Editorial: Election of mayor, vice mayor mystify Palo Alto pols

Two openly competitive colleagues win council leadership positions

Two strong-willed former mayors, often at odds, strangely find themselves the new leadership team of a City Council divided by the election.

While largely unimportant to the average Palo Altan, or to the outcome of policy matters, those who follow the machinations of city politics and the personalities of our nine council members are trying to grasp how it came to be that Pat Burt was elected mayor Monday night and Greg Scharff vice mayor, each with the other's support in 5-4 votes.

In the span of a few minutes Burt first denied last year's vice mayor, Greg Schmid, the opportunity to serve as mayor during his last year in office, and then, aligning himself against his four "residentialist" colleagues, was the decisive vote in electing Scharff vice mayor, going against his friend and political ally Karen Holman.

Those paying attention smelled a rat.

How could it come to pass that two openly competitive colleagues who have regularly sparred over both policy and procedural matters end up allied with each other to win the council leadership positions? And why did the process appear so scripted?

Both adamantly deny any deals were made to secure each other's support and say the outcome surprised them, but the optics of the evening can't help but raise questions.

With the council's so-called residentialists (Burt, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Holman and Schmid) holding a majority last year -- with those considered more sympathetic to development interests (Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Scharff and Cory Wolbach) in the minority -- it was assumed that Schmid would move into the mayor's chair, an opportunity that has eluded him for the last seven years, and that another residentialist would be elected vice mayor. With Scharff having nominated and supported Schmid a year ago for vice mayor over Burt, there was no reason to think he would flip in the face of the same choice this year for the mayor's position, or that there would even be a second candidate for the mayor's post.

But that's not the way it came down.

Instead, after Schmid had been predictably nominated for the mayorship (by Filseth), Kniss nominated Burt, who graciously accepted with prepared remarks that indicated he was aware of Kniss' intent and had decided to welcome the opportunity to repeat as mayor (serving previously in 2010).

As the residentialist camp was still digesting the impact of Burt's preemptive win over Schmid, Wolbach nominated Scharff for vice mayor and DuBois followed by nominating just-dethroned mayor Holman.

In the ensuing vote, just-elected Mayor Burt surprised just about everyone by casting the deciding vote for Scharff instead of Holman, a long-time ally whom he had unsuccessfully nominated in 2013 and 2014 for the position.

One might think from all this maneuvering that it really matters who serves in these two positions. In reality, Palo Alto mayor's primary job is meeting management and representing the city at public events. The vice mayor's role is even less important, standing in if the mayor is absent.

While their impact on policy decisions is no greater than any other member of the council, an effective mayor can make a significant difference in how meetings are run, including how the council's discussion and deliberations are handled on controversial issues. The mayor also assigns members and chairs of committees. Both the mayor and vice mayor meet weekly with the City Manager to set the agenda for council meetings, probably the greatest opportunity for influence.

Ironically, in their previous stints as mayor, both Burt and Scharff faced criticism from colleagues, and each other, for their heavy-handedness when running meetings and for being dismissive of certain council members and their ideas. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how these two may change their approach when conducting themselves at council meetings this year.

The Burt-Scharff combination might lead to a more collaborative council and prompt these two gentlemen to tame their open competitiveness and occasional disrespect for each other. More cynical observers might point to this fall's council election, when Burt and Schmid are unable to run due to term limits and Scharff will be positioned for a possible chance next year, like Burt, at serving a second term as mayor.

Such is the way with small town politics.

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24 people like this
Posted by Cynical ploy
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 8:10 am

Wow. What a editorial . Full of innuendo but lacking any proof whatsoever to back up its claim. I understand PASZ, their acolytes on the council and their local propaganda publication, the weekly, had their egos bruised. You smell a rat? The optics raised questions? But the weekly only sees a problem with one side. You do not smell a rat with the Schmid/ Holman ticket? You do not think that was scripted? One of the residentialists commented that the process of vice mayor becoming mayor is dead. He forgot that never has an outgoing mayor been elected vice mayor right away. Seems like the residentialists tried to control the mayors seat for yeArs to come. They failed, but the weekly has nothing to say about that. How convenient

9 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 8, 2016 at 10:47 am

"Those paying attention smelled a rat"

@Cynical, you don't seem to understand the laws. 4 people can talk to each other on Palo Alto council. Five can not. So whether your agree or disagree with their politics, there's nothing wrong with four council members discussing an item.

The rat in the room is a violation of the law.

9 people like this
Posted by Cynical ploy
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 11:00 am

Wow. I understand the law completely. The weekly is claiming, via unproven innuendo, that there was sort of violation. They are further claiming that others smelled a rat ( a nasty term, but not surprising given who is dictating the contents of the editorials). But nothing wrong with holmans maneuvering?does anyone know who talked to whom? Holman herself says it is hard to keep track. If you or anyone else have proof of any acts of malfeasance please provide it, all we have now is tabloid " journalism" from the weekly

13 people like this
Posted by It all depends
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 8, 2016 at 11:16 am

Scharff's future depends on whether he can once again con a couple of neighborhood leaders to openly support him.
How they fell for his newly-minted, temporary, residentialist pose is hard to understand.

