It is hard to believe Sid Espinosa's term as mayor is almost over. And what a great year of accomplishment it has been...approving the Stanford hospital project...establishing a long-term infrastructure plan...approving a fiscally sound budget without a significant negative impact on city services. And perhaps most important, exhibiting a style of leadership that focuses on transparency, inclusiveness and decision-making.
One good year deserves another!
But unfortunately, due to Palo Alto's current mayoral selection system -- which is a 25-year tradition and not part of the municipal code, Sid is limited to only one year as mayor. He could accomplish so much more as mayor for two years.
This is not intended to raise any concerns about Sid's presumed successor, Yiaway Yeh, who also is a bright young visionary leader and would be a great mayor as well. In fact, Yiaway also deserves two years as mayor.
One year is simply not enough time for a mayor to accomplish all that is needed to be done. It is not enough time for a mayor to establish and follow through on major priorities, grow into a strong leader presiding over meetings and working collaboratively with the city manager, or providing critically important leadership on regional or state issues impacting Palo Alto such as high-speed rail.
Throughout most of Palo Alto's history and until the 1980's, mayors regularly served for two or more years. Some served for four, five and one even served for eight years. These mayors were chosen for their leadership abilities, representation of the public's priorities, ability to get things done, and to represent the city on challenging local and regional issues. And several of those multi-term mayors such as Hutchinson, Porter, Arnold, Comstock and Henderson are recognized as some of our greatest mayors.
But once the great pro- and slow-growth battles were over in the early 1980s, it was decided to pass the mayorship around among different council members. Imagine how much more Larry Klein could have accomplished on regional transportation and land use issues in the late 1980s as a multi-year mayor or if we had had one mayor for several years -- whether it was Jean McCown, Liz Kniss or me -- addressing East Palo Alto issues impacting our community and theirs in the early 1990s?
I would also change the way mayors are selected.
Under the council election of mayor system, either everyone gets the chance to be mayor -- which typically occurs in a five-member council -- or in the case of Sunnyvale, Mountain View or Palo Alto with seven or nine members, one half to three quarters of the members become mayor. There is little public transparency associated with the process of becoming mayor in such a system, and often times -- particularly in a pure rotational system, where the expectation is that everyone will become mayor -- sometimes we trade a great presiding officer and leader for others who do not have similar skills.
But unless there is a pure rotational system, which is the case in Palo Alto, there are unintentional violations of the Brown Act in the mayoral selection system. I am surprised this issue was not raised during the recent campaign to enact a directly elected mayor system in Sunnyvale. At annual city council reorganization meetings, council members are not sitting in papal conclave waiting for the Holy Spirit, or spirits of mayors past, to inspire them at that particular moment in time to vote for a particular candidate. Conversations have been going on among members for weeks as to who has an interest in becoming mayor, and commitments are made to vote for specific individuals.
Although this is human nature, and a natural result of the system in place, it also is a technical violation of the Brown Act. Kelly Fergusson in Menlo Park got in trouble last year with the San Mateo County DA's office for speaking with other council members about the upcoming mayor selection vote, and yet, countless council members in other local cities -- including Palo Alto -- have been engaged in the same activity for many years. There is little transparency associated with the current mayoral selection system because de facto decisions regarding the mayorship are made prior to the council vote and as a result of serial conversations.
I have long supported a directly-elected mayor system for Palo Alto but with a couple of twists. I would not significantly change the current powers of the mayor in a city government whose success is heavily dependent on an appointed city manager. The mayor's primary responsibilities are to run meetings, appoint committee and task force members, represent the city on regional committees and use the power of the bully pulpit to effect necessary change.
I propose having an election for a two-year mayorship alongside the city council elections every two years. Anyone currently on the council or running for election could become a candidate. It assures transparency, avoids Brown Act violations, and gives the public an opportunity to decide who is the most qualified to be leader of the community and presiding officer at council meetings. And I would make it a two-year term because the reality is that one can get very little done in just one year's time. It also provides important continuity of leadership on regional bodies. But the proposal does not increase mayoral powers significantly and maintains the proper balance of power between mayor and manager. Limit terms to two two-year terms to avoid too much concentration of power. If the successful mayoral candidate does not win a council seat, the second place finisher becomes mayor. I doubt that would happen often, but the system has to plan for it.
Mayors selected by the voters, public transparency, avoidance of Brown Act problems and two-year terms represent definite improvements over the current system.