Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 24, 2012

Palo Alto sees shrinking pool of City Council candidates

In school board race, four candidates will compete for three seats

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto made the switch from odd- to even-year City Council elections in 2010, one of the goals was to generate more buzz about local contests by aligning them with the higher-profile state and national races.

Apparently, council candidates didn't get that memo.

The city's first council election since the switch has attracted the smallest pool of candidates in nearly two decades, with only eight local residents pulling nomination papers from the City Clerk's Office (one of the eight, well-known environmentalist Bob Wenzlau, has since decided not to run). Three of seven potential candidates — financial consultant Tim Gray, concert promoter Mark Weiss and panhandler Victor Frost — also ran in 2009, where they finished 11th, 13th and 14th, respectively, in a 14-candidate pool.

The race for four seats on the nine-member council also includes incumbents Pat Burt and Greg Schmid, former two-time mayor Liz Kniss and Marc Berman, an attorney who served last year on the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission and who has already amassed a campaign chest of more than $22,000.

On the education front, the candidate pools are similarly small.

Four candidates — newcomers Heidi Emberling and Ken Dauber and incumbents Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend — will compete for three seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education.

Similarly, four candidates will vie for three seats on the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees. They are incumbents Joan Barram, Betsy Bechtel and Laura Casas Frier and newcomer Geby Espinosa, who recently was unsuccessful in her June primary challenge to Assemblyman Rich Gordon.

In the Palo Alto City Council race, only Burt, Schmid, Kniss and Berman by Wednesday afternoon had submitted their nomination papers with the required 25 signatures and had these signatures verified by the Santa Clara County Office of the Clerk Recorder. Weiss had filed his papers but had not undergone the verification; Gray was still gathering signatures on Wednesday; and Frost, a frequent candidate, had not submitted his nominations paper as of early Wednesday. The deadline to file was 5:30 p.m., after the Weekly's press deadline.

City Clerk Donna Grider said the pool of candidates is the smallest she has seen since joining the city more than 13 years ago. According to data from her office, every election since 1997 but one has attracted more than 10 candidates. The lone exception was 1999, when only eight people ran. The last time the council had seven council candidates was 1995, the year soon-to-be-outgoing state Sen. Joe Simitian was running for re-election.

There were also seven council candidates in 1993, the year in which Kniss was elected to her second term on council. Not that Kniss needed the shallow pool. In 1989, when she first joined the council, Kniss was one of 17 candidates.

If either Frost, Weiss or Gray fails to complete the nomination process, the city would have the smallest candidate pool since 1985, when current Councilman Larry Klein was enjoying his first council stint and running for re-election. He was one of six candidates vying for five seats.

Kniss, who is about to conclude her final term on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, had urged the council in 2010 to change election years so that they line up with state and national election, a move that she said would generate more excitement for local races and save money by allowing consolidation of elections. The council voted to put the measure changing the election years on the ballot, and the voters subsequently approved it.

This year, voters will have a chance to select their council members along with the U.S. president, state legislators and a host of state and local measures, including Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to raise taxes, a Santa Clara County-proposed 1/8-cent sales-tax increase and a Palo Alto measure that would allow three medical-marijuana dispensaries to set up shop in the city.

While it's tough to find a definitive explanation for the dearth of candidates in this year's election, Gray suspects it has something to do with the candidates already in the field. Burt and Schmid are both incumbents while Kniss is a household name on the local political scene. She was the first candidate to announce her run for council, and the endorsements on her campaign site read like a Who's Who of the political establishment.

While the 31-year-old Berman is a relative newcomer when compared to Kniss, his list of endorsements is also sizeable and growing. Assemblymembers Rich Gordon, Jerry Hill and Mike Honda have all endorsed him, as have current Councilman Klein and current Councilwomen Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd.

Gray said he believes that the strong name recognition of the four front-runner candidates may have deterred others from throwing their hat into the race.

"Often times, when a name like Liz's or someone else who is high-profile in terms of traditional city service, like Marc Berman, comes along, people think they're pretty much anointed. They're the 'Chosen Ones,'" said Gray, who was spending his Wednesday collecting signatures and planning to submit them to the City Clerk by the end of the day.

Wenzlau, who last year spearheaded the successful Measure E campaign to "undedicate" 10 acres of parkland in the Baylands and make them available for a waste-to-energy facility, briefly flirted with the idea of running. But he told the Weekly Wednesday that he had since reconsidered and chose to remain focused on his environmental-consulting business, Terradex.

Beyond Palo Alto, Menlo Park resident Chengzhi "George" Yang, a Republican and a software engineer, and Gordon are squaring off to represent Assembly District 24, and Assemblyman Jerry Hill and former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber are vying for the new 13th State Senate District seat.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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