When the Palo Alto City Council meets in late November to interview 13 candidates for the city's influential but polarized Planning and Transportation Commission, questions about ethics may loom as large as those pertaining to housing and traffic.
The topic of commissioner ethics emerged repeatedly during recent City Council candidate forums, with several candidates alluding to recent citizens' complaints against Planning Commissioner Michael Alcheck. In November 2017, Alcheck took part in revising zoning rules for carports and garages without disclosing the facts that he had built carports at his two properties in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood and was involved in a dispute with the city's planning department over converting them into garages -- a conversion that planners initially said violated the zoning code. Alcheck moved ahead with the conversion despite the city's findings, and in December 2017, the city relented under pressure from Alcheck's attorney and gave him the permits.
The episode, which prompted calls from several residents and council members for Alcheck's resignation, added more fuel to what in recent years has become an increasingly political and polarized process for selecting members for the planning commission. And while it will be up to the current council to fill the two seats that will become vacant on Dec. 15, the new council when it convenes next year could opt to discuss whether Alcheck should remain on the commission. It also will have a chance to fill one commission seat and in 2020 fill two more.
At the Oct. 4 City Council candidates' forum sponsored by the Palo Alto Neighborhoods residents' group, each of the five candidates was asked what role the council should play in addressing "corruption" in government. Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, one of three incumbents, alluded to the "ethical cloud" hovering over a planning commissioner and pointed out that the five council members who support more city growth voted to give Alcheck a fresh term in 2017.
"I think the two most important qualities you need in people like council members and commissioners are ethics and integrity, and judgment," Filseth said at the debate. "That individual had already served a couple of years on the Planning and Transportation Commission, and every single council member knew what they were getting when he came up for reinstatement."
Councilman Tom DuBois has also been an outspoken critic of Alcheck, who is one of the commission's chief advocates for new development, particularly housing. During an Oct. 3 debate sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly, DuBois referred to Alcheck's garage project and asked his fellow candidates: What do you think is the proper response from the council when a council-appointed board member or commissioner acts unethically?
In response, council candidate Alison Cormack advocated for the city attorney to investigate the episode and for more training of appointed officials. Candidate Pat Boone said a government official facing an ethics complaint needs to be "immediately put on hold and not continue in the position until we figure out what exactly we're talking about." Filseth emphasized the need to appoint commissioners with better judgment.
Even Councilman Cory Wolbach, the only council candidate who voted to reappoint Alcheck in 2017, responded that he did not realize what was happening with the garage project at the time of that vote. He said now he would have a "much more difficult time" reappointing the commissioner and suggested "resignation might be necessary."
"That behavior was unacceptable. I think we all agree about that," said Wolbach, who earlier this month received -- and promptly returned -- a $250 campaign contribution from Alcheck.
Recent commission reappointments
Given the current makeup of the council, any move to oust Alcheck is unlikely to succeed in the near-term. The five members of the council's more pro-growth wing -- Mayor Liz Kniss, Adrian Fine, Greg Scharff, Greg Tanaka and Wolbach -- have thus far proven unwilling to entertain the removal of the commission's chief housing proponent. On Nov. 13, 2017, the five members voted as a block to reappoint Alcheck to the commission and to appoint William Riggs, an assistant professor at University of San Francisco, to a new term.
Neither Alcheck nor Riggs received votes from any of the four commissioners on the more slow-growth wing -- DuBois, Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou.
Since then, Alcheck and Riggs have been strident supporters of building more housing and reducing parking requirements for new developments. Each has also expressed frustration with the rest of the commission, which has generally been more skeptical about revising zoning regulations to encourage more development in the city. The two now make up the commission's more pro-growth wing along with Vice Chair Susan Monk, who in 2016 helped manage Kniss' successful re-election campaign. (The terms of Monk and commission veteran Przemek Gardias are expiring in December; neither has re-applied for a seat.)
Despite winning the appointment, Riggs' enthusiasm for serving on the planning commission has been underwhelming. Riggs missed seven of the planning commission's 15 regular meetings between Jan. 10 and Sept. 26 and showed up late twice, according to the Weekly's review of his attendance record. This does not include the three meetings that the commission canceled, at least in one case because of an insufficient quorum.
At the commission's Aug. 29 meeting, he fumed about the commission's lack of real power and suggested he doesn't "bring any value to the city" because anything he and his colleagues say will just be rehashed again by the City Council, which has the decision-making power.
