Seven candidates are competing for two spots on the Palo Alto City Council: Alex Comsa, Lisa Forssell, Brian Hamachek, Ed Lauing, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Doria Summa and Vicki Veenker.
This council will be tasked with producing 6,086 housing units by 2031 per a state mandate, continuing Palo Alto’s Sustainability and Climate Action Plan and budgeting for essential workers and city infrastructure. The Sustainability and Climate Action Plan is the city council’s goal to reduce 80% of carbon emissions from their levels in 1990 by 2030 through work in green energy, electric vehicles, water reclamation and recycling, protecting the natural environment and eliminating waste.
The Post spoke with all seven candidates about their experience and policy positions, focusing on housing, environmental sustainability, city services and community inclusivity.
Candidates are ordered by alphabetical order of last name.
Comsa works is a real estate agent and the founder of the Cosma Group, a real estate agency affiliated with Palo Alto Coldwell Banker. He was born in Transylvania, Romania, and moved to the Bay Area in 1997.
“I believe the city council will benefit from my land use expertise, from my balanced approach to housing and common sense,” Comsa said. “I truly believe that we [immigrants] need a bit more representation in [the] city council.”
Comsa said he wants to prioritize affordable housing and that the city won’t be able to construct the state-mandated 6,086 units by 2031 unless it changes its approach. He said he believes that the city should focus on turning “dormant” city-owned properties that are generally unused or not creating revenue into affordable housing units.
“The city is not set up to produce affordable housing as we speak,” Comsa said. “It’s just a fact that affordable housing projects don’t come our way, you know, falling from the blue sky in our laps.”
Comsa said he wants to create a real estate division for the city council to help create housing units to meet the state mandate. The division would be made up of professionals ranging in specifications and would help act as an in-house resource for the city to manage various projects, like large housing developments, according to Comsa.
Measure K, a business tax to be voted on by residents, is projected to raise $9.6 million for affordable housing, rail improvements and public safety. Comsa said he wants to use the funds to fill more police department positions.
“From talking to the police chief and other people, I think those funds [from Measure K] will be critical for improving our public safety in general,” Comsa said.
Comsa said he believes the key to electrifying the city is upgrading its power grid. This year, Palo Alto had 19 unplanned power outages, with eight impacting over 500 customers. By upgrading the power grid, Comsa says the city can support the growing amount of private electric appliances.
“If we were to talk about electrification in general, I would support funds [that] go to improving our electrical grid,” Comsa said. “So accelerating electrification is great, but we also have to keep in mind that we have to keep up with the infrastructure to support that.”
Comsa also supports to incentivizing residents to switch to electric water heaters.
Comsa said he wants to increase the diversity of small businesses and give them increased opportunities to settle in Palo Alto.
“I truly believe that these [small businesses] need a lot of help,” Comsa said. “I would be interested in helping them … when it comes to getting permits a bit more faster, [there is] really a high barrier to even opening something in downtown.”
To learn more about Comsa, visit his website here.
Forssell has served on the PTA executive boards at Walter Hays, Duveneck, and Greene Elementary Schools and has been on Palo Alto’s Utilities Advisory Commission for six years. She is currently a human interface design producer at Apple and has worked in technical and supervisory roles in the software industry for 20 years.
“I love the power that local government has to affect change on issues that matter to me,” Forssell said. “I now want to go from being an advisory commission to an actual vote on the council.”
Forssell wants to streamline the house-building process by reimagining the city’s current multi-family and affordable housing policies.
“We need housing options of all kinds for all generations,” Forssell said. “I want to revisit our existing policies, especially around multi-family housing. I’m all about finding a path to ‘yes’ to get really great sustainable development with different sizes of housing.”
She said she also wants to create green space, parks and pedestrian and bicycle paths alongside housing so that the city keeps the characteristics that make it “a wonderful place to live.”
The council decided to discontinue Palo Alto’s Crosstown Shuttle in May 2020, a service that provided free transportation for residents along designated routes. Forssell said she wants to reopen the program and supports the current council’s decision to pilot an on-demand transit service.
“We’re lucky to live in an age of really great innovation in transportation,” Forssell said. “I want [Palo Alto] to have better ties with reasonable transit.”
