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Guide to the City Council Candidate questionnaire
produced by Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN)

By Douglas Moran

Introduction: I have been long active in Palo Alto politics as a neighborhood leader (Barron Park). I served on the committee that created the PAN (Palo Alto Neighborhoods) questionnaire. The following are my personal remarks on the topics in the PAN questionnaire (based on my experience). The intent is to provide background information to help the ordinary resident reading the candidates' responses with a more critical eye, including background facts, common fallacies and explanations of controversies.

This is not intended to advocate a position on this topic, although what I choose to focus on cannot help but represent some of bias resulting from my experience. In a few places, I will name specific candidates, but this should be taken neither as support or opposition to those candidates (I have serious reservations about some of the candidates that I expect to vote for).

I did not have as much time as I would like in assembling this guide. One consequence is that I didn't have time to assemble a range of additional readings and wound up using documents I had already written (or collections of links previously assembled).

Warning: This is a rough draft that is unlikely to be significantly improved before the election. However, it may form the basis of more permanent documents, so comments and corrections are being accepted.

Please: After reading this guide, please take this short survey (5 questions) to give me feedback as to whether it would be useful to produce a similar guide in future elections.

Terminology: "The City" refers to the government of the City of Palo Alto.

1. Reason for running: What are your primary reasons for running for City Council?

Seeking to accomplish something, not "give back to the community": Part of Palo Alto's current problems come from having Council members who have been easily manipulated by vested interests. It takes Council members "with a burr under their saddles" to stand up to those pressures. Examples:

Interest in the basics: We voters have elected many Council members who have scant or no interest in basic city services, and is it any surprise that our streets, civic buildings, ... are in such bad shape? A big part of the problem is a misplaced "civic pride" that Palo Alto should be a leader, even "a lighthouse", in the nation on a wide range of issues and elect Council members who want to play on a bigger stage.

Avoid candidates focused on peripherals: The complement of the previous point--Avoid candidates who are interested are in matters peripheral to City government because they will divert resources--money and Council focus--from the primary issues. This inclination is seen in various of the current candidates, but most clearly in Gail Price's platform issue of getting the City involved in mental health issues (for explanation, see my comments about her response to question 18).

Attributes other than positions on issues: Guest Opinion: Some thoughts on evaluating City Council candidates by Doug Moran, Palo Alto Weekly, 02 November 2005.

2. Experience:

When I read this section, I am looking for two things:

  1. Experience with the major issues facing City Council members:
  2. Experience in a larger organization, preferably as at least a mid-level manager. People whose experience is only in very small organizations, for example a local law partnership, aren't likely to have a feel for how larger organizations, such as the City, actually work (and the organizational politics involved).

Joiners and resume-padding: There are often candidates who list membership in organizations, including serving as officers or on the board, who are widely rumored to have done little more than show up for the occasional meeting. Unfortunately, the local newspapers don't check and report on this. So voters have to look at their claimed achievement.

3. Potential conflicts of interest

4. Deficit: The City has a large structural deficit. A large part of its costs are for employees, both current and retired. How do you propose to contain those costs? If you advocate reductions in the workforce, which services would be affected? Do you advocate an alternative way(s) to contain costs?

Some rough, round numbers on deficits:

Common mistake: Span-of-control: This is the ratio of employees to managers. For the City, this is very difficult to determine because the City does not have a category for just managers, but has a category that includes both managers and professionals such as engineers. A common mistake of critics is to treat everyone in that category as a manager, arriving at an absurdly low number for average span-of-control. However, the City's inability to determine this ratio demonstrates a problem with its management philosophy and practices: If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

Union endorsement: Not just money. Three candidates--Corey Levens, Gail Price, Nancy Shepherd--have accepted the endorsement of labor unions. These candidates say that they are not accepting contributions from the unions, but this can be very misleading because unions typically make other types of contributions that are far more valuable than a direct contribution:

5. Business license tax: What is your position on a business license tax, such as the one on the November ballot?

Notice that this question was worded to have the candidates talk about their approach to such taxes, and not just the specific proposal in Measure A.

Business Registry and Business License Tax: Often conflated or otherwise confused

Motivation/justification for the tax and counter-arguments (repeated, not endorsed):

6. Utilities Funds: Currently a portion of the City's Utility Fund is paid into the General Fund. What do you think are appropriate levels for such payments?

There are three basic classes of transfers from the Utilities to the General Fund:

  1. Return-on-Investment: supposed to be similar to what a private utility (PG&E) pays its share holders.
  2. Payment for services and rent: The City provides various services, such as Human Resources, and facilities (such as composting facility).
  3. Transfer of responsibilities (costs) to Utilities, for example traffic lights.

