Yiaway Yeh, a mild-mannered auditor with an appetite for crunching budget numbers and delving into utilities issues, was unanimously elected Tuesday night to serve as Palo Alto mayor this year, becoming the second-youngest councilman to ever hold the position.
In assuming the top position on the City Council, Yeh, 33, became Palo Alto's youngest mayor in 80 years (only Byrl Salsman, who joined the council in 1929, was younger) and the first mayor to have graduated from Gunn High School. He also became the city's first Chinese American mayor at a time when the city's Chinese population is booming.
In electing Yeh as mayor, the council lauded him for his patient, deliberative style and his mastery of some of the city's driest but most critical issues, namely finances and utilities. Since joining the council in 2007, Yeh has represented Palo Alto on the Northern California Power Agency, an association of community-owed utilities.
Councilman Larry Klein, who nominated Yeh, pointed to his experience as an auditor as a major reason for his ability to bring a different perspective to the council's deliberation. Council member Karen Holman also praised Yeh's unswervingly polite manner, calling him a "gentleman and a gentle man."
Yeh currently works in the City of Oakland's auditor's office and had previously worked for the San Francisco.
"He frequently sees things that other members of the council, perhaps all of us, have not seen," Klein said. "I think we've all seen that Yiaway is a careful, deliberate thinker."
Yeh said he "couldn't feel luckier" to take over as mayor and highlighted some of the issues that he expects to dominate the council in 2012. These include fixing up the city's aged infrastructure, promoting youth wellbeing and finding ways to make services more efficient. He also said he will also hold "Mayor's Challenges," a series of athletic events that will be held throughout the city to encourage community building.
"I will work hard to keep us focused, efficient and effective as best as possible so that we can best serve Palo Alto," Yeh said.
Yeh had been serving as vice mayor in 2011 so his election to mayor was a foregone conclusion. The race for vice mayor proved far closer, with the council narrowly picking Greg Scharff over Greg Schmid. After five of the nine members indicated that they would support Scharff, Schmid asked his colleagues to make the vote unanimous, which they duly did.
Councilman Pat Burt nominated Scharff, citing his deep familiarity with local issues and his ability to communicate clearly and to seek consensus. He also noted that Scharff, like Yeh, has been deeply engaged in the realms of finance and utilities. Scharff, a local attorney, has served as chair of the council's Finance Committee and as liaison to the Utilities Advisory Commission.
These issues, Burt said, "are the backbone of everything we do." He was also one of the leaders of the city's successful effort to repeal a City Charter provision that enabled a binding-arbitration panel to settle labor disputes between the city and its public-safety unions.
"He has demonstrated a strong outlook that leaders truly must put the community's interest first," Burt said.
Councilman Sid Espinosa agreed and, after praising Schmid, said Scharff would "move us forward."
"He listens carefully when we have debates, he finds middle ground and, meeting after meeting, he helps us come to a decision," Espinosa said of Scharff.
Council members Klein and Nancy Shepherd also voted for Scharff, with Scharff himself providing the fifth vote to secure his own election. His rise to vice mayor makes Scharff the first of the four council members who were elected in 2009 to take on a leadership position on the council.
Mayor Yeh and council members Holman, Gail Price and Schmid all wrote Schmid's name on their ballots, though they all ultimately voted for Scharff upon Schmid's request.
Schmid's supporters lauded the economist for his dedication to strategic planning and transparency. Price called him a "very wise and thoughtful individual" while Espinosa praised him for understanding issues and data "at a level that is unmatched at this dais," before announcing his intention to vote for Scharff.