Palo Alto Council candidate profile: Lisa Forssell

Lisa Forssell

Daily Post Staff Writer

City Utilities Commissioner Lisa Forssell wants Palo Alto City Council to stop negotiating with developers.

Instead, the city should come up with plans for areas like El Camino Real and downtown so that it’s clear up front what is and isn’t allowed.

These plans should favor housing, public transit and thriving businesses, and they shouldn’t take so long to see through, she said.

“We need a process that is lighter on our feet than what we have now,” Forssell said in an interview.

Forssell said that taller and denser buildings are necessary to combat the housing crisis, and she is willing to exceed the city’s 50-foot height limit.

“I’d rather build up than across, and eat up green space and parkland,” she said.

Forssell has been on the city’s Utilities Advisory Commission for the last six years, so she is well-versed in issues facing the city. The grid can’t handle much more capacity, yet the city has a goal to convert all homes from natural gas to electric appliances.

Forssell said that ,any residents tell her that they want their power lines put underground. Council is also looking at building a high-speed fiber internet network.

In a perfect world, the city would upgrade transformers, underground power lines and build a fiber internet network at the same time, Forssell said. But the crisis situations must be addressed first, and Forssell said that’s the lack of transformer capacity.

Forssell said she isn’t sold on creating a fiber network to compete with AT&T and Comcast. The areas that are most underserved by those companies are the most expensive to build to, making a business case difficult. And the Utilities Department and the city are already overworked and facing big problems.

“If we were firing on all cylinders, and Utilities had a full crew of linesman and system operators and engineers and program managers, then I’d be singing a different tune,” she said. “And I hope we can get back to doing nice things like fiber, but it’s just not, for me, our top priority.”

Throughout Forssell’s tenure as a commissioner, she said she has heard about staffing shortages because of the cost of living. The city can’t raise rates on customers enough to pay for workers to live in the area, so crews commute from the Central Valley, she said.

“All arrows lead back to the cost of living in the area, which goes back to the cost of housing,” she said.
Forssell said she supported Senate Bill 9, a state law that required city’s to approve four homes on a single-family lot, as long as the property owner agrees to live in one of the homes for at least three years. The bill allows development to be spread evenly throughout the city.

“In some ways, it’s the ultimate local control,” she said.

Forssell is in favor of the business tax on the November ballot, and she said she would be willing to go higher.

She said she wouldn’t be “super hands-on” with the police department, instead deferring to Chief Andrew Binder’s operational expertise. She wasn’t ready to take a position on whether police dogs should be used to bite people. She said her gut feeling is to be opposed, but she wants to hear from the other side.

Like fellow candidate Julie Lythcott-Haims, Forssell said she supports the city’s plan to get rid of natural gas in homes, and she would not support a ballot initiative to decide whether to do so.

The transition will take around a decade, and there may be limited exceptions, she said.

Forssell is the wealthiest of all of the candidates, with over $2 million in stock at Apple and Arista Networks, where her husband works. She said she was fortunate to start at Apple in 2017, putting her in the right place at the right time.

Forrsell also has a greater-than-$1 million stake in Woven Earth Ventures, a “fund of funds” that invests in energy and climate startups. She said she isn’t involved in any day-to-day decisions.

Forssell is one of seven candidates running for three seats on council. The Post is interviewing all of the candidates and publishing summaries of their answers before ballots are mailed.