By Douglas Moran
Candidate Kickoffs: Part 2Uploaded: Oct 3, 2016
You can often tell who a candidate aligns with as soon as you arrive. Also the speeches--introductions and the candidate's speech--have very different styles. The exclamation "So this is the Establishment!" is common from activists who have been working the issues but are new to Palo Alto's electoral politics (the Establishment is largely absent at public outreach and public hearings because it doesn't need to waste its time on the public process). I mention this because in the second round of kickoff events for City Council candidates, what was said by the candidates was only a pale confirmation of the judgment I had reached by looking at the attendees. Although that judgment is easy to state, it is too nuanced and difficult to explain here. However, if you look at the pattern of endorsements in the candidates' literature, you should be able to deduce some of this on your own.
Note: I am not covering the School Board kickoffs during round 2. I missed two due to conflicts (Melissa Baten Caswell and Heidi Emberling) and was so worn out for the third (Jennifer DiBrienza) that I wasn't listening closely enough to do it justice.
The three Council candidate kickoffs were Greer Stone, Don McDougall and Adrian Fine, in that order. I will also comment on the Council candidates that didn't have kickoff events based upon my impressions of them at other events. For all the candidates, I refer you to the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) website for links to the candidates' websites and for their answers to a long list of questions on the issues.
Note: My focus here is on what the candidates said, and my impressions. Some of the candidates don't have much a track record on key issues, so you have to carefully consider what they say and write to guess what they will do when they have to make tough decisions and tradeoffs on these issues. If you have the opportunity--at a forum, "coffee" or other event--I encourage you to ask probing questions. Recognize that good questions are very hard to formulate, so give yourself some time to think them through.
Greer Stone is being championed by Karen Holman and the attendees at the event were predominantly Residentialists. His experience dealing with City issues comes primarily from serving on the City's Human Relations Commission (HRC) (current chair). The bulk of his speech was about his formative experiences growing up in Palo Alto (see his website), and then some from being on the HRC. He made brief mentions of development/growth issues, but clearly and strongly aligned himself with the Residentialist perspective.
Stone spoke of ideas such as having buildings for artists, with studios below and housing above. This is an example of problems that each of the three candidates here have. First, they ascribe to the City government powers that it doesn't have, such as being able to micromanage what gets built and who the tenants are. Second, whether it is practical (in this case, the economics). Third, is the scale of what is being proposed appropriate for Council decisions (example: McDougall talks of adding bicycle repair stations at the libraries).
The attendees at Don McDougall's event were predominantly the Establishment and Palo Alto Forward (PAF). Kate Downing was a notable presence.(foot#1) In his introductory remarks, Marc Berman--City Council member and State Assembly candidate--noted that about half the room were elected officials, and if former officeholders were included, that was not an exaggeration. Interestingly, McDougall breaks with the pattern of the other Establishment candidates (Fine, Kniss, Tanaka) by not enumerating his prominent endorsements as a major part of his presentation (for example, during closing comments at a candidates forum).
McDougall's experience with City issues comes primarily from serving on the Library Advisory Commission (LAC), but he is also a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan Update (as are candidates Keller, Kou and Fine). As with Stone, his speech made only brief mentions of development/growth issues. What registered strongly with me was his statement that Palo Alto faced a choice of whether it was to be "a suburb or a city". This is both a false dichotomy being pushed by PAF and the PAF misrepresentation of the position of others (see my blog "A manipulative candidate questionnaire", 2016-09-08). Another misrepresentation of perspective of others is found in his response to question #6 in the PA Neighborhoods Candidate Questionnaire (PDF): "...I do not support 'no growth' as a practical solution for Palo Alto...."
