Impolite Questions: Palo Alto City Council Election 2012

by Douglas B. Moran

Version 1.0.1 of 2012-09-15

Candidate questionnaires tend to be bland: Intended to allow candidates to show what they know and believe in a format where their responses can more easily be compared to those of other candidates. The problem with such questions is that they rarely elicit information about the difficult questions surrounding an issue. I know because I have participated in the creation of such questionnaires over the years.

To get to the hard questions, you need to be in an environment that allows you to follow up when the candidate's initial answer isn't satisfactory. But since such follow-up is likely to be very limited, you typically need to start with a pointed, even combative, question. The below are offered as a starting point for your asking such questions. My hope is that if more people are asking these sort of questions, Council members will give them more attention.

This collection of questions is intended to evolve, with additions, corrections and improvements. Minor changes, such as typos and stylistic improvements, will not bump the version number.


  1. Palo Alto has a large job-housing imbalance and is under pressure to reduce it. The City's current approach to development strongly encourages increasing that gap, for example, providing exceptions and other bonuses for projects that include large amounts of office and only a few housing units.
    Can you explain this policy? What would you do to change it?
    Classic advice: When you find you have dug yourself deep into a hole, stop digging.
  2. In approving office buildings, the current Council stated that it wanted to remedy the situation where a company like Facebook, and Google before it, leaves Palo Alto because it cannot find enough space. Before its move to Menlo Park, Facebook occupied multiple buildings in the Stanford Research Park.
    Where in Palo Alto could a Facebook-sized campus be created? And a Google-sized one? (This is a reality-check question)
  3. Different types of development produce different mixes of revenues and expenses for the City. The City's current policies are to encourage development that is financially neutral or net-negative (more expenses than revenues).
    Explain and changes?
  4. At Alma Plaza and 195 Page Mill, the developers created blighted sites as part of their campaigns to get exemptions from the zoning. At both sites, they kicked out tenants. At 195 Page Mill, the developer knocked down the buildings but left the rubble on-site for years. In both case, Council cited the need to remedy this blight as one of the justification for approving buildings contrary to the zoning and the City's policies on development.
    What is the dynamic on Council that leads them to so easily cave-in to obvious blackmail, and how could this be changed?
  5. Council has routinely been accommodating to developers' desire for large profits. On Alma Plaza, the exemptions (zoning change) more than tripled the value of the land (based upon the purchase price and the contingent sale of roughly 80% of it a short time later).
    What is the appropriate level of profits that the City should try to help developers achieve?
  6. The City claims it wants walk-able neighborhoods, but its policy has been to drive away the walk-able destinations in favor of office and housing. The most prominent example is Alma Plaza, where shopping for the many was replaced by housing for the few.
    Explain and changes?
  7. The City gives developers large exceptions to the zoning in exchange for supposed public benefits. For example, an electric vehicle charging station in an out-of-the-way location can be deemed a public benefit because it educates the public about the benefits of electric cars. Other common examples are public art in an interior courtyard of the development, and small areas of concrete designated as a plaza and public gathering space. In exchange for these minor and questionable benefits, the developer is routinely awarded substantial exemptions to the zoning, ones that seem to be worth many thousands of times more than the benefit.
    What is your view of the economics of public benefits?
  8. Residents, particularly in southern Palo Alto, have complained for over a decade that they have to do most of their shopping outside Palo Alto because of lack of practical alternatives here. However, City development decisions have favored retail targeted at employees and visitors, such as restaurants and coffee shops.
    Day-time employees are roughly double the number of residents, but does this constitute a proper balance?
  9. City policy, as expressed in zoning, is to have Fry's Electronics leave Palo Alto when its lease expires. Fry's provides the City with substantial sales tax revenue, from not just residents but people living and working nearby.
    Would you do anything to try to preserve and enhance these sources of retail revenue?
  10. For housing, commuting trips account for less than 1/3 of the total, often much less, but these other trips are largely ignored in the consideration of traffic impacts. And experience has shown that only 3-10% of the commute trips will be by public transit, with 10% occurring at locations immediately next to train stations, and 3% typical for locations beyond 0.5-1.0 miles from a train station.
    Explain the math of "trip reduction" purportedly created by building large amounts of high-density housing somewhat close to transit that is usable to few, but for all is distant from schools, parks and most of the relevant retail.
  11. Current City policy is to allow, even encourage, developers to provide far too little parking for their buildings, under the theory that this encourages the use of public transit, in conflict with experience that has convincingly demonstrated that public transit is not a practical option for most (too slow, too infrequent, too distant). The result has been that that parking has been displaced into the nearby neighborhoods, degrading their quality of life.
    Explain how the City benefits from adhering to this discredited dogma and ideology.
  12. There are pending projects that will add massive amounts of traffic to Palo Alto. The Stanford University Hospital expansion is projected to cause multiple intersections to have congestion at a level that traffic engineers label as failing. Similarly for substantial expansion in the Research Park. Despite this pending huge influx of employees, and a desire for even more, the City's focus is on bicycling, and often impeding the flow of vehicular traffic.
    Explain the logic and the math.
  13. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) has produced growth projections that are wildly high: For 2000 to 2010, their growth projections for the Bay Area were 86% higher than what actually occurred (9.95% vs 5.35%). When the state's Dept of Finance adjusted its modeling based on this experience, ABAG switched to a model that gave it the projections of the high growth rate it desired. Never let it be said that ABAG lets facts influence its policies. Unfortunately, the ABAG bureaucrats have considerable indirect power: Their allocations provide a basis for various interest groups to threaten cities with lawsuits.
    Would you change the City's current practice of interacting with ABAG as if it were a well-intentioned, rational policy-setting agency?
  14. The City justified giving a new office building at the corner of Lytton and Alma substantial exemptions to the zoning because they termed it a gateway. Now another influential developer ("Chop" Keenan) wants similar treatment for his property at 135 Hamilton (at High St) [PA Weekly article], although calling it the Gateway to the 100 block of Hamilton for traffic headed to Alma seems quite the mouthful.
    Since the essence of a gateway building is that it aggressively sticks out from those around it, in both size and style, do you see any dangers to this trend?
  15. Pulling buildings close to the street: This urban design principle is intended to apply to stores with street-facing windows and tie together activity inside the store with pedestrians on the sidewalk. It would both encourage passing pedestrians to stop into the store, and enhance their sense of safety because the sidewalk was being observed from the store. Palo Alto has egregiously misapplied this principle—at Alma Plaza, the JCC, Arbor Real (former Hyatt Rickey's)—by having massive blank walls along the sidewalk. It has been pointed out repeatedly to Palo Alto's planners and to the Council that this is counter-productive: It imparts a very hostile feel, making pedestrians feel less secure.
    How does the City get such a simple concept so very wrong, so persistently?
  16. Visitors to Palo Alto have a fairly consistent negative reaction to certain major buildings.
    When a visitor asks you how this or that ugly building got approved, what is your reply? (Since this in intended to be your question, I have left the choice of examples to you)


