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Impolite Questions to ask of PA City Council Candidates

Original post made by Douglas Moran, Barron Park, on Sep 14, 2012

Q to City Council candidates: "Palo Alto has a large job-housing imbalance and is under pressure to reduce it. The City's current approach to development strongly encourage _increasing_ that gap, for example, providing exceptions and other bonuses for projects that include large amounts of office and only a few housing units.
Can you explain this policy? What would you do to change it?"

As someone who has developed questions for City Council Candidates, both for forums and formal questionnaires, I have chaffed under the requirement to be polite and measured and have longed to be able to ask "impolite" questions such as the above. Well this is the election I am free to do so.

I have put together a list of rough "impolite" questions with the idea that voters can pick any that interest them and then tailor them (or simply use them as an inspiration). These are the type of questions that work best when you have some opportunity to follow up with the candidate when the answer is not satisfactory. However, because follow-up tends to be very limited, you need to start with a pointed, even aggressive, question.

My evolving set of questions can be found at Web Link
First Council Candidate Forum is Saturday, 2-4pm, Unitarian Church by League of Women Voters (I am not affiliated). Web Link

This topic (thread) is intended to allow others to post QUESTIONS in the same style. I have the hope -- probably futile -- that the usual trolls won't overwhelm this with their usual rants.

Comments (25)

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Doug, why do you assume that they would/should want to change that approach - adding more jobs but less housing? My guess is that is what most people in Palo Alto support.

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

> to admonished

should be: to admonish

I have submitted similar questionnaires to council members in the past. Very few respond. Those that do usually provide terse, almost meaningless, answers.

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 14, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Some quick clarifications -- the questions cover too many issues for this to become a discussion of them.

@Me To: It is not a question of jobs _or_ housing. State policy, as administered by ABAG, is for cities not to have such an imbalance. The current deficit would require high-density housing the size of Downtown North. The alternative is skyscrapers. When you are in a deep hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

@Wayne Martin: Many of us "usual suspects" have asked these questions over the years to similar non-responses. The point of publishing these questions now is so that more typical residents can ask them in situations where the candidates' response are much more public.

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Thanks Doug. I'm not an expert, but our city council isn't obliged to agree with or follow ABAG policy, right?

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 14, 2012 at 4:49 pm

> Explain and changes?

Suggest different wording that is more obvious.

> In both case,

In both cases,

Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 14, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Some of these questions are extremely biased, and seemingly based on facts not in evidence. Take the following statement/question—

> 5.Council has routinely been accommodating to developers'
> desire for large profits. On Alma Plaza, the exemptions
> (zoning change) more than tripled the value of the land
> (based upon the purchase price and the contingent sale of
> roughly 80% of it a short time later).

The Council does not have access to this sort of information, from the kinds of records/documents that follow these projects through the process. And, in my opinion, neither should the City have access to information about project profit.

> What is the appropriate level of profits that the City
> should try to help developers achieve?

Asking a Council Member/Candidate about how much money the City should allow a developer to make implies a level of control that does not exist in current law. Moreover, the idea that the Council should be able to restrict the monetary rewards that a private citizen can receive for their work is pretty outrageous.

Even though I would like to see the Candidates answer more questions—I would not answer this question (if I were running)—other than I have. In my opinion, this is really not an appropriate question for a Council election.

If the argument is that PC Zoning should be terminated, then make that argument more robustly (such as in Q.7).

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 14, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Wayne Martin
1. "Council should be able to restrict the monetary rewards that a private citizen can receive for their work is pretty outrageous."
Mr Martin should re-read what I wrote. It is very clearly about the City Council overturning a major City policy (part of the Comp Plan) and giving the developer exemptions in order to _boost_ his profits.

2. On whether the Council should know what the financials were: It was the developer who repeatedly made this an issue, claiming that the project wouldn't work without major public subsidies (policy/zoning changes). As to the size of the profits cited, his purchase price was public record and the sales price was accurately estimated by a number of citizens simply using publicly available real estate numbers-"Comps"-just as appraisers do.

Mr Martin is advocating unlimited corporate welfare for the politically connected: That they can buy under one set of rules and sell under an entirely different set of rules tailored to give them huge profits (one Council member publicly cited the developer's connections in justifying her vote to overturn the existing policy). And he advocates that the validity of their demands for such welfare cannot even be checked by consulting public records. "Trust me, I am a corporation/partnership/..."

Posted by David Lieberman
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

I read Doug Moran's list of questions for council candidates and I would encourage him to add the following:

Before the change to even-year elections there was enormous local interest in City Council and Schoolboard elections. Now there is nothing because political coverage naturally gravitates to Presidential and Congressional issues. I am writing this on September 15th, less than eight weeks before the election, and I have no idea who is running for Council or Schoolboard and I suspect that 99 percent of residents do not either.