Forssell supports the city’s move to make the city’s electric utilities carbon-neutral and said she will continue to push for environmental sustainability by electrifying buildings in Palo Alto.
“Palo Alto has such an opportunity to be a leader,” Forsell said. “It really matters what Palo Alto does to reduce our carbon footprint because there are all these ripple effects [in other cities] as we set a template for what other communities can do.”
In a time where many people shop online, Forssell said that increasing housing will help local businesses get more customers.
To learn more about Forssell, visit her website here.
Hamachek was born and raised in Palo Alto and currently works as a software engineer at HP. He co-founded and is the former CEO of Nearby, a social networking platform that became popular in India.
“I was born and raised in Palo Alto, I’ve lived here almost my entire life, and I think that that gives me a certain perspective that is pretty unique and valuable to the city council,” Hamachek said. “For me, this is home.”
Hamachek said he wants to limit dense developments in single-family neighborhoods and he would “defer to local residents” on issues regarding housing and the creation of new neighborhoods.
The council approved a safe parking program allowing people to park their cars and spend the night in First Congregational Church’s parking lot — a controversial decision amongst residents. Hamachek said that while he thought the program had merit, as a councilmember, he probably would have voted against it.
“I think that in general, decisions like [the safe parking program] should come down to the people that it’s going to impact the most,” Hamachek said. “Without knowing exactly what the breakdown is of the local neighbors being for or against that, I think that they’re almost universally opposed to it.”
Hamachek said he supports increased police transparency, for example, through radio decryption.
“Decrypting the police radio might seem like a small thing, but it’s an indication of a broader change [of how the police] are viewing interacting with the public,” Hamachek said in a forum hosted by the Palo Alto Daily Post.
Hamachek is also the only candidate that listed Palo Alto’s municipal fiber network — which is a city project in its planning stages that would provide residents with high speed internet connection — as a priority.
“We’re at the heart of Silicon Valley and it just makes sense for us to be at the forefront of these kinds of technologies,” Hamachek said. “I think that the existing providers are not going to be able to provide as good of a service … I think that there’s definitely a lot of demand for [the fiber network].”
Hamachek said he wants to prioritize supporting local businesses, especially after the pandemic.
In an effort to help local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the council voted to close California Ave. to cars until December 2023. If elected, Hamachek said he would explore similar opportunities.
“I think we should evaluate doing similar things in downtown Palo Alto,” Hamachek said. “I know that Menlo Park has had a lot of success with street closures, and … by making it a more inviting place, it’s going to bring more business, more people are going to come out just to be there.”
To learn more about Hamachek, visit his website here
Lauing is an executive recruiter through Equity Search Partners, a firm that helps companies recruit personnel. Lauing has served as the chair of the planning and parks and recreation commissions and co-chair of the Housing Element Working Group. He’s also been president of Palo Alto Babe Ruth Regional Baseball, manager of Palo Alto Little League, board member and finance chair of the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, board member and vice president of the Congregation Beth Am executive committee and is on various Rotary Club Committees.
“I think the citizens will benefit from the way I approach problems with people [and how I can] leverage my experience to work through these [problems],” Lauing said. “I’m gonna put the time into [city council] to get it done.”
As a planning commissioner, Lauing supported the development of Wilton Court, a 59-unit complex for low-income residents and residents with disabilities. Lauing said he believes that providing affordable housing is the key to creating more economic and ethnic diversity in Palo Alto. To achieve that, Lauing said he believes that the council might need to pursue public-private partnerships.
“You know, it’s always hard to go to the voters and say, ‘Guess what, we have another task for you,’” Lauing said. “But if [residents] really want to step up to what I think is a moral imperative of having lower income people in our town, which translates to ethnic and economic diversity, then I appreciate that they have their heart there, not just their pocketbook on the issue.”
Lauing said he supports the prioritization of funding for essential workers like police officers and firefighters and said he disagrees with previous budget cuts during the pandemic.
“Why would you cut the staff in police and fire who are the people that take care of you [and] keep you safe?” Lauing said. “There was all this uproar about ‘We’re cutting libraries too much.’ We’ve got five libraries, if we only have three for a while, that’s probably okay.”
