Greg Scharff's surge to the top
Palo Alto's new mayor brings strong views, fighting spirit to the dais
To most Palo Alto residents, Greg Scharff was a political wild card in 2009, the year he decided to run for City Council.
Competing in a 14-candidate field full of former commissioners, school-board members and long-time community volunteers, Scharff was a true newcomer to the political scene. But it didn't take long for the South Africa-born attorney to make an impression and narrow the name-recognition gap. In a few months, he quickly brought himself up to speed on all pressing local issues, from pension obligations to high-speed rail; took a commanding lead in cash raised; and won the blessing of major political doyens and business leaders.
The effort paid off, and in January 2010, the political neophyte found himself as one of five council members (four new ones and re-elected incumbent Larry Klein) taking part in a swear-in ceremony.
Since then, Scharff has established himself as one of the City Council's most assertive and enthusiastic members, frequently co-authoring colleagues' memos that propose new initiatives; actively campaigning for or against ballot measures; challenging staff during technical discussions of refuse rates and utility strategies; and willingly taking the central role in the city's bitter battle against labor unions.
Scharff was at the forefront of the city's successful 2011 ballot measure to repeal binding arbitration for police and firefighters, an issue that had split the council and frustrated the public-safety workers who have long viewed the provision as a bedrock protection of their labor agreement. He was also a leading opponent of last year's proposal to allow up to three medical-marijuana dispensaries to open in the city and an enthusiastic advocate of the proposed renovation of California Avenue, a proposal that has enraged a group of merchants. In each case, his side won, and it wasn't even close.
Scharff managed to fight his battles with a smile on his face and without the wonky jargon that often characterizes Palo Alto's council discussions. For example, when council members in 2010 were discussing the refuse operation's struggle to reconcile its ambitious environmental goals with its financial health, Scharff summarized the dilemma in a catchy slogan, "Zero Waste is equaling zero dollars." (The council later decided to add fees to bolster the refuse fund.)
Over his three years on the council, he has managed to be assertive without apparently alienating any of his colleagues, who on Monday night unanimously elected him mayor for 2013.
Scharff in many ways presents a sharp contrast to Yiaway Yeh, the 2012 mayor who took part in his final City Council meeting this week. Yeh, a former auditor, had been one of the council's leading policy wonks, utilities experts and voices of moderation and inclusiveness. As mayor, he generally strived for compromise, whether between colleagues arguing on opposing sides of an issue or in the disputes between the council and the labor unions (Yeh was among the council members most sympathetic to the labor unions). His signature program, "The Mayor's Challenge," focused on bringing neighbors together through recreational events staged citywide.
Scharff, on the other hand, doesn't mind disagreeing. He has been the council's happy warrior, always eager to take a strong stance, offer a counterargument and spar with opposition — whether labor leaders or medical-marijuana proponents — through press releases, ballot arguments and televised debates. His style — genial but blunt, eloquent but light on the jargon — proved a popular one with his colleagues, who elected him vice mayor in January 2012 despite his lack of seniority.
Councilman Pat Burt, who nominated Scharff for vice mayor a year ago, said the city needs a "strong communicator" and a leader "with a strong understanding of the issues and challenges facing the community." Scharff, he said, demonstrated that he has those skills.
"We look for a leader who can communicate spontaneously because things don't always go according to script," Burt said.
Scharff's election as vice mayor last year essentially ensured that he would be named mayor this year, in accordance with a city tradition. Councilman Larry Klein, who formally nominated Scharff for mayor Monday night, said he embodies all the qualities important in the position — the ability to efficiently chair meetings; to eloquently represent the council's positions to the public; and to serve as the face of Palo Alto when dealing with other cities and with people "from other walks of life."
"In recent years, we've had more and more contact with cities around the world," Klein said. "Again, our mayor is a spokesperson, our representative. I think it's important to have the best possible person, and this year I think it's Greg."
It doesn't hurt that Scharff already has ample experience chairing meetings. With Yeh consistently recusing himself from discussions involving Stanford University (where his wife was employed), it was up to Scharff to lead those meetings.
Klein also observed in his nominating speech that Scharff would be the first mayor since 2008 not to have been raised in Palo Alto (Klein, a Florida native, was mayor in 2008). In that sense, Klein said, Scharff represents "an interesting demographic that speaks to many of us here in Palo Alto" — the people who were not born here but who "came here, recognizing that it's a great place to live and work."
The influx of talent from the outside, Klein said, has "added so much to our culture and economy over time."
Scharff, 49, was born in South Africa and raised in Woodstock, N.Y. He attended Bowdoin College in Maine and the Columbia University School of Law. He moved to Palo Alto more than 20 years ago and now lives in Midtown and runs a law firm on California Avenue.
In his first speech as mayor, Scharff called 2013 the "lucky 13" and "the year we get things done." He said he looks forward to the opening of the Mitchell Park Library, the renovation of the Main Library, the implementation of the city's new bicycle master plan, the creation of trails around the perimeter of Stanford University, the reopening of El Camino Park (which has been closed while the city builds an emergency reservoir), the reconfiguration of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, progress on the flood-control project around San Francisquito Creek, and streetscape improvements on California Avenue, a controversial project that includes reducing the number of lanes from four to two.
Scharff said the lattermost change "will be nothing short of transformative and may be the change that most improves Palo Alto residents' enjoyment of the city."
He also said the council will have plenty of work to do in the coming year, including curbing the rising costs of employee benefits, determining the future of Cubberley Community Center, figuring out whether the city should proceed with a waste-to-energy plant in the Baylands, solving downtown's parking woes and tackling the "lingering issues of 'fiber to the premises' and the undergrounding of our utilities."
"We need to do all of this and more utilizing the best of the Palo Alto process, which to me is transparency, openness and an inclusive process coupled with strong community engagement and input," Scharff said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.