

"Make that the focus, not the dollar," Boone said.

In addition to discussing campaign-finance limits, candidates gave their views on issues relating to housing, transportation, commercial growth, parking, senior services, airplane noise, accessory-dwelling units, the political climate and more.

The candidates forum at Cubberley Community Center was co-sponsored by American Association of University Women, senior-services provider Avenidas, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, and youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net.

The entire candidates debate, which also includes questions that the candidates posed to one another, will be posted this weekend on our YouTube page.

See spreadsheets of the candidates' campaign donations:

Pat Boone

Alison Cormack

Tom DuBois

Eric Filseth

Cory Wolbach

Coming next week: Profiles of the five City Council candidates and summaries of their views on key city issues.

For complete 2018 election information, check out the Palo Alto voters' guide.

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2018 at 7:38 am

Boone is at a complete disadvantage primarily because he is an unknown. With 3 incumbents and one candidate who is well known from her work on Mitchell Park library, it shows that a newbie, rookie, is not going to get the same support from the voting public without being able to get information out to them.

We have received shiny manifestos which are basically just recycling fodder from almost all the CC and school board candidates but all they really do is get their name out. We have some corners in town so full of lawn signs that it could be called blight and once again all they really do is get the names of the candidates into the public theater.

However, I have still heard people mistaking Pat Boone for the singer!

The fact that his spending is much less, the fact that he is depending on a grass roots campaign, the fact that he is using social media and internet more than the printed word, means that his name is still not out there.

It is abhorrent to me that money is necessary in politics in America today. Not a good way. Thanks for focusing on this aspect of the campaign.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2018 at 8:37 am

Commenting just to bump this up before it gets lost in the depths.


13 people like this
Posted by R.Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2018 at 8:38 am

R.Davis is a registered user.

QUOTE: We have some corners in town so full of lawn signs that it could be called blight...

Agreed. And in many instances, it's just another name on a piece of cardboard that is often disregarded by the masses (myself included).

QUOTE: It is abhorrent to me that money is necessary in politics in America today.

That's the name of the game. Instead of striving to get any constructive word out, many politicians (from local on up to the national level) rely primarily on name recognition and well-crafted hyperbole. Administrative staffing needs and promo costs (print/media) can get expensive.

In many ways, American politics is little more than a popularity contest with divisions/factions based solely on stubborn party affiliations, various paranoias and personal dogmas.

As a result...when it comes to questionable leadership, we tend to get what we deserve.


28 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 5, 2018 at 9:12 am

It is rich that the two candidates who have raised enormous sums early in the election cycle are claiming the mantle of being champions for campaign funding limits.


8 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2018 at 11:08 am

> It is rich that the two candidates who have raised enormous sums early in the election cycle are claiming the mantle of being champions for campaign funding limits.

Not really clear from the article, but I think Cormack's plan is limiting the size of individual contributions. Residentialists received large contributions that's filling the funding gap with the Pro-growth candidates. Pro-growth candidates know that large individual contributions would look very bad for them, so a pro-growther has to either "self fund" or have their donations split to make the optics better.

The City is lucky to have a great slate of candidates this year. I don't agree with some of the candidates and their positions, but they seem like wonderful people who care about making Palo Alto a better place.

The Post chose DuBois, Filseth and Cormack today. Their editorial had unkind words about Wolbach. Gennady, when will the Weekly come out with their endorsements?


12 people like this
Posted by Barb
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2018 at 12:55 pm

UH HMMMMM...........contributions from developers, real estate professionals, or candidates potentially getting kick backs
After elections from the above????????

We ve seen that before too.

Palo does not need more growth ........it needs council candidates who ARE knowledgeable about infrastructure , environmental planning , and civic planning.
Not candidate who kiss #### with developer who don’t even live in PA or who do not suffer the consequences of the
Density and traffic they create.

Resident


2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 5, 2018 at 1:32 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Signing season is upon us. I've commented on this in previous years. It used to aggravate me much more than it does now, and not me personally, but just knowing that many people vote based on signage, and that that's the worst way to decide on whom to vote for to get the best candidates elected to represent the needs and wants of our community members, the ones who live here and have lived here for so many years. Outside campaign interest money from developers, investors, and real estate companies interfere with that process and yet they show up at election time to support and donate money to candidates who will support their interests. "Let's take back our town...make Palo Alto great again". Wow...I surprised myself when I wrote that. That has a nice ring to it. Maybe I should consider running for CC. lol! I had my chance when I wore a younger man's clothes. Credits to Billy Joel's...'Piano Man'.

