FALL | January 10, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - January 10, 2014


Key issue: Election

Key action: Voters to choose five council members, vote on infrastructure measure.

Key question: Who will rule the city in 2015?

Two years ago, only six candidates opted to run for City Council in Palo Alto, making the election one of the mildest and most anti-climatic in recent years. With incumbents Pat Burt and Greg Schmid winning fresh seats in 2012 and Liz Kniss returning to a dais where she had previously spent more than a decade, Marc Berman was the only real newcomer to local politics.

Recent events suggest the 2014 election could be far more interesting, possibly resembling the council's election in 2009. At that time, 14 candidates vied for five seats, and Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd, Karen Holman and Gail Price launched their council careers. The top vote-getter in that election was Larry Klein, whose second consecutive term will come to an end in 2014. Klein, who will have spent more than two decades on the council, is the only one not eligible to run for another four years. This means that when 2015 begins, the nine-member council will have at least one and possibly as many as five new members. In recent years, the city's outgoing mayors — Peter Drekmeier (2009), Sid Espinosa (2011) and Yiaway Yeh (2012) have been reluctant to seek second terms. Scharff has no such reservations.

"I am going to run for another term in November," Scharff told the Weekly this week, becoming the first candidate in what could shape up to be a crowded field.

The big question now is: Who will join him on the ballot?

The 2014 election should answer many of the questions raised by the 2013 one. Leaders of the "Vote Against D" campaign have maintained throughout the year that the 2013 election was never just about Maybell. They point to the support Barron Park received from all other city neighborhoods and characterize their victory as a reflection of widespread public frustration about dense developments, planned-community zones, unfortunately designed architecture and a council that favors builders over citizens.

But for some members of the City Council, including Klein and Kniss, the Measure D message was muddled at best. On Dec. 2, Klein said he was "amazed" by the fact that "everyone seems to know what everyone felt in a vote."

He agreed that Measure D told the council that it needs to "re-evaluate things" but said he has no idea what's in the mind of the people who voted against the measure. He also noted that far more people voted in 2012 to elect Kniss, who supported the Maybell development, to the council. Presumably, he said, these voters endorse her views.

The city's new mayor, Nancy Shepherd, also struggled to come to grips with the political turmoil of late 2013. At the Dec. 2 meeting, she marveled at the fact that so many people spoke out against the Maybell development back in June, when the council approved the zone change that enabled it, while so few stuck around after the Maybell discussion to watch the council adopt its Housing Element, an influential state-mandated document that lays out the city's housing policies and designates future housing sites.

"I am trying to figure out how to navigate and read this community," Shepherd said.

Whatever message one derives from the vote, the battle over Maybell gave birth to a new movement of citizen activists. Tim Gray, who had previously lost several bids to join the council and who helped lead the anti-D campaign, finally had a reason to celebrate in November. Joining him at the election after-party were neighborhoods leaders from College Terrace, Downtown North and other parts of the city nowhere near the Maybell site. Other neighborhood activists, including downtown's Neilson Buchanan and former planning Commissioner Susan Fineberg, showed their solidarity with the "Vote Against D" camp by contributing money and speaking out at recent council meetings.

At the Dec. 2 meeting on the city's future, Fineberg beseeched the council to represent "all of us," not just a "powerful and entrenched minority."

"The citizens of Palo Alto should not be collateral damage in a fight for power and money," Fineberg said, voicing a popular sentiment.

Will this sentiment coalesce into political action? Stay tuned.