This year's Palo Alto City Council election is notable for two reasons: The size of the council is shrinking from nine to seven and only five candidates are running — the least competitive race in decades.
While the reason for the small number of candidates isn't clear, we suspect that it is partly due to the animosity, bickering and political gamesmanship that has characterized many council meetings the last two years. Monday night meetings have gone from being largely congenial to often acrimonious. Mirroring the national political environment, the City Council often appears more like a partisan body with factions plotting against each other than a thoughtful and respectful group of community leaders seeking solutions to complicated problems.
To be sure, other councils have had their tensions and personality conflicts, but nothing compared to what this group has experienced over the last two years. If it becomes the norm, it will chase away good candidates in the future and alienate the public. It is worth noting that none of the qualified candidates who ran unsuccessfully two years ago opted to run again his year.
This climate change took root in 2017, after the 2016 City Council election resulted in a clear 5-4 majority of those inclined against tighter restrictions on commercial growth. This came after a period when the council was often evenly divided on development issues, with former Councilman Pat Burt a common "swing" vote, though usually siding with the so-called "slow growth" foursome. That gave him oversized influence, especially when he served as mayor, but it also demonstrated the value of not having such a predictable and intractable 5-4 majority on either "side."
So when voters chose Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou to replace Burt and Greg Schmid (who were termed out after eight years) and Marc Berman (who successfully ran for Assembly) it set up a political dynamic that has proven harmful to Palo Alto and government effectiveness. (For more analysis of that campaign, read our 2016 endorsement editorial.)
Without anyone serving as a moderating swing vote, the new majority was emboldened to do anything it pleased. Greg Scharff, who was elected mayor, Liz Kniss, who followed Scharff as mayor this year, Cory Wolbach, Fine and Tanaka could essentially impose any outcome they wished on the four-person minority. And they have wielded that power almost with glee throughout the last two years. While some might argue that's what majority rule is all about and that election outcomes matter, we prefer a style of governing that doesn't trample minority voices, relies on the power of persuasion and logic and avoids dismissive or insulting personal comments.
This phenomenon has led to repeated last-minute and late-night surprise proposals being offered by the majority, usually as amendments to staff recommendations, without the benefit of staff analysis or community input. Whether these efforts have been coordinated ahead of time or not, their effect is to undermine the long tradition of community debate and compromise. Citizens expect a majority to respect and work with minority voices to formulate policy, and that too often has stopped happening.
With two current council members (Karen Holman and Greg Scharff) termed out and unable to seek re-election, the race this year features three incumbents — Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach — and two challengers, Pat Boone and Alison Cormack. Because of the size reduction in the council, three seats are open instead of five. (In 2020, four seats will be on the ballot.)
Interestingly, after two previous elections when some degree of group campaigning took place among a trio of politically aligned candidates (some say a "slate"), this year voters have a pair of candidates (Filseth and DuBois) who share support from community members who wish the council would be more aggressive about limiting commercial growth and two (Wolbach and Cormack) who are more closely aligned with the current council majority favoring fewer restrictions on development. That leaves philosophically driven voters with an extra vote and the possibility that many won't choose to cast three votes or will cast a vote for Boone. As a result, the outcome is difficult to predict.
Boone moved to Palo Alto just two years ago and, although articulate and becoming familiar with local issues, is not close to having the knowledge and perspective of the other candidates, all longtime residents. His statements during the early part of the campaign suggest he is more aligned on most development-related issues with DuBois and Filseth than with Wolbach and Cormack.
In evaluating the other four candidates, we believe Filseth and DuBois best reflect the prevailing community concerns about the need for restrictive commercial growth measures; new housing development that is focused on below-market-rate, subsidized rental housing for service workers, seniors and low-income residents; and the implementation of policies that increase housing supply without exacerbating existing parking and traffic problems.
These two realize, as do most Palo Altans, that our past policies have worsened the jobs-housing imbalance and helped fuel increased housing costs: By allowing much more commercial development (which has spurred the need for housing) than housing development, the problem has only gotten worse with every approved project.
They have largely been in sync in supporting lowered commercial-growth caps and higher housing-impact fees on new development so that more funding is available for the development of subsidized housing. They both opposed the council's moves to eliminate the cap on non-residential development downtown from the Comprehensive Plan and to loosen the annual 50,000-square-foot office cap by allowing unused square footage to "roll over" from one year to the next.
Both DuBois and Filseth support the recent efforts to encourage the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to boost the inventory of small housing units but have expressed frustration that the council majority has been unwilling to consider the parking issues created and what rules should be established to protect R-1 neighborhoods from parking problems.
They also both support renter-relocation assistance and the study of rent-stabilization measures to address the skyrocketing costs of rental housing.
In his role on the finance committee, Filseth has become the most knowledgeable council member on city budget, finance and pension matters. He brings a straight-forward and respectful approach to the issues and as vice mayor this year emerged as a leader on the council.
For the third opening on the council we recommend newcomer Alison Cormack over incumbent Cory Wolbach.
Cormack, who led the city bond measure campaign 10 years ago that resulted in the new Mitchell Park Library and renovations to the downtown and Rinconada libraries, has tried to thread the needle of avoiding alignment with either of the two traditional political camps in Palo Alto and therefore positioning herself to receive support across the board. She said she would have opposed the lifting of the commercial development cap in downtown but also would have opposed cutting in half the citywide cap as proposed by a citizens' initiative. But with those two actions having now been taken, she says she is comfortable with the result and wants to focus on how to manage future impacts of limited growth, especially transportation.
Cormack has been a critic of the south Palo Alto street-calming measures and the bad city-community communications and would like to see prioritization of improvements to the city's shuttle program. She also has proposed that subsidized housing be considered in the planning now underway for the Cubberley Community Center property.
Although she can be frustratingly vague on some current issues, explaining that she needs additional information, we think she would bring corporate and community experience and a collaborative style that would be an asset to the council.
We supported Cory Wolbach four years ago because we saw him as a unique candidate due to his age, his background as a legislative aide and his passion for crafting solutions to problems. He also stressed the need for integrity and inclusiveness in political decision-making and seemed genuinely focused on seeking consensus whenever possible.
But while earnest and, we believe, well-intentioned, Wolbach has repeatedly been part of the group that has created dysfunction on this council by either offering surprise and pre-emptive motions or by joining with others to make disparaging comments about his colleagues. His recent refusal to support even the study of possible rent-stabilization measures, after all his talk about tackling tough issues like our rental-housing crisis, was disappointing and revealing. When DuBois made the motion to include the study of rent control, Wolbach asserted the motion was "introducing fear where we should introduce thoughtfulness."
The prior October, when the rent-control issue was first introduced in a colleagues memo, Wolbach accused the three authors of being disingenuous.
"I don't think this is sincerely being offered as part of a comprehensive solution," Wolbach said.
We kept hoping over the last four years that the feedback and criticism of Wolbach's behavior would result in self-reflection and a change. Instead, in spite of his many good ideas and interest in legislating, Wolbach has not exhibited the restraint and forbearance needed to be effective on a council that requires more collaborative than advocacy skills.
For a more productive council that hopefully will focus on solutions rather than political gamesmanship or personal insults, we recommend the election of Eric Filseth, Tom DuBois and Alison Cormack to Palo Alto City Council.
• Read the Weekly's past editorials on city issues since the 2016 election here.
Find more coverage on Palo Alto races and measures, endorsements and voter-education events here.