What happened? Why did voters reject two incumbents and elect three new City Council members? | November 15, 2006 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - November 15, 2006

What happened? Why did voters reject two incumbents and elect three new City Council members?

by Rory Brown

After four years of sitting on the Menlo Park City Council, being quoted in newspapers, and conducting two council campaigns, Lee Duboc and Mickie Winkler are familiar figures to many voters.

But that familiarity apparently hurt, rather than helped, the incumbents' bid for re-election, as Ms. Duboc and Ms. Winkler finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the six-candidate race to fill three seats on the council.

Controversy has been a staple of the current council, where the incumbents and Mayor Nicholas Jellins often voted together on major issues, with council members Andy Cohen and Kelly Fergusson opposed.

The incumbents' opponents say a key problem has been the council majority's unwillingness to compromise. That problem fueled public frustration over an array of actions associated with the incumbents, from decisions regarding Bayfront Park, to their relationship with local unions, to efforts to privatize city services.

Candidates Vincent Bressler, Richard Cline and Heyward Robinson ran in opposition to the incumbents and their ally, John Boyle, basing their campaigns on public frustration with the incumbents.

"There's been a lot of frustration with the current council majority," said Mr. Robinson, the top vote-getter. "It's pretty clear [the incumbents] have left a steady stream of people frustrated that they're not being listened to, and the voters made a statement [on Election Day]."

Mr. Cline and Mr. Boyle were also elected, according to updated election results. Mr. Boyle received about 100 more votes than Mr. Bressler.

During his campaign, Mr. Cline said the public deserved to be notified far in advance of what decisions were before the council so they could be more involved in those decisions.

"A big message that I stressed was restoring open government," said Mr. Cline. "I think people agreed ... and made their voices heard in the election."

"I think the results had more to do with past actions of the council majority than the new crop of candidates," said former councilman Steve Schmidt. "These are good candidates [who] got elected ... but the council majority already disregarded half of the electorate by doing whatever they wanted to do — they were arrogant."

Union controversy

A key controversy leading up to the election centered on local unions, as incumbents Duboc and Winkler said they would address rising costs associated with city employee pensions and benefits by pushing the privatization of city services.

Local unions spent $27,000 opposing the incumbents and supporting candidates Robinson and Cline. The Service Employees International Union Local 715 had "dozens of people" walking precincts and distributing campaign literature, said Rico Mendez, a union spokesperson, at the election night party for candidates Bressler, Cline and Robinson.

The election party for the incumbents and Mr. Boyle was held a few doors away on San Mateo Drive, but was closed to the press.

"When I saw that first union hit piece, I realized what we were up against," said Ms. Duboc. "As local politicians, we're always warned to not rile up the unions ... but our pension liabilities and health care costs are the issue of the day, and aren't going away. Outsourcing our programs is one way to mitigate those costs."

"The incumbents recognized that cities in California have a disaster approaching in public pensions," said Dick Poe, a supporter of the incumbents. "It's an important issue, but it's just not politically sexy."

Other candidates said the incumbents' approach to tackling rising employee costs — including approving a no-bid contract to privatize the city's aquatics center just four weeks after the operator came forward with the proposal — sparked unnecessary controversy.

"[The incumbents] have attacked the union, and that's just not the way to go about dealing with your employees," said Mr. Bressler.

Measure J

In addition to rejecting the incumbents, voters also defeated Measure J, the advisory measure placed on the ballot by the current council majority to gauge support for building sports fields at Bayfront Park.

About 61 percent of voters opposed the measure.

The only organized support for the measure was provided by the incumbent slate, which paid for signs and campaign literature in favor of the measure. Campaign signs supporting the measure used the same red, white and blue design as the "Boyle/Duboc/Winkler" signs.

Incumbents Duboc and Winkler voted with Mayor Jellins to put the measure on the ballot in July, sparking accusations that the measure was politically motivated to garner votes for incumbent candidates from local sports groups.

"Measure J was meant to be a wedge issue, so sports groups would get out and vote for some candidates," said Elizabeth Lasensky, who has opposed developing the 160-acre park since a golf course was proposed for the site last year. "But I think it motivated more people to get out and vote against it rather than support it."

Ms. Duboc said putting the issue to voters was not politically motivated, but acknowledged that it was "very hard to organize the people [who] would benefit from it."

Ms. Winkler said Measure J opponents used a "successful scare tactic" of convincing voters that studying the potential for fields at the park, which is built atop a capped landfill, would be unsafe.

Developer funds

After suggesting candidates Cline and Robinson could be influenced by endorsements from local unions, members of the incumbent slate had their own contributions to answer for — those by development and real estate interests.

More than $36,000 of the three candidates' reported $87,500 campaign contributions came from real estate and development interests, including one real estate company with a condo-commercial project set to go before the council next year.

"Special interest money is always somewhat problematic, because the point is to influence someone in some way," said Stu Soffer, a former planning commissioner. "The fact that the magnitude of those donations was so large certainly didn't assure anyone that whoever's on the council won't be influenced."

The incumbent slate candidates said there was no conflict of interest in accepting the donations.


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