Two years ago, with the city largely shut down during the frightening pre-vaccine days of the pandemic and most city residents sticking close to home, the 2020 Palo Alto City Council election attracted the most diverse group of 10 candidates in history, including two incumbents, for four available seats.
The campaign focused on the city's COVID-19 response, racial justice, police reform, housing affordability and whether the City Council was exercising adequate oversight of City Manager Ed Shikada and his staff. (Read our 2020 endorsement editorial for more analysis of the candidates and issues back then.)
This year, it's a smaller field of seven candidates but with no incumbents. Three are currently serving on city commissions (Lauing, Summa and Forssell), one (Veenker) previously ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly, and three have no prior electoral or government experience (Lythcott-Haims, Comsa and Hamachek.)
This is only the third time in Palo Alto history (the last being in 2007) when no incumbent was on the ballot, in part because of the larger size of previous councils. With the current smaller, seven-member council, only three seats are up for election this year. Councilmembers Tom Dubois and Eric Filseth are termed out after serving for eight years and Alison Cormack chose not to seek reelection to a second term.
The last four years have seen a calming of political divisions on the council and, we believe, in the community. With strong commercial development caps and other restrictions now in place, and with a growing consensus that the city's biggest challenge is how and where, not whether, to create more affordable housing, the current council has seen little of the bickering and political jockeying so common in years past. With the abundance of empty office space and the likelihood that remote working will continue for the foreseeable future, combined with the pressures and requirements the state has placed on the city to get more housing built, the overly simplistic growth/no growth debate has subsided. And there is widespread agreement that new housing growth must not be offset by a growth in jobs.
Strikingly, the seven candidates offer mostly nuanced differences over the important issues of housing, grade crossings, sustainability and public safety. "Area plans," in which specific areas of the city are studied and zoning changes adopted that allow for increased density, and in some cases, building heights that go beyond the current 50-foot height limit, while also spelling out desired amenities are being promoted by every candidate.
The similarity of views means voters must focus more on the qualities each candidate will bring to the council and who is best suited to crafting the policies residents will find the most compatible with community values and character.
The council's biggest challenge may be to learn to operate at a quicker pace of decision making. No one was happy with the six years it took for a decision on the Castilleja School redevelopment application, and inaction on the future of the Cubberley Community Center and long, drawn-out debate over rail crossings, among other issues, led to public frustration with their government. Too many issues get bogged down for years, causing all but the most patient and committed homeowners to tune out, while virtually excluding renters from the conversation. That must change, as must the inclination of past councils to keep striving for perfect solutions when none exist.
On the bright side, the council has approved multiple housing projects and incentives to attract more, giving hope that faster progress can and will be made to address the housing needs, especially for low and very low income residents who are valued service workers in our community.
With some major exceptions and misjudgments, such as City Manager Ed Shikada's improper use of a COVID-19 emergency powers resolution to declare a citywide curfew and his police chief's unilateral decision to begin encrypting all radio communications, the staff and council did a commendable job of navigating through the darkest days of the pandemic. Turnover, staff shortages, budget cuts and remote working has taken its toll, however, and among the council and staff priorities must be to stabilize the city workforce.
With the pandemic response largely behind us, we're also hoping to see the three new members of the council join the efforts being made by Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and Councilmember Greer Stone to increase transparency and the council's oversight of the city manager.
As our recommendations show, our interest is in selecting candidates for their varied talents, perspectives, diversity and ability to communicate effectively. While the community discussion around housing has evolved, other major issues loom: climate-action programs that require supersizing the capacity of the city's electrical grid, the ambitious Fiber to the Premises plan to provide high-speed internet access across the city, and the need to get out in front of the growing infrastructure pains that will come with the addition of thousands of new residences. The seven council members must be able to work together quickly and seamlessly to turn these and other big city visions into effective implementation that anticipates and prevents unintended consequences.
Behind our picks: collaboration skills, experience and inclusion
Our top two choices are Vicki Veenker and Ed Lauing. Veenker is a former patent litigation attorney turned professional mediator who has brought opposing sides together on issues as complex as health care and trade policy, while working at the local level to support the underserved. She was narrowly defeated by Marc Berman in the 2016 state Assembly race, after which she founded Sibling Cities USA, a nonprofit that aims to pair up similarly sized cities in different parts of the country to share best practices and perspectives on issues in common. A 30-year resident of Palo Alto, she served for 20 years on the board of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which represented residents of the Buena Vista mobile home park. Veenker believes her mediation and policy expertise will help the city to get "unstuck and move forward" on incentives for more affordable housing development, a decision on rail crossings and the future of Cubberley as a south Palo Alto community center. Her collaboration and mediation skills and focus on outcomes will add immensely to the collective skill set of the current council.
