Making no bones about their desire to shake up the Palo Alto City Council, self-described "residentialist" council candidates came out swinging Monday at the first debate of the campaign season, offering sharp words about how the city's been run over the past several years.
"We need a new majority on the council focused on residents' concerns," said business consultant Tom DuBois, one of nine challengers out of a field of 12 candidates. DuBois got involved in city issues through last year's successful referendum of a development on Maybell Avenue, which had been approved by the council.
"I want to fight for the soul of our city," he said of his bid for one of five seats in the Nov. 4 election.
Realtor Lydia Kou, who was also involved in the Measure D referendum, explicitly called for new council leadership. Saying the culture at City Hall is faulty, she criticized project-by-project decision-making that she said neither considers what residents want nor accounts for the cumulative problems brought on by development. She cited a recent county Grand Jury report that took the council to task for a failure to deliberate in a transparent manner.
If elected, she said, "I'll establish expectations of what the culture is going to be."
Joining DuBois and Kou at the debate, hosted by the Rotary Club of Palo Alto, were retired technical writer Wayne Douglass, technology executive Eric Filseth, retired teacher John Fredrich, councilwoman and historic conservation consultant Karen Holman, attorney A.C. Johnston, councilman and attorney Greg Scharff, mayor and former managerial accountant Nancy Shepherd, business owner Mark Weiss and legislative staff member Cory Wolbach. Engineer Seelam Reddy, the 12th candidate, did not participate.
Among numerous civic issues, the debate touched upon development, city finances, homelessness and quality of life. But the dominant undercurrent was the performance of the city staff and council over the past four years. Since last year, when the outcry of "over-development" reached a fevered pitch through Measure D, the city has focused its resources on programs to curb large-scale building, ease parking problems and lessen traffic.
Incumbents defend their records
The three incumbents, for their part, rebuffed characterizations of their work as favoring developers at the expense of residents.
Scharff said he has always been a residentialist, thinking about how each potential decision will affect those who live in Palo Alto.
"That's the way I vote," he said of his decisions. "They are not pro-development; they are pro-resident."
He pointed to his December 2012 vote to enforce standard parking requirements for two redevelopment projects downtown rather than allow the buildings to provide fewer parking spaces. His was one of five votes in the split decision.
Likewise, Shepherd said that she has been active in the current revision of the city's Comprehensive Plan, Palo Alto's guiding land-use document, so that its regulations will produce the kind of city that residents want.
Defending her work on the council to solve encroaching traffic, parking and over-development problems, Shepherd said, "Our city has been resilient about getting back to where we want to be."
Holman, meanwhile, tried to reassure the audience that she understands the mistrust that people have with City Hall.
It's not just traffic and parking that trouble residents, "it's the pace of changes that are of great concern," Holman said.
Furthermore, "residents don't feel particularly heard," she said, adding later in the debate that her priority in a second council term would be to create a more inclusive and effective process of assessing the benefits and drawbacks of proposed plans.
Challenger Filseth, whose civic involvement was sparked by parking problems in his neighborhood of Downtown North and who is a member of the grassroots group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, sought to strike broader themes during the debate, saying that citizens' dissatisfaction with the city goes beyond one issue or project.
"There's a growing disconnect between City Hall and the values and priorities of residents," he said.
He called the Maybell referendum "a microcosm of all the wrong things," including the city not paying attention to residents' wishes.
Bike bridge, Mitchell Park Library
Among the issues that differentiated candidates at the debate was the planned bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, which is the subject of an upcoming design competition. Debate moderator and journalist Diana Diamond remarked that the project was originally estimated to cost $2 million. Now, the price tag is between $8 million and $10 million.
Scharff noted that $6 million of the budget will be supplied by Santa Clara County. He also indicated that project costs would be scrutinized. But overall, he enthusiastically supports the project, which will connect south Palo Alto pedestrians and bicyclists to the Baylands.
"Palo Alto deserves a fantastic bridge, a bridge we can be proud of for the next 50 years," Scharff said.
Johnston questioned the cost, saying it "seems like an awful lot of money for a bridge," but he also admitted that it could be "a spectacular addition to the city."
Weiss, however, derided the plan.
"It's an absolutely horrible pork project," he said. "I'm very upset."
Filseth likened the bike bridge to the planned $4.5 million renovation of the first floor of City Hall, which has attracted criticism and charges of being unneccesary.