The second category provides substantial opportunity for the abuse because in essence the City determines what to charge itself for those services. Much of the current budget deficit was handled by the City charging its Utilities more for services.

A major concern is that these transfers allow the City a backdoor mechanism for raising taxes: Raise utility rates and increase transfers from Utilities to the General Fund.

There are arguments that utility rate increases can also be used as a backdoor tax on businesses: Businesses are much bigger consumer of utilities, but the large consumers also get substantial (quantity) discounts. I haven't seen an analysis combining these two factors.

7a. High Speed Rail (HSR): What is your position on HSR, including undergrounding?

The details of the arguments for and against HSR are too many to deal with here. However, look at candidates' positions to see if their positions are based on a slogan-level understanding or real analysis. Aside: The Economix blog and related articles at the NY Times on HSR present interesting questions about the actual environmental benefits (12 August 2009 is a starting point).

Grade-separation (overpasses or underpasses) has been part of HSR plans not just from the very beginning, but from the plans for Caltrain upgrades (from at least the early 2000s). The at-grade crossings limit the frequency of Caltrain because of its effects on traffic flow on the streets: At peak hours, it takes roughly six cycles of a traffic light for the flow to return to normal. The plan to electrify Caltrain included grade-separation and resulting ability to increase frequency of trains.

7b. If HSR is built, should the City request a station?

A number of intersections in the University Avenue corridor are projected to decline to "failing" (technically a Level of Service (LOS) rating of "F") with currently approved developments (not including Stanford Hospital). The vehicle traffic from people using HSR would greatly increase congestion.

Since the station would serve the mid-Peninsula and significant portions of the East Bay, it would require massive parking structures. Shortages of parking facilities would create even more overflow parking into the nearby neighborhoods, competing with the overflow parking from the University Avenue businesses. Claims that the station would be served purely by public transit flies in the face of long experience.

7c. What should be the City's role?

This is an interesting question because of what it can reveal about how the candidates regard their role. In the HSR "surprise":

You might want to ask what the candidates have done on this issue (other than state a position) as an indicator of what they would do if elected.

8. Retail: Palo Alto has multiple business districts and neighborhood centers. The health of a retail area is dependent on far more than just individual stores. Although cities cannot provide the level of management found in malls, other cities do more than Palo Alto. What should the City do to support the retail sector?


Chamber of Commerce (CoC/Chamber): Many of the Candidates talk about the role of the Chamber, failing to take into account the history and current status of the Chamber. When I first became involved in retail issues, I was amazed at the animosity of the merchants against the Chamber. The biggest complaint was that the Chamber was controlled by the developers and took the side of the developers against the merchants (even Chamber leaders have publicly admitted that the Chamber has long functioned as a rubber stamp for developers). The secondary complaint was that when the Chamber showed any interest in retail, it was restricted to the University Avenue district and Stanford Shopping Center, at best being irrelevant to the other retail areas, but sometimes being contrary to their interests. The new head of the Chamber (Paula Sandas) wants to change this (and I would like to see this happen), but previous leaders of the Chamber have made similar representations. There is a lot of history, bad blood and institutional inertia to overcome. Since a quick turn-around is unlikely, it seems unwise for Council to expect the Chamber to play a major role in this area. Remember that the Chamber is likely to provide significant services only to its (paying) members. With the extremist politics of the state and national Chamber, many business owners may not want to affiliate with the local Chamber.

Difference between managed malls and shopping districts: The mix and location of stores in a retail area has a huge impact on their success. A classic example is that a women's shoe store does better when it is near other women's shoe store(s), but does worse when it is near a restaurant. Malls such as Town and Country and Stanford Shopping Center actively manage these aspects by recruiting tenants and placing them in appropriate locations. The University Avenue area has fared better than most retail districts because it has a small group of dominant landlords, in both their holdings and in providing leadership. However, other retail areas in Palo Alto have suffered from the lack of leadership.

Various neighborhood associations attempted to recruit businesses for their nearby business districts (most prominently Midtown, but also my neighborhood Barron Park). However, the City's refusal to provide even token cooperation with these efforts came across as hostility, both to the neighborhood and the businesses being recruited. To highly the problems in this area, PAN (the sponsor of this questionnaire) held a forum for a panel of retailers to talk about the problems and opportunities (31 July 2003). This resulted in the mayor establishing an ad hoc Committee on Retail (on which I served for two years). The Mayor' Retail Attraction Committee Action Plan (Final Draft) of 10 May 2005 was little different from what was discussed at the forum, and most of the so-called action items are still pending (including relatively trivial ones). Multiple of the candidates have picked up on one of these--the difficulties and extreme delays in getting permits to open a business--but are unaware of the others.

