The surprise, if one can call it that, wasn't the unanimous election Monday night of Liz Kniss as mayor of Palo Alto for the third time. There was never any doubt that she was the most suited and best qualified to step up to lead the council in 2018 or that she would handily win.
The surprise was the council's choice for vice mayor and the regrettable commentary from both the dais and audience on the nearly one-year long investigation, still underway, by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) into Kniss' reporting of her 2016 campaign donations.
Regardless of what differences of opinion exist on the council or in the community regarding Liz Kniss, even her opponents realize that she enjoys the broadest political support in Palo Alto of all nine current members of the council. She was the top vote-getter in 2016, has never lost an election and has a political and personal network vastly more extensive than her colleagues.
She has developed that support through an instinctive ability to understand the political dynamics of a divided community and how to advocate or build support for a position without denigrating those with differing views. On a council with an abundance of strong-willed stubbornness that can drift into disrespectful and divisive personal attacks, Kniss is a calming, respectful and gracious presence. She rarely leaves those with whom she disagrees feeling marginalized or put down. She has proven herself as a fair and effective mayor twice before and as a previous president of the county Board of Supervisors.
With a 5-4 philosophical split on the council, the choices for mayor from the majority side were Kniss, Cory Wolbach, Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine. With those options, it was inconceivable that anyone other than Kniss would be elected. None of the alternatives would have received any support from the four-person minority block and probably would have at most garnered three votes total.
While the FPPC investigation is looking into possible serious violations of campaign-finance disclosure laws — delayed reporting of major campaign donations, largely from developers, until after the election — raising it as an issue that might be cause for later reconsidering Kniss' election as mayor, as Councilman Tom DuBois did, was inappropriate and a political miscalculation. It accomplished nothing except to add a regrettable cloud over what is largely a ceremonial and celebratory passing of the gavel. He received no support and moments later ended up joining his colleagues in electing Kniss.
DuBois' comments drew critical remarks from some public speakers and an ill-advised response from Kniss. Kniss sought to minimize the import of the FPPC ("it's only a commission"), pointed out that the complaints under investigation were anonymous and reminded the public that three other members of the council (Fine, Tanaka and Holman) have had complaints lodged against them.
The dismissive tone of Kniss and some public speakers attempting to minimize the allegations show a troublesome lack of respect for the purpose and importance of California's campaign finance and disclosure laws. It will remain an elephant in the room until the outcome is announced.
The surprise vote for vice mayor, which is usually where whatever suspense there might be is going to emerge, was quickly determined through a pre-emptive move by Wolbach, the person who was seen as the logical choice given his being the most senior of the remaining majority members.
But to his credit, Wolbach sought immediate recognition from Kniss when she opened nominations for vice mayor and nominated Eric Filseth, frequently a political opposite of Wolbach. He explained he could "count the votes," and thereby avoided a competition between himself and Filseth that he was destined to lose on a 4-5 vote because outgoing mayor Greg Scharff had decided to support Filseth.
Scharff's decision to support Filseth was bold and magnanimous. Scharff's first few months as mayor were characterized by his use of the chair to too-often marginalize the four-person council minority for the sake of governing efficiency. Instead of trying to bring people together after a hard-fought and contentious 2016 election, he contributed to the ill-will and tension both on the council and in the community, and he came to regret it.
By mid-year, Scharff pivoted and spent the second half of the year seeking to bring the council together, making sure that minority views weren't quashed and capably bringing the long process of revising the city's Comprehensive Plan to a successful conclusion.
His support of Filseth not only reflected Filseth's impressive work as chair of the council's Finance Committee but was a gesture to his political adversaries and an acknowledgment that how the council works together is as important as the decisions it reaches.
With the City Council being reduced from nine to seven members at November's election, next January's mayoral election will occur in a different and uncertain political climate. We hope it follows a year of council work that seeks balance, compromise and solutions with less personal drama and more collaboration and mutual respect.