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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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The capabilities I seek in our city council candidates

Uploaded: Sep 15, 2022
One of the most important civic acts Palo Alto residents have to do is choose who they want to serve on the city council.

This week the Palo Alto Weekly had a live two-hour Zoom debate among all seven candidates running for three seats. No, it was neither boring nor exhaustive, it was a great way to learn about who we want to vote for in November to serve four years on the council. It also helped me understand what their views were on some of this city’s most important issues.

That said, the debate opened with a why are you running question. They responded, paraphrased, I-am-running-because-I-love-this-city statements. I am glad you do, but that is not, to me, a reason to vote for you. Lots of us love this city.

I’ll use the word SAMENESS to describe what disturbed me about their responses. Nearly all the answers from the seven were so similar that it seemed they were all on the same politically correct bandwagon. They all applauded so many city ideas and project proposals, no matter how expensive they could be or how realistic they were. That’s scary. Unanimity on the city council is not a desirable goal. Differences are needed to better represent all of us.

A new city gym? Great idea and all for it. Renovating the Cubberley Community Center? Of course! All-electric homes – with some minor additions, they all indicated it was something we must do – at least for three-fourths of residences. Get rid of natural gas use in homes, even for or gas stoves and water heaters? Yes. Electric vehicles? Get them was what I heard from several of them.

Let me pause here to say that a couple of candidates put in caveats and said things like, “I am for it but it must include” or “I’m not sure but I think the city should pursue this idea,” etc. But when it comes down to votes on the council. I sensed most would not change because they were already dedicated to things we need to do if we care about climate change.

But there’s more: Fiber to the home? Six-to-one on that, with one candidate saying she was snot sure what it was all about, but she supported it. Business tax? Yes. More housing in town, particularly affordable housing? Absolutely. More businesses offices? No. Caring more for renters’ concerns? Yes. Keeping Cal Ave permanently closed to cars? Some hesitation by two of the candidates.

I wasn’t sure whether all this apparent agreement was there because they were agreeing to whatever they thought residents might want, and thus garner those votes or because they just supported everything. I guess they are already would-be politicians, but that’s not unusual and I accept that. Candidates want to get elected.

So back to the headline of this blog: What do I want in a candidate?

I’ve watched lots of council meetings for years and I offer the following:

• Someone who is bright and can easily grasp and understand the complexities of this city.
• A candidate/council member who has reasonable knowledge about how city hall works, and all the subtleties. No experience is not a particularly desirable qualification for election.
• Also, someone who understands that the council is primarily responsible for this city – not the city manager nor the staff. The council is in charge of policy, the staff implements their ideas and works on the everyday functions of the city.
• Someone who can read, understand and QUESTION the items in our nearly $1 billion (!!) annual budget and sieve through additional proposed expenditures by city staff. A lotof hidden expenditures can be buried in a proposed budget, one that the council has to approve. And, if it approves the budget, it also okays those expenditures.
• If a city project is taking a long time, as in too long, and City Manager Ed Shikada responds, “Well, we’re working on it,” don’t let that answer suffice. Probe further. And give deadlines.
• I really would like to see council members who have new, interesting ideas elected -- not people who can’t think outside the box or are all in the same politically correct parade.

So, Palo Altans, we are now left to decide who we want to vote for. I recommend watching the entire debate on this paper’s website, PaloAltoOnline.com. And candidates, I hope you each can find ways to distinguish yourself from your competitors. That, too, is the way this political game is played.

==I
NOTE: Thank you, Weekly, for putting on this wonderful debate. Of course, I post my blog on this Weekly site, but my hurrahs are unbiased. Editor Jocelyn Dong and reporter Gennady Sheyner kept the candidates on alert – tactfully and pleasantly, and they kept up my interest in what the seven of them were saying. Since each candidate had only a very limited time (15, 30 or 60 seconds for an answer) they all managed to make their point and did just fine!

Community.
What is it worth to you?

Comments

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 16, 2022 at 9:21 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I agree with your list apart from one. I don't worry about lack of experience as that often can be made up with experience on the job very quickly provided the other members are able to guide through some of the difficulties inexperience may make.

I would rather have an enthusiastic newbie without anything that makes them beholden to others' favors or backscratching, rather than someone with experience who has to consider previous favors while making a vote on a difficult issue.

What I think we don't need is a council made up of members who all think alike on every issue. I think we need some diversity of thought and we need intelligent discussion rather than platitudes when it comes to some of the inevitable debates on these contentious issues that will come in the next year or two. Carbon copy council members are just that, carbon copies, and taking a copy of a copy makes for no original traits remaining.