Lauing said he also wants to see an increase in the diversity of police officers to create a more effective police force.
“The force itself has to change,” Lauing said in a forum hosted by Palo Alto Daily Post. “That’s diversity of gender, which would really help in police, as well as diversity of ethnicity.”
As a parks commissioner, Lauing supported habitat and ecosystem preservation by protecting trees, planting native plant species and transforming the old Palo Alto dump into Byxbee Park.
Lauing wants the city to require new buildings to be all-electric, expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure and make the electrification process easier for residents. However, Lauing said the council should move with caution and give residents and the city’s infrastructure time to accommodate the changes.
“We’re definitely not ready to be turning off the gas right now,” Lauing said. “We have to plan that out to a reasonable timeframe and not have that be a threat angled ahead of our citizens.”
Lauing said he wants Palo Alto to be a diverse and unified community. He supports community events, like block parties, to increase ties between residents and said that lots of issues surrounding diversity come down to housing. By increasing affordable housing, Lauing said that Palo Alto’s economic and ethnic diversity could increase.
To learn more about Lauing, visit his website here.
Lythcott-Haims represented the 18th congressional district at 2008 Democratic National Convention, co-led the peninsula’s Democratic Volunteer Center in Menlo Park, worked in various nonprofit groups like the Young Women’s Christian Association of the Mid-Peninsula and is a bestselling author of three nonfiction books.
“I’m running for city council because as a Palo Alto resident for over 20 years, I have come to appreciate that while I am a homeowner, many cannot afford to live in our city,” Lythcott-Haims said. “Humans need shelter, and we don’t have enough of it in Palo Alto.”
Lythcott-Haims voiced support for a five-story housing development that would provide 20 housing units next to the Town & Country shopping center.
She is in favor of higher-density developments for housing and the creation of market rate and affordable housing. Lythcott-Haims is also in favor of streamlining development in North and South Palo Alto and increasing support, either through incentives or more streamlined processes, for accessory dwelling units.
Lythcott-Haims said she is a believer in “not leaving anyone behind” and wants to make sure that people of different income levels, ethnicities, sexualities and backgrounds feel safe in Palo Alto.
“Too often the people who are trying to move in are of color, or they’re low income, or they’re in some other category that isn’t considered ‘traditional Palo Alto,’” Lythcott-Haims said. “I have been the recipient of that kind of cruelty, and I will not stand for that happening to other people.”
Lythcott-Haims supports removing or severely reducing the usage of K-9 units in the police department, which she said have a history of violence towards African-Americans. She also emphasized the importance of addressing issues around race.
“I want law enforcement colleagues to be able to speak frankly about the issues we face because if you can’t speak frankly, if you can’t talk about them, you can’t face them,” Lythcott-Haims said.
Lythcott-Haims said she wants to make the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan a higher priority for the council and offer incentives and resources for families to switch away from fossil fuels. She has also expressed interest in increasing green transportation options, such as electric school buses.
“I think it’s absurd, frankly, having grown up not here, that school children are driven to school and back by their parents and that you have hundreds of cars every day taking kids to our elementary, middle, and high schools,” Lythcott-Haims said in an interview with the Palo Alto Daily Post. “I want to see [the crosstown] shuttle come back, I’d love to partner with Stanford … so that we can all get around our city.”
Lythcott-Haims is the only candidate who has youth mental health listed as one of her priorities. She is in favor of creating deeper ties between the Palo Alto Unified School District and the council and has expressed interest in the creation of a youth mental health task force, a group of elected youth who would work to address the youth mental health crisis.
“Let’s have the courage to ask our youth, ‘What does it feel like to be a kid here?’” Lythcott-Haims said. “And, [we need] to be brave enough to say, ‘You know what, we’re going to make some brave and bold decisions,’ so that [youth] life is one of greater ease and greater joy, because that’s what childhood is supposed to be.”
To learn more about Lythcott-Haims, visit her website here.