"Retail loves retail" This is a major maxim of retailing—critical mass of retail is critical to retail success, and fragmentation of retail districts (gaps between stores, whether it be offices, housing, ...) is deadly. Before the 1990s, housing was the least valuable property use (vs office and retail). By the late 1990s, housing was displacing retail in some districts (El Camino) and office was displacing it in others. Late in the crisis, Council passed a Ground floor retail ordinance as a stop-gap measure. These many years later, this stop-gap is still the primary way of dealing with this major problem.

Although a City cannot fine-tune its mix of merchants, there are some measures it can take to prevent gross imbalances by using zoning rules to limit the number of businesses of particular types (some other cities in the area do this). In Palo Alto, beauty salon are often noted as being on of these. But restaurants are another common concern:

Parking: Retail studies have shown that customers have a strong preference for surface parking lots (vs parking structures) to the extent that it influences where they shop: They will choose to drive further to avoid using a structure. The City's planning philosophy is to eliminate surface parking in order to densify with high density housing.

New businesses looking to locate in the California Avenue business district are being forced to go elsewhere because they can't get parking for their employees (the waiting list for spaces is over six months long). Despite this, the City is on track to approve at least one badly underparked building (predominantly offices) under the "theory" that somehow its employees will make unprecedented use of public transit.

Zoning practices drive businesses out by raising rents: One of the major roles of zoning is to establish expectation for the value of a property, and in a retail area, prospective buyers looks at the likely rents to determine what they will offer. When the City routinely allows development far in excess of the zoning (via the PC process (question 12 below) or through Design Enhancement Exceptions that are starting to be used now that PC zoning is so controversial), it increases the valuation of the surrounding similar properties. This can cause (and reportedly does) rent increases: Rather than calculating return-on-investment, the owners are looking for return on the valuation. Similarly, the City's notion of mixed use allows a property to be redeveloped as predominantly office or housing with a token amount of retail.

Redevelopment replaces local business with chains: When a property is redeveloped, it is unlikely that the retail will be a local business. The problem arises from the consolidation of banks and securitization of loans. Because the person funding the loan is unlikely to have local knowledge, they cannot judge the risk of a lease to a local business, but can for a chain. Thus developers/landlords are pushed/required to have chain stores as tenants.

Housing over retail: Unlikely in Palo Alto. Although housing over small stores is a feature of many old cities, the expectations are different in Palo Alto. There have been repeated complaints from housing one and two blocks from business districts, predominantly over early morning noise (such as trash pickup, sidewalk cleaning, ...). For housing in the same building, remember that retail operations can extend outside business hours (restocking, cleaning, remodeling, ...). The likely effect of the City's push for mixed use is to displace retail with offices. Note: When the City decided to convert the decommissioned power substation in the 800 block of Alma to affordable housing, Ole of the beloved Ole's Car Shop testified, to no effect, that the constraints of being next to housing would put him out of business. Facing the inevitable, Ole closed and sold the property.

Planning process hostile to merchants In the planning process for retail areas, the City not only ignores the above factors, but rejects them when they are raised by merchants, neighborhood associations, and residents. Example: In its plans for the area around Fry's, the City position was that the zoning allowed enough square footage for Fry's to stay on a redeveloped site (although the square footage was contested). What they refused to consider was that the plans would force Fry's, or similar store, to be split over multiple buildings, the parking issues, the problem of housing over retail, ... P/TOD: California Avenue Pedestrian/Transit Oriented Development, Comments by Doug Moran to the City Council

Retail promotion and the Chamber The City's deferring to the Chamber for promoting retail has been a disaster. I participated on the Chamber's Economic Development Committee for almost two years (2003-2005). I attempted, futilely, to get them to incorporate Web in their promotional strategy: High tech people (such as me) attending conference and other meetings used our laptops to find restaurants, and one of our frustrations was finding places for good souvenirs/gifts (for children, spouses...). The Chamber focused on physical handouts that were expensive to produce, thus requiring advertising, thus making them less attractive to visitors. Plus they intended to distribute this information primarily through hotels in Palo Alto, resolutely ignoring all the visitors/attendees who stayed elsewhere.

