When the Palo Alto City Council agreed last month to change the rules for appointing members to local boards and commissions, one of its stated goals was to make the process clearer, more consistent and less contentious.
But as the council looks to formally adopt the rules next week, it is also preparing for what promises to be a heated round of appointments, with the two outgoing council members looking to cement their influence in the composition of key boards that will be advising the incoming council.
The council plans to take two actions on Nov. 30 that are seemingly at odds with each other. One is the adoption of a new commission handbook that specifies that commission appointments should be made in the spring. Another is the selection of candidates that the council will interview for open seats on the Historic Resources Board and the Planning and Transportation Commission, which it plans to fill on Dec. 14, its final meeting of the year.
While appointments to the Historic Resources Board are expected to be a humdrum affair that retains the status quo (all three applicants are incumbents), the council's decision on the Planning and Transportation Commission will almost certainly be a hyperpartisan tussle that will send the commission in a more pro-growth direction.
The highly political nature of appointments to the influential planning commission was on full display on Nov. 2, when the council voted to make its appointments in December rather than to follow the protocols in the new handbook. The four council members in the more pro-growth camp — Mayor Adrian Fine, Alison Cormack, Liz Kniss and Greg Tanaka — all moved to make appointments this year, which will give outgoing council members Kniss and Fine a chance to reshape the commission. The three council members who are affiliated with the more slow-growth "residentialist" camp — Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou — strongly opposed the action, with DuBois accusing his four colleagues of "ramming this through."
Kniss, who made the motion to make the appointments in December, argued that doing so would take some of the pressure off the incoming council, which she said will be charged with making many decisions about personnel positions and memberships on regional boards. She also suggested that if the council doesn't make these appointments this year, some boards could see vacancies early next year, before the spring appointment.
"We're about have a period of time in January and February when all new mayors will struggle with trying to make all the appointments made," Kniss said.
By making the appointments this year, the current council can ensure that the 2021 council "at least will not have that particular area — that particular appointment challenge — to meet at the same time."
The three council members who opposed her motion suggested that the timeline is driven by pure politics.
"You're going to have people not appointed by a new council," DuBois said. "And if you insist on doing this, people are going to remember. It's going to be a shame. It's going to be by the slimmest majority possible."
With its 4-3 vote, the council also agreed to extend by two weeks the recruitment period for the two open seats on the planning commission, which are currently filled by Ed Lauing and Doria Summa. At that time, the city had only received two applications, from Summa and from resident Kevin Ma, a software engineer.
Since then, the city has received seven more applications. The list of candidates now includes Lauing, who fell just short on Nov. 3 in his bid for a council seat; architect Jessica Resmini; attorney Rebecca Eisenberg; Kelsey Banes, regional executive director of YIMBY Action; Doug Burns, a member of Barron Park Association; Kathy Jordan, a community volunteer who has been critical of the council's recent budget decisions; and Alon Carmeli, a computer engineer who serves as managing director for multifamily residential properties investment and redevelopment at Greenpoint Real Estate.
Given the highly political nature of the planning commission appointments and the commission's current makeup, the council's move to pick new members this year is expected to give the newcomers an edge over the incumbents, making it more likely that both Lauing and Summa will lose their seats before the end of the year.
Of the seven commissioners, Lauing and Summa are the two that have been most cautious about approving new developments and most prone to challenging staff recommendations about new policies or applications. Both voted last week against allowing Castilleja School to increase its enrollment from 426 to 540 students, arguing in favor of a more gradual increase. Both had also opposed in May a new ordinance that relaxes zoning rules for the construction of accessory dwelling units, arguing that the city needs to conduct additional analysis of the ordinance's potential impacts.
While Lauing, an executive recruiter who has chaired both the Parks and Recreation Commission and the planning commission, has frequently characterized the lack of affordable housing in Palo Alto as an "emergency," he has also clashed on policy issues with the members who favor faster and more aggressive action to promote growth.
He and Summa had both opposed in 2018 the establishment of the "affordable housing overlay combining district" — a new zoning designation that gives density bonuses and other zoning exemptions to affordable-housing projects and that was used by the nonprofit Alta Housing to win approval for a 59-unit development known as Wilton Court. Lauing had argued at the time that the city should expeditiously approve the development through the traditional "planned community" process but suggested that the city take more time to further refine the new overlay district, with the goal of creating different standards for projects that provide units for low-income residents and those who target the "moderate" income level (despite the commission's opposition, the council approved the zoning overlay, which has not been used by any developers since Wilton Court).
Lauing's recent council campaign was endorsed by Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, a political action committee that favors more slow-growth policies and that had also endorsed current council members DuBois, Filseth, Kou as well as Greer Stone, who will join the council in January. As such, Lauing likely would have been a shoo-in for a fresh term had the council followed its newly approved process, which would have given Stone and Pat Burt a vote in the new appointment as incoming council members. The fact that the appointments will instead be made by a council that includes Kniss and Fine makes his reappointment prospects far less certain.
Summa, who has been the commission's most frequent dissenter and its staunchest critic of policies that relax zoning rules to promote growth, may also see her term come to an end. A College Terrace resident who has long been active in local politics, Summa had cast the sole no vote in the commission's decision in August to rezone a two-block stretch of San Antonio Road to spur housing production, which included approval of a 102-apartment development. She was also the sole commissioner to oppose the creation of the "housing incentive program" that grants density bonuses to housing developments in downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real — a position that puts her at odds with both her commission colleagues and the council.
If the council votes to replace Lauing and Summa with more pro-growth candidates in its final meeting of the year, it will follow a pattern of partisanship that goes back to at least 2012, when the council voted 5-4 to appoint real estate attorney Michael Alcheck over incumbent Susan Fineberg, who was known for deep scrutiny of new development proposals. In 2014, former Commissioner Arthur Keller lost his seat by a single vote to Kate Downing, an attorney and former member of Palo Alto Forward who left the city after publicly accusing the city of failing to address the housing goals. Former Commissioner Asher Waldfogel, who has made contributions to council candidates in the "residentialist" camp, also lost his bid for a fresh term in December 2019, when the council voted 4-3 along partisan lines to appoint attorney Barton Hechtman to the seat.
Despite the council's record of politicizing appointments to the planning commission, both Kniss and Cormack argued earlier this month that filling the seats this year is a practical — rather than political — move. Cormack said the current council should "do the work that is in front of us" rather than defer to next year's council. She also suggested that, as the newest council member, it would have been more difficult for her to "make really great votes in the first couple of months, since I was still learning the job and all the people."
Filseth disagreed and called the council's decision to make appointments before the end of the year "wildly inappropriate" and a "bad idea."
"And if we pass this — and it will be by the barest minimum margin — I hope this is the last council that indulges in this kind of thing," Filseth said just before the 4-3 vote.