The regional debate over funding for Caltrain swept through Palo Alto on Monday, when Mayor Adrian Fine submitted a letter of support for a tax measure to pay for the rail service, only to have his colleagues disavow his position.
Fine, who has often tweeted in support of funding Caltrain, wrote to Norman Yee, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on Monday, July 20, expressing strong support for Caltrain's effort to enact a one-eighth cent sales tax in the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara.
"The city of Palo Alto understands that, in the absence of significant ridership gains, Caltrain is likely to run out of operating funds before the end of the year," Fine wrote. "Given the urgent need to identify new funding, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors must support an urgency ordinance for a 1/8-cent sales tax on the November 2020 ballot."
Fine's letter, which he submitted "on behalf of the city of Palo Alto," surprised some of his colleagues on the City Council, who have yet to discuss or take any positions on the possible measure. The future of the proposed ballot measure remains in flux, with members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declining to bring it to a vote. The supervisors cited concerns about Caltrain's governance structure and questions about how the funding would be spent.
The measure needs to win approval from the boards of all three counties – San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara – as well as four transit agencies before it could be sent to the voters. This week, supervisors from the three counties have been in talks with local officials about possible alternatives, including one that would give each of the three counties more control over the revenues that the tax generates. Under the current system, the San Mateo County Transit District administers the rail service.
Palo Alto Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Tom DuBois each told this news organization that they had been in discussions with Santa Clara County supervisors. Neither of them had taken a position on the ballot measure, noting that they do not know what the measure will look like.
Kniss, a former member of the Caltrain board of directors, called the tax issue "controversial" and said she was surprised to learn on Monday about Fine's letter declaring the city's support for placing the measure on the ballot.
"The issue has to do with not only the one-eighth of a cent, but it also has to do with governance and with where the one-eighth of a cent may end up," Kniss said. "Different entities have very different ideas about how that should be spent."
DuBois went a step further and submitted his own letter to Yee, disavowing the idea that Fine's letter represents a council position.
"Despite its claims, the letter represents the position of Mayor Fine individually and does not carry any more weight than the position of any other member of our City Council," DuBois wrote. "If it is represented to be more than an individual position, then the letter would be contrary to the authority of the mayor under our city charter."
DuBois wrote that he believes that "we need both stable funding for Caltrain and governance changes" but noted that the placement of the tax on the ballot is not an issue that the council has discussed. He recommended in his letter that the Caltrain board "engage with the cities along the corridor to explore the best response to the impacts of COVID-19 emergency on their capital and strategic plans and whether this presents an opportunity to accelerate Caltrain modernization and prepare Caltrain for greater success as we return to normal."
DuBois said he had spoken to Caltrain board members and Santa Clara County supervisors about the various issues surrounding the potential ballot measure earlier on Monday and found Fine's assertion that the city has a position "awkward."
DuBois also told this news organization that it was clear to him that Fine's letter went well beyond simply encouraging the San Francisco supervisors to put the measure on the ballot. The letter, he said, suggested that Palo Alto supports the tax measure.
"To me, it was very clear it was a policy change. It said, 'I support enacting a tax on Palo Alto residents.' We usually have a big discussion about taxes. … The mayor doesn't just decide to tax the residents – that's not the way our city charter works," DuBois said.
When asked why he submitted a letter, Fine pointed to the city's legislative guidelines, a broad set of positions that guide the city's lobbying efforts. Council policies allow the mayor to submit letters in support of legislation that is consistent with these policies, particularly when it's an urgent matter and the council is not available to meet and discuss the issue (the Palo Alto council is currently on its summer recess, which ends on Aug. 2).
While the guidelines include some positions that can be seen as consistent with the pro-tax position ("supporting local and regional public transportation"), it also includes other statements that could be used to justify insistence on governance reforms as part of the funding measure (one is "protect and increase local government discretion").
"The city's position is clear. (This is) just more residentialist-manufactured dispute," Fine said in a text message, referring to the group of council members who favor slow city-growth policies. (Fine declined a request for an interview.)
Despite his assertions, the city's position on the tax is far from clear. And it's not just the "residentialists" who have a problem with his letter. While DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou are often associated with this faction, Kniss is not. She told this news organization that she wished Fine had checked with his colleagues before submitting the letter on the city's behalf.
"I was not happy to not be notified ahead of time," Kniss said.
Kou, who often clashes with Fine over policies, noted neither the council nor the public have had a chance to weigh in on the tax measure and criticized his action as lacking transparency.
"I'm sure a lot of people are in support of Caltrain and making sure it's there and so forth, including myself, but circumventing the process is not the way to do it," Kou said. "This is something that needs to be discussed in public. … If it's that important, he should have called a special meeting and notified the public and made sure people knew about it."
City Manager Ed Shikada told this news organization that the letter — which was drafted by city staff — was issued under the pressure of a deadline and also did not advocate for the tax itself, only for the placement of the issue on the ballot.
"This does not presume the outcome of the City Council discussing and deciding whether to support a measure once on the ballot," Shikada said in an email. "Our staff-recommended language should have been clearer on that point."
But while the letter doesn't explicitly state that Palo Alto supports the tax, it is far from neutral on the matter. It asserts that Palo Alto was "excited to learn" about polls showing increasing voter support for a possible tax and states, "We cannot let this opportunity to secure Caltrain's future go by."
"This is an opportunity to save Caltrain and at the same time create revenue to improve it, tripling ridership and making the system more affordable and accessible for everyone," the letter states.
Shikada also pointed to the continued negotiation underway on the issue of governance.
"We hope that these negotiations are successful and that voters will have the opportunity to support the continued operation of this critical transportation service," Shikada said in an email.
This was the second time that Fine has been criticized by his council colleagues for allegedly misrepresenting their positions. In January, he submitted a letter on city stationery in support of Senate Bill 50 — a proposal that would have mandated cities to relax zoning standards to enable the development of more housing — without specifying that he was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the entire council. (The measure was later defeated in the state Senate.) He subsequently clarified that he was only speaking for himself.
The Palo Alto debate is part of a growing regional split between those who champion Caltrain funding and those who demand that any new tax be accompanied by governance reforms. On Tuesday, a group of elected officials that includes San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez, issued a joint statement that calls for Caltrain to move ahead with both the funding measure and the reforms.
"The proposed 1/8 cent sales tax would provide a reliable source of funds for Caltrain and relieve the local transit budgets in all three counties," the group said in the statement. "This is much needed and desired. However, given the serious nature of any tax proposal, we are keen to advance governance reforms in parallel, to ensure that we have the ability to directly oversee the use of funds and truly shape and set policy in an equitable manner."
Update: On Tuesday, July 21, Mayor Adrian Fine defended his letter backing a Caltrain tax measure on the ballot and accused Vice Mayor Tom DuBois of favoring a "do-nothing" approach. Read the full story here.