In 2020 Ed Lauing narrowly missed being elected to the council, finishing a close fifth behind incumbent Greg Tanaka. His 15 years of service on the Planning and Transportation Commission (currently as chair) and on the Parks and Recreation Commission have given him the deepest familiarity on local issues of any of the candidates. With planning and zoning always a large part of the council's work, Lauing will be a critical resource and leader in addressing all the key land use and transportation issues facing the community. He has repeatedly demonstrated on the planning commission his ability to calmly, unemotionally and patiently stay focused on the task at hand and design a fair outcome, even when dealing with a divided community, such as he did with the Castilleja project.
He co-chairs the Housing Element Working Group, a citizens' group that created a plan for meeting the state mandate to plan for 6,086 new housing units by 2031. As an executive recruiter and former CEO of three software companies, Lauing will bring valuable corporate leadership and HR experience as the council undertakes to improve city staff performance and build more accountability into the council-manager relationship.
Our choice for the third council seat came down to Lisa Forssell and Julie Lythcott-Haims. Forssell is a Stanford University-educated computer scientist turned creative and technical director at Pixar Animation Studios. She is now on the design team at Apple. She has served on Palo Alto's Utilities Advisory Commission for the last six years and has become passionate about sustainability, renewable energy projects and the ultimate conversion from natural gas to an all-electric utility system. If elected to the council, her utility commission experience and knowledge would immediately make her the leader on city policies on sustainability and climate change.
Lythcott-Haims has lived or worked in Palo Alto for almost 30 years, first as an attorney, then as a Stanford administrator and dean of freshmen. In addition to degrees from Stanford and Harvard University, she earned an MFA in writing and has authored three nonfiction books since 2015. She has served on many local nonprofit boards and advisory groups, including the Foundation for a College Education, YWCA of the Mid-Peninsula, Palo Alto Community Fund, Partners in Education and the Community Working Group. She is a nationally recognized speaker and, by her own description, a "pretty agressive liberal Democrat." She is an unabashed advocate for racial justice and equity and takes every opportunity to prod others into honest discussions about race, discrimination and how to create a more just society.
Passionate advocates like Lythcott-Haims, whose interests in equity and human relations reach well beyond her hometown, rarely offer themselves up as candidates for local office. When they do, we think they should be supported. Palo Altans have the chance to elect a second woman of color to the city council who has repeatedly shown her dedication to this community and to improving the lives of struggling residents, whether young people in need of mental health services or people of color experiencing discrimination in housing, policing or employment. She is uniquely suited to educate her council colleagues, staff and the public about the implicit bias that courses through city institutions and practices and propose ways to correct it.
We hope Forssell, if unsuccessful, returns in two years to run again. She'll make an even better candidate after two more years of service on the Utilities Advisory Commission. But we don't think voters should pass up the opportunity to elect Lythcott-Haims while she is motivated to serve Palo Alto.
The remaining three candidates are Planning Commissioner Doria Summa, Realtor Alex Comsa and software engineer Brian Hamachek. Summa has been a Palo Alto resident for more than 35 years and a neighborhood leader and has served on the Planning and Transportation Commission for the last five years. She is a fierce defender of neighborhood interests and as a result is frequently the sole dissenter on projects before the commission. We admire her advocacy but don't believe she will be as effective at building consensus on the council as her colleague, Ed Lauing.
Alex Comsa's creative vision for Palo Alto is for large, higher density housing projects at city-owned locations such as the Palo Alto Airport and city parking lots and on Stanford land, including at Stanford Shopping Center. He points out that the city has no one with real estate expertise on either the council or city staff and is therefore ill-equipped to negotiate with developers over development project proposals. We agree but don't believe the council is the best place for such expertise.
As a born and raised Palo Altan, software engineer Brian Hamachek has focused his campaign on preserving the character of the city. He was inspired to run because he is a neighbor of Castilleja School who felt "bullied" and ignored by the school during its effort to gain city approval of its redevelopment plan. He believes developers have too much power in the city. He applied unsuccessfully three times to serve on the Planning and Transportation Commission, most recently in 2016.
We recommend voters support Vicki Veenker, Ed Lauing and Julie Lythcott-Haims for Palo Alto City Council.