Guest Opinion: If you're not running for Palo Alto's City Council, why not? | June 12, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 12, 2009

Guest Opinion: If you're not running for Palo Alto's City Council, why not?

by Sid Espinosa

Even though it seems to many of us that we just had an election, "election season" in Palo Alto is quickly approaching — for some early starters it's already upon us.

In November, five Palo Alto City Council seats are up for election, but only two people have so far entered the race. And while two eligible incumbents could still decide to run, the open field at this late date is causing many to wonder: Where are the candidates?

As a carryover council member who will be working with those elected in November, I am particularly interested in finding smart, thoughtful, hard-working citizens who want to serve.

I'm writing to make a pitch to you: Run!

While public service can be frustrating and thankless at times, most people find it overwhelmingly rewarding and educational — and frankly a lot of fun. If you are considering running, now's the time to get organized, and here are a few things to consider.

Let's start with the bad news. Running for the council is hard work, and serving on the council is even harder. Community challenges seem endless. The hours are long (last month one meeting lasted from 4 p.m. until midnight), and you will likely have a couple of meetings each week.

For this commitment you get paid lavishly: about $500 a month. There's no glory in this gig.

The good news is that the rewards far outweigh any negatives. As a council member, you have the tools to address Palo Alto's problems and opportunities.

In the coming year our city faces many critical decisions — decisions that will fundamentally shape the type of community we'll be living in next year and perhaps for many years to come, even until the city's bicentennial, maybe.

From the current economic crisis to creek flooding and urban planning to utilities, as a council member, you can be at the table for these debates and decisions, and your kids and grandkids will be better for it.

Moreover, as a council member, nearly every day Palo Altans will approach you with their own community concerns and you'll able to help resolve many of them. You will truly be able to impact their lives for the better.

Assuredly, in this role you will be intellectually challenged while doing important community work, and you'll have fun doing it.

The council is made up of everyday citizens, not professional politicians. Currently our professions include accountant, architect/lecturer, conservationist/environmental educator, city auditor, lawyer, corporate philanthropist, management consultant, economist, and a chief executive officer.

Everyone is busy with work, family commitments, involvement in nonprofit organizations, volunteerism, hobbies, and many other activities, but we can still find time to run for office and serve on the council. You can, too.

Getting back to this November's election, it's a great year to run. The council has a total of nine seats, and five of these are up for election this year. Of these five seats, two (those currently held by Yoriko Kishimoto and Jack Morton who are termed out) will be completely open, and the three other seats may (or may not) have incumbents running for them. Those incumbents are council members John Barton and Larry Klein and Mayor Peter Drekmeier.

But only Klein has announced that he will definitely run again, while both Drekmeier and Barton are wrestling with other commitments for their time. Thus far there is only one other person who has publicly entered the race, former school board member Gail Price, although a couple of others are about to enter.

Your odds are good.

If you're considering a run, where should you start? There are, of course, many books and articles detailing how to run for local office. I would encourage you to pick up a few of these. They cover the basics on forming a campaign committee, developing an issue platform, walking precincts, fundraising, debating, posting lawn signs, working with the press, and other guidelines.

Initially, we all had to do these things without first-hand experience, so don't be intimidated.

You might also consider volunteering on someone else's campaign this year so that you're exposed to all of the workings of a campaign. This way, you'll be well prepared for the elections in two years. I took this approach.

Within the next month or two you'll want to pull together a campaign team who will help you develop a strategic plan, budget and calendar. Start letting people know why you're running and you'll be surprised who steps forward to help.

I had people working on my team whom I hadn't known when I launched my campaign — and some of these folks ended-up volunteering 10 to 15 hours a week.

Here are a few other important points: In Palo Alto this year, council candidates must be registered voters within the city by July 8. You can get the forms from the city clerk (seventh floor of City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.), though you'll need to call first to make an appointment.

These forms will be available July 13 and are due by Aug. 7. You must get 25 registered voters to sign your forms before filing.

The city is not divided into districts — all council members are elected to at-large seats. Council members are elected to four-year terms.

On a personal note, I hope that November's election puts several smart and talented women on the council. For the past two years, we have only had one woman on the council; an imbalance pf this magnitude hasn't existed since 1965. It's appalling and frankly it weakens our discourse and the diversity of perspectives.

Now, with Kishimoto being termed out, we will have no women on the council unless a woman runs and wins.

