They were rivals, colleagues, former mayors and political frenemies who over the past decade have epitomized Palo Alto's most ambitious initiatives and its deepest political divisions.
On Monday night, as Greg Scharff and Karen Holman took a bow after nine years behind the dais, their former colleagues showered them with praise for their service even as they signaled their intention to take on a more collaborative approach going forward.
Scharff and Holman, who both termed out last year after tumultuous nine years on the council, each received resolutions of appreciation from the new seven-member council. The council also formally recognized Cory Wolbach, a fervent housing advocate who departed after a four-year term, having lost his bid for a second term.
But while the council's resolutions and accompanying public comments underscored the accomplishments of the three departing members, all three also did their part to exacerbate the political fissures that the new council will try to mend. While each can claim credit for some of the council's most significant accomplishments of the past decade, including the adoption of a new Comprehensive Plan, the creation of new residential parking programs and the approval of a new public-safety building, they are also as responsible as anyone for the bitter political split that has defined the council since 2010.
Holman, a former planning commissioner and passionate environmentalist, was a leader of the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing. As such, she has opposed most major developments and has supported policies that severely restrict commercial growth.
While her colleagues on Monday lauded her encyclopedic knowledge of the city's zoning laws, her ultra-critical eye toward new developments had also exasperated council colleagues with more pro-growth tendencies, particularly on housing. She has consistently opposed exceeding the 50-foot height limit, which many see as a barrier to building more housing units, and was one of two council members to oppose the 57-unit development at 2755 El Camino Real — the only housing project that the council approved in 2018.
And last month, as the council passed a broad range of zoning changes to encourage housing, Holman voted against a host of these changes because she didn't feel the council didn't spend enough time discussing the impacts of allowing more rooftop gardens. Her effort, at the end of a seven-hour discussion, to continue the hearing to the next meeting was ultimately shot down by her exhausted colleagues.
While these positions made Holman extremely popular among neighborhood leaders and residents concerned about growth (she was the top vote-getter in her 2014 re-election effort), they also created a roadblock for those council members focused on building more housing, including Liz Kniss, Wolbach and Adrian Fine, who was elevated on Monday to the vice mayor's chair.
Holman's resolution highlighted her environmental credentials, including her passion for protecting local trees, her advocacy for the "Zero Waste" initiative and her support for expanding Foothills Park by adding a 7.7-acre site. Her former colleagues also talked about her passion for historical preservation and support for affordable housing.
Councilman Tom DuBois, a close political ally of Holman, called her a "champion for transparency and community involvement," qualities that various members of the public also emphasized in their public comments. Newly elected Mayor Eric Filseth, who is loosely allied with Holman's slow-growth wing, lauded her for her "passion for social justice" and vowed that he will work harder to fill the hole that Holman's absence will leave.
Scharff's resolution, by contrast, highlighted his efforts outside the city, including his participation on important regional boards such as the Northern California Power Agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, his promotion of Palo Alto's "sister cities" relationships, and his support for Palo Alto's infrastructure and transportation efforts.
As a two-time mayor, in 2013 and 2017, Scharff has been the public face of the council's more pro-growth camp. Even though he supported some initiatives that restricted growth, including the annual 50,000-square-foot cap on non-residential development in downtown, near California Avenue and along El Camino Real, he also later led the push to relax some of the cap's provisions to give developers more flexibility.
Scharff also vociferously opposed last year's citizen initiative to slash in half the long-term citywide for non-residential development. In June, he voted against placing the initiative on the ballot and urged more study of the initiative's impact. Weeks later, when the council considered adopting the initiative outright, Scharff voted against the action and argued that not placing it on the ballot would be an affront to democracy (the council nevertheless adopted the initiative).
The resolution also highlighted Scharff's work in promoting infrastructure projects, including his hotel tax in both 2014 and in 2016 to raise funds for infrastructure projects such as two new garages and the new public-safety building. After more than two decades of discussion, the council gave the new public-safety building a green last year. It is now set to get built immediately after the new California Avenue parking garage.
Yet his assertive role in the infrastructure debate also rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way. As chair of the council's Infrastructure Committee, he played a leading role in determining the best way to raise revenues for capital projects. His decision not to poll for — much less pursue — an employee tax frustrated some council members, including DuBois and Holman, who thought a tax on business is a good way to raise money for transportation projects.
His strong positions against renter protections, and his tactics in asserting these positions, also alienated some colleagues and residents. When the council considered in late August an emergency law to raise relocation assistance for tenants facing displacement, Scharff insisted that the law only applies to those tenants making with incomes below the area median and threatened to shoot down the entire ordinance if the restriction was not included (because this was an "emergency law" that needed approval from seven of nine council members, the rest of the council acceded). Weeks later, the council scrapped the requirement when it approved a regular ordinance that only required a simple council majority.
And in September, when Holman suggested that the city needs to do more to protect residents of President Hotel, whom she called "some of the most valuable tenants and residents we'll ever have," Scharff countered by comparing her view to an anti-immigration position taken by supporters of President Donald Trump. Holman said she found the comparison "exceedingly, exceedingly insulting."
On Monday, Kniss called Scharff the council's "feet-to-the-fire" mayor because he would force the council to power through issues during late night meetings. She thanked him for being more willing than others to put in extra time and effort to work on regional issues. Filseth focused on Scharff's work on finances and willingness to deal with complex issues such as infrastructure and pensions.
"The progress we had made would not have happened without you. It will serve the community well for decades to come," Filseth said.
Their parting words in many ways reflected their leadership styles. Holman, who received a standing ovation after her proclamation was read, listed a number of specific initiatives that she hopes the new council will take up, including raising housing-impact fees for new developments and a requirement for transparent windows at retail sites.
"If you go around downtown and El Camino Real or you name it, there are many whited-out windows that are supposed to be retail businesses," Holman said. "It's not conducive to a good retail environment."
Holman also said she hopes the new council will move ahead with the "Palmer fix," a law that would establish an "inclusionary housing" requirement for new rental developments.
Scharff, for his part, talked about his role on regional board and Palo Alto's status as a leader on various environmental and economic issues.
"What you find out is that we really are on the forefront of everything," Scharff said. "It's almost a little embarrassing. When people say, 'We're going to do this,' Palo Alto did that five years ago.
"It's a really amazing feeling to be in a community where you have so many smart people and so many initiatives that we move forward on."
Wolbach, who has been aligned with Scharff on most issues, also made the case for more "regionalism" going forward and encouraged the seven members of the new council to work more closely with neighboring cities and with regional agencies. Wolbach, who during his time on the council led the city's efforts to raise the minimum wage, encourage more accessory-dwelling units, and revise the zoning code to promote more housing, was recognized by the council in the resolution for being an "articulate leader on issues of sustainable transportation, housing, climate change and good government."
Fine, who worked with Wolbach on the pro-housing memo, lauded Wolbach for helping to "move the conversation forward in Palo Alto on issues of housing, traffic and climate change."
Kniss described Wolbach as "passionate," "personable" and "persuasive," though she also suggested that times he goes a bit too far (especially late at night) in explaining his positions and trying to persuade his colleagues.
Wolbach, whose first council campaign focused on promoting more civility, told the council on Monday that he has been pleased to see how well council members generally get along, particularly during closed-session discussions.
"Even during our most contentious times over the last four years, I think the tone when we've been in closed session has been a lot more collegial and collaborative. ... I look forward to that collaborative nature that we've seen in our closed sessions being the standard, even more so, in the open sessions as my City Council works on some very tough issues."