There are three basic signing methods:

1. A sign on corners of every shopping area.
2. Double signing...more than one sign on corners of every shopping area.
3. Lawn signs scattered throughout town, but especially in neighborhoods where most of the candidates' politically, or otherwise like minded constituents live, ergo, pro growth vs slow growth/controlled growth candidates. There seems to be a kind of dividing line, I think, between the two groups...Oregon Expressway. The real (original) PA to the north and us folks that live in the annexed area to the south.

There might be some other tactical methods used, such as putting signs in front of other ones or putting a much bigger sign in the middle of the cluster of signs. I'm telling you folks, it's a real sign war going on out there. Beware!

A side note on SPA. For some reason all the reports and articles about Professor Dr. Ford stated that she lived in South Palo Alto. What the hell was that all about? Why did the writers make that distinction? I think we all know East Palo Alto is a different city, but are people confused about our one city, Palo Alto? Sounds like there might have been some influence on the wording from those folks who live north of us.


2 people like this
Posted by No More Signs
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 5, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Eliminate the tacky signs and hand out buttons instead. Better coverage and exposure.


4 people like this
Posted by Public financing of elections
a resident of Mayfield
on Oct 5, 2018 at 2:06 pm

Public financing of elections.

Do you prefer that politicians are bought by the general public, or bought by special interests?

Two states have modeled this: red Arizona, and blue Maine.


2 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2018 at 4:14 pm

“I’m actually working on a Colleagues Memo regarding local campaign finance reforms that would study establishing local donation limits by individuals or organizations, total expenditure limits by campaigns, and disclosure requirements for campaign advertising.”

Cory Wolbach, 2016 Web Link


35 people like this
Posted by Ms. Cormack's very BAD idea.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 5, 2018 at 4:47 pm

Ms. Cormack's very BAD idea. is a registered user.

Ms. Cormack wants to build housing on Cubberley. The majority of affordable housing that has been built over the last 10-15 years has been in this part of Palo Alto, the nearby service area of Cubberley. Most of that housing has been built with very little green or recreational space, so the new residents of this housing need public facilities for recreation. Neighbors supported those housing projects but NEVER thought that the public facilities space would be rezoned for housing.

Cubberley is zoned for PUBLIC FACILITIES--a future school and community center and playing fields will require pretty intensive use of that site--without housing. Also, the school district owns property, 525 San Antonio, that is connected to Greendell and Cubberley that currently is zoned for housing. PAUSD could build teacher housing there if that is something they need.

We need to preserve the city's limited Public Facilities zoned space to meet the higher demand for these services that will be created as we build higher density housing in the areas that have been zoned for it.

Before Council decides to put housing on Cubberley, we should have a policy discussion about city-wide use of Public Facility zoned land for housing. I wonder if the idea would be supported if the zoning change affected public facilities in ALL of Palo Alto.

This is a very bad idea. I will not not be voting for Alison Cormack.


16 people like this
Posted by Like public financing of election
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2018 at 5:41 pm

I like the idea of public financing of Elections. I sure would rather that my tax dollars contribute a couple of bucks to a candidate, rather than thousands and thousands of dollars from real estate brokers, huge commercial real estate owners, or Facebook.


19 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 5, 2018 at 8:49 pm

As someone who has analyzed the campaign contributions of those running in past elections--it needs to be pointed out that many candidates have been seeking, and accepting campaign contributions from people all over the state, and even all over the country. Some seem to be family members--but most clearly are not.

In some campaigns, the contributions from out-of-town money has exceeded more than 50% of the total collected by the candidates looking for out-of-town money. One can only wonder who these candidates think they are representing when they actually win a seat on the Council.

I would like to suggest that there be some way to limit or even prohibit out-of-town/out-of-state money for Council campaigns.

Although the City Clerk does post the campaign contributions reported to that office by the candidates, the data is often in ".PDF" files, requiring a lot of manual rekeying in order to get the data into a form that a spreadsheet can handle.

Not clear what it would take to convince the City Clerk to stop doing the least work to get this data online. Also, in many cases, required data is missing for each contribution listing--making it difficult to know who/what/where the money is coming from.