When the City created its website in the late 1990's, it ceded control of the business pages to the Chamber which listed only its members. Incensed at this, the webmaster for the Barron Park Association ( created a listing of restaurants and hotels. For the longest time, it came up first or second for a search on "Palo Alto restaurants" (has recently drifted down the first page). Aside: One of the potential services of a business registry (above, under Business License Tax) could be to create better web presence for those businesses, either directly or by providing data for services that harvest this information from the Web.

Additional info:

9. High-density housing: What is your perspective on the major forces pushing for high-density housing?

  1. The State's desire for 35-40% population growth per generation (25 years). This target has been in place since about 2000. Note: 40% growth/generation results in a tripling of the population in three generations.
  2. Housing advocates: In conversations and forums, these advocates express the belief that Anyone who wants to live in Palo Alto should be able to do so and at a price they can afford (this is a near quote, not a characterization). When asked how Palo Alto would pay for the subsidies and impacts (such as expansion of the school), they dismiss the concern saying that Palo Alto is such a wealthy community that it can easily afford to do such.
  3. Environment groups (such as Sierra Club) that see high-density housing in Palo Alto as a way to prevent sprawl in other areas, such as the Central Valley. Problems:
  4. Environmentalists focused on reducing vehicle-miles-traveled.
  5. Local business interests that profit from re-development and from the increase in their property values from higher densities.
  6. People who think Palo Alto should be like New York City (I have even heard Tokyo advocated as the exemplar). Why don't they just move to such a city rather than trying to inflict their preferences on people who chose Palo Alto for what it is?
  7. People who believe that if you build high density housing, that will cause the local governments to create a widespread, tightly integrated public transit system. They wave off questions about budget, political realities and current experience with poor usability. It is Field of Dreams mentality ("If you build it, they will come").

Note: Renegotiating with ABAG (as one candidate Brian Steen proposed at his Kickoff) is unlikely: The City has already been through the process, including appeals.

10. Development impacts: The City has been criticized for allowing developers to understate the impacts of their projects, and thus avoid paying for measures to reduce the problems created. How much of a problem is this? What changes are needed?

The City routinely uses impact figures that it knows don't apply to Palo Alto. Examples:

11. Affordable Housing: The City's current approach to providing affordable housing relies heavily on requiring new housing developments to include affordable units. What is your assessment of this approach? What changes would you make?

Most of what is termed affordable housing in Palo Alto is built as a required part of larger housing developments. If Palo Alto were to count on this to produce its ABAG target for such housing, it would require a massive amount of high-density housing developed at the maximum density allowed. I have heard this stated as 70 acres and as all of the Downtown North neighborhood (north of Lytton, from Middlefield to Alma). This is just for visualization: Developers are willing to build only at far, far lower densities.

Problem: This approach yields "affordable housing" only in the top category (of four). Building housing in the lower categories requires substantial grants and subsidies (commonly placed at $500K per new affordable unit).

Preserving existing affordable housing: The bureaucratic, pro-development bias of the State/ABAG is reflected in the failure to give credit for preserving affordable housing. Because the existing affordable housing is routinely in older buildings, the pressures from the State/ABAG to incentivize redevelopment means that these buildings are prime targets. What sense does it make to replace a building in which all units are affordable with one in which only 15-20% are affordable, and those new units are much less affordable than the originals. Candidate Karen Holman has been making this point for several years.

12. Planned Community (PC) Zoning: Planned Community zoning is controversial because it is perceived as being routinely abused. What is your perspective on the use of this zoning? Use specific examples to illustrate your points.

The role of zoning to provide appropriate balance for the community between the various categories. Different uses--single family residential, multi-unit residential, retail, office, ...--depend on different values for the property and zoning provides a predictability for these values.

PC's are currently the easiest way to ignore the zoning, and can provide enormous profits to the politically connected applicant. For example, a developer (Jim McNellis) bought the Alma Plaza property for $6M and turned around and sold roughly 80% of it to a housing developer for $20.5M (with $5.5M up front) on the basis of his confidence that he could get the City Council to ignore the Comprehensive Plan and give him the zoning he wanted.

PC's are intended to allow for very special projects that do not fit inside normal zoning and that provide substantial public benefits. A long line of City Councils have perverted this concept, using dubious and minor public benefits as excuses to give developers massive exceptions to the zoning rules. I say excuses because the Council doesn't consider the value of the benefits, let alone consider whether they are proportionate to the value of the exceptions being given. Examples:

Developers have learned that they can eliminate public benefits while the project is still moving to approval and the Council will not make any corresponding changes to the exceptions being granted.

