Tuesday's local election should send a strong message to current office holders about what will help them win — and lose — local races.
And we are hopeful that results will reverse a disappointing pattern of bad behavior on the Palo Alto City Council, where a trend toward disrespecting those with differing political views has created unhelpful animosity and division.
A perceptive and discriminating Palo Alto electorate showed Tuesday that it won't hesitate to punish candidates for their perceived divisive behavior, is skeptical about those who spend excessive amounts trying to get elected and is willing to impose new financial obligations to support the schools and city infrastructure projects.
Voters also overwhelmingly embraced term limits for school board members and rejected a poorly conceived measure to regulate local health care providers.
Local election results brought more clarity than usual to how voters feel about the conduct of the officials it elects and the policies they support. In the Palo Alto City Council race, voters resoundingly rejected incumbent Cory Wolbach, relegating him to fourth place behind Alison Cormack, a newcomer with a history of collaborative community work but with no record to defend, and Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois, the other two incumbents who are generally on the opposite side from Wolbach on land-use and development issues.
Wolbach lost across the city in spite of running a well-organized campaign with support from a who's who of many Palo Alto political veterans, including Mayor Liz Kniss, and the county Democratic Party. Two factors were at play: Wolbach's allegiance to the less restrictive development philosophies of Kniss and Councilmen Greg Scharff, Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka, and his inability to live up to his 2014 campaign rhetoric about civility in local government. Wolbach, along with Scharff and Fine, seemed incapable of or disinterested in working constructively and thoughtfully on controversial issues with those on the other side — Filseth, DuBois, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou.
But Palo Alto voters are also clearly demonstrating continuing concern about the direction of the city. The strong support of DuBois and Filseth suggest that frustration with traffic and development policies has, if anything, intensified since the council majority changed two years ago. Cormack, whose strongest support came from south Palo Alto neighborhoods and who made the city's poor communication on traffic and bike transportation projects an important part of her campaign, drew support across the political spectrum from voters willing to give her a chance to demonstrate her independence from either of the city's two traditional political camps. We hope that turns out to be true.
Meanwhile Scharff, the politician most responsible for creating the divisive environment on the council, was defeated by a landslide in his effort to pivot to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District board after being termed out on the City Council. He spent more than $100,000 on the campaign, mostly of his own money, in an attempt to beat his longtime political nemesis Karen Holman. He not only underestimated Holman's support in the community, but his unprecedented spending on mailings in an election without any issues differentiating the candidates turned off voters.
In the school board race, incumbent Ken Dauber easily won re-election, but the second seat may not be decided for weeks given that only 26 votes currently separate Shounak Dharap and Stacey Ashlund, with Kathy Jordan trailing behind Ashlund in fourth place by only 79 votes.
There are lots more votes to count in this race, so any of these three could wind up the winner. Two years ago, 6,000 to 7,000 more votes were added to the tally of the winning candidates from the results available two days after the election. These yet-to-be-counted ballots are those returned on Election Day to polling places and those received through the mail this week, so they will reflect the decisions of voters who waited until the last minute to cast their votes.
With the late effort organized late last week by Paly parents against Kathy Jordan's candidacy due to her treatment of student journalists at the Paly Campanile, the school newspaper, the final tally should give an indication as to whether that effort cost Jordan any votes.
Regardless, the fact that Dharap, a 28-year-old Gunn High School graduate and lawyer running for the first time and with much less financial support than either Ashlund or Jordan, could be competitive signals that the approval of term limits will be good for the community in the future.
In both the school district and in city government, voters appear to mostly want less drama and more focus on good fiscal management, good communications and greater integrity of decision-making. We hope those elected officials whose terms aren't up until 2020 are paying attention.