I also hope that we will see several Asian-Americans run this year. The quickly burgeoning Asian community (now at 25 percent of Palo Altans) is an important voice in our city, but as of November we will only have one Asian council member, Yiaway Yeh.

Our country has a long history of average citizens deciding to step forward to participate actively in civic life. Some of us consider this an obligation. We are lucky and blessed to live in this country, with all of its freedoms and opportunities.

But we must remember that it is a system founded on (and successful because of) citizen involvement.

Locally, our city is facing tough times, but we are relatively strong and vibrant because of the hard work of average citizens over the years — citizens who stepped forward to serve.

The Palo Alto City Council work is hard, important, challenging, interesting, a great educational experience, and a lot of fun. I hope that you will consider it and perhaps join me and my holdover colleagues, council members Pat Burt, Greg Schmid and Yeh, behind the council dais.

City Councilman Sid Espinosa is halfway through his first term on the council. He serves on several nonprofit, business and university boards, and is presently working for Microsoft in corporate citizenship and philanthropy. He can be e-mailed at


Posted by Carroll Harrington, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 12, 2009 at 10:08 am

If you aren't quite ready to run for office, I urge you to volunteer in one of the City Council or School Board campaigns. It is great fun and a terrific way to meet people and learn strategy and tactics. You also have an opportunity to be involved in "serving your community."

Posted by Lois, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 13, 2009 at 6:23 am

If Council was reduced from nine to seven members there wouldn't be this push to try to get people to run. Seven members could do just as good a job as nine, and Council meetings would be shorter because you wouldn't have so many people wanting to talk on every agenda item.

Reducing Council from nine to seven members requires changing the City's Charter which would require putting it on the ballot. Who would put it on the ballot - Council. Council won't because they're not about to reduce their own numbers. End of a great idea!!!

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

My contempt for the Palo Alto Way and their sophomoric misunderstanding of the real world would keep me from identifying with the voters.

Posted by Betty Beyby, a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 15, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Palo Alto voters rarely vote for naysayers. In fact, a laundry list of naysayers have gotten buried as Council candidates during the past decade...a partial list includes Andrew Freeman, Trina Lovercheck, Tru Love, Mark Sabin, Wei Wang, Litse Indergand, Paul Forbes, Ed Powers, Victor Frost, Nancy Lytle, John Fredrick, Ronny Bar-Gadda, Smokey Wallace, and Mark Nadim. Not one got even 20% of the vote. Palo Alto voters far prefer those with intelligence to represent them who make constructive decisions in a civil manner.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Betty: You are so right. Anyone who criticizes the existing powers is immediately labeled a naysayer because he/she threatens the status quo.

Imagine a brave soul standing up and saying, “If I’m elected, I will focus on essentials like fixing roads and infrastructure, I will guarantee that all city employees – management and union—are held accountable for their actions, I will balance the budget without using the utility department as a cash cow and without an onerous business tax, I will ensure that we never have another children’s theater scandal because I will exercise my oversight powers, ….. “

The Fab 400 and the unions will go all out to defeat such a candidate.

What kind of intelligence and constructive decisions have you seen from the city council lately? Would urging us to vote for high speed rail be an example?

Posted by Draft Pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Bring Pat back to Palo Alto from Los Altos and then elect her to the City Council for true fiscal conservatism!

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 15, 2009 at 9:21 pm

I love Palo Alto, its a great city - but to any would-be city council candidates - run on a "I have common sense" platform. Please. Pretty please. Pretty, pretty please. And actually use common sense if you are elected.

We have become a laughing stock - a town full of incredibly smart people who are willing to fire policemen and traffic safety people, but hire someone to be the "point person in our organization for our efforts to restructure the American Dream". I would just like streets without potholes, sewers that work, libraries open during normal business hours, a website that is functional, city employees that are there Monday-Friday during business hours (and don't disappear at lunch, the time many people can take time to go to city hall, the bldg department, etc.) Common sense.

Common sense which includes our schools, roadways, transportation systems and other infrastructure in our housing goals. Common sense which realizes we are not Chicago, San Francisco or Boston, we will not use public transportation, because we can't get there from here. We will drive. Unless the public transport for day to day stuff changes (not HSR to LA, but BART to the grocery) we are going to continue to drive. If you build it, they will come, but they will still drive. Even if you don't give them enough parking...

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