Will the Council admit that the change has been an unmitigated disaster and return to odd-year elections?

Posted by Developers rejoice
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2012 at 11:39 am

The change in election year was proposed at a city council meeting by Liz Kniss. Speculation is that she wanted the change so she can run this year, when her county term ends.
She will support major development, as she did when she was on the council in the past.

Posted by Developers rejoice
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2012 at 11:50 am

Kniss has built up a lot of support over time, and especially business support. Her supporters list includes a Who's Who of major developers.

Posted by master manufacturer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 15, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I am sure once Liz is elected she will have no problem going back to the old system. bTW, got a campaign mailer from her-full of pictures of her with the usual suspects. No mention of how she will address the city's problems. Also those questions will be considered a personal our vanilla election system, candidates or voters are not allowed to question candidates on the issues.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm

In response to David Leiberman

I doubt if the city council think that the meagre number of candidates is a bad thing. For any of those choosing to run, the fewer the number of opponents, the better. Last time round we had many good candidates to choose between and some of the good ones didn't make it (the same for school board). When we have less choice, it is likely that the more familiar names will get chosen regardless of their views.

I don't think asking this particular question to candidates will make a difference in getting a decent answer, or even if it will make a difference to whether or not someone will vote for them.

Posted by Neilson S. Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2012 at 9:36 am

Recently the City Council discussed promotion of "neighborhoodness" and we welcome all residents of Downtown North to our exclusive community network. If you rent or own in Downtown North(between Alma, Palo Alto Ave, Middlefield and University Ave), send me your email and I will send you an invitation. It is private, easy to use internet community so that neighbors can share information, concerns, etc. You opt in and out to fit you own needs. Neilson Buchanan [email protected] or call 329-0484

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I have added a version of David Leiberman's question (with credit) to the list.

On whether a question is likely to elicit a meaningful answer: In many situations it is more useful for the politicians to hear what people are concerned about - by the questions they ask - than what the politicians say in response.

Posted by Developers rejoice
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 16, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Council members and Planning commissioners (and planning staff of course) who deal in the real estate market have no trouble figuring out the profit made by developers. The land cost is public, cost of construction per square foot is known, rental and sales prices are commonly understood, etc., etc.
When developers give hundreds of thousands of dollars for studies of parking rather than construct the parking, you get a glimpse of the profit they make by not constructing parking.
The new proposal for 395 Page Mill offers a benefit of constructing a police building and more. Can you imagine the profit that permits such largess? (or bribe, as some have called it).

Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 17, 2012 at 12:35 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

A public TAXPAYER should be able to ask ANY QUESTION, because the TAXPAYER is the one ultimately paying the bill. The TAXPAYER also has the right to get rid of ANYONE who does not do the job with complete accountability.

In Jefferson County, the graft involving the county commissioners was so bad that they had the Zoning Administration ( also in on the graft ) allowed a developer to build on a site previously declared unsound by earlier geological studies.

After the site was developed, it was not long when the homeowners started complaining that the basements were caving in. The houses were built on BENTONITE ( aka KITTY LITTER ) and as the soil go wet, it swelled up and foundations shifted. A rather nasty fingerpoint and blame war began and the developer had to by back some houses...

Most of these people are OUT and do not feed at the public trough anymore.

Breaking basic laws and justifying pandering to developers breaks the trust to the people; If you can't ( or won't ) answer to the TAXPAYER, you shouldn't be in public office in the first place.


Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Impolite questions are good, maybe in some cases they are questions that needed to be asked. On building housing maybe the city should buy land, plan and build homes for people. Control growth of businesses, jobs and wealth. You what kind of system they call this. Don't let developers run the show but remember.someone has to build homes for YOU or your kids.

Posted by Accountability
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Do we want policy makers who hold fast to ideas that don't work, or policy makers that are able to adapt to the often complex challenges that come with governing in 21st century municipal America?

Second, and most importantly, this list suggests *nothing* that would deal with the STRUCTURAL inefficiencies of Palo Alto's governance model.

Let's look at this governance model. Palo Alto, like so many other municipalities in post-WWII America, deploys a "strong city manager" model of governance. In other words, policy making is performed by the City Council members, and policy implementation is performed by the acting city manager, who administers the bureaucracy a,d works at the pleasure of the City Council, who vet and appoint the City Manager.

What kind of government does this result in?
1) In Palo Alto's case (9 City Council members) the City Manager (CM) becomes a "10th politician". The CM has to find ways to implement policy (no matter how unrealistic it may be, given current, or projected resources), and at the same time the CM has to be keenly aware of shifting political realities in order to KEEP HIS JOB!!

