For more than two decades, Liz Kniss has been the face and voice of Palo Alto outside the city's borders.
While others rightly gripe about Palo Alto having no power on regional boards, Kniss' resume boasts memberships on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the Caltrain board of directors, where she has advocated -- albeit in the minority -- for the city's interests. She currently serves as a member on the VTA's Policy Committee and is vice chair of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The former Palo Alto mayor has also enjoyed two stints as the president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. She has weathered political upheavals, crippling recessions, economic boons and grassroots uprisings. And as the only incumbent in this year's crowded council race, she believes there's plenty of unfinished business to work on.
In a candidate field that includes neighborhood activists, data scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs, Kniss is an outsider precisely because she is an insider. She can get U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo on the phone to talk about airplane noise, and she can also point to grants she's helped Palo Alto obtain for local projects, including the soon-to-be-built bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101. Recently, she made sure that Measure B, the VTA transportation tax that will be on the ballot next month, contains explicit wording committing the San Jose-dominated agency to invest in north-county projects, including $700 million in seed funding to put Caltrain tracks below ground level.
"I'm standing here tonight as the only one with experience," Kniss told the audience at the Oct. 4 forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. "And I'm the only one who serves on a number of regional boards. That's important because we do need to know what's going on around us. We're not an island."
Despite her tenures with regional entities, Kniss admits there have been missed opportunities for collaborating regionally on housing and transportation. At a time when cities point fingers at one another for failures to plan for growth and traffic management, which have a ripple effect on neighboring communities, Kniss said she wishes she'd been more forward-thinking in raising and working on these issues with her colleagues in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties
"I'm sorry I didn't think to do something more regionally with traffic before," Kniss told the Weekly. "Because we do a great regional job with air. ... We do a good regional job with paying attention with what the state is doing. ... And somehow we forgot to deal with the regional issue of traffic."
Kniss, who serves as president of the Peninsula Division of the League of California Cities, said she would be in favor of convening a group that would transcend county boundaries (members would include cities like Menlo Park and companies like Facebook) to collaborate on traffic-fighting initiatives.
While Kniss is a politician who has held office since 1985, she is far from an ideologue. She is not affiliated with the council's slow-growth residentialist wing, nor is she a big proponent of growth and density. She talks about the need to encourage a diversity of options in the city's housing stock but has also supported setting an annual cap on office development.
During the council's 5-4 votes, she has generally sided with the three colleagues more amenable to development: Marc Berman, Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach (Mayor Pat Burt is typically a swing vote). She joined the majority in close votes that approved recent mixed-use developments at 441 Page Mill Road and at the former Olive Garden site at 2515 El Camino Real (the council's "residentialists" all opposed it). She was also one of four council members who voted not to uphold a citizen appeal of a largely commercial project at 429 University Ave., the former location of Shady Lane. Yet she surprised many recently when she voted against a Mercedes dealership planned for the Baylands, arguing that the building is too big for the setting.
As a council member, Kniss is hyper-aware of shifting political winds and adjusts her actions accordingly. It's not uncommon for her to cite the number of letters and comments the council has received and to use the residents' feedback as the basis for her decisions. An example of this happened earlier this year, when the council discussed a proposed mixed-use development for 550 Hamilton Ave. After hearing from residents and from occupants of the existing building, which was slated to be demolished, Kniss ended up firmly in the "no" camp.
"The developer really needs to know: Is there any appetite for this?" Kniss said. "I'm not hearing that tonight. And I think it's important that we deliver that in a straightforward way."
On the hot topic of housing, like on most topics, Kniss takes a moderate stance. She does not favor new high-rises but believes the city needs to add housing for low-wage earners, teachers, police officers, firefighters and seniors who would like to downsize.
When discussing transportation, she points to the council's recent accomplishments -- the new parking-permit program for downtown's residential streets; the nascent Transportation Management Association (TMA), a nonprofit charged with giving downtown employees alternatives to driving; and new technologies that, once installed, will help drivers get around the city's congested downtown garages. If re-elected, she has said, one of her priorities on transportation will be to champion the TMA and to work to identify more funding for the Caltrain grade separation, she stated in the questionnaire from the residents' group Palo Alto Neighborhoods.
Kniss often finds herself characterized as pro-development by those on the "residentialist" side, but she rejects this view. She notes that she has not accepted any developer money for her campaign (her 460 form shows one $250 check that she received from a developer -- an oversight, she said).
And when the Chamber of Commerce released a letter to its members last week, warning about "anti-business" candidates and urging support for Kniss, Don McDougall, Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka, she said she was taken aback and quickly distanced herself from the Chamber's position. Kniss told the Weekly that she had nothing to do with the group's decision -- which is practically, if not technically, an endorsement -- and that she was as surprised by the Chamber's letter as anyone else.
"We knew nothing about it," Kniss said. "It's odd to be recommended when you didn't know you'll be recommended."
Regrets? She's had a few. For one, the council failed to read the political situation in the Barron Park neighborhood before the 2013 referendum in which voters overturned a housing development on Maybell Avenue. She regrets losing the 60 apartments for low-income seniors that the project would have provided, and she considers the city's failure to build a sizable stock of affordable housing as another missed opportunity from her recent term. One effort she strongly supports is the council's push to preserve the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.
She also regrets the community division that the entire Maybell project and process spawned. That chapter still stings, but she told the Weekly she believes the council and the community are finally coming together again.
"I think we're in a different place now," Kniss said. "I don't feel this huge divide I felt in 2014. ... We're trying to work together and trying to make things happen in the community."