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October 05, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Our Town: Roger Smith bows out Our Town: Roger Smith bows out (October 05, 2005)

by Don Kazak

Roger Smith's decision to drop out of the Palo Alto City Council race last week was a surprise to his closest political supporters and a shock, coming just six weeks before the election.

Smith is a political neophyte, but could have been a voice of reason on a council facing tough decisions. He's the former co-founder of Silicon Valley Bank and he could have been a council member in the mold of former Mayor Scott Carey 30 years ago -- someone from the business community with strong social values.

"There are two things that really tipped me over," Smith said last week.

One was a personal attack on Police Chief Lynne Johnson and another city official by candidate Danielle Martell at a recent League of Woman Voters forum.

Martell refused to be quieted, although the League always insists on civility at its forums.

Martell's main campaign theme is her criticism of Johnson and the police department. Her campaign Web page also has an obscene political cartoon, labeled "satire," about the department.

Smith's second tipping point was that he doesn't have the patience to put up with the information demands being put on him already. That includes filling out more than 20 questionnaires from various community groups about his candidacy and getting barraged by e-mails.

He just wanted to get the job done, and his sensibilities seemed to be hammered from every side.

"In Palo Alto, everyone wants to be heard, and I understand that," he said. "I had hoped to create more trust between the council, the staff and community. I think we have lost that with the endless demands on the staff."

"I was really disappointed that he dropped out," said Mayor Jim Burch, who had endorsed him. "It's just too sad. He was offended by what he saw going on in the name of democracy."

Smith decided to run without talking to anyone and he left the race the same way, keeping his own counsel. "That's another indication it was a unique campaign," said former Mayor Gary Fazzino, one of his supporters.

Smith was honest in realizing that the council chambers is far different than a corporate boardroom.

"The blessing of democracy is that anyone can say anything and anyone can run for office," Fazzino said. "The curse is that it's not like business -- it can be a chaotic process."

When angry residents criticize the council, "Sometimes you have to sit there and take it and then move on," Fazzino said.

There's no telling how effective a councilman Smith could have been. But his departure from the race highlights something else Fazzino said: "It also points out it is very difficult for someone to run (and serve) unless they had an apprenticeship in public life so they understand protocols of public life."

In the 1980s, many council members first served terms on the Planning Commission. Now, only two current council members, Bern Beecham and Vic Ojakian, first served on the commission.

Being on a commission teaches council members how to run meetings, listen to the public and forge compromises with colleagues on difficult issues.

Most of the current council members have learned on the job after they were elected. As much as the council has been criticized in recent years, it could have partly stemmed from a lack of political seasoning.

Criticism of the council is also part of part of what former Mayor Larry Klein in his candidacy: That the council needs to provide more leadership on policy issues instead of ceding that leadership to City Manager Frank Benest and the city staff.

Whether Smith could have helped the council is moot. But he would have brought a skills set to the table that isn't there now.

His withdrawal narrows the field to 10 candidates for five seats.

Klein and Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto were always thought to be near-certainties. Councilman Jack Morton is now likely a lock, too.

The final two positions now seem to be between Planning Commissioner Karen Holman, school board member John Barton and environmental activist Peter Drekmeier.

That's a snapshot with five weeks left in the campaign.

Senior staff writer Don Kazak can be emailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.


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