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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 01, 2001

On Deadline: When Bob Debs helped change history On Deadline: When Bob Debs helped change history (August 01, 2001)

by Jay Thorwaldson

Robert J. "Bob" Debs has been called a few names, bad and good, during his life in Palo Alto -- which came to an end this month following years of declining health.

Those who knew -- or battled with -- him during his politically active years of the 1960s recall the physicist as a robust, sometimes mercurial fighter for his beliefs that Palo Alto should control its growth, protect its environment and practice open, inclusive government.

Today he is recognized as being the first of a group of "residentialists" that literally battled a pro-growth "establishment' City Council and management to a standstill between 1959 and 1967.

The era culminated in a bitter all-council election that booted Debs and several others off the council. One compatriot who also got the boot was State Senator Byron Sher -- then a Stanford law professor who made a successful comeback run for the council in 1971.

If you think today's city politics are feisty....

A 15-member council in the 1950s was virtually unanimous in its zeal to develop Palo Alto from baylands to Skyline. It had no adopted General Plan or park-dedication ordinance.

Debs, future-Councilwoman Enid Pearson and others in 1959-60 sued the city, ultimately forcing it to adopt its then-unofficial General Plan. In 1961, Debs was elected to the council and for two years was a lone, often-ridiculed vote.

In 1963, two allies joined him, Kirke Comstock (now Portola Valley mayor) and Phil Flint -- boosted by a hard-fought city vote on Oregon Expressway, narrowly approved.

In 1965 three others -- Pearson, Sher and Ed Worthington -- joined a reduced-size council to create what became known as "the 7-to-6 council," for its voting split that extended even to approving minutes. The three ran as a "slate" and the term "residentialists" emerged, to the consternation of those who got tagged with the less-friendly "establishment" label. There were intelligent, dedicated people on that side, but they had a drastically different vision for Palo Alto's future -- one person's vision can be another's nightmare.

The factions bristled with mutual distrust and name-calling personal dislike. Majority members semi-openly referred to the residentialists as "kooks." In 1965 it took a record 46 ballots to elect Ed Arnold mayor, a harbinger of his rough one-year term. A split vote elected Frances Dias Palo Alto's first woman mayor in 1966.

A residentialist slowdown tactic was to block the merger of unfinished agendas from prior meetings, which needed a two-thirds vote -- creating a bizarre scene of a late-May meeting being held in mid-July. Dias vowed to get caught up and scheduled weekly meetings -- earlier councils met bi-weekly.

One meeting fell on Halloween. Residentialists had younger children than the generally older establishment folks, so the six decided not to attend.

As the council gathered and Dias -- shaky from a bout of non-infectious hepatitis -- took her seat, Debs entered through a side door to the chambers (now the Palo Alto Art Center auditorium). He said he wasn't staying, as I recall, but had come to object to Halloween meeting.

Councilman Robert "Bob" Cooley, a Palo Alto middle-school counselor who was about as feisty as Debs but shorter and compact, interrupted.

"Shove it, Debs!" he yelled from across the curved council table. Debs paused, blinked behind his glasses: "What did you say?"

"I said, 'Shove it!,'" Cooley repeated slowly.

"Would you like to step outside and say that?" Debs challenged, flushing. Cooley sprang from his chair, circled behind wide-eyed council members toward Debs. They started back through the side door, opening a door leading to a rear patio.

But City Manager George Morgan, an ex-Marine, raced to interpose himself between the two. I, kid reporter for the Palo Alto Times, crowded into the alcove, scribbling furiously. Morgan held them apart as they tried to exit -- causing them to bump their shoulders on the door frame. Assistant City Manager Cecil Riley pulled Debs away as Morgan held Cooley, and Debs left, shaking his fist.

And it was over. The next day, both expressed chagrin and regret. I asked Debs what he felt when told to shove it. "Did he say that? I thought he said, 'Shut up!' If I'd known he said, 'Shove it,' I'd...," Debs said. Well, who knows?

But Palo Alto Times Editor Al Bodi went ballistic editorially and said the council should shape up or voters should put them all up for election. A committee of establishment supporters -- who may already have been at work on a strategy to head off a probable residentialist takeover of the council in the 1967 election -- launched a recall campaign against all council members on both sides who weren't facing election anyway.

Only Pearson and Comstock survived the May, 1967 vote, which left traces of bitterness that linger in memories and passed-down stories to this day.

Debs ultimately was vindicated in many of his views and battles, if not always in his combative style. Moderate, residentialist-like councils emerged in the 1970s and slate politics abated.

Debs faded into quiet citizenship and later sad illnesses. Some still called him names, though -- such as "Grandpa Bob," by kids at Parent Nursery School, where Debs' wife, Virginia, has worked and volunteered for many decades.
Jay Thorwaldson is editor of the Weekly. He covered the city beat for the Palo Alto Times from 1966 to 1978.


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