I would like to see the empty seats made up with people who think for themselves, have experience of living and being Palo Alto residents for many years, who are willing to take the time to learn about issues from the people who will be affected most, and are not beholden to anyone with political favors. Let's not have the same old same old, but let's have some dynamic individuals with the purpose of making our city better for those of us who live here and have to deal with any decisions made by the council.


Posted by mjh, a resident of College Terrace,
on Sep 16, 2022 at 5:12 pm

mjh is a registered user.

Having watched council meetings for years, my observation is that newly elected council members without applicable experience, however diligently they attempt to do their homework, take a minimum of a year or longer to master the complexities and get up to speed. In the meantime, lacking both experience and knowledge they are all too often ineffective. Council meetings are sidelined with questions new council members should already know the answer to, and contributions to the discussion that take up time but do little to advance the substantive work of the council.

Someone who really cares about Palo Alto will have a track record of prior service and commitment to making a difference that demonstrates they are a serious, knowledgeable, and qualified candidate before taking the big step up of running for council. There are no shortage of city-wide opportunities to do so.

What are all too often touted as new ideas or a new approach, however passionately and eloquently expressed by newcomers jumping in on the campaign trail, may seem to be a breath of fresh air that can sweep away the cobwebs. But however convincing they may sound, without the necessary knowledge combined with nitty gritty expertise to implement their campaign platform promises, they remain just that, air.


Posted by Annette, a resident of College Terrace,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 7:51 am

Annette is a registered user.

I look for candidates who have a track record of civic engagement here or even in a similar community so that there isn't a steep learning curve regarding the complexity of city issues, how city government works, and how challenges can be met. I also look at endorsements as a gauge of loyalties. And if a candidate has an obvious agenda, no thanks. CC has too much work to do to waste time dealing with any one person's agenda and matters that come before CC should be evaluated as objectively as possible.


Posted by Jason Carswell, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 9:11 am

Jason Carswell is a registered user.

"I'll use the word SAMENESS to describe what disturbed me about their responses. Nearly all the answers from the seven were so similar that it seemed they were all on the same politically correct bandwagon."

^ The candidates are playing it safe by not expounding on anything specific. By relying on the usual boilerplate, they cannot be held accountable for any actual campaign promises or platforms later down the road.

"I really would like to see council members who have new, interesting ideas elected -- not people who can't think outside the box or are all in the same politically correct parade."

^ Sounds like the same nest of typical PACC candidates, the kind we used to encounter/experience in high school senate elections. It looks good in the yearbook but that's about all.

Curious as to what percentage of eligible PA residents actually vote in these municipal elections.


Posted by Ariel Fine, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 10:05 am

Ariel Fine is a registered user.

An aspiring PACC candidate who chastises the current administration would most likely not get elected because most Palo Alto voters are comfortable with 'feel good' political platforms and illusive pipe dreams.

The current crop of candidates are simply conveying what voters want to hear


Posted by Beverly Yount, a resident of Community Center,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 11:17 am

Beverly Yount is a registered user.

Perhaps we are expecting too much of our elected city officials. They are here to serve within limited parameters.

No former PACC member has ever gone on to serve in any higher capacity than county supervisor or state assembly/senate person and perhaps therein lies the problem as most seem to be happy just to have been elected to the PACC at one time or another.


Posted by Derek Layne, a resident of Palo Alto Hills,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 12:15 pm

Derek Layne is a registered user.

The current PACC is too easily swayed by upper tier city administrators (including the city manager), developers, and the police department...no backbone.

Are we to expect anything different following the next election?


Posted by PH, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 5:39 pm

PH is a registered user.

I always cringe a bit when I hear Diana talk about a $1B budget. Doesn't that include an electric company and a fire department?

Regardless, if you want pros to run your $1B budget, pay 'em a salary and demand full time work. $200k/yr works out to $1.5M on a $1B budget. That's peanuts. It's time. Put full time pros on council.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 19, 2022 at 11:14 am

Online Name is a registered user.

After listening to all of them say "Yes, I want X" I wrote to friends that I want a pony, too. Do any of them know that all those items cost money and that CC's job is to choose between conflicting priorities and paying for obligations like our unfunded pension liabilities,

Yes, track records, the ability to understand and analyze options and willingness to listen to and represent resident taxpayers rather than the big $$$$$ interests and political machines backing them is critical after so many years and too many mayors and council members who never met a development project they didn't like.

One does not govern by sloganeering / virtue signalling alone. I'm disgusted that almost all of them favor the new costly Fiber initiative rather than fixing our electrical grid,

Only 3 candidates -- Sunna, Lauing and Comsa -- said the RR crossing at Churchill need more study to avoid shifting traffic into the neighborhoods and onto Embarcadero when traffic there already backs up way past Casti -- and that's before the multi-year disruption of Casti's expansion construction starts.