2) City Council members, because they elect the CM, are put in a position of taking hard criticism is the CM is not working out. After all, it was their judgment to hire this person, so if s/he does a bad job, any criticism of the CM is strong indirect criticism of their vote to appoint the CM. So, for both the City Council and CM there is a BUILT-IN conflict of interest, as regards transparency, and optimal operating efficiency. Everyone is always pussyfooting around this issue.

3) Council members are elected in an every-two-year cycle, with majority alliances shifting because many of the City Council members rotate out every two years. Remember, it takes a 5-person majority for any one City Council member to keep her campaign promises, so how does ANY ONE member offer up campaign promises that mean anything at all? One has to practically guarantee that 4 other members agree with one's campaign promises, and even if that's possible, one has to guarantee that the members who agree with one's position will not be voted out in the every-other-year election cycle.

Rather than go on about this, one sees a major flaw in the above governance model, where City Council members shift in and out of office; where the City Manager has to be a a deft politician to keep his job; where campaign promises are almost folly, because any one City Council member is powerless to implement change (or stability) without a majority vote that is always threatened by the every-other-year election cycle that may deprive any one City Council member of one's majority.

In a nutshell, with the current governance model (strong City Manager) the possibility of optimal political accountability is left wheezing in a deathbed. Nobody is really in charge. Responsibility id deferred to the CM, or the the CM's underlings, or the this or that City Council member who supported this or that policy; or, to the sad fact that a policy once supported is no longer supported because the people who were in place to support it have been voted out in a 2 year election cycle; ad nauseum. IN PA's governance model, the buck never stops; it simply floats around, like a butterfly, just out of reach.

How do you change that? ELECT a mayor, and reduce the size of City Council. Add to that a general election every four years that puts all City Council members up for re-election. Mo more every-other-year elections. What is the benefit of the foregoing? ACOUNTABILITY! In this system, the buck can stop atthe desk of the Mayor, who would have just enough separation of power to hire or fire a City Manager; who would have just enough separation of power to suggest and drive legislation; who would have enough authority to suggest and initiate innovative projects that are in his/her platform, so that s/he can be held accountable for the success or failure of those projects/initiatives at the end of his/her four or six-year term. Our Mayor would not have a separation of power that makes her like Richard Daley, but just enough separation to be able to set and drive a political and policy agenda.

Of course, most of the City Council "watchers", Doug Moran among them, would object to this, because it would put into jeopardy their seemingly obsessive desire to meddle in fine detail with literally every major policy initiative put forward by our City Council, or City Manager.

An "elected executive" model of governance would also put the citizens of Palo Alto in more control of outcomes, because there would be a far more transparent line of responsibility put in place for success or failure - something that is almost impossible to discern at this point. Witness almost any issue in Palo Alto. Where does the buck stop? Nobody really knows. As a result, inefficiencies continue; various politicos get elected and sometimes re-elected just because "they were there", and little else, and so on.

Also, with due respect to our past mayors, this would end the ridiculous practice of "appointing" a mayor for a one-year term. In the current system, this appointment is little more than a ribbon-cutting appointment, and a popularity contest. Our past Mayors have all been good people, but Mayors in name only, without any real power to drive policy. What a shame, because some of them have been very well equipped to formulate and govern in very innovative ways.

So, shrink City Council to 5 member, elected every four-six years. Elect a Mayor, ideally to a 4-6 year term.

All that said, I doubt that this will ever come to be. Palo Alto's political scene is very "insiderish". THis is pretty much the norm for most municipalities. Also, Palo Alto is in the fortunate position of being joined at the hip to Stanford University, which is by default the primary driver of Palo Alto's status, and various citizen benefits (even though many of our policy makers like to play "tough guy" with the hand that feeds them).

Caveat: even the above suggestion will not end the most vexing political problems; Palo Alto and it's municipal brethren face a very challenging future, with Palo Alto in way better shape than most, because of its proximity to Stanford. What we need in City government these days is an increased ability to ADAPT, because time are changing at an increased rate of speed. "Change" also implies change in the very structures of governance that have led to the policy impasse that the "Palo Alto Process" has become. Will we opt real change, or continue to "play house" with the current system of non-accountability and slow-as-molasses process. Either way, Palo Alo citizens, in their collective diversity, will probably always be comfortable. The question remains: does comfort equate to increased community optimization?; to community adaption to change?; to real accountability, and so on.