After the speeches, I asked him about this, and he said that Palo Alto was neither a suburb or a city, but a combination somewhere between the two. He then said that what he thought of as "suburbs" were the giant tracts built in the 1970s and 1980s where there were straight streets stretching as far as the eye could see with the same house patterns repeated over and over. This was his description, not my extrapolation. I was perplexed about the relevance of this to Palo Alto, but he couldn't give me an explanation. I found it very disquieting that McDougall would offer up a choice that he rejected as invalid. It speaks to him not having thought through his speech, and not having advisors who did proper diligence in critiquing it.(foot#2)
McDougall switched the discussion to the work of urban design/studies theorist Richard Florida, whom he praised. I told McDougall that I haven't read his work and we didn't pursue that. Aside: I have read summaries and critiques of Florida's work and that was enough to convince me that he wasn't worth the time. Briefly, Florida argues for the existence of an ill-defined "creative class" that seems little more than an expression of one's biases about what is important. For example, many definitions of the "creative class" include "visionaries" who come up with vague ideas and often exclude those that work the details to get a workable design, and definitely exclude those that figure out how to execute the design (manufacturing,...).(foot#3)
Another part of our discussion was density of office workers. McDougall noted that junior engineers of his and my generation got private offices, but now are elbow-to-elbow at tables. He said that that was how Millennials liked it and that it was the future. I pointed out to him that claims about purported defining characteristics of Millennials propagated by the media routinely turn out to be false--various surveys find them to be true of only a decided minority (15% for X; 33% for Y). I also pointed out such arrangements were hostile to many personality types--starting with introverts--and that they often found unofficial retreats. And that the claims about the productivity of such environments was hype.(foot#4) This specific instance is not what is important, but rather that it seems to be part of a pattern of McDougall latching onto hype ("drinking the Cool-aid") to such an extent that the contrary information doesn't register with him.(foot#5)
Another pattern I have noticed with McDougall is an overuse of the term "sustainable" as his answer for a very broad range of topics. For example, the candidates were invited to a neighborhood meeting to discuss the ongoing lack of a grocery store at Edgewood Plaza. In response to questions about what went wrong in the negotiations with the developer and how to fix it, part of McDougall's response was that there needed to be a "sustainable" arrangement. In his kickoff speech, McDougall said "People don't talk about sustainability." That is contrary to my experience.
The attendees at Adrian Fine's event were predominantly Palo Alto Forward (PAF) and secondarily the Establishment. Kate Downing was again a notable presence. (foot#1)
Fine's speech was by far the shortest I heard from any candidate although I was told that Greg Tanaka's was shorter. It may have even been shorter that the introductions. Fine has been a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) since 12/2014, and this was an opportunity for him to demonstrate that his positions on the issues went beyond simple slogans and what-about's.(foot#6) I felt that he should have been able to deliver a presentation on development/growth issues at the level of candidates Keller and Kou, but instead he failed to rise to the level of Stone and McDougall (whose experiences are elsewhere).
There were two interesting elements in his speech. The first was his statement that Palo Alto shouldn't "build walls" because that terminology places him firmly in the PAF camp and in holding their antagonism toward the people holding opposing views (see my blog "The 'You're despicable' style of politics" of 2016-09-22).(foot#7)
The second interesting statement was that he saw "housing as a social justice issue". This is a significant differentiator in this election: The Residentialists tend to focus on community and government's duty to existing residents, whereas PAF and the Establishment focus on "newcomers" coming here for (newly created) jobs. "Social justice" discussions often start with claims about providing housing for low-income workers, but after a little probing it turns out to be about housing for young professionals with high-paying jobs in tech companies. That shift often occurs when the speaker goes from his intentions or aspirations to what experience indicates will be the result of his proposals. As for Fine, he is vague and seemingly inconsistent on this. For example, in a discussion with him at an earlier kickoff event (Todd Collins'), he said that Palo Alto had an obligation to provide housing for people (like him) that grew up here--"to take care of its own".
There were several phrases in Fine's speech where I couldn't tell if they were generic slogans or endorsements of the PAF agenda. "Embrace change" is increasingly being used as code for "My priorities, lifestyle ... are the only reasonable choice and/or inevitable and consequently anyone who differs is an obstructionist and should get out of the way."
Fine claims that Palo Alto needs to be "a more inclusive and diverse city". Is this boilerplate from someone of his political background or a nod to those who claim that Palo Alto has exclusionary policies toward minorities, immigrants and others? His building-walls comment suggests the latter.
Note: In my discussions with Fine at earlier events, I told him that the common perception was that he was closely aligned with PAF (although he is not a member), and asked him how he differentiated himself. I wasn't expecting him to have a good answer formulated at that (early) stage of the campaign, but I did expect it by the time of his speech.
==Candidates without a kickoff==== ==
Stewart Carl is in the Residentialist camp. He has experience with development issues as a neighborhood activist in College Terrace and experience working on the problem of aircraft noise (see his website). His campaign will likely be hampered by his reserved personality. However, the various candidate forums should give voters an indication of how he would function as a member of City Council.