  1. In the late 1990s, Palo Alto recognized that it had run up a huge infrastructure backlog. The previous City Manager, Frank Benest, was hired in 2000 with catch-up as his top priority. Since then, most of the Council members elected have included infrastructure improvement as a prominent part of their campaign platforms.
    What needs to change to make actual progress in this area, and not simply generate yet another round of hearings, reports and recommendations?
  2. The City undertakes many programs with the goal of being world-class, a national leader, a lighthouse to the nation, ... Being a pioneer is very expensive, both in funding and in the disproportionate time spent on it by top decision-makers. Similarly, the costs of being the best rather than good-enough are typically quite high.
    Many Palo Altans seem to want these vanity projects. How would you try to balance this against basic services such a public safety and infrastructure?


  1. On many projects, there has been deep distrust of the City's data, of its analysis and presentation of that data, and of its stated rationales and goals. The California Avenue Streetscape Design and the Arastradero Restriping Trial are but two of the more recent examples.
    To what do you attribute this distrust, and what would you do to start to change this situation?
  2. A common theory of decision-making holds that the most important role of the manager is to ensure that the alternatives have been identified and adequately considered, and that the actual making of the decision flows naturally from this. City Council decision-making is within a different paradigm: Staff reports advocate for a particular alternative, and routinely fail to reflect limitations and criticisms of that choice, and often fail to identify the alternatives.
    Within the constraints on elected bodies, how would you improve Council decision-making?
  3. Residents routinely find fundamental errors in analyses and presentations by Staff. Even when they are incontrovertible—such as errors in arithmetic or contradictory statements—many on Staff are unwilling to acknowledge, much less fix, these errors on the justification that it undermines them as professionals. There have been many Council members who have supported staff in these matters, and current practice is for Council to publicly thank staff for their work, even when it has been show to be riddled with basic problems.
    What do you see as the proper relation between Council and staff in this area?
  4. Testimony before Council often has statements that the speaker knows to be false or disingenuous. Long-time Council practice is to not remark on such falsehoods, and even—in the name of civility—occasionally to admonish subsequent speakers who mention the false information in providing the correct information.
    Where do you stand on the balance between civility and accuracy?
    As a Council member, what would you do when you detect false and disingenuous claims?


  1. The City wastes significant amounts on consultants whose work is incompetent, either because the consultants are themselves unqualified or incompetent, or because they applied a template without taking into account the details of the situation in Palo Alto. Palo Alto also uses consultants for work that by its very nature should be done in-house: The City pays them to learn important details which never get committed to paper, which are then lost when the consultants leave at the end of the contract.
    What should the City do to better manage its use of consultants?
  2. Questions of cost-effectiveness are routinely absent from decision-making. For example, the tunnel alternative for the bicycle crossing of 101 near San Antonio was ruled out under the rationale that it would have to be closed during periods of high water in the nearby Adobe Creek. Such conditions seem to arise only during major storms during very wet winters, such as the night of 2-3 February 1998, Since this is neither unpredictable nor abrupt nor frequent, it doesn't seem like appropriate ground to advocate for more expensive alternatives.
    What would you do to bring a sense of cost-effectiveness into the decision-making process?

City elections

  1. Council elections have been moved from odd years to even, purportedly to save about $200K in election costs. At the time, it was pointed out that this shift would make it harder to run a Council campaign, for example, making it harder to get coverage of the candidates and the issues and increasing the competition for campaign volunteers needed to get a candidate's message out. This greatly increases the importance of high name recognition and a well-funded campaign to the point that many regard these are the critical factors.
    This question was suggested by David Lieberman on Town Square Forums who writes ... I am writing this on September 15th, less than eight weeks before the election, and I have no idea who is running for Council or Schoolboard and I suspect that 99 percent of residents do not either.
    What is your assessment of the sharp reduction in who is perceived as having a chance to successfully run for Council?

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