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By Douglas Moran

Disputing a Council Endorsement on Attitude toward residents

Uploaded: Oct 25, 2016

I strongly disagree with one of the Weekly's endorsements for City Council. That derives from an aspect that they ignored, but that is crucially important to me: That of how the candidate regards the citizenry, and consequently how he would treat them upon being elected.

I was a member of Board of the Barron Park (Neighborhood) Association for 19 years, 11 of which were as President and Vice President. My activities included not only my going before Council and Commissions, but helping groups of residents make their own presentations. I have written about the problems and frustrations extensively in earlier blogs (see the Public Input section of my index). Despite the many times I have seen residents treated badly from the dais, I cannot remember once when a Council member or Commissioner stepped up and told the offender that he was wrong, much less that he needed to apologize to the member of the public. This includes conduct that in other organizations would have led to a formal admonition or censure.

It is not just that mistreated residents go away angry, even furious, about that one issue, but that that treatment often colors their attitude about the whole of City government for a long time. For example, in the Maybell upzoning issues, residents attempted to work within the system, but instead found their concerns dismissed, disparaged and derided. Even after the referendum, various members of the Council and Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) still took the attitude of "We know best".(foot#1)

On these grounds alone, I think the Weekly was wrong to endorse Adrian Fine. He repeatedly expressed his hostility to a significant portion of the citizenry and to their priorities, and has strongly aligned himself with Palo Alto Forward (PAF) and related individuals and groups. Starting with the 2014 Council campaign of A. C. Johnson, "afraid of the future" has been used to disparage Residentialists. This has been a refrain in many places, including appearing in emails from the Fine campaign: "angry and fearful about the future". Another example is a Facebook comment by Council member Cory Wolbach that he "Liked".(foot#2) Remember, PAF leadership has been very publicly equating Residentialists and Mayor Pat Burt to Donald Trump(foot#3) and Fine gave a strong nod to this attack in his kickoff speech.(foot#4) Fine also promotes the theme that current homeowners are responsible for the jobs-housing balance.(foot#5) According to this theme, homeowners pushed for growth in office space to generate tax revenues to subsidize their lifestyle. This bears no relation to what actually happened in Palo Alto politics over the past decades: Those pushing the expansion of office space and the worsening of the jobs-housing imbalance are to be found among Fine's supporters.

An additional example of Fine's hostility to the "reality-based community" is his claim "This is a story that's shared by a lot of American cities: In the 1950s and 1960s we built tract homes and suburbs. Then we ceased building and increased regulation."(foot#6) He can't be that oblivious to all the housing that has recently been built--significant examples are prominently visible on El Camino at Charleston. Instead, he seems to be putting textbook dogma over observable facts.

A local elaboration of the theme blaming current homeowners has Palo Alto City Council having been dominated by Residentialists continuously since the 1970s. I first heard this from magazine essayist Kim-Mae Cutler when we were invited panelists at a Housing Forum sponsored by the Mountain View Human Relations Commission (2015-10-29), but she apparently got it from PAF because I also heard PAF leader Kate Downing making the same claim.

Millennials who are thinking of voting for Fine as a representative of their generation should pause and ask themselves whether they want to give prominence and standing to someone who will stoke generational animosity. The difference between voicing legitimate concerns and stoking animosity is that the latter involves heavy doses of falsehoods. In addition to the above, consider Fine's reported statement "Palo Alto residents who have been here since 1950 have told me, 'My generation screwed you.' " The implication that the typical homeowner has been here since 1950 is such a flagrant distortion that it is going to generate immediate animosity.(foot#7) Fine also engages in conversational tactics that antagonize people trying to have a serious discussion about serious issues.(foot#8)
Aside: I have several times (briefly) considered responding to outbursts of nonsense from PAF by writing a blog "What Palo Alto needs is LESS housing for Millennials". But the membership of PAF is more than Millennials, and the Millennials who belong to PAF are not representative of their generation (most media characterizations of a generation turn out to apply to only a small fraction when someone bothers to do actual research--10-15% seems to be common).

----Alternative Choices----
If I have convinced you that Fine is not a good choice for your vote, let me point out alternatives. If I had been considering Fine to have him as a representative of his generation, Greer Stone is the superior candidate (and younger). And if I were looking to choose someone from the pro-development / Chamber of Commerce / Palo Alto Forward "slate", I would pick Don McDougall (whom the Weekly did not endorse) or Liz Kniss, preferring the former.(foot#9)(foot#10)
Note: I disagree with both these criteria, but recognize that some readers may be using them. If these aren't your criteria, then there are other candidates that warrant your consideration.

----Considering the Weekly's Rationale----
Might the Weekly have identified countervailing attributes? One rationale given was "representative of a generation that will eventually assume leadership mantle for the city" This could also describe Greer Stone, but I judge Stone to have more of those attributes than Fine, except height, where Fine has a substantial advantage.(foot#11) However, for me this is irrelevant: City Council is not an internship program.