It has been impossible to audit the public benefits because the City doesn't keep track of them, much less ensure that the developers actually deliver on their commitment.

Additional: Guest Opinion: Alma Plaza is a $12 million giveaway by our City Council by Doug Moran, Palo Alto Weekly, 20 June 2007. (When the numbers became public, the giveaway turned out to be several million larger)

13. Stanford Hospital Project: The expansion of the Stanford Hospital will have substantial impacts on Palo Alto, most significantly increased traffic and requirements for additional housing. What do you think is appropriate for the City to require of Stanford as part of this project?

Fallacy: The hospital expansion is needed to properly serve Palo Alto. Stanford Hospital is already a regional facility and is further expanding the region and has begun marketing itself internationally. This is to get the cases to support its role as a teaching hospital and research facility. Consequently, the significant delays that people currently complain about may be the same or worse with the expansion.

Fallacy: Stanford Hospital is the hospital that Palo Altans use. Fact: Many Palo Altans have medical plans that do not include Stanford Hospital within their network.

Problem: Although Stanford Hospital is a regional facility, the impacts fall on Palo Alto. During its planning process, Stanford could have chosen to work with the City to more fairly spread the costs of those impacts, but Stanford chooses to take an adversarial approach: It submitted its plans with the position that Palo Alto should pay for the impacts of its project.

Warning sign: Candidates that talk about Stanford Hospital as Palo Alto's community hospital and thus deserving of the City paying for its impacts demonstrate that they haven't gotten past a slogan/feel-good knowledge of this issue.

Warning sign: When a candidate talks about Stanford Hospital being a benefit to the community and thus something that should be supported, this is a warning sign of an attitude that has gotten the City into its current financial problems.

14. Civic Engagement: What is your interpretation of the term "civic engagement"? What are your priorities for improvements in this area?

Civic Engagement has been a City priority for two years (2008 and 2009). This is not a Motherhood and apple pie item--an essay describing the controversies by me (Douglas Moran) is available. Briefly, the controversies are:

Candidate Nancy Shepherd, under Experience, cites the civic engagement priority--the PAGE perspective and the "for the common good" phrase--as a qualification.

15. Neighborhood Associations: In what ways have neighborhood associations been beneficial to the City? What, if anything, would you change about that relationship?

The primary intent of this question was to have the candidates demonstrate their knowledge, or lack thereof, in this area.

16. Meeting Effectiveness: Council meetings often run to well after midnight, and decisions are deferred (continued) or referred (sent back for further consideration). What would you do to improve the effectiveness of Council meetings?

There are two parts of meeting effectiveness:

  1. Adequate preparation for the meeting
  2. Conduct of the meeting itself

While many critics focus on (2), the bigger problems are in (1) (Details: The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making by Douglas B. Moran).

Many critics complain about the redundant testimony during Council meetings, failing to recognize that this is behavior required by Council: Council routinely ignores quality arguments from residents; residents have learned that they need to show up and speak in large numbers to have a chance that their viewpoint will be seriously considered (and even that sometimes fails to work).

Various of the candidates mention reducing the Council size (from 9 to 7). The last time that this was seriously considered was in Spring 2005 (it died because it was overwhelmed by more pressing issues). My records from that effort is available as Reducing Council Size and Electing Mayor: Considerations on.

17. Balancing Issues: A major focus of the current Council has been environmental issues, especially those related to Global Warming. Using this as a specific example, explain how you think Council and staff should allocate time and effort to the many issues that come before them.

First, note that this question is not about the candidate's position on environmental issues. Second, the criticisms of the current Council members for focusing on environmental issues are misplaced: They ran on platforms to focus on these issues. However, I am citing those criticisms because they are provide a useful basis for talking about what the current candidates would do.

Some of the more common criticisms are:

18. Optional) Unasked Question: If there is a question you think we should have asked, ask and answer it.


Gail Price's response deserves comment because it is an instance of the mission creep that has played a significant role in Palo Alto's current problems. Candidate Price is not the only candidate with this attitude, just the one where it is easiest to point out as an example. She said "...the City take a more visible role to promote effective partnerships to improve and coordinate mental health services...The schools, the City, non-profits and faith-based services and families cannot do this alone. ..." In California, public health services reside at the county level, not with cities. For Palo Alto to take this on would involve substantial startup costs and delays and managing people and issues that the City's managers (and their colleagues) have no experience with. When I asked candidate Price about this, she said that the County and other groups that were supposed to handle these problems were doing a poor job, so the City had to step in.

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