It's been two years since Palo Alto reduced the size of the City Council from nine to seven members, the result of a successful 2014 ballot measure.
Surprisingly, back in the 2018 election, only five candidates, including three incumbents, ran for the three available seats. Two of the incumbents, Eric Filseth and Tom Dubois, plus newcomer Alison Cormack were elected. Incumbent Cory Wolbach and Pat Boone were defeated. It was one of the least competitive races in decades, and some wondered if this was the beginning of a trend toward a declining pool of candidates interested in serving. (Read our 2018 endorsement editorial for more analysis.)
Now, just two years later, 10 people, including incumbents Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka, are vying for four seats. Councilwoman Liz Kniss is termed out and Mayor Adrian Fine decided against seeking reelection. This, and perhaps the pandemic, created a great opportunity for others to run. The result is what is undoubtedly the most diverse and capable group of candidates in city history.
Another unusual factor in this election is that City Manager Ed Shikada, appointed in June 2018 in an unprecedented closed process without any search or involvement of residents, stepped into his new role just as the new, smaller council was taking its seats in January 2019. Thus the election is also indirectly an assessment of Shikada's performance.
To some degree, the new smaller council turned away from the larger prior council's chippy and unproductive behavior of 2017 and 2018 and focused on working more constructively together on issues, including the big three: housing, transportation and commercial development. But the last two years have not been without their disconcerting and controversial moments. The staff's opaque and manipulative handling of the President Hotel apartment conversion application and residents' complaints about neighborhood traffic-calming measures and the various parking programs showed the council as weak and lacking leadership.
Two of the more dramatic and disturbing examples were the stonewalling by staff of a full and transparent report to the community on the shocking June 2019 delay of first responders to a 54-year-old resident suffering a seizure and Shikada's declaration of a citywide curfew following George Floyd's death without City Council approval.
In the first case, serious questions about the actions of police, including ordering paramedics to hold off responding, the lack of a required body cam on a police sergeant and an unauthorized police search of the victim's house, remain unanswered by the city manager, police chief and City Council to this day.
In the second, Shikada improperly exercised emergency powers — granted to him months earlier by the council because of the COVID-19 crisis — and declared and imposed an astonishing ten-day curfew (canceled after two nights) for an entirely unrelated purpose: fear that racial justice protests following Floyd's killing might trigger widespread opportunistic crime.
These two examples of bad judgment, along with many others, point to governance problems and the need for stronger and more courageous leadership from the City Council to assert its rightful oversight role on behalf of Palo Alto residents. Among other things, the full range of policy options need to be presented on issues in front of the council, not just those that staff thinks will win majority support, and be provided in adequate time for full public discussion.
This year's field of candidates offers unusually diverse choices for voters. There are four women (Eisenberg, Kou, Malone, Templeton), five renters (Stone, Malone, Lee, Kou, Eisenberg), and five candidates of color (Varma, Tanaka, Malone, Lee and Kou). There are seven candidates with city government experience (Burt, Kou, Lauing, Lee, Stone, Tanaka and Templeton).
Our recommendations reflect our desire to choose candidates who have the governance experience and knowledge of the community to successfully navigate the many challenges Palo Alto faces: recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, creation of substantial new affordable housing, implementation of a business tax on large employers, curtailment of new commercial development until we succeed with a housing strategy that will prevent a worsening of our jobs-to-housing ratio and maintain some economic diversity, reform of police and human services practices to reflect our values as a community of welcoming people of all economic and ethnic backgrounds, and the need for strong oversight of a city manager who has made some concerning missteps in his first year and nine months on the job.
Of all the candidates, former Mayor and Councilman Pat Burt is best equipped to pursue these policy and governance goals. For the last four years, while off the council, he has remained deeply involved in city issues, especially in the areas of transportation, housing, finance and governance. He has never been afraid to voice concerns about city management and to push new and creative ideas. He has been a strong supporter of a business tax and increasing commercial-development impact fees to fund affordable housing and the grade separation of rail crossings, and worked hard while on the council to adopt policies that would encourage more housing and limit new commercial development. He opposed state legislation that would have preempted local zoning to force the upzoning of residential neighborhoods. Burt will be relentless in pushing for more transparency and responsiveness from city staff and better community outreach and engagement.
Ed Lauing shares most of Burt's qualities and positions but has a softer and more collegial approach. Having served on and chaired both the Parks and Recreation and the Planning and Transportation commissions over the last decade, he matches Burt's depth of understanding of city issues. When combined with his experience leading three software companies and as an executive recruiter, Lauing will bring valuable corporate leadership and HR perspectives as the council undertakes to improve staff performance and build better relations among its members.
He rightly calls the need for affordable, below market rate housing an "emergency" and supports granting selected exceptions to the city's 50-foot height limit and other zoning rules for such housing projects on a case-by-case basis. He favors a business tax on large companies and says the council needs to regain the public's trust by improving its oversight of the staff and being more selective about major assignments so that work is accomplished efficiently. He will push for removing the binding arbitration provision in the police contract that makes terminating a police officer almost impossible.
Our third choice is Greer Stone, who is making his second bid for the council after coming in seventh in an 11-person race in 2016. With a strong focus on social justice and mental health needs, Stone serves as vice chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission and is the former chair of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission. He practiced law before deciding that teaching would be a more satisfying pursuit and now teaches history at Gunn. He criticizes past city policy that he says has favored commercial growth over needed affordable housing, supports a business tax to help pay for that housing, and as a renter has a personal understanding of the need for rent stabilization measures.
He opposed state housing mandates, including SB 50, to force residential upzoning in communities like Palo Alto, instead advocating strategies that would focus on targeting below-market-rate housing development rather than market-rate housing. Stone sees the COVID-19 crisis and the racial justice movement as opportunities for a variety of reforms and initiatives, including the creation of a citizens police-oversight commission.
For the fourth seat we recommend incumbent Lydia Kou, who is a passionate advocate for maintaining the residential character of Palo Alto and preventing new commercial development that will only add to the city's congestion and exacerbate the jobs-housing imbalance. As part of a frequent three-person minority on the council (along with Tom Dubois and Eric Filseth), Kou has been marginalized and underestimated during the last four years. Unlike Dubois and Filseth, who were part of a council majority prior to Kou joining the council, Kou has been largely ignored and at times outright disrespected by some of her colleagues as she puts forth proposed amendments to improve staff recommendations. We challenge her to find ways to support, instead of oppose, the development of new affordable-housing projects by making necessary compromises to current zoning rules such as height, density and parking. More than others, Kou has been a councilmember for the majority of those residents who don't have connections at City Hall and who feel underrepresented.
The other incumbent in the race, Greg Tanaka, in spite of his intelligence, commitment to weekly meetings with the public, and penchant for pouring over staff reports looking for any detail he can question, has been neither disciplined nor effective as a council member. He has become best known as the one who takes up inordinate amounts of time asking questions on unimportant details and rarely constructively contributes to council deliberations. He has endless curiosity but doesn't organize his thoughts well enough, take clear positions or rally support from his colleagues. But most concerning, he has unabashedly sought and accepted unprecedented amounts of campaign contributions from developers and other commercial property interests.
The remaining five candidates — Planning Commissioner Cari Templeton, former Human Relations Commissioner Steven Lee, attorney Rebecca Eisenberg, tech product director Ajit Varma and tech engineer Raven Malone — are each impressive, intelligent residents who have brought well-considered ideas and needed perspectives to the community during this campaign. We hope they will continue their engagement on local issues and service to the community. In 2022, two of the three incumbents will be termed out, providing another opportunity for whichever six candidates are unsuccessful this time to run again.