Another rationale given was "passionate and enthusiastic about ...", while expressing the reservations "young, relatively inexperienced and untested". Again, this could be Stone. But the differentiator again falls in Stone's favor: Fine's "two short years on the planning commission have been bumpy and his opposition to the temporary development cap (which he now says he supports) conveys some naivete." Also recognize that passion and enthusiasm as primary/independent attributes are worse than irrelevant--they can be major problems. They become positives only when combined with wisdom. Witness the admonitions "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" and "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I don't think either Fine or Stone have anywhere near enough experience in the relevant policy areas to have wisdom. So, if your choice comes down to being between these two, you would need to look at who their influences are. Fine is strongly aligned with Palo Alto Forward, and Stone is a protege of Council member Karen Holman.

Another rationale was Fine is "open to new ideas and strategies for the city's future." This is truly bizarre: Have you heard the City being criticized for not being open to the new? One problem the City has with new ideas is that it is too open to them, and winds up dissipating its energy over too many new ideas, and even when it chooses, execution of the idea is often a problem. Fine's blind belief in innovation suggests he has no experience with it--if he did, he would know that "innovation" merely means new ("nova") and not better, and that most innovations are failures.

Another rationale is that he has "a sincere desire to see the community he grew up in evolve in a way that preserves its character yet embraces change". If he is talking to a general audience during the campaign, yes. But for some other audiences, it is very different. In a Twitter discussion, he disparaged concerns about "compatibility" and "community character" as "an evil amoeba". He is quick to dismiss things he does agree with, for example dismissing the 50-foot height limit with "it's from the 1970s, and 50 feet is pretty arbitrary. It was just kind of chosen out of thin air at the time."(foot#12) Uh, no. It wasn't arbitrary, and it is not credible that Fine doesn't know this.(foot#13)(foot#14) Never let it be said that Fine let facts get in the way of his agenda.

----Keller-Kou video----
Advocates for Fine will likely bring up the Keller-Kou Facebook ad (video, you may need to un-mute it), so let me address it here rather than in a back-and-forth in the comments. The ad states "Developers and candidates like Adrian Fine want to push through many high-rise office and luxury condo projects. The result? More traffic and crowded schools. Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller are focused on growth that is smart and sustainable. ..." Before you condemn this as a negative ad, consider the first point from California' voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices: "I SHALL CONDUCT my campaign openly and publicly, discussing the issues as I see them, presenting my record and policies with sincerity and frankness, and criticizing without fear or favor the record and policies of my opponents or political parties that merit this criticism." You may want to read the remainder of the (short) Code to get a sense of what is regarded as unfair. So the ad falls into a category--comparative ad--that the Code regards as "fair" and which is encouraged in the Code's Intent section as part of a "vigorously contested" campaign.

This narrows the question to whether it was a fair characterization of Fine's position. My rule in these matters is to ignore the candidate's rationalization and to see if I myself can independently reach that conclusion from the public information. When a campaign has seen significant changes in the candidate's positions (as with Fine), I give substantially more weight to what he said earlier, including earlier in the campaign, unless he has provided a credible explanation for the change (which Fine hasn't). And I give little weight to what a candidate says during a campaign when it conflicts with what he has said in official meetings, especially when his participation was as an official representative.

Fine has talked repeatedly about "removing"--not just raising--the 50-foot height limit, and he has advocated for "tall buildings", for both office and housing. (foot#12) He has repeatedly said that we need to build more and he advocated doing that by building higher. Has Fine explicitly said that he wants that housing to be luxury condos? No. He hopes that it will be more affordable (less unaffordable?) housing, whereas extensive experience indicates much of it will be condos instead of apartments, and higher priced units rather than affordable ones. You should expect someone running for City Council to have long ago outgrown "magical thinking" and instead think in terms of the predictable consequences of the actions they are advocating. Consequently, I regard the ad's representation as passably fair, although with a quibble about the word "luxury" (I don't like it, but couldn't think of a better phrase). If I had been writing such an ad, I would have tried hard to squeeze in a few words to make the distinction.

Similarly for the claim "The result? More traffic and crowded schools." Fine's position has been to allow building now on the hope that future measures will mitigate traffic, despite the experiment with one of those being a failure.(foot#15) As to schools, I have heard no plausible mitigation.

That leaves us with the ad's claim that "...Fine want to push through many" such projects. Fine opposed the downtown office cap--although he subsequently flipped--with arguments that cumulatively amounted to "Since it isn't perfect, we should do nothing" and that it would be unfair to developers.(foot#16) And he rails against "regulations" that hamper building more. And he criticizes the city for not having built more already. I think the wording is a reasonable interpretation of what Fine has been advocating.

Please recognize that the question is now whether you or I would have put out that ad, or whether the ad is effective (or for whom). The issue is whether it is unfair.

The discussion of "negative ads" is continued + expanded in the subsequent blog: "Negative/Attack Ad? Wrong Question".

----Palo Alto Forward PAC----
"Palo Alto Forward claims 'impersonation' over PAC" (Palo Alto Online, 2016-10-24): Palo Alto Forward "members were distressed to learn that the name of their group was taken by Tim Gray, who until recently served as treasurer of their ideological rival, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ), and registered as a political action committee (PAC)."
First, Tim Gray should not have done this. Even though he seems to have done nothing with the PAC other than lock up its name, he definitely should have recognized the potential for mischief, and that simply registering the name would license such concerns.

