Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 7, 2011

Editorial: A changing generation on Palo Alto council

Mayor Sid Espinosa and Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh represent a continuing shift to younger leadership, facing promise and problems

There have been other young mayors in Palo Alto's history, but seldom have both the mayor and vice mayor been as young as Sid Espinosa, 38, and Yiaway Yeh, 32. More salient is that both have just two years behind them on the council.

Both were elected unanimously Tuesday night by their City Council colleagues.

But age is not the core issue at the outset of this decade for a community and city government beset with challenges and blessed with opportunities. The core issues facing both men have to do with leadership and being good, quick learners — for which both have demonstrated a solid facility.

Each has impressive credentials and each has demonstrated an adeptness at listening, sifting good information from bad and reaching their own conclusions, sometimes seeking support from colleagues and sometimes offering support for the ideas of others.

Espinosa especially has an insider's view of government and politics due to his professional background as an assistant to former Attorney General Janet Reno and in speechwriting in the White House. His education was at Wesleyan and Harvard universities. He currently holds the odd title of "director of citizenship" for Microsoft Corporation, and formerly was director of global philanthropy for Hewlett-Packard Company.

Perhaps more relevant to Palo Alto, Espinosa has been vice mayor under outgoing Mayor Pat Burt, who has demonstrated strong leadership in the past year, with a depth of understanding of both city issues and regional concerns — such as the continuing conflict over high-speed rail on the Peninsula.

Yeh's credentials are also impressive, including his current position as assistant city auditor for Oakland, his masters degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and his past work as legislative aide to former San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon (just elected to the state Assembly) and legislative intern for retired state Sen. Byron Sher.

Espinosa and Burt both have said publicly that there will be a smooth continuum of city policies and council guidance of city staff. City Manager James Keene and others are striving to streamline city operations, improve relations with the revenue-producing business sector and finish reviewing the rebuilding and expansion of the Stanford Medical Center, Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, and related facilities — which combined comprise the biggest and most complex project in the city's history.

In the past year, the city has begun to see a turnaround in its economic fortunes, particularly in dropping vacancy rates in commercial areas, which the Wall Street Journal recently reported were significantly below those of most communities. The city has at last become proactive at last with its corporate residents.

Palo Alto still faces serious challenges in revenues and expenses, including exposure in city retirement benefits and a potential huge increase in contributions to the state retirement fund due to irresponsibly high-risk investments by CalPERS. But Palo Alto's success in trimming more than $13 million from the city budget in the past year needs to be recognized as an achievement, with shared credit shared for the staff and council.

This hard balancing of needs and resources must continue, and this council — younger and older members alike — must see that it does.

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