When Nancy Shepherd became active in City Hall politics five years ago, her purpose was to unite the community against the looming specter of high-speed rail, a project that was threatening to wipe out homes along Alma Street and literally divide the community.
Shepherd, who lives near the Caltrain corridor, organized meetings, pored over documents and criticized what became known as the "Berlin Wall" -- a proposed structure that would support elevated tracks along the corridor.
The concept of an elevated system ultimately fizzled, thanks in large part to heavy lobbying from Palo Alto and its neighboring cities and a successful push by local representatives to pursue a different design, one in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would share the same set of tracks.
Today, the managerial accountant cites her work to oppose high-speed rail and to support Caltrain as some of her proudest achievements. Others include her work on getting the city's budget in order and her commitment to involving the community in local decision-making.
"I have felt throughout my time on council that we were still not bringing in the community enough," Shepherd told the Weekly in a recent interview. "That's something I always felt we need to do right away."
When the City Council elected Shepherd mayor in 2014, colleagues praised her willingness to field and respond to criticisms. Larry Klein praised her ability to "disagree without being disagreeable." Vice Mayor Liz Kniss cited Shepherd's "toughness" and "resilience" -- attributes that were severely tested during the past two years.
Shepherd, who is generally aligned with the council's majority, has taken her share of criticism from the community, with many pouncing on her for supporting the Maybell Avenue housing project. For Shepherd, who often preaches the importance of community outreach and healthy debate, Measure D was a particularly bitter pill. In June 2013, as she prepared to vote with the rest of her colleagues to support the Maybell development, she observed that there are "good people on both sides, wearing green buttons and red buttons."
"It's not easy for a council member to see this type of conversation happen," Shepherd said before the vote.
She also took the heat from land-use watchdogs for voting with the majority to support the planned-community zone development at 101 Lytton Ave., the commercial building that she called "a good project in itself." She also supported a proposed mixed-use development at 3159 El Camino Real, around Equinox gym, which received a few design exemptions to allow for more height and a bigger setback from the sidewalk. She acknowledged that the vote wouldn't be popular with many voters but asserted that the landowner had property rights and that the project complied with all local laws.
The citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ), which formed in opposition to Measure D (and which, incidentally, has three members running in the election), gave both her and Councilman Greg Scharff a piddling "30 percent" in its recent scoresheet of "pro-resident" votes.
Scharff and Shepherd dismiss the tally, with some justification, as a highly partisan exercise and say it is not reflective of their true positions. For one thing, the group selected 20 votes out of the hundreds that the council has taken. For another thing, the scorecard describes the council's actions in a way that has a clearly residentialist slant (a vote to redevelop the long-dilapidated Edgewood Plaza, for example, was considered an anti-resident vote). The survey also took for granted that some of the council's most nuanced decisions could be framed as either for or against residents.
Critics are right in characterizing her as less of a residentialist than Councilwoman Karen Holman, who scored 85 percent on the PASZ survey. But for Shepherd, issues are rarely writ in black and white. For better or worse, she doesn't act like a typical politician, often preferring circuitous deliberations to snappy sound bytes. Her council comments often include phrases like "and yet," "on the other hand" and "but at the same time," and she routinely asks her colleagues to approach a given issue with "more rigor" or to "noodle" on some complicated issue a little more.
Even an issue on which you'd expect her to have a strong opinion, such as November's ballot measure to reduce the council size from nine members to seven -- for which she co-authored a council colleagues' memo -- she today says she is "49 to 51" on (but happy that voters will have a chance to weigh in).
She told the Weekly she strongly favored a companion item on the memo proposing the council extend its limit on members' service from two terms to three. More terms, she argued, would help local council members achieve seniority on regional boards that have great impact on Palo Alto, including Caltrain and the Association of Bay Area Governments (her proposal to place this issue on the ballot died by a 5-4 vote).
Shepherd has often talked about the importance of regional cooperation and last year took a trip to Contra Costa to explore the transportation-demand-management program at the city's transit center. Last year, she co-authored a colleagues' memo calling for a similar program in Palo Alto. The city took a huge stride in that effort in August, when it hired a company to set up a nonprofit that would work with downtown employers to manage the area's parking and traffic problems.
She also hasn't shied away from representing the city in other regions, states and countries. She flew to China in November 2012 to cement the city's new partnership with Yangpu, a district in Shanghai. She also took a trip to Kansas City in May 2013 for a conference on municipal fiber networks (Palo Alto is still hoping to build one someday soon). Last month, Shepherd represented Palo Alto at a League of Cities Conference in Los Angeles, where she was happy to receive an award for Palo Alto's sustainability effort. In words and deeds, she appears comfortable in her role as the city's ambassador to the world.
But locally, Shepherd said she has a few regrets. She wishes she had supported the Neighborhood Grants program that was launched in 2012 by then-mayor Yiaway Yeh and Scharff. She also wishes she had asked the Palo Alto Housing Corporation to reduce the number of single-family homes on Maybell from 15 to eight (rather than the 12 the council settled on).
The past two years haven't always been easy for Shepherd, but she is largely proud of her record in bringing the community into City Hall conversations. If elected to a fresh term, Shepherd said she hopes to play a central role in the city's update of the Comprehensive Plan, its guiding land-use document, for which the city made big efforts to gain community input this year.
In a recent interview, she talked about the challenge of maintaining Palo Alto's international and regional image as the "It" place while at the same time minimizing the impacts caused by the many people who commute to Palo Alto every day.
"We have to try to balance who we are and how to have that reliable lifestyle that we really appreciate. I do know it's across the board on the Bay Area. ... It's not just a Palo Alto thing," she said. "On the other hand, I'm here in Palo Alto. This is my focus."
To read about where Nancy Shepherd stands on issues including development, transportation and housing, see the Weekly's PDF edition.