Greg Tanaka, a tech CEO who over the past four years has established himself as the City Council's most vocal fiscal hawk, announced Wednesday that he will seek a second council term.
Tanaka, who served on the Planning and Transportation Commission before joining the council in 2016, has been a consistent and persistent critic of the council's budget decisions. He is frequently the sole dissenter on expenditures that his colleagues view as routine, including utility contracts and street repairs. He was one of two council members who voted against the budget that the council approved in June (along with Lydia Kou), which cut about $40 million in expenditures. He was also the sole dissenter of last year's budget, which is ultimately adopted by the council majority.
The College Terrace resident has regularly challenged city staff on issues relating to budget and staffing, often citing his own independent research or pointing to examples from other cities. He argued at an April meeting that the city has "too many chiefs" in its management ranks and urged the council to pursue a "span of control" study, consistent with the wishes of the city's largest union, Service Employees International Union, Local 521.
On this issue, as on many others over the years pertaining to finances, he found himself in a lonely position on the council as he criticized city staff for what he perceived as excessive spending on public communications, public art projects and utility programs. During recent budget talks, he repeatedly lamented that the city has too many people working in "PR (public relations)" and questioned whether the city should be spending hundreds of thousands on a "fingerprint," a reference to digital artwork that the city had commissioned for its future public-safety building. He has pushed staff and his colleagues to defer capital projects, such as the new police building and a proposed new fire station at Mitchell Park, an area in which he found numerous allies but little success.
Tanaka acknowledged his status as the council's dissenter-in-chief in a September 2018 meeting, when he accused his colleagues of having "no backbone to stick to the budget."
"I hate being the 8-1 vote all the time. No one else seems to care," Tanaka said at that meeting (the council had since reduced the number of seats from nine to seven). "That's what we have to do, otherwise we're burning our city. We are burning future generations. We are hollowing out the city now by not sticking to the budget."
Tanaka cemented his status as the council's regular odd man out in January, when the council was selecting a vice mayor and found itself in a 3-3 deadlock. Tanaka abstained from the vote and the stalemate was only resolved when Councilwoman Alison Cormack deferred to Tom DuBois, who was subsequently elected vice mayor. He was also the only dissenting vote on the city's decision in 2019 to pursue a business tax (an effort that the council halted when the pandemic hit) and, more recently, on approving the new lease with the Palo Alto Unified School District for space in the Cubberley Community Center.
On land-use issues, Tanaka has been generally aligned with council members who favor more permissive growth policies, including Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Cormack. His campaign has received financial support from numerous developers, including limited liability companies associated with prominent developers Thoits Brothers, Sand Hill Property Company and Sal Giovanotto in the second half of 2019, according to financial disclosures.
In announcing his plans for reelection, Tanaka touted his experience in dealing with city finances. His announcement touted his work as the Council's Finance Committee chair to "eliminate wasteful spending" and acknowledged his role as "frequently the lone vote against unaffordable staff raises." More so than his colleagues, Tanaka expressed frustrations last month with the fact that the city's largest labor union will be receiving 3% raises in December, the city's budget deficit notwithstanding.
He told this news organization that if re-elected, his overarching priority will be dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic, an effort that he said will take years. This includes assisting struggling businesses; finding new ways to provide services to residents at a time of plummeting revenues; and addressing the changing work patterns, as more employees work remotely and office space is left vacant.
"I think there’s some really deep ramifications that can happen from that, and given my experience on the planning commission and my experience with retail, this is why I felt compelled to run for another term," said Tanaka, whose company, Percolata, specializes in data analytics for the retail sector.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing shutdown upended the local economy, Tanaka often talks about the challenges that local businesses and residents are experiencing. He has repeatedly voted against raising the city's utility rates, adjustments that invariably proceeded despite his opposition.
Before serving on the planning commission, Tanaka volunteered in the College Terrace Residents Association, where he served as president. He was also a member of the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, which helped develop the City Council's plan for infrastructure priorities. The council is now in the midst of moving ahead with that plan, which the California Avenue business district garage now under construction and the city preparing to break ground in the coming months on a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and on the new police building (which would go up next to the garage once the structure is built).
In his announcement, Tanaka cited the city's ongoing challenges, namely a public health emergency, that has precipitated an economic emergency. These challenges, he said, "call for experienced leadership, and sensible spending in a time of limited resources."
"I hope to continue to serve Palo Alto and make City Hall work for all residents, as we work together to preserve and improve Palo Alto's future," Tanaka said in the announcement.
Tanaka is competing for one of four seats that will be up for grabs in November. He and two other incumbent council members — Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Lydia Kou — are all eligible to see fresh four-year terms. Kou has also declared her intention to seek a fresh term. Councilwoman Liz Kniss is terming out at the end of the year.
Other candidates in the race are former Mayor Pat Burt, attorney Rebecca Eisenberg, attorney Steven Lee, teacher Greer Stone; Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Cari Templeton; and planning Commissioner Ed Lauing.