Liz Kniss is a retired nurse, a housing advocate and now, for the third time in her long political career, the mayor of Palo Alto.
The City Council voted 9-0 on Monday to elect Kniss the mayor for 2018 -- a decision that was largely preordained by Palo Alto's long-standing tradition of naming last year's vice mayor to serve as this year's mayor. Having served as vice mayor in 2017, Kniss was the clear favorite for the mayor's chair.
It also didn't hurt that she cruised to re-election in November 2016, picking up more votes than any other candidate; that her political supporters enjoy a majority on the council; and the issue she is most passionate about -- housing -- is now the council's highest priority.
For Liz Kniss, the Monday night election was as much a reflection of personal clout as a sign of the city's new political dynamics. Over the past three decades, Kniss had served on the school board, on the City Council and on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, where she spent two terms before returning to City Hall.
A former member of the Caltrain board of directors and the current chair of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, she had spent decades as one of Palo Alto's most visible representatives on the regional and state levels (among office holders from Palo Alto, only Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian can rival her record of service).
Yet it wasn't one of her close political allies but Councilman Eric Filseth, the council's swing vote, who nominated Kniss for the office, citing her experience as a major reason for his mayoral choice.
"We have only to look around other parts of our nation to appreciate the importance of competence, wisdom and experience in government," Filseth said. "Liz has by far the most experience in government of all of us on council."
Several council colleagues and residents echoed these sentiments and praised Kniss for her long record of service. Councilman Adrian Fine, one of Kniss' political allies on the council, thanked her for her "distinguished leadership" and Chamber of Commerce CEO Judith Kleinberg lauded her as "someone who can pull together different points of view" and build bridges.
Kniss' ascendancy to the mayor's chair came despite an ongoing investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission into her 2016 council campaign. The commission, which enforces the state's campaign finance laws, is probing her campaign after a complaint alleged that she had failed to report contributions from developers until after the election.
Councilman Tom DuBois, whose positions have often clashed with Kniss, was the only council member who alluded to the FPPC investigation. He lauded Kniss for having the necessarily procedural experience and demeanor to succeed as mayor. He also indicated, however, that he would support reconsidering her election as mayor if the investigation uncovers wrongdoing by her campaign.
"On completion of the investigation, if violations were found, we as a body should reconsider tonight's vote, once the facts are in," DuBois said. "I do think we owe it to the community and to the institution of the Palo Alto City Council to maintain the level of standards the community demands."
After the election, Kniss briefly addressed the FPPC investigation and claimed that "almost every return to the FPPC will have some errors in it." She also noted that four of the current council members have been referred to the FPPC at some point.
While that's strictly speaking true, the other complaints were resolved quickly and were centered on relatively minor violations. The FPPC concluded in 2014 that a complaint against Councilwoman Karen Holman alleging a conflict of interest didn't warrant an investigation. Last year, the FPPC gave Councilman Adrian Fine a warning over an envelope-labeling mistake and issued Greg Tanaka a $733 fine for failing to disclose occupations of several contributors.
The agency's probe of Kniss focuses on $19,340 in contributions, many from developers, that were made before the November 2016 election but that she had allegedly failed to report until Jan. 11.
In response to DuBois, Kniss said that a "great many people have been fined by the FPPC." Her campaign had itself looked at the possibility of reporting other people, but chose not to do so, Kniss said.
"We felt that perpetrating something wouldn't make a great deal of sense and certainly wouldn't contribute to our ability to function cohesively together," Kniss said.
She said she has been cooperating fully with the FPPC and dismissed DuBois' suggestion that the agency's findings should factor into her mayorship.
"I'd hardly say getting a fine is a reason for someone to resign or to be asked to resign," Kniss said.
The most surprising moment in a night came immediately after the mayoral election, when Wolbach moved to nominate his ideological opposite Eric Filseth as vice mayor -- a motion that was unanimously accepted by the rest of the council.
Even though the two had often clashed since winning their council seats in November 2014, Wolbach said he considers "the intellectual challenges posed by these disagreements one of the greatest joys I get on this council."
The move was somewhat unexpected because Wolbach himself was considered a strong candidate for the position. He had chaired the Policy and Services Committee last year and, like Filseth, is up for re-election this fall. He had also consistently voted along with the five-member council majority that includes Kniss, while Filseth has generally been aligned with the four-member minority.
But after Filseth moved to nominate Kniss, Wolbach suggested that his choice of Filseth as a vice mayoral choice has as much to do with political realities as with qualifications.
"The first job of every council member is to know how to count to five," Wolbach said, alluding to the number of votes it takes to get a majority.
Kniss indicated in her comments that housing -- particularly senior housing -- will remain a top priority in 2018. She also predicted that she and Filseth will make a strong team in the coming year.
"Eric and I haven't always been on the same page but we're very compatible with our ability to discuss items together and I think you'll discover we work very well together," Kniss said.