Palo Alto's young mayor packs policy experience
Yiaway Yeh brings understanding of government, history of community building to position
When Yiaway Yeh cast the deciding vote last July to send a labor-reform measure on the November ballot, just about everyone in the Council Chambers raised an eyebrow or two in disbelief.
Yeh, 33, who this week became Palo Alto mayor, had been a staunch ally of the city's public-sector unions since he first joined the council in 2007. For the past two years, he has been a consistent opponent of repealing binding arbitration, a longstanding law that enables a panel of arbitrators to settle disputes between the city and its police and fire unions. In 2010, he was one of five council members who voted against placing the repeal of the law on the ballot. He continued to oppose the repeal last year, arguing that the binding-arbitration provision gives much needed leverage to public-safety workers who, unlike most other city employees, are barred by state law from striking.
But on July 18, Yeh surprised both his colleagues and his union supporters by reversing course and joining Council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid in voting to place the repeal on the ballot (the other four council members advocated modifying rather than repealing the measure).
Yeh's reason for supporting the placement of repeal on the ballot was drastically different from that of his colleagues. While the other four all maintained that binding arbitration is an unfair procedure that gives too much power to unelected arbitrators and strips the council of its budget-setting responsibilities, Yeh had no such qualms. Instead, Yeh voted for the ballot measure because he wanted to gauge the sentiments of the voters on the issue.
"I kind of reached a point where I want clarity," Yeh said at the July 18 meeting. "I want to know where the voters ultimately are."
His vote made a dramatic difference. In November, voters approved Measure D by a roughly two-to-one margin. But while Yeh's vote led to a policy change that he has consistently opposed, it also illustrated his legislative style and his philosophy toward local government. As a councilman, Yeh has been among the least dogmatic and most technocratic elected members, as comfortable discussing pension plans for public employees as debating renewable-energy goals and the latest labor legislation coming out of Sacramento. An auditor who currently works for the City of Oakland, he is well-versed in Palo Alto's budget process and has helped craft the city budget as a member of the council's Finance Committee.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, herself a former Palo Alto mayor, predicted at Tuesday's election ceremony that Yeh's extensive experience with numbers will serve him well as a mayor.
"When you have the auditor as the mayor you know you won't be getting into any trouble," Kniss said.
Much like his friend and mayoral predecessor, Sid Espinosa, Yeh is an articulate speaker who became interested in public policy at an early age and who boned up on the subject at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Like Espinosa, Yeh is well traveled, having served in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. But whereas Espinosa stood out for his omnipresence at local events and his tireless promotion of Palo Alto, Yeh's style on the council has been focused, if quieter. He rarely, if ever, speaks in sound bites, choosing instead to dive right into legislative details and the subtle implications of the policy at hand. He has also been representing the city for the past four years on the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), a task that entailed long meetings and wonky discussions of electric rates and renewable-energy goals.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, who worked with Yeh on Northern California Power Agency issues, half-joked Tuesday that Yeh deserves a "lifetime achievement award" for his service.
"Anyone who spends four years representing this council on NCPA has already paid their dues and then some," Simitian said.
But as his vote on Measure D demonstrated, Yeh's idea of public service far transcends data crunching and policy analysis. As early Election Day results showed the measure winning by a heavy margin, Yeh told the Weekly that while he was disappointed by the repeal of binding arbitration, he hopes the process of negotiations between the city and its public-safety unions will benefit from mandatory mediation.
Councilwoman Gail Price, who like Yeh opposed the repeal of binding arbitration, praised Yeh this week for his understanding of the public sector.
"His commitment to social justice is clear, broad and deep," Price said. "And as you all know, he served in the Peace Corps, and he brings those values with him every day."
Councilman Pat Burt praised Yeh for being "somebody who truly believes that government is here to serve the community and that government can be conduced in a way that is open and fair and deliberate and efficient and through those means that government will do what's best for the community." He also lauded Yeh for carrying himself in a way that engenders respect and admiration from his colleagues.
"I think each leader has his own style and Yiaway's is one where he will continue to have that quiet and yet strong leadership that we've seen from him throughout his four years on the council to date," Burt said.
In accepting his election to mayor, the 33-year-old Yeh spoke extensively about his interest in building community and said much of the year will be devoted to repairing the city's aged infrastructure, promoting youth well-being and finding ways to make provision of city services more efficient.
"I will work hard to keep us focused, efficient and effective as best as possible so that we can best serve Palo Alto," Yeh told the council.
He also proposed on Tuesday a series of "Mayor's Challenges" — athletic competitions throughout the city with the aim of bringing neighbors and members of different generations together.
"I know as mayor for 2012, this is the fun part," Yeh said. "I'm really looking forward to working with colleagues to bring new and old neighbors together."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.