Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Scharff turned heads four years ago when he injected nearly $100,000 into his re-election campaign, a sum that dwarfed the resources of all of his opponents.
Now, with his final term coming to an end, he is trying to reprise this strategy in a different race: his showdown with City Council colleague Karen Holman over a seat on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District board of directors. While Holman, a well-known conservationist, has the support of the entire district board and various environmentalists, Scharff has opened up a sizeable fundraising lead by loaning $121,500 to his campaign, according to campaign finance documents.
The two former mayors are vying for a Ward 5 seat that is being vacated by Palo Alto resident Nonette Hanko, who helped found the district in 1972. Holman said she was inspired to run for the seat by Hanko herself, during a conversation they had at the dedication of Cooley Landing Center in East Palo Alto.
The ward includes East Palo Alto and portions of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Stanford. The remaining portions of Palo Alto are in Ward 2, which also includes Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and portions of Stanford University. Another former Palo Alto mayor, Yoriko Kishimoto, currently represents Ward 2 on the district board.
Kishimoto, who contributed $350 to Holman's campaign, is one of the dozens of local residents to support Holman, a list that includes conservationists, neighborhood leaders, former council members and proponents of slow-growth policies. As of Oct. 20, she had received a total of $28,271 in contributions.
Her biggest contributors include Deborah Wexler ($1,000), a retired Palo Alto resident; Faith Bell, owner of Bell's Books ($999); resident Rita Vrhel ($999) and residents Paula Rantz and Michal Rantz ($950 each).
Almost all other contributors gave checks of $500 or lower. Holman received $500 from planning Commissioner Doria Summa, $500 from patent judge Norm Beamer, $250 from current open-space district board member Larry Hassett, $250 from local psychologist Janet Dafoe, $150 from former Councilwoman Enid Pearson, $125 from former Mayor Emily Renzel, $150 from Canopy Executive Director Catherine Martineau, $100 from planning commission Chair Ed Lauing, $100 from former Mayor Gail Woolley; $200 from Palo Alto Councilman Tom DuBois; $150 from former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid; and $150 from Joe Hirsch, one of the leaders of the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning.
Scharff's top donor is technologist Dan Maydan, a Los Altos Hills resident who contributed $2,500 to the campaign. Scharff has also received contributions from Peter Detkin, a consultant ($1,000), Darren Newman, an engineering fellow at Broadcom Corp. ($500) and Elizabeth Wong, the developer behind the controversial project at 429 University Ave.
He also received $100 from economist Steven Levy, co-founder of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward; and $100 from John Kelley, chief operating officer for OnRisk Inc., who often advocates for more housing development.
While Scharff has a substantial fundraising advantage, Holman is touting her endorsements from leading environmentalists, including the entire district board, and her years of involvement in policymaking and conservation issues. This includes her advocacy for ensuring adequate tree trimming, her experience as a planning commissioner in reviewing environmental documents and her experience as a councilwoman in passing budgets.
Holman told the Weekly that she believes she will bring a fresh outlook and fresh ideas to the board. This includes improving accessibility to the open space preserves for school groups and other organizations in Ward 5. One way to foster that, she said, is by making better use of an existing grant program that allows these groups to commission shuttles for transporting these groups to the open space preserves.
"I'm really looking forward to getting more people who don't generally have that access to have some access to it," Holman said.
Holman noted that the amount of cash being spent on the race is unusual. The most that had been spent in the past, she was told, was about $10,000, she said. One board member who was challenged four years ago had spent about $4,000 on the re-election campaign.
She told the Weekly that she would bring a long-standing commitment and "vision for environmental programs and practices." This includes her participation in the district's recent process to adopt a new vision plan. As part of the process, she said, she had advocated for better connectivity between the bay and some of the more distant preserves.
Scharff also touted his experience in managing budgets, restoring open space preserves and allocating funding for major projects. He serves on the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority governing board, which allocates funds for restoring wetlands, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, where he chairs the five-member Enforcement Committee.
"I feel like I am very conversant in these issues and understand them well," Scharff said.
As someone who represents the city on various regional boards, including the Association of Bay Area Governments, Scharff said his involvement on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District would be the logical next step. He also told the Weekly he is undaunted by the board's endorsement of Holman and noted that most of these endorsements came before he had even announced his bid for the board seat.
"Is that how democracy works? Do we have board members choosing the next board member? The fact that the board endorsed her before going through the process and meeting me -- I think that devalues them, frankly," Scharff said.
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