Pat Burt, a two-time mayor and one of the leading architects of Palo Alto's land-use policies and infrastructure plans, is eyeing a return to the City Council.
Burt, a City Hall veteran who served on the council between 2008 and 2016, announced Thursday that he will be running for one of the four seats that will open up in November. With his announcement, Burt became the third person to announce their candidacy this week, joining Cari Templeton and Ed Lauing. Attorney Rebecca Eisenberg and City Councilwoman Lydia Kou have previously announced their candidacies.
On a council that often splintered into two factions, Burt didn't fit neatly into either camp. A policy centrist and a political pragmatist, he often took the leading role in crafting policies and cobbled together majorities from members of both camps. He helped shape major land-use policies such as office caps in commercial areas and the city's infrastructure strategy, which relies on hotel tax revenues to pay for major projects.
Burt was part of the council that in 2013 approved a residential project on Maybell Avenue that included 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, an action that voters overturned in a referendum later that year. But while that issue pitted his philosophy against that of Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth (both of whom opposed the project and were elected to council the following year), he found himself siding with their "slow-growth" wing in the subsequent years.
Like DuBois, Filseth and Kou, Burt supported raising the affordable housing impact fees that developers are required to pay when building new projects. After the council raised the fees in late 2016, its decision was overturned in early 2017 by those on the council's more growth-friendly wing, which included Liz Kniss, Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilman Greg Tanaka.
Burt said he believes that decision was a mistake and argues that without the reversal, the city would have more resources to support affordable housing. He also wants to raise money for affordable housing and transportation through a business license tax, a proposal that he has championed for years as a council member and that he continued to advocate for since he left the council in 2016. The council was preparing to place the business tax on the ballot in November but halted its plans in March when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an economic downturn.
"I've never stopped caring about the community and the issues," Burt said. "So even when I've been off the council, I've continued to be active in issues, from advocating for funding for affordable housing … and the business license tax, to building consensus on things like grade separations."
Prior to joining the council, Burt had spent nine years on the Planning and Transportation Commission, including three as chair. He also worked on the South of Forest Area plan, a document that guided the redevelopment of a downtown neighborhood that was formerly occupied by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation to create housing, retail and Heritage Park.
"We brought residents and other stakeholders together to work with the City on a redevelopment plan," Burt said in a statement announcing his candidacy. "A project that could have been divisive was made better and was strongly supported, because residents with a range of perspectives worked together in the planning process."
Burt believes the current council would benefit from his experience, particularly given the new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He thinks staff should've acted faster on planning for outdoor dining. While the city is now in the process of closing California Avenue for outdoor dining, the closure of University Avenue is still weeks away and staff is still hashing out the details.
"If you're in a crisis or an emergency and already behind the curve, trying to get ahead of the curve isn't easy. There's a temptation to say, 'We're all so busy and we can't think ahead,'" Burt said. "I appreciate that that's difficult — but it's wrong."
Burt also believes that COVID-19 and the economic shutdown have created new social needs that the city should do more to address. While the city doesn't have the resources to meet all those needs, Burt said it can play an important role in forging partnerships.
"The city can and should play a leadership role in convening partnerships with both the private sector, the nonprofit sector and other local governments, and collaborate together to identify what the needs are, and fill those gaps," Burt said.
He also believes the city hasn't been acting fast enough when it comes to addressing outstanding issues in the Police Department, an issue that has risen in prominence in Palo Alto and elsewhere across the nation in the aftermath of the May 25 killing on George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
He disagreed with the council's decision last December to reduce the scope of the independent police auditor's contract so that internal conflicts within the department are no longer audited. Burt said he didn't find staff's arguments for the policy change persuasive and cited the vote as an example of a broader pattern within the council.
"There seems to be a pattern, in the last couple of years at least, of excessive deference of the council to staff on what are actual policy issues, which are the purview of council, and too little oversight of some of the aspects of what staff is doing," Burt said.
Burt said he favors the policies for police reform in the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, which include a ban on strangleholds, comprehensive reporting of use of force and intervention by an officer if he or she sees another officer engage in unreasonable use of force. Burt believes the department hasn't always followed some of these guidelines.
"I'm very concerned that in the last year or two we're seeing several incidents of what appear to be use of excessive force by the police and unwillingness by the department and the city manager and the city attorney to release the footage from the cameras, which now, under the state law, is supposed to be done unless there's an explicitly defined reason about an ongoing investigation," Burt said. "So I think we appear to have slipped back in some ways — and that we never went far enough."
He also said he believes the council was too deferential to staff in recent budget hearings, where members voted to cut about $40 million in expenses. Burt, who helped shape the council's infrastructure plan in 2014, said the city should have deferred some of the items in the plan until the budget picture improves.
While at least four council members expressed a similar view, the council ultimately went along with a staff proposal that reduces infrastructure spending but does not defer any of the big-ticket items on the council's 2014 plan, which includes the public safety building, a bike bridge over the U.S. Highway 101 and a rebuilt fire station at Mitchell Park.
"In all likelihood, we're going to see, like we've seen in every economic downturn, that the construction industry goes from inflated costs to real bargains," Burt said. "So I expect, within six months to a year, we will see the cost of projects go down.
"There's been a characterization that deferring by a year or two means we won't build them. I think we'll get more bang for the buck and will be able to do more."