Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 8, 2010

New Palo Alto mayor hopes to turn green into gold

Pat Burt aims to link city's environmental leadership with much-needed revenues

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt has never shied away from details, no matter how minute or how long it takes to digest them.

In January 2009, Burt picked apart the proposed design of the controversial Alma Plaza development and offered his own configuration with wider streets and more parking spaces. In September, he convinced his City Council colleagues not to approve a design for the Downtown Library because the library shelves wouldn't hold enough books. In November, he recommended delaying a decision on an affordable-housing development at 801 Alma St., after project opponents suggested the council send the plans back to the Planning and Transportation Commission (Burt's proposal failed and the project was approved).

It's not as if he or other council members changed their minds on the merits of the project or of affordable-housing in general, he explained. He just wanted to make sure everything would be in its right place and the right procedure was being followed.

"It's important that the belief that this is the correct procedural approach not be confused with a change in the outlook in this council on the fundamental merits of affordable housing project of a higher-than-usual density at this location," Burt said in a typical Burt statement — wonky and idealistic.

Burt's approach to issues, which is always thorough, often technical and rarely expedient, hasn't always endeared him to members of the public. His skepticism over the library plans and the council's subsequent vote to continue studying the proposal prompted former Library Advisory Commission Chair Suzy Thom to resign in frustration and to accuse the council of micromanaging the renovation project. Local developers, residents and even fellow council members often can't help but roll their eyes when council members redesign a site map late at night or require extra approvals from other land-use groups.

But as the council unanimously agreed Monday night, it's precisely these qualities that make Pat Burt a quintessential Palo Altan and the perfect councilmember to steer the city through what promises to be a financially grueling year. As a nine-year member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, Burt developed a fluency in the language of land use. As a board member on the Peninsula Cities Consortium (a group that focuses on California's proposed high-speed rail project) and on the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (which seeks to enhance protection from creek flooding), he is well versed in regional issues that could affect Palo Altans. As chair of the council's Finance Committee in 2009, Burt knows the city's bleak budget numbers as well as any council member and better than most.

Burt's accomplishments in his private life have as much to do with his election as mayor as his years of public service, Councilman Larry Klein said Monday. Burt is the president of Acteron, a San Carlos-based high-tech company that specializes in plating, coating and anodizing. The business has a reputation for environmental leadership and has won awards from organizations such as Acterra and Sustainable San Mateo County for its green accomplishments, which include recycling 99 percent of its waste.

"Pat is not only a local guy, but someone whose whole ethos is in keeping with what we are in Palo Alto," Klein said. "He's someone who cares about Palo Alto and who wants to be in a business that helps improve our society."

A son of two schoolteachers, Burt was born in San Louis Obispo, lived in Gilroy, Santa Cruz and Sunnyvale and graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara, where he earned a degree in English and threw the discus. But Palo Alto has never been far from his mind. His grandparents lived in Palo Alto, and he recalls making frequent trips to the city to visit the Children's Theatre, the Junior Museum & Zoo and Mitchell Park. His first job was working at a concession stand at Stanford University as a 9 year old. Later, as a high-school student, he worked at local supermarkets.

Burt, 58, bought a house in College Terrace in 1984 but later moved to the University South neighborhood, where he served as president of the neighborhood association. He took part in the group that created the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA) plan — a zoning document that ultimately resulted in the city building Heritage Park, a child care facility and other amenities in the downtown neighborhood. His conduct on the SOFA plan won him praise Monday from newly elected Councilwoman Karen Holman, who served with Burt both in the SOFA group and on the Planning and Transportation Commission.

Minutes after he was elected mayor, Burt proposed expanding the role of the council's Policy and Services Committee, renewing an effort to pass a business-license tax, resuming the citywide conversation about building new police headquarters and reducing Palo Alto's infrastructure backlog. He also said one of his major goals as mayor will be to promote transparency and to bring the wider community into the city's decision-making process.

Burt also said he wants to continue the city's plethora of green initiatives and, at the same time, find ways to turn Palo Alto's clean-tech leadership into much-needed revenues.

"Palo Alto is seeing a convergence of the environmental values that we hold as a city and city government, that the community holds and what's in our economic best interests," Burt said. "That's something I think is a great opportunity that I hope we all embrace."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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