Measure G's bitter aftermath

Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 15, 2000

ELECTION 2000: Measure G's bitter aftermath

Bad feelings linger on both sides after heated campaign

by Marcella Bernhard

Now that voters have tossed out Palo Alto's historic preservation ordinance by rejecting Measure G, many in the community and City Hall would probably enjoy a long break from what has been one of the most contentious issues in recent city history.

But the bitterness and anger the historic preservation debate brought to this community will likely linger for years.

And the question of how to preserve Palo Alto's oldest homes isn't answered yet. If anything, last week's election made the solution even less clear.

People on both sides of the issue pledged this week to work together on a new, voluntary program to dissuade homeowners and developers from tearing down historically valuable homes. The bad blood between supporters and opponents of the rejected city ordinance, however, could make collaboration difficult.

The Measure G campaign, many say, was Palo Alto politics at an all-time, unprecedented low. Both sides have accused each other of spreading inflammatory and false information.

Ordinance supporters are particularly angry at their opponents' tactics, which they say were intended to mislead and confuse voters into voting no.

"People were voting based on misinformation," said Karen Holman, who led the campaign for the ordinance.

"Houses will be demolished, people will be upset, and I hope people will wonder what the hell they have done," Holman said during the emotional last minutes of election night on March 7.

According to Holman and others who fought to keep the city's ordinance, their efforts to educate voters about the law were undermined by a steady stream of lies and half-truths from the well-funded opposition campaign.

For example, the "No on G" side hired a Missouri telemarketing company to call 6,000 residents the weekend before the election and ask them to "preserve historic homes, vote no on G." When some residents asked callers to explain how a vote repealing the ordinance could preserve historic homes, the callers reportedly hung up.

Midtown resident Danielle Wohl, who originally opposed the city's historic preservation ordinance, said the call she received bothered and worried her enough to sway her vote in favor of the law.

"I think (the 'No on G' side was) trying to create an element of confusion and capitalize on that," said Wohl, who called the Weekly last week to voice her concern.

Craig Woods, who ran the "No on G" campaign and is president of the Palo Alto Homeowners Association, defended his side's methods.

The phone poll the weekend before the election was not deceptive, Woods said, because eliminating the ordinance will lead to a better working relationship between city officials and owners of historic homes.

"A no on G vote would lead to more effective historic preservation," Woods said.

Woods added that the ordinance's supporters had unfairly mischaracterized his campaign as anti-preservation.

"People make us sound like we're against historic preservation, and we're not. We want to work with the city to promote effective historic preservation," Woods said.

According to financial statements released last month, "No on G" spent five times more on their campaign than ordinance supporters. Unlike supporters, the "No on G" group hired a political consulting firm to run its campaign and paid out-of-state telemarketing companies to call thousands of Palo Altans with the "vote no" message.

Opponents of the ordinance said Palo Alto's preservation law was too confusing and complicated and would create an expensive historic preservation bureaucracy within City Hall.

Supporters said the "No on G" side also distorted the facts of the law to play on homeowners' fears and took advantage of the frustration many Palo Altans felt at the City Council's long and badly managed process to adopt an historic preservation ordinance.

"No on G" campaign literature falsely implied the law could prevent owners of historic homes from remodeling their homes' interiors or repairing damage, supporters said.

By claiming that city officials could easily add new homes to the historic list, some supporters said, the "No on G" side irresponsibly threatened "you're next" to currently unregulated homeowners.

The "No on G" side proved that "distorting the facts is effective, and having a large campaign chest is effective," said former Mayor Gail Woolley, who supported the city's ordinance.

Woods, however, said the "Yes on G" campaign's claims that a rash of demolitions would follow if voters overturned the city's preservation ordinance were inflammatory and untrue. Woods said homeowners' common sense will keep Palo Alto's most historically valuable homes standing, because many older homes were built far larger than would be allowed for a new home under current city zoning laws.

"No on G" treasurer John Woodworth said ordinance supporters ran an unfriendly campaign.

"I don't like confrontation ... they're making it personal," Woodworth said. "We wanted to stay on message."

