Adrian Fine, one of Palo Alto's most passionate housing advocates, will have a chance to directly shape the City Council agenda this year after his colleagues chose him Monday to serve as mayor in 2020.
Fine, who at 33 is the youngest council member, will be joined in the center of the council's dais by Tom DuBois, who narrowly edged Councilwoman Alison Cormack for the vice mayor's position after one of the most competitive contests in recent years. DuBois won the race after Cormack, having fallen one vote shy of getting the nod for vice mayor, threw her support to DuBois, surprising her colleagues and ensuring his election by a single vote.
While the mayoral election was largely a foregone conclusion, given the city's loosely followed custom of promoting the prior year's vice mayor to the mayor's chair, the race for the 2020 vice mayor proved razor-thin, with votes falling largely along political lines.
The three council members affiliated with the slow-growth "residentialist" philosophy — Eric Filseth, Lydia Kou and DuBois — all supported DuBois, who joined the council in 2015 and who was re-elected in 2018. The council members who are more aggressive when it comes to housing growth — Liz Kniss, Fine and Cormack — supported Cormack, the top vote-getter in the 2018 election.
Councilman Greg Tanaka, who ran with the more pro-growth candidates in 2016 but who has since emerged as the council's top fiscal hawk and most common dissenter, abstained from voting for either vice mayoral candidate, creating a potential deadlock. But after Cormack's nomination failed by a 3-3 vote, she offered her vote to DuBois, giving him the edge. The council then elected DuBois as vice mayor 4-2, with Fine and Kniss dissenting and Tanaka abstaining.
Fine's election was far less dramatic, with six council members voting to make him mayor. Only Kou, Fine's political adversary, abstained, citing Fine's support for Senate Bill 50, a proposal by state Sen. Scott Wiener to loosen zoning rules near transit and job-rich areas (the bill was held over from last year and will be considered by the state Legislature early this year). Kou said she was concerned about Fine's support for SB 50, which she characterized as a "top-down" and "one-size-fits-all" legislation.
"As an immigrant, I can never understand why a government of the people, by the people and for the people would abdicate its local control of our government," Kou said. "However, I will not get in the way of this nomination and I do wish our upcoming Mayor Fine the best and I hope there will be fairness throughout this year to the entire council."
Other council members had no reservations about electing Fine, a former planning commissioner who now works at Autonomic, a company that makes software for connected vehicles. Kniss, who ran alongside Fine in 2016, lauded him for his intelligence and critical thinking. And Tanaka, who served with Fine on the planning commission before both were elected to the council in 2016 and who nominated him for mayor on Monday, cited Fine's background in technology and planning, his status as the council's only renter and his experience in running meetings as qualities that will make him a strong mayor.
"I've seen his leadership skills and ability to facilitate meetings," Tanaka said of Fine. "I think he will serve the council well in that role."
Immediately after the vote, Fine said his top issues of concern are housing, transportation and economic vitality. He pointed at the city's goal of building about 300 units of housing per year, a target that the city has failed to meet in each of the past two years. The city's actual production — between 50 and 60 units — is not good enough, he said.
"We need to figure out what Palo Alto looks like in five, 10, 20 and 50 years," Fine said. "I think that's a challenge for all of us."
Fine said he was committed to working on finding a 21st century solution to the city's traffic problems, including reaching a decision on redesigning the rail corridor this year. He also said he was concerned about the recent closures of longtime businesses and suggested that the city needs to do more to prepare for a potential economic recession on the horizon.
The real drama came immediately after the mayoral election, when Kniss nominated Cormack for the vice mayoral position. Filseth, who received an ovation after concluding his final meeting as mayor, followed by nominating DuBois, noting that he has served on every council committee, including as chairman of the Finance Committee.
Kniss praised Cormack as "a person who pays attention to detail," both when conducting council business and when meeting residents in the community. She also lauded Cormack for holding office hours for residents at Ada's Café and for being a dog owner, an asset when it comes to getting out of the house and meeting neighbors.
"She has been very effective with us on the council and I think she notices what we're doing and notices that very well," Kniss said.
While no one objected to Cormack's nomination, Filseth threw his support behind DuBois, who was first elected in 2014 and who has not yet held a leadership position despite chairing numerous committees. Filseth called DuBois "consistently thoughtful and a voice for reason and data-driven thinking." He also said it would be a better reflection of the community to have representatives from both political camps occupy the top two leadership positions, much as was the case in 2019.
"No one agrees on everything," Filseth said. "Like in every group, there are some ideological alignments on the council and non-alignments. In my view, that's a good thing. That diversity of thinking is also present in the community."
Cormack's vote for DuBois vice mayor appeared to have caught her colleagues — including DuBois himself — by surprise.
"I honestly prepared no comments because I didn't think I was going to be elected tonight," said DuBois, who served with Cormack on the Finance Committee last year and who is currently working with her on a two-member ad hoc committee that is looking at refining the rules for local commissioners.
Cormack, for her part, earned praise for casting a deciding vote for someone who was running against her. Kou, who often doesn't see eye-to-eye with Cormack on issues relating to development, lauded her for displaying "graciousness." Former City Councilwoman Karen Holman, who was elected mayor in 2015 after getting the most votes in the 2014 election, shared the sentiment.
"What happened tonight was magnanimous, almost unheard of, and speaks well to both of your characters," Holman said.