16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 6, 2018 at 11:37 am

I agree with Wayne Martin’s comment that the voters should scrutinize if a candidate’s funding comes from local voters. That is the kind of analysis the press should provide the public.
In addition to the city council race, the race for the Mid Pen Open Space Board should have that same scrutiny. What portion of Acharff’s contributions come from non residents and developers impaired to Holman’s?


11 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 6, 2018 at 2:40 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 6, 2018 at 3:13 pm

Sorry for the typos. That should have read “Scharff” and “ compared to”.


14 people like this
Posted by Money, money
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm

Cormack's experience raising money for the libraries gives her a long list of contacts with rich people.
Those contacts are very useful to her now, in addition to her own substantial financial assets.


6 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 7, 2018 at 12:03 am

" . . . several City Council candidates said Wednesday night that they would support campaign reforms to rein in campaign spending."

Oh, really? When?

How in the heck can we wonder how it is that our governing bodies are in a constant state of deadlock and disagreement and disarray when we elect people based on lawn signs, obnoxious little stickers that pop up everywhere, and glossy campaign fliers that have interchangeable photos and phrases?

Palo Alto loves to be a leading city. Why not lead in this and ban lawn signs, glossy fliers, obnoxious stickers, and pop-up ads? Let candidates win voters the old fashioned way: by persuading them that they deserve to be elected because of their thoughts and ideas? Name recognition is a lousy reason to vote for any candidate; if the candidate's name is really all you know about that person, withhold your vote! Name recognition is a form of thought manipulation. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don't fall for it.

And if the "that's a lousy reason to vote for somebody" argument doesn't persuade you, how about this: all that campaign stuff ends up as garbage. Think about what campaigns do to the environment. It's shameful, really. And yet we pride ourselves on being a green city.


23 people like this
Posted by No more risks please!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2018 at 1:55 am

Per earlier coverage on campaign money

"Her (Cormack) largest donors in the latest reporting period include Melody Wu, founder of Melody Academy of Music, Aneel Bhusri, CEO of Workday, and retired developer William Reller, each of whom gave her $1,000. Other donors include former state senator Rebecca Morgan of Los Altos Hills ($1,000), Nana Chancellor, whose occupation is listed as homemaker ($1,000), and local resident Judith Lin Kay ($1,000). Pei Cao, a software engineer at Google, also contributed $1,000.

Cormack's largest donors - a real estate developer, a Los Altos Hills resident, and corporate titans says (to me) that in the all important "regional" issues, Palo Alto will be sold out.

These council meetings are torture as it is with all the politics, Palo Altans, no more risk taking please! There are two of the most qualified people on earth running, Dubois and Filseth. My third choice is Boone, the candidate with the least campaign money and who seems to get it too.


7 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 7, 2018 at 12:47 pm

People interested in reviewing the contributions declared by each of the candidates can review these documents on the City's web-site:

Web Link

Select: 11/06/2018 General Elections

Select: Candidates


2 people like this
Posted by Jocelyn Dong
editor of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Oct 8, 2018 at 10:22 am

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

Hi @Bill, resident of Barron Park. The Weekly's endorsement of City Council candidates will be published this Friday.


11 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 9, 2018 at 2:39 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

What I find interesting is the campaign funding that has suddenly entered the race for the Mid Peninsula Open Space District Board. Greg Scharff, timed out of his council position and with no other local positions open, declared at the last minute and has donated $20K of his own money to his campaign. He has also hired a PR firm in Berkeley. No doubt we are about to be blitzed with expensive ads in the local papers and multiple glossy flyers in the mail. Perhaps he will also hire people to deliver flyers to doorsteps.

Of course, Greg Scharff also donated large amounts of his own money to his previous council campaigns, $60K to his reelection coffers four years ago.


2 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 9, 2018 at 2:43 pm

I'd favor fundraising limits. With spending limits only, the surplus cash is virtually indistinguishable from bribes, especially when it comes from late contributions that are only reported after the election.


11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 9, 2018 at 5:26 pm

Tonight at 7 is the final city council debate. It’s at the First Congregational Chuch on Louis and Middlefield.
The last two debates were interesting and informative with much of the focus on Wolbach’s inconsistencies between what he told voters last time and how he voted and conducted himself once elected.
All of the candidates were articulate, although it would be good if Cormack would not so often avoid substantive answers behind a request for more data and a promise to make objective decisions rather than will tell us her positions. The voters deserve to know the positions of the candidates on key issues. We are electing political representatives, not judges to call balls and strikes.


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