----Len Ely III----
I don't regard Len Ely III as a credible candidate, and he may not even be a serious candidate. At the candidate forums, he has repeatedly acknowledged his lack of knowledge of even the basics. I expect a candidate to have a level of involvement to demonstrate that they have the aptitudes, commitment and interest to meaningfully serve.
I don't regard John Fredrich as a serious candidate. He has run many times in the past (see his website) and has used the campaign--especially the candidate forums--to publicize his views. However, he hasn't and isn't putting in the effort and resources needed to have a credible chance of winning.
I don't regard Danielle Martell as a serious candidate because she hasn't done what is expected of one. For example, she didn't participated in the candidate forums (Chamber of Commerce and PA Neighborhoods).
1. Kate Downing is a former member of the City's Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) who resigned at the end of July and moved to Santa Cruz. She is on the Steering Committee of Palo Alto Forward and famous for her rants about Palo Alto development policy and history that are fonts of misinformation and venom.
2. Proper preparation of kickoff speech: I made a similar criticism of Liz Kniss' speech--see "Candidate Kickoffs: First weekend" (2016-08-30).
3. Executing on a design: My father worked for the then-Corning Glass Works. The company realized that there was a massive amount of knowledge that was going to be lost from the production lines with the retirement of the World War 2 generation. My father spent the last two years before retirement on one of those documenting this knowledge (his job had been in production planning so he was in routine contact with many line workers). It was impressive how much practical chemistry blue collar workers feeding a glass furnace knew. They had to quickly diagnose and fix discrepancies in the raw materials: There was variability between the suppliers and even from within individual source, there were many types of contamination during transport (in railroad cars), cumulative effects inside the furnace that could only be inferred, ... Academics are unaware of the magnitude and importance of such knowledge, or dismissive of it.
Aside: As a researcher in Artificial Intelligence (indisputably "Creative Class"), several of my projects involved trying to reduce the barriers to information flow between Design and Manufacturing and between different sections of Manufacturing.
Aside: In the late 1980s, a prominent observation in Artificial Intelligence was that it was much easier to have a computer approximate much of what a medical doctor does in diagnosing a patient that what a 4-year-old child does in navigating a playground. The doctor utilized a large volume of knowledge that had a fairly simple and consistent structure, whereas the child operated in a very ill-defined environment.
4. Need for quiet, focus, lack of interruptions: "Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule"
5. Drinking the Cool-aid: Comment by McDougall on PaloAltoOnline article: "New plans surface for 27 University Ave. : As City of Palo Alto halts its outreach process, design students Thursday pitch their own visions" (2016-01-21). "I am encouraged that fresh, bright, unbiased minds are spending time on Palo Alto issues. It's just possible some interesting new innovative and useful ideas might come their efforts. But I expect that any input they can provide us will be missed by people not even willing to listen to what constitutes free consulting and thought stimulation. Palo Alto is losing its ability to be an environment of innovation and useful growth and it's not surprising entrepreneurs are moving to San Francisco and San Jose. Eventually as Palo Alto loses its vitality and declines (and the tax base declines) the city will not just stop growing but die as I expect is the desired outcome."
Notice that he seems unaware of the multiple biases behind the study, both self-interest (Stanford and the professor) and the academic dogma. Notice also his antagonistic attitude toward people with different opinions and priorities.
6. What-about example: Fine proposes roof-top gardens as part of the solution to a deficit of park space. This has limited practicality. When you look at the typical flat-roofed commercial or apartment building, you see skylights, exhaust vents and other infrastructure. See for yourself: in Google Maps, select Earth view and zoom in on a commercial district, such as University Avenue, and look at the varying amount of space on the roofs. Recognize noise and safety issues further restrict what is available for park-like uses. Add to this the small number of opportunities for this--redevelopment of larger parcels--and I ask whether this is something that warrants Council-level attention.
7. Additional example of Fine's attitude toward opposing perspectives: He Liked the Facebook comment
"I find many Residentialists/NIMBYs purchased their homes around 10-20 years ago. And a lot of people can be convinced to vote Residentialist/NIMBY by appeals to fear, combined with ignorance. Fear of change, and ignorance about what causes the most frightful changes. E.g. 'More housing means more traffic,' when, in reality, smart housing policies and better transit policies could reduce the need to drive." (emphasis added)
(part of discussion in earlier blog "The 'You're despicable' style of politics" of 2016-09-22).
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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