Posted by Priscilla Stephens, a resident of Community Center,
on Sep 19, 2022 at 12:06 pm

Priscilla Stephens is a registered user.

It is time for Palo Alto to dispense with the City Manager form of municipal government and run with an all-encompassing mayoral government.


Posted by ArtL, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 19, 2022 at 9:49 pm

ArtL is a registered user.

What I want of a Council Candidate Forum is not questions and then allowing just 15 second or 30 second answers. The Weekly Forum was not informative to the public. There were some good questions, but no time allowed for thoughtful answers. How about some substantial debate, time for follow-up questions by the journalists? The issues are complex- some candidates are well prepared and experienced and could explain their views, while those blowhards who come up with 'smart aleck' reposts would be shown up for what little they really know.


Posted by tmp, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 19, 2022 at 10:41 pm

tmp is a registered user.

They may all sound somewhat alike so the question is who can you believe. Look to where they are getting the money to run their campaigns and what outside groups are buying them advertising space. Already we have seen full page ads from known development advocates pushing certain candidates.

Look for candidates with experience who are overwhelmingly funded by individuals who live in Palo Alto. Don't vote for who the democratic party says to vote for - they are influenced by money from developers. Don't vote for those with many thousands of dollars for outside the city. There are only two candidates with lots of local experience and lots of local support. Suppor them


Posted by Ferdinand , a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 20, 2022 at 1:13 pm

Ferdinand is a registered user.

The forum was enjoyable, but I agree with “ArtL" that the format was not helpful for distinguishing candidates. Next time reduce the #questions--or allow them to choose one they care most about--and offer 3 luxurious minutes to respond. At times it was almost comically absurd.

All the candidates seem to be responsible, impressive people. BUT, I agree with several comments about the value of prior experience (a city commission, the N. Ventura development, Maybell affordable housing, etc. It) demonstrates a deeper interest and commitment in developing the skills needed for city council service, and some humility. Running with no prior experience seems either naive or arrogant. The reality is this position requires much patience (long time-frames), clarity informed by experience, respect for the broad range of represented peoples, future vision, and tolerance for the often dull (yet contentious) work. Won't the inexperienced ones be better public servants after some commission work where they understand the wonky yet sometimes endearing Palo Alto culture?


Posted by G. Thompson, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Sep 20, 2022 at 1:23 pm

G. Thompson is a registered user.

As a nation, we've had congress persons, U.S. senators, and governors with no prior political experience. Some were former comedians, actors, professional wrestlers, singers, dancers, and tavern owners.

It does not take that much expertise to be a PACC member.


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 20, 2022 at 3:03 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"t does not take that much expertise to be a PACC member. "

True, as we've unfortunately seen when electing one candidate whose only platform was civility and others who never bothered to question any of the proposal on which they were ruling and which we backed by THEIR big-money backers.
'
Experience matters, Objectivity matters. Willingness to dig into the issues instead of sloganeering matters.

I agree with the posters above that the format for the candidate discussion was flawed and encouraged vague answers. Instead of wasting time on 2 similar introductory questions "What do you like most about PA?" and "What's your favorite place in PA?" we would have learned a lot more by asking "What do you see as PA's most pressing problem?"


Posted by Ferdinand , a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 20, 2022 at 9:42 pm

Ferdinand is a registered user.

G. Thompson, of course there have been people who fill positions with no experience and some of those might do well (but we also know the recent down side). I would argue most of those would be better servants with some meaningful and formal interactions with our constituents. Lordy, look what happened with the Maybell affordable housing project! Positions where you are actually living in the community--not in DC nor Sacramento--are naturally more personal. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of "former comedians, actors, professional wrestlers, singers, dancers, and tavern owners" who will resonate with this type of leadership. Of course I can be wrong! I think I was hoping any of the candidates would admit, "I have zero experience in city government, but I have time now in my life, I've contributed to other causes, and I really want to make a difference to our city." That would be refreshing.


Posted by Ken Carlson, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Sep 21, 2022 at 8:38 am

Ken Carlson is a registered user.

The solution is simple. Instead of having roundabout PACC candidates, separate Palo Alto into neighborhood voting districts where the council members will have a direct link with those they are serving.


Posted by Wei Zhao, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Sep 22, 2022 at 10:08 am

Wei Zhao is a registered user.

PACC candidates should also have some fluency in Mandarin to communicate effectively with the growing Chinese population in Palo Alto.


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