"I feel like we are powerless. That's why I think about quitting every day. It's not something I enjoy because there is no value that we bring to the city," Riggs said.
Thirteen vie for two seats
The 13 residents who hope to join the commission see things differently. In their applications, which were released last week, several candidates alluded to the bitter tone of the current commission's discussions and suggested that they would be well-suited to improving the group's level of productivity and collegiality.
Applicant Rebecca Eisenberg, an attorney, cited a recent meeting in which commissioners "spoke past each other" and "interrupted each other."
"Some did not seem prepared. A couple arrived late or did not attend at all. In no case did the commissioners appear to be influenced by each other or by those who were presenting to them," Eisenberg wrote. "Not surprisingly, few decisions were made."
Eisenberg said she believes she could "help move the commission into a more positive, conciliatory, compromising and productive direction."
Kelsey Banes, a psychologist at VA Palo Alto Healthcare System and an advocate for more housing, wrote that one of her specific goals would be to improve the commission's meeting process "to avoid polarization, reach consensus more efficiently and improve quality of recommendation to council."
"I would seek to work toward this goal by modeling effective communication skills, as honed from my psychology training (e.g., active listening), and encouraging others on the commission to utilize the same tools to understand others and express themselves more effectively," she wrote.
Carolyn Templeton, who retired last year from her position as technical program manager at Google, wrote that the commission has made numerous decisions in recent years that have been overturned and that led to "widespread frustration among the residents."
"As a result, public trust in the city government has eroded somewhat," Templeton wrote. "I believe we can do better and that we can rebuild that trust."
Others candidates applying for a seat cited their prior experiences on the council and the commission. Former Mayor Bern Beecham, a commissioner from 1990 to 1999 who twice chaired the panel before joining the council, stated in his application that he believes the commission's role and format "offers the best opportunity for candid and diverse policy and discussions."
Dena Mossar, who served on the council from 1998 to 2007 and as mayor in 2003, wrote that she is "interested in how communities grapple with change while preserving their core values and the process used to make decisions." To meet its goal of providing informed guidance, the commission "must focus on the task at hand and limit repetitive, disrespectful or irrelevant conversation," Mossar wrote.
Like Eisenberg and Banes, both Beecham and Mossar pointed to housing as a chief topic of interest. That also appears to be the case for every other candidate. Elaine Uang, an architect who co-founded the citizens group Palo Alto Forward, wrote that she wants the commission to help expand Palo Alto's "sustainable transportation and housing policies" and "help people find a wider range of housing options so they can live here at all life stages."
The candidate list also includes several employees of area high-tech companies. L. David Baron, a software engineer at Mozilla, made a case in his application for more dense housing near downtown and California Avenue. Claude Ezran, director of marketing at Oorja Fuel Cells and a former member of the Human Relations Commission, said one of his specific goals would be to build "more affordable housing, especially near transit hubs" and providing housing for teachers. Ezran also said he supports limiting new office development and expanding the city's shuttle program.
Thomas Siegel, vice president for trust and safety at Google, wrote that his two goals would be to lessen the impact of traffic on "quality of life" and create "a balanced process to manage the benefits and perils of growth."
Brian Hamacheck, a technology executive at Social Foundry, wrote that his goals would be to "preserve the unique character of Palo Alto while implementing necessary and desirable changes in thoughtful ways."
Michelle Kraus, the head of global government affairs for Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and a fundraiser for the Democratic party, cited the need to balance limits on commercial development and the need for housing. She said she looks forward to "advanced transportation solutions to alleviate traffic and parking issues."
Several other applicants wrote that they would like to see more input from residents before the city makes decisions. Craig Yanagisawa, who is retired, cited the city's recent Ross Road bike boulevard as an example of a project that failed to meet the expectations of residents and said his top goal would be "better customer satisfaction."
Giselle Roohoparvar, a real-estate attorney, also focused on transportation and said her goal would be to see the commission make headway on this topic. She suggested that the city do more to encourage greater use of bicycles and scooters by allowing companies to distribute rentable bikes and scooters across the city and by providing residents with more information about public-transportation options.
The council plans to interview the 13 candidates, as well as candidates for vacancies on the Architectural Review Board and the Parks and Recreation Commission, on Nov. 27. Current commissioners' terms expire on Dec. 15.
• Weekly journalists discuss tensions on the planning commission in an Aug. 3 episode of "Behind the Headlines." Watch the webcast here.