"It seems like a glamour thing," he said, echoing a viewpoint that the council spends too much energy on developing projects that aim to be "world-class."
Four candidates Monday were asked to analyze what went wrong with the construction of Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, a project whose completion has been delayed two and a half years and resulted in various lawsuits between the city and the contractor it fired in January, Flintco Pacific.
All identified the city's failure to properly manage the project as the culprit in the delay and said that in hindsight the city should have replaced Flintco as the number of costly change orders kept mounting.
DuBois likened the partnership to a bad marriage.
"We should have had the divorce much earlier," he said.
Kou criticized the lack of periodic assessments of the contractor's work by city staff and said timely evaluations should be included in future projects.
Answering 'mean' questions
Diamond also took the liberty of asking each candidate what she called a "mean" question -- one designed to target a perceived weakness.
Johnston was asked whether he could list any civic engagement prior to this campaign -- and whether he had even voted in past City Council elections.
While affirming that he has voted consistently, he admitted, "I do not have the same experience as the incumbents and even some of the people running."
But as an attorney, he said, he has experience resolving complicated disputes, "which I think would be very helpful to the city now."
Shepherd was asked about the council's dealings with John Arrillaga, whose proposal to build an office and theater complex at 27 University Ave. was discussed in private for months before being brought to public attention. She was asked to explain why she didn't apologize earlier this month as her colleagues did for meeting behind closed doors with the billionaire developer.
Shepherd said Monday that her meeting was informational, not deliberative.
"I met with Arrillaga one time. It's an all-or-nothing conversation, where ... if you don't like it, you don't do it," she said.
Holman was asked to explain her relationship with Steve Pierce, a real estate broker for whom she has worked as a consultant. Her failure to recuse herself during a council committee meeting at which she advocated for rezoning of land owned by Pierce triggered an anonymous complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
She reminded the audience Monday that the FPPC in August declined to investigate her for a conflict of interest.
A former Planning and Transportation Commission member, Holman was also asked whether she should have recused herself during that tenure. Holman, however, said that the last time Pierce brought a project before the city was 1998.
Weiss, head of a concert-promotion business, was asked about his familiarity with city issues outside of the arts. He responded that he's written extensively on policy on his blog, "Plastic Alto."
"I've been to more meetings than anyone on this panel, including incumbents," he said.
Affordable housing, city manager, car camping
Given the chance to speak about affordable housing, Wolbach, a staff member for state Senator Jerry Hill, said a dearth of small-scale housing, just 3 percent of the city's total housing stock, pointed to the need for more low- or moderate-income homes.
If young adults can't return to Palo Alto to live and if retirees cannot afford to stay in town when downsizing, he asked, "What is it going to mean for the long-term character of the community?"
Separately, Wohlbach criticized the City Hall renovation, noting that the millions of dollars might have been money better spent on other priorities, such as services for the homeless.
Frederich was asked to evaluate the work of City Manager James Keene.
"Keene is doing a good job," Fredrich said, agreeing with other candidates that it is the council's job to give the city manager clear direction.
Fredrich noted that the size of city government has doubled since the '70s.
"I think maintaining a nine-person council is essential to giving staff good direction," he said, referencing this November's Measure D, which proposes to shrink the council size from nine to seven members.
The debate's most poignant moment came when Douglass, when asked why he was suddenly jumping into the race after years of non-participation in city issues, said he was emerging from isolation following the death of his wife.
The council's deliberations over the city's car-camping ban galvanized him, given that he knows people who live in their cars. He is campaigning to raise awareness of the city's homeless and low-income residents, he said, and to urge the city to make room for them.
"Let us not forget the less fortunate, be they folks camping at Cubberley (Community Center) or ... Buena Vista (Mobile Home Park)," he said. "There is virtue in diversity ... including economic diversity ... and we need to preserve it."
"That's my cause," he said. "That's why I'm here."
The City Council candidates will square off next at a League of Women Voters of Palo Alto public forum on Tuesday, Sept. 30, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Congregation Etz Chayim, 4161 Alma St., Palo Alto. They are contesting for five open seats. Co-sponsors of the forum are the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, Palo Alto Weekly, Palo Alto Online, Avenidas, AAUW Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the Midpeninsula Community Media Center.
The candidates will also debate two days later, on Thursday, Oct. 2, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., in an event sponsored by the group Palo Alto Neighborhoods.
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