6 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 8, 2016 at 11:26 am

@Cynical ploy, your assertion that the Weekly is pro PASZ is so absurd and off the mark, it's comical. The Weekly endorsed, inexplicably, the most pro development candidate of all candidates who ran last election:Cory Wallach, even more pro development that Greg Scarf, and that's saying something. Walbach squeaked in by a few votes. He almost certainly would not have won without the Weekly's endorsement, and without him on the council, the council members who are attempting to save Palo Alto from the developers would have a majority and we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Look at the real estate advertisements on the Weekly and its many past endorsements of major growth triggers. The notion that the Weekly is anti development is completely wrong.

5 people like this
Posted by Cynical ploy
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 11:30 am

Mauricio, speaking of laughable, wool ache was not on the council before this year and his votes this year are not
Pro development. Care to try again?

1 person likes this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

I don't think anyone has given credit here to council member Liz Kniss for nominating the winning candidate for mayor two years in a row: Karen Holman in 2015 and Pat Burt in 2016, both of whom are, by reputation, closer to the "residentialist" side on development issues than she herself has been.

If "tradition" had held last year, as vice-mayor to Mayor Nancy Shepherd in she would have reoccupied the mayor's seat that she previously held in 1994 and 2000. Now that the tradition has been disregarded twice is it the new normal? If so, residentialists should take heart that Greg Scarff won't automatically become mayor next year, everything will depend, for him and everyone else on the council, on performance this year. I wish them all well.

6 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 8, 2016 at 12:37 pm

The editorial really lost me. I don't know if it was intended to expose a 'rat' or 'rats' but it reads like a 'who done it?' novel without ever answering the question. I think the mayor and vice mayor will do very well in their newly recycled positions and will work hard for our city's best interests. I've watched council meetings on TV and those two always have things to offer and always seem to have done their homework and are able to articulate their points on an issue very well.

And kudos and thanks to Karen Holman for her year of service as our Mayor. She's one cool collected lady. I never saw her get flustered or bristle up about things...just a sturdy/steady keel sailing us thru rough waters!

@mauricio and Cynical ploy: Please have the courtesy to spell Cory Wolbach's name correctly. I don't know if those were intentional or not, but certainly from you, who claim to be very savvy on council matters and members, that is unacceptable. An apology to him would be nice and appropriate.

10 people like this
Posted by Ellie
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 8, 2016 at 1:02 pm

What no one is commenting on is kniss's open disdained of the Brown Act - the law that allows the public to know of what elected officials are doing - perforating the doors to smoke filled rooms. Given what Kniss said to gennady, she clearly can't be trusted to abide by the Act - we are watching you, Liz.

2 people like this
Posted by Cynical ploy
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 1:07 pm

Sooty, gale, my device " autocorrected" his name and I missed it.

10 people like this
Posted by Commentator
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 8, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Give them credit where it's due: They caught their cues and delivered their lines perfectly. The other side was taken completely by surprise.

5 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 1:52 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.


"What no one is commenting on is kniss's open disdained of the Brown Act"

I asked council member Kniss afterwards how confident she was before the vote was taken that it would go the way it did. Not at all certain until it happened, she said, for two reasons. First, the Brown Act prohibits direct communication with enough other members (4) about voting intentions to know that there are 5 commitments to her nominee. Second, and this is the fun one to consider, you can't be sure that people will in fact vote as they've said they would.

3 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 8, 2016 at 2:34 pm

How often has a sitting mayor, Nancy Shepherd in 2014, not been reelected to Council?

"The owls are not what they seem" -- David Lynch, 1990 "Twin Pines" I mean "Peaks"

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 8, 2016 at 4:17 pm

"How often has a sitting mayor, Nancy Shepherd in 2014, not been reelected to Council?"

Sandy Eakins, in 2001.

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 8, 2016 at 5:56 pm

@Gale I'm wondering for how many years you have watched council meetings?

14 people like this
Posted by GameTheory
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 9, 2016 at 8:40 am

All the information needed was public.

If you look at this fro a game theory perspective ( have any of you watched Survivor?)

The 4 residentialists formed an obvious slate and move as a block. They made no attempt to keep their alliance uncertain; or to form alternate alliances.


It is completely obvious that the remaining 5 would vote for a non-slate candidate. Any non-slate candidate. No discussion needed.

2 people like this
Posted by comentaria
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2016 at 6:45 pm

North is Thicker than Water

4 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 11, 2016 at 11:11 am

The Mayor and Vice Mayor positions may be the top two spots on the Council, but whether or not they are leadership positions depends entirely on how the individuals in those seats comport themselves. Absent honest leadership, they are essentially positions of influence.

1 person likes this
Posted by Paly Wally
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 1, 2016 at 9:29 pm

Tonight I found Burt to be way dismissive during todays meeting 2/1 he cut off Schmid in a very rude way and then attempted to railroad Holman. He cuts people's legitimate questions and cuts short debate with off the record stuff that public can't follow. I think there is something off. I dislike Burt, he is a poor moderator. I greatly preferred the leadership mediation of Nancy Shepard or even Holman.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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