Tom DuBois, a steadfast member of the Palo Alto City Council's "residentialist" majority, and Pat Burt, a political veteran coming off an emphatic election win, will lead the council this year as mayor and vice mayor, respectively.
In a ceremonial meeting that reflected the council's shifting power dynamics in the aftermath of the November election, the council unanimously selected DuBois to be its mayor for the coming year. The result was largely preordained, given the council's long-established practice of elevating the prior year's vice mayor to the mayoral chair.
Burt's election, by contrast, followed one of the most competitive races for the vice mayor position in recent years. A political centrist who received the most votes in the November election, the former two-time mayor edged out council members Alison Cormack and Lydia Kou after two rounds of voting.
Ultimately, Burt's nomination advanced by a 4-3 vote, with Burt joining DuBois and council members Eric Filseth and Greer Stone. The swing vote was Filseth, who had nominated Cormack for vice mayor and who supported her candidacy in the first round of the vote. After none of the three candidates received the needed four votes, Filseth threw his vote to Burt, giving him the victory.
Council members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou voted for Kou in both rounds, while Filseth and Cormack had each supported Cormack's nomination in the first round of the vote.
When the dust settled, the council's leadership roughly reflected the election results. The council's residentialist camp, which scored a big victory in November with the election of Stone and the reelection of Lydia Kou, will see one of its members return to the central chair (or, as the case may be, the central Zoom screen). Burt, the top vote-getter in November, now holds the council's second leadership position and has a clear path to a third mayoral term in 2022.
DuBois was first elected to the council in 2014 and reelected in 2018. A former neighborhood activist, he became steeped in City Hall politics in 2013, when he was part of a group of residents who worked to overturn the council's approval of a housing development on Maybell Avenue, which included 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. After a successful referendum that year, he joined the council the following year as part of a wave of slow-growth candidates.
Over his six years on the council, DuBois has supported adopting stronger renter-protection laws, charging developers higher fees to support affordable housing, starting a business tax and creating a "safe parking" program for individuals who live in vehicles. He has chaired the council's Finance Committee, the Policy and Services Committee and Rail Committee and has been involved in a regional effort to expand the use of recycled water.
In nominating DuBois, Filseth lauded his track record of advocating for local control and transparency, as well as his spirit of collaboration.
"Tom is no stranger to advocacy, but one of the differences between being a council member and being a mayor is that as mayor you have a much greater responsibility on how to get the most out of the council as a group," Filseth said. "It's a bit of shift because it becomes less about your own passions and more about how to support and facilitate everybody else's passions, including those who you might not completely agree with."
DuBois will take leadership of the council just as his political camp is picking up a clear council majority. The election of Stone, who has campaigned with the residentialists, and Burt, traditionally a political centrist, means that his side will have at least four — and often five — votes on politically thorny issues such as retail-protection laws, development-impact fees and commission appointments.
After getting the nomination, DuBois said he was "committed this year to getting us working well together and functioning as a high-performing council." He also acknowledged the political shift and called the current council "the biggest pro-resident majority on the council in the history of Palo Alto."
"What I mean by that is that we're not dominated by influence of big business and development interests," DuBois said. "Given the amount of money that it took to win in our last election, I think that was really an amazing accomplishment."
He highlighted three priorities for the coming year: moving ahead with a business tax, planning for the redesign of the city's rail crossings, and finding ways to encourage the development of more affordable housing.
"I expect we'll need to consider changing some of our current zoning to enable more housing production," DuBois.
As usual, the contest for the vice mayor supplied all the drama on what was otherwise a ceremonial meeting filled with oaths, plaudits and resolutions. DuBois started the process by nominating Burt. Tanaka, who generally votes with the council's pro-growth camp, reached across the political aisle and nominated Kou, a staunch residentialist who shares his propensity for challenging staff recommendations and casting dissenting votes.
Filseth also looked past the council's usual political alignment and supported Cormack, the top vote-getter in the 2018 election. He reminded the council of the 2020 vice mayoral contest, where Cormack and DuBois were deadlocked with three votes each. Cormack broke the stalemate by giving DuBois her vote, making him the vice mayor (and, as of this week, mayor).
"The willingness to put the good of the community first, no matter what our own personal goals and objective are, is just so fundamental to this service," Filseth said.
But DuBois and Stone both advocated for Burt and pointed to his record of service as a council member between 2008 and 2016 and as a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission before that. Each argued that the city would benefit from Burt's experience in the coming year, as it continues to respond to the devastating health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burt said he looks forward to working with the rest of the council to find a balanced approach to addressing this fallout from the pandemic.
"I feel capable to be able to help Mayor DuBois and city staff work through these challenges, to adjust our city budget, to really respond to the needs of the community that we have — that are really more people-oriented than ever before — and certain exceptional needs that have emerged from this crisis that didn't even exist beforehand," Burt said.