The fight over historic preservation centered on who, if anyone, should preserve roughly 700 of Palo Alto's grand old homes.

Should the city make it illegal to tear down or significantly change the exterior look of these homes? Or should it be up to homeowners--and developers fighting for a piece of Palo Alto's hot housing market--to preserve homes, change them or bulldoze them as they see fit?

In essence, a slight majority of voters said last week they would prefer to take the chance of losing these homes than accept a city law that some felt stepped on individual property rights. The ordinance failed by less than a thousand votes, 48 percent to 52 percent.

Several City Council members--both those who helped craft the failed ordinance and those who joined the council after the preservation debate--were distressed by Tuesday's election results.

The failure of a law that consumed the council for nearly three years was difficult for more seasoned council members. Some said last week that, in their opinion, Palo Alto voters had been misinformed by the "No on G" campaign.

"I personally feel that the vote was not against the ordinance. People were voting against a fiction, not the reality," said Councilwoman Dena Mossar.

Mossar said voters were fed a "hodgepodge of false ideas," including contentions that the ordinance would create a new bureaucracy or regulate all homes built before 1940.

City officials had planned to hire one full-time staff member to implement the ordinance, which supporters said does not equate to a "new bureaucracy."

"There has been a lot of erroneous or misleading information spread by the 'No on G' folks," said Councilman Bern Beecham, who joined the council in January.

Councilwoman Sandy Eakins, who was on the council during the preservation debate, agreed.

"I'm left with a bad feeling about how (misinformation) played into the result of the election," Eakins said.

Woolley, who helped run the campaign to keep the preservation ordinance, hopes the council will set campaign spending limits and fair campaign practice guidelines for any future Palo Alto ballot measure.

"I ask this council to take a leadership role in setting the standard for campaigns in the future ... not to interfere with opinion, but to protect the right of Palo Altans to receive factual information on which to decide the future of their city, and indeed, the quality of their own lives," Woolley pleaded to the council last week.

At times, the fight over historic preservation was waged with a surprising ugliness. An anonymous caller left two messages on "Yes on G" leader Holman's answering machine on election night that called her a "zealot wacko" and said "You should be ashamed of yourself ... you're a bad girl, Karen, and you should ask for penance and absolution."

The messages included shouts, laughter and other party noises in the background. Woods denied the calls were made from the "No on G" campaign victory party and called them "extremely unfortunate."

Beyond personal attacks, many Palo Altans are worrying this week that the "No on G" campaign's big-money spending on political consultants and sophisticated polling sets a disturbing precedent for future political campaigns. Final campaign finance figures were still being calculated last week, but "No on G" treasurer John Woodworth said his side spent at least $70,000 on their campaign. The "Yes on G" side spent less than a third of that, Holman said.

By the last filing deadline on Feb. 19, the "No on G" campaign had spent $37,361, and the "Yes on G" campaign had spent just $7,145. These figures do not include frantic last-minute spending by both sides.

The "No on G" campaign spent just over $20,000 to hire San Francisco political consulting firm Terris, Jaye and Barnes. According to Woods, the firm helped his side develop its campaign strategy and message: "Preserve our homes, not the bureaucracy." The "No on G" side also spent $11,314 on its first telephone poll and roughly $5,000, Woodworth said, on the second.

Spending large sums on consultants and telephone polls is unusual in Palo Alto for an election like Measure G--a strictly local issue fought by groups of residents.

"I've never seen this kind of money spent" on a citizen-vs.-citizen issue, Beecham said last week.

Woolley said the "Yes on G" campaign did not try to match their opponents' fund raising and campaign spending--or hire political consultants--for both practical and ideological reasons.

"We didn't feel we could raise the money, and in part we didn't know what we were up against," Woolley said.

"The traditional Palo Alto way is to do it yourself," Woolley added.

Last week, however, as the election results stacked up in the "No on G" campaign's favor, Woolley reconsidered. If she could have turned back the clock to six months ago, Woolley said, "I would have said, 'Let's hire a consultant.'"

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