Don't call it a comeback.
Pat Burt concluded his City Council tenure in December of 2016 after nine years on the dais and two mayoral terms, but he never truly left.
Since leaving the council, Burt has remained active in the community, penning memos, writing letters, riding his bicycle to public hearings and joining other community leaders to proffer advice on Palo Alto's proposed business tax, its housing policies and its response to COVID-19.
The local landscape has changed since he last held office. Palo Alto is now facing a health emergency that is accompanied by an economic emergency, as well as unresolved questions about the city's infrastructure, the future design of the rail corridor and changes to a Police Department that, he believes, has gone downhill when it comes to transparency and accountability.
Burt believes his years of council experience can help the city deal with these challenges as well as reverse several troubling trends in City Hall culture, where he sees a relatively inexperienced council that is being overly deferential to a city manager and the city attorney. As an example, he cites the city's actions in March, when the council swiftly approved City Manager Ed Shikada's request for emergency powers with little explanation of what that would entail.
"We had a real historic shift — a temporary shift — in authority and neither the city manager nor the city attorney have yet to fully explain those powers," Burt said. "One of those powers that was dismissed as a very unlikely scenario was a declaration of a curfew."
Unlikely, that is, until June 2, when Shikada ordered a citywide curfew until June 11 in response to expected looting at Stanford Shopping Center and downtown businesses around the same time that the city saw peaceful protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The looting didn't happen and Shikada rescinded the curfew two days later. But Burt saw the incident as an example of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the city's administration, with the council's explicit or implicit approval. He also noted that Shikada declared the citywide curfew based on powers that the council granted him because of the COVID-19 emergency, rather than declare a separate emergency based on expectation on civil unrest.
"We had a 10-day curfew declared citywide, it was a preventative measure, and the city attorney did not fully participate in that process, did not weigh in on whether that's even a legally declared emergency."
He said he believed the role they played was "very inappropriate" and "non-transparent."
"And it was enabled by the mayor who overtly supported it and then, once criticism happened, threw the city manager under the bus," Burt said.
In addition to trying to restore the traditional balance of power, where the council — rather than city staff — sets policy, Burt is eager to make progress on some of the cities top priorities, most of which he had worked on as a council member. This includes promoting more housing, instituting a business tax and restoring funding for community services by temporarily deferring big-ticket infrastructure projects such as the public-safety building.
"I'm not interested in putting it off anywhere near indefinitely," Burt said of the proposed police headquarters. "I think a six-to-12-month (delay) would be prudent. We're in a crisis where we need to be putting people first."
In a field of 10 candidates, Burt stands out for his length of experience, which in addition to nine years on the council includes nine years on the Planning and Transportation Commission. He believes his civic resume will be useful for both restoring the council's proper role in setting policy and for bridging the gap between those in the community who want to see "unrestrained growth" and those who are opposed to any substantive change.
On a council that has historically split between members favoring slower or faster city growth, Burt generally remained in the center. While often siding with the residentialists on land-use issues (he joined, for example, a 5-4 vote in 2015 to require a major redesign of a contentious development at 429 University Ave.) he occasionally joined the more pro-growth camp (as he did in 2016 when the council by a 5-4 vote permitted a block-long mixed-use project at the former Olive Garden site on the 2500 block of El Camino Real).
As a mayor in 2010 and 2016, he was also known as a forceful and detail-oriented presence on the dais, occasionally helping to craft lengthy motions that were more than a page long (the motion on 429 University Ave. was so long that it wouldn't fit on the overhead screen). When he says he doesn't like to see the council defer entirely to staff, he means it.
Much like in his prior council term, Burt remains a staunch supporter of a business tax, particularly one based on square footage. He rejects the notion that a tax would spur an exodus of businesses from the city. At a Sept. 15 forum sponsored by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, he pointed to East Palo Alto's recent experience with a new business tax.
"Far from discouraging businesses, they've had an avalanche of new development since then," Burt said "This is about big businesses paying their fair share to mitigate the impacts they create."
On housing, he supports rezoning some commercial areas for residential use and working with Stanford University on creating a housing plan for a portion of Stanford Research Park close to the California Avenue area.
"Because they're far and away the largest landowner in the city, we can develop a joint planning effort on how to really design nodes of the Research Park that are well designed for housing communities," Burt told the Weekly.
He also believes the city needs to do more to reform its police operations. He opposed the council's decision in December to revise the scope of the independent police auditor to remove the auditor's ability to investigate internal conflicts. He also wrote in his Palo Alto Neighborhoods questionnaire that he wants to renegotiate the police union contract to get rid of the "binding arbitration" provision and to adopt a "holistic public safety program prioritizing mental health and social service professionals as default city responders to nonviolent mental health, homelessness, and domestic emergency calls" — an opinion shared by the other nine council candidates.
Burt has also been one of the council's leaders on sustainability, having championed the city's adoption of a carbon-free electricity portfolio, its increased spending on bike improvements and flood-control improvements around the San Francisquito Creek. A key challenge in the coming years, he told the Weekly, will be determining how we can have "a sustainable evolution as a community and as a region of housing and job growth and transportation services in an environment that leads to future generations having comparable opportunities to what we've had.
"That's really the definition of sustainability," Burt said. "And now, we have overlapping with that, the drastic impacts of the COVID emergency and the economic emergency. Guiding us through that challenging period will be one of the most difficult things we've encountered in decades."
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