On a final note, the system that I have proposed cold also result in little immediate change, because many of the "insiders" who control PA's political scene might end up as players in a changed system, but even so, they would be, for the first time in PA's history, truly ACCOUNTABLE for their policy positions, and results/non-results. Also, as an added benefit, the the entire edifice of "Council Watch Dogs", as represented by Doug Moran and a few dozen others, would be enhanced in the way that they could continue to create lists and complain about every little thing. On the other hand, they would not be able to paralyze policy with obsessive minutiae and hand-wringing. That's a good thing.

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

To understand the scurrilous and cowardly nature of "Accountability"'s attack on me, one needs only consider his disingenuous phrasings. For example, his evidence for my "seemingly obsessive desire to meddle in fine detail with literally every major policy initiative put forward by our City Council, or City Manager" is that "in my recollection has never supported a single housing or infrastructure development, as proposed". Notice that he (falsely) equates failure-to-support with "oppose" so that when it is pointed out that I take no position on the vast majority of such projects, he does not meet TSF's highly constrained criteria for being branded a liar.

Posted by george
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 18, 2012 at 9:01 am

Why is it that in Palo Alto it is considered impolite to ask elected officials questions that get to the heart of important matters that greatly effect our community?

Are we only polite if we stick to meaningless empty banter? Do we really believe that elected officials should not be asked substantive questions? Is this so called politeness really just a technique used by those in power to disenfranchise those who would like government to be transparent and accountable for its actions?

If our local government is not serving us well, voters have the responsibility to challenge authority and to bring about needed change.

Thank you Doug for bringing reality into this council election. Your questions may make the politicians uncomfortable, but only if they are not being forthcoming and honest.

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Accountability: Apart from an unjustified attack on Doug Moran, you’ve definitely nailed the problems in Palo Alto. IF the citizens of Palo Alto had control of what’s happening in the city, Doug and others wouldn’t have to object (not meddle) to so many policies and actions.

Although you say the system is broken, you label those who criticize council members or city staff as obsessive list-creators, complainers and hand-wringers.

I agree with your recommendations on how to fix the structure, but “watchers” will always be necessary at all levels of government, regardless of how it is organized.

Will you be starting a petition to change the city charter? Someone should do it, though it won’t be easy.

Posted by Paco
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 18, 2012 at 12:32 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 18, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On reducing Council size and having an elected mayor:
I no longer include this because my experience is that it is a futile battle at this time and it is better to concentrate on changes that have a chance of being achieved.

The last major push for Council reduction occurred in 2005 and I was one of the leaders. Some of the arguments are available at Web Link including some of the documents from the previous push in 1994. In 2005, we thought we had enthusiastic support from Vice Mayor Judy Kleinberg and former mayor Gary Fazzino, but it suddenly disappeared without explanation and without big name backers, it wouldn't get the press coverage and endorsements needed to pass.

Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 28, 2012 at 2:50 am

As Bob Marley said, "you can fool some people some time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time."

Posted by Contest for change
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Douglas Moran,

"On reducing Council size and having an elected mayor: I no longer include this because my experience is that it is a futile battle at this time and it is better to concentrate on changes that have a chance of being achieved. The last major push for Council reduction occurred in 2005 and I was one of the leaders. .......without big name backers, it wouldn't get the press coverage and endorsements needed to pass."

Thank you for this alert, I'm sorry I missed it

Please try again.

The time is now, to change the City charter and for residents to decide what kind of city Palo Alto wants to be. Most of the impolite questions are about city officials working the system to favor developers, who do not place the interests of the community as a priority.

Somebody posted above - "Nobody is really in charge" Also, nobody is on our side.

The City is pushing density near transit, and both bring nothing but trouble for Palo Alto. Most of these commercial projects do not even bring any money to the city (prop 13), and certainly not enough to offset the costs.

Stack up the benefits given to developers, against the costs to the city, and it will be startling to people.

I admit I paid little attention to city politics - did not even read your thread back in September when you posted it originally. But the Arrillga project is so stupid, I tuned in. I tuned in, wondering how a city can accept even hearing such a stupid plan, much less proposing it! I've learned a few things, there are no good answers - all your impolite questions point to the dysfunction.

It's not 2005, and you don't need big name backers or press coverage. Changing a system would either way never have big name backers or press coverage. This needs to work without big name backers, and there are enough ways to get press coverage. For example, how about a contest.

Let's have a contest for who can figure out city finances and describe it in one page.

A contest for who can weigh the benefits of density, how it changes the bottom line for Palo Alto, and if the costs are worth it.

A contest to figure out a way to change city governance system.

I have another impolite question - Amidst the push for more density, why is the city starting to reduce police salaries instead of their own bloat.?

Palo Alto crime is increasing, it is directly correlated to density.

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