Summa currently serves as the vice chair of Palo Alto’s Planning Commission and the president of the College Terrace Residents’ association. She has also served on a wide variety of local committees, boards and associations in the past, including the College Terrace’s Traffic Calming committee, Residential Parking Permit committee and Palo Alto’s North Ventura Area planning committee.
“I’ve worked for over 15 years on city committees and commissions and whatnot,” Summa said. “I have a great interest in serving the community by helping the community in this capacity [as a city councilmember] because it’s something I think I can do.”
Like Lauing, Summa supports the prioritization of affordable housing and was in favor of the Wilton Court development in January 2019. Summa said she believes that densifying Palo Alto may be necessary to meet the state’s mandate of 6,086 housing units by 2031, though she has resisted housing developments in the past and spoken out against giving developers less strict zoning requirements.
Summa said she wants the council to plan developments thoroughly so that the new units are fully integrated into Palo Alto.
“I don’t want to just put people in a house, I want people to be part of a community,” Summa said. “So as we densify and grow, I think we have to keep in mind how we can do that best and still provide the things that make Palo Alto seem like Palo Alto: education, parks, open space.”
Summa said that she wants to use the projected money from Measure K to increase police staffing. In addition to that, she said she believes other funding methods or budgeting may be needed to support the department fully.
“The temporary funding we have maybe will partially be addressed by the business tax, but not completely,” Summa said. “So, we have to really look to budgeting and how we’re going to spend our money and where our priorities are.”
Summa said she supports Palo Alto’s electrification and climate goals but has voiced concern about moving too fast. She emphasized the need to create an infrastructure capable of supporting Palo Alto’s growing power grid.
“We have to [electrify] in a manner that we are sure our local infrastructure and state infrastructure can handle [electrification],” Summa said.
Summa also said she wants to prioritize the protection of parks and other green spaces in Palo Alto.
Summa wants to support helping small businesses in downtown areas through increased parking availability and more thorough city zoning.
“Where we meet to do business together is where we come together a lot as public,” Summa said. “I think our downtown areas are priceless places for us to meet and be together as a people.”
To learn more about Summa, visit her website here.
Veenker has worked as a patent lawyer and is currently the head of her own law practice. She has served on the board of directors of WIREforWomen and the advisory board of FundHer and was the president of the board of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. Veenker also launched Sibling Cities U.S.A. and helped facilitate Palo Alto’s sibling city project with Bloomington, Indiana.
“I care deeply about this city that has given so much to me, and to my daughters,” Veenker said. “I believe I have a good set of skills to apply to the problems that the city faces today.”
Veenker said she wants to make Palo Alto an inclusive city and has conducted community outreach at her church to help support the unhoused. She said she wants to prioritize affordable housing and is a proponent of denser developments closer to downtown and higher transit areas.
To fund affordable housing options, Veenker wants the city to reach out to other entities, like Santa Clara County or private companies like Meta or Google.
“I think [working with outside entities] makes [projects] stronger because it develops relationships and partnerships that are important for the success of the project,” Veenker said. “And, that can lead to other projects down the road.”
Palo Alto libraries are no longer open on Sundays due to funding issues. Veenker wants to change this and supports increasing funding to libraries where “communities gather regardless of income.”
“Sundays are a day when families get together,” Veenker said. “So that’s why I called it out specifically because you can go to both Rinconada and Mitchell [library] on Saturday, but you can’t go to either one of them on Sunday, and just doesn’t make sense. I want more hours, and I want coordinated hours, it may take a while [and] we may have to be a little patient until we get back to pre-pandemic seven days a week.”
Veenker supports electrification and said she wants residents to move away from gas as quickly as possible. To do this, Veenker suggests offering incentives and aid, especially for lower-income families.
Veenker acknowledged the need for future funding and says she may look to outside help.
“There are private entities that support this and can partner with us,” Veenker said. “And we’re going to need to look to all of those resources because it’s not just that we need to do it — we need to do it quickly … But [electrification has] just got to be a top priority.”
As a proponent for revitalizing Palo Alto’s libraries, Veenker said she hopes increased library hours and funding would help reunite residents after isolation during the pandemic. Veenker also supports investment into parks and other spaces where residents can meet.
To learn more about Veenker, visit her website here.