Rebecca Eisenberg, a Palo Alto attorney who has criticized the City Council for being too friendly to commercial developers, announced this weekend her plan to run for a council seat in November, becoming the first challenger to enter the race.
Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto, made her announcement on Town Square, the community forum of Palo Alto Online. She said one of the reasons she is running is to improve transparency and accountability, which she argued has been diminished by the political influence of wealthy donors and lobbyists.
The announcement was part of a string of weekend posts in which Eisenberg criticized the council's strategy for balancing the budget and challenged Mayor Adrian Fine for offering to help Tesla remain in Palo Alto. Fine's tweet in support of Tesla followed a threat by Tesla's CEO Elon Musk to move his company to Nevada or Texas.
Eisenberg responded by publicly asking, "What exactly DOES Tesla do for Palo Alto?"
"I am disappointed in Mayor Fine's response," Eisenberg wrote. "We are Palo Alto and we stand up for our residents, our safety, and our community. We do not allow billionaire celebrities to blur our vision by putting Iron Man stars in our eyes."
In a different post, which pertained to budget cuts, Eisenberg argued that the City Council is now being forced to reduce services because it had spent decades prioritizing "commercial developers/office space and tax-exempt special interest projects boosted by big money donors." She also said the city needs to create an "enforcement division," which the city currently does not have because of the "lack of courage in local government."
"By constantly prioritizing wealthy campaign donors over the residents of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto City Council has created a situation where we lack a tax base to support essential services like fire and police," Eisenberg wrote. "It's not just shameful, it's infuriating."
Eisenberg told this news organization that she believes Palo Alto needs to make sure local businesses are contributing more revenues to the city. This includes creating a new business tax. The City Council was preparing to place such a tax on the November ballot but suspended its effort in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic led county health officials to institute a shelter-in-place requirement. Eisenberg believes the council erred in not moving ahead with the measure, which could have been tailored to give exemptions to small businesses that were hurt by the shutdown.
"To claim that these businesses are contributing to our city, while we are basically paying for them with the taxpayer money of residents while they're not paying their fair share — it's ludicrous," Eisenberg said. "When I'm on the City Council, the first thing I want to address is our ways of collecting revenue for the city. We positively need to tax the businesses."
She said she believes Palo Alto is failing to require commercial developers to pay their fair share for city services. She notes that new office developments remain more profitable than residential ones and believes the city needs to "change the economics" and make office building no more profitable than residential construction.
She also says the city needs to allow more mixed-use projects with office and residential components. Palo Alto's failure to promote this kind of development is a "huge lost opportunity," she said. Housing above retail, she said in an email, is a "well-proven method for supporting small businesses and local small business owners have been clamoring for this reasonable solution for decades."
Eisenberg said that she also strongly supports building housing for teachers at Cubberley Community Center, which is owned by the city and the school district (the city is leasing the school district's portion of Cubberley under a lease that is in the process of being renegotiated). Building teacher housing would be a "win" for everyone, she said. It would help teachers; it would help schools; and it would generate revenue, which both the city and the district desperately need.
She also strongly opposes the expansion proposal from Castilleja School, which she argues violates local zoning laws. She cites the school's violation of its "conditional use permit" in 2012 as an example of the city being too lax in enforcing its rules. Though the city fined the school $285,000 for the violation, Eisenberg argued that the fine was not sufficient.
In recent years, Eisenberg also has been a frequent critic of both the council and the Planning and Transportation Commission, which she had tried to join in 2017 and 2019. The council did not appoint her on either occasion. Last year, she argued that former Planning Commissioner Asher Waldfogel had a conflict of interest because he had served as a trustee at Castilleja School, which is in the midst of a controversial plan to rebuild its campus (Waldfogel lost his seat on the commission in December; the commission has yet to review the Castilleja plan).
Eisenberg had also accused the council in 2016 of consistently favoring white men for commission appointments. At one point, she made a scoresheet of every council member's votes on commission appointments and gave each a "diversity rating." She suggested in the scoresheet that then-Mayor Pat Burt, who had the lowest rating, be "subject to expulsion."
She noted in a 2018 post that she received significant criticism ("as well as name-calling and attacks on my integrity") as a result of that chart, which she said aimed to provide transparency.
"Our officials certainly know that the votes they cast are public record, and if I had the opportunity to cast votes, I would do my best to vote on behalf of the community I love and whose interests — much less, demographics — I reflect and represent," Eisenberg wrote in November 2018.
According to her planning commission application, Eisenberg was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and came to California to attend Stanford University. She then graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for several technology and legal companies in the Bay Area. This includes stints at Trulia, where she was general counsel, and at Reddit, where she was general counsel, head of finance and head of human resources, according to her resume.
She is principal and founder of the firm Private Client Legal Advisors, which provides legal services to nonprofit organizations, technology companies, angel funds, entrepreneurs and executives, according to her resume.
Eisenberg said she believes the council has stopped representing the majority of the city, including renters and families with children. She is hoping to change that.
"When we divest money from our public schools and from city service — fire, police, public transportation, when we focus on parking but forget a big chunk of our population -- children and seniors — don't drive … we are forgetting to serve the core of our community," Eisenberg said. "The core of our community are families. … We have lost sight of that."
The council race will include at least one open seat this November, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss set to conclude her final term. Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Councilman Greg Tanaka are all eligible to run for a second four-year term. While all three are expected to seek re-election, none have formally announced plans to do so.