Most start out with positive ideas about how they would like to perform as mayor of a prestigious, high-tech, progressive community.
But time flies, and before the mayor knows it he or she is looking at a downhill slide into the home stretch as the end of the year approaches. Some have felt frustrated and dissatisfied, even if their year as mayor was relatively smooth in terms of conflicts or city crises.
In tough years, as in the early part of the last decade when a personal power struggle preoccupied the council, the mayorship can be a bit of hell. Several mayors indicated they just would rather not talk about those times, thank you. One even suggested that I was asking that mayor to "spill my guts" about the experience.
Current Mayor Greg Scharff is not one of the bad-experience mayors and seems to be having fun in his open, optimistic style. He has had frustrations, as in his efforts to mediate the emotional neighborhood dispute over the low-income senior-housing plan, with 12 single-family homes, at Maybell and Clemo avenues.
And he still hopes to accomplish some legacy things before the end of his year, or at least firm up the directions things are going, he said in a recent interview.
One big priority for his last few months as mayor is to "solve parking" — meaning overflow parking from commercial areas into residential neighborhoods and even parking from apartments in East Palo Alto that spills over Newell Road bridge into Palo Alto neighborhoods.
"My goal is to solve the downtown parking problem," he declared, echoing six decades of discussion by city officials, property owners, businesses and residents.
He envisions finding a way to build two new parking structures, one for downtown Palo Alto and one for the California Avenue business district.
He also feels the city must "close all the loopholes for developers" that enable them to build projects without adequate parking for those who work or visit there.
"Then we need to address the existing (parking) shortfall. That means we have to take cars off the road" with effective "traffic demand management" (TDM) programs for downtown, California Avenue and the Stanford Research Park.
"Everyone uses 'density' as shorthand (for growth concerns) while it's really trips and parking and congestion," he said.
Another goal is to address the concerns about "planned community" (PC) zoning and the trade-off between increased size and intensity of a project and some type of "public benefit," notoriously poorly monitored and not enforced.
"I think the (PC) process was broken" long before some of the contentious proposals now before the city, he said. Staff is now actively analyzing the return a developer would get versus the cost of a proposed public benefit.
On the broader question of mayoral terms, Scharff agrees that one year is too short a period to accomplish what an enthusiastic mayor might envision at the first council meeting in January, when the mayors are elected. Family members often are in the audience, some traveling from distant locales — reflecting the prestige of the position of mayor in Palo Alto.
But the mayor in Palo Alto has limited power, having to rely on leadership skills primarily as one chairs council meetings, makes assignments and serves as city figurehead at special events, groundbreakings and business-openings.
As for the one-year term, it is not covered by any law or regulation. It is a custom that has developed over the past three decades in Palo Alto, which once upon a time regularly had sequential multi-term mayors. Councilman Larry Klein is a three-term mayor, but the terms are separated by years.
The last sequential multi-term mayor appears to be Alan Henderson, who served as mayor from 1979 to 1981. The late Stan Norton served as a two-year mayor from 1975 to 1977, and Kirke Comstock served three years from 1971 to 1974.
Ed Arnold served two consecutive years from 1968 to 1970, after an earlier one-year term, and Frances Dias served two years from 1966 to 1968. The latter three served during highly contentious times when a growth/slow growth/no growth battle rocked city politics.
Notable multi-term mayors included Noel E. Porter, a Hewlett-Packard Company vice president who served five years from 1955-1960 and helped set strong growth policies that led to "residentialist" opposition in the 1960s.
The city's first mayor, Joseph Hutchinson, served eight years, from 1894 to 1902, and Byron J. Blois served eight years from 1940 to 1948 (serving on the council from 1934 to 1953).
So there's no inherent magic in one-year mayors.
Its appeal is that it passes around the prestige to most (but not all) council members. And since selection of mayor is by a council-member majority, ah, majority rules — even if a year is too short to accomplish personal agendas.