Second, consider the fake outrage by Palo Alto Forward (PAF). They claim that they have no intention of ever having a PAC, but they are furious that someone has taken out of circulation for this election cycle a name that they claim they had no interest in using. While PAF has just cause to worry about future impersonation, its claim of current impersonation is completely and utterly false (no surprise for something coming from PAF): Impersonation requires an act of deception, and there are not even allegations of such.

1. Example of "We know best": Michael Alcheck (current member of the Planning Commission):
He is 32. Sees himself as member of "the next generation" and "the smallest constituency". "I don't think that the individuals that are over 55, and over 65, and over 75 always necessarily vote for what they really want. I think that they vote against change a lot because it's scary, but I don't know if they always make the same decisions in their private life that they are making on the ballot."
video, starting at 2:01:00
From my blog "Listen for Yourself: An index into 'A Conversation on the Future of the City' " (2013-12-13). This Council meeting was a follow-up to the Maybell referendum results.

2. Facebook comment by Council member Cory Wolbach that Fine "Liked":
"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)

3. Equating to Donald Trump: "A Wall Around My Country and a Moat Around My Hometown" by Mike Greenfield.
Part of larger discussion in my blog "The 'You're despicable' style of politics", 2016-09-22.

4. My blog "Candidate Kickoffs: Part 2", 2016-10-03.

5. In a recent interview "What it will take to make Silicon Valley affordable again" (Vox, 2016-08-23) he said "These regulations are at fault. As is frankly the attitude of folks who have their single family homes. They're happy with them; they don't want more people. Some folks are talking about reducing and limiting jobs."

6. Above interview in Vox.

7. Homeowners since 1950: Reality-check: There are over 70 houses in the third-mile stretch of my street. I can think of only one where the owner might have lived there since 1950. Most of the homeowners are like me--not old enough to have lived anywhere in 1950.

8. Example of Fine's discussion behavior: To a question on transportation policy during the candidate forum sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce (video), he said "solving it like we're still in the 1900s is not appropriate". Well, duh. A silly statement deserves a silly response: When Fine hears someone discussing "tailpipe emissions" does he think they mean horse manure, and that they are advocating replacing horses with automobiles, viewing them as non-polluting? When I encounter someone like Fine in a meeting, I strongly considering leaving because I expect that nothing will be accomplished.

9. The Weekly's explanation of its endorsement of Kniss indicates why I rank McDougall ahead of Kniss. First, "...lapses in homework on the issues" is an understatement of the situation--she often seems inattentive and makes far fewer contributions to the deliberations that other Council members. Second, "over-reliance on her extensive personal network of friends for input" which may be extensive but lacking in meaningful diversity. For example, at a coffee in the 2012 campaign, she showed she was unaware of all the virtually mandatory "voluntary contributions" expected of PAUSD families. And in a forum, her comment on the (low) tax burden on residents included the expectation that most of the audience (or electorate?) owned homes purchased before Prop 13. The issue isn't so much who is in the circle of personal friends, but rather whether the candidate/official understands the limitations and knows to reach outside. Contrary to the Weekly's assessment that Kniss "knows this community better than any other candidate" my experience is that she exists inside a relatively small bubble.

10. The fourth member of the pro-development / CoC / PAF "slate" is Greg Tanaka about whom the Weekly said "his reluctance to articulate his own views and values was, in our opinion, disqualifying." I fully agree, having seen nothing in this campaign to qualify him as a serious candidate other than the very serious donations he has received.

11. Leadership and height: Numerous psychology experiments have found that for males height is correlated with perceived leadership ability or status.

12. Draft minutes of the 2016-05-17 meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) of the City's Comprehensive Plan Update, page 31.

13. Height limit: Compatible building heights are a standard part of urban design, starting with the visual character. The 50-foot limit was based on the expected configuration of buildings (feet per floor plus overhead).

14. Fine's knowledge: Fine has a Masters Degree in urban planning (U. of Pennsylvania). This should be regarded as at least a handicap. Urban planning programs are focused on a narrow range of dogma and fads that are irrelevant to most of the country, but leave their students with little appreciation of the limitations of what they are taught. This disconnect between academic theory/dogma and the real world routinely appears in Staff reports and recommendations.

15. Mitigation failure: The downtown Traffic (Demand) Management Association (TMA) is "eating its seed corn". Funding granted by the City to help get the program off the ground is instead being frittered away on subsidies to individual commuters (instead of employers being responsible for all such subsidies).

16. Unfair to developers: The interim downtown office cap of 50K sqft per year represents 70% of the average amount being built from 2008-2013 (500K sqft total). Make your own inferences from how loudly developers squawked.
"Planning commission slams Palo Alto's proposed office cap: Commissioners say proposal unfair to developers, ineffective in reining in city's pace of growth", Palo Alto Online, 2015-08-12.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.