When elected leaders from four north Santa Clara County cities meet later this month to choose their nominee for a coveted seat on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority board of directors, Palo Alto Vice Mayor Pat Burt will find himself in the driver's seat.
After a convoluted and highly politicized process, the City Council voted on Monday to nominate Burt for a seat on the VTA board of directors, where he will represent Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Because the four cities shift their board nominee on a rotating basis — and it's Palo Alto's turn in the rotation — the council's decision all but ensures that Burt will fill one of the VTA board's 15 seats.
If he is confirmed by other elected leaders from the four cities as expected, Burt will face the tough task of representing the north end of the county on a board that is heavily dominated by the south. Five of the 15 seats are assigned to San Jose, while another two are filled by Santa Clara County supervisors, who often also represent San Jose. The four north county cities that make up the VTA's "Group 2" get a single seat on the board.
In Palo Alto, council members have long complained about the VTA's heavy bias toward San Jose, at the expense of north county. The vast majority of the revenues from the agency's county tax measures in 2000 and 2008 went to fund BART improvements in San Jose. Meanwhile, the VTA's bus service in Palo Alto has been steadily diminished.
The council's decision to nominate Burt followed an awkward and divisive process that reflected the council's political shift since the November election. In October, the council unanimously approved the nomination of council member Alison Cormack to the board, a choice that was championed by former Mayor Adrian Fine and former council member Liz Kniss.
After Burt won the election in November and the council majority tilted toward the council's residentialist camp, DuBois urged the Group 2 leaders in late December to delay and reconsider the nomination of Cormack to the VTA board. DuBois noted that the council had received outdated bylaws in October, when it considered Cormack's nomination, and that members were not aware at that time that they could appoint two nominees.
Cormack said Monday that prior to her October nomination, neither DuBois and council member Eric Filseth -- the only two candidates, besides her, who met the qualifications for serving on the VTA board -- had expressed any interest in serving on the VTA. Nor had either of them objected to her taking on the assignment last fall, she said.
"I'm sorry to say this, but I think it was unprofessional for the mayor, two months after our unanimous vote, to send an email to members of the Working Group to state that I don't have qualifications for this post, without contacting me or even copying me as a courtesy," Cormack said.
The group's rules require a nominee to meet two of four qualifications: at least one year of service on the VTA board; at least one year of service on one of the advisory committees that report to the VTA board; other transportation policy credential deemed relevant by the majority of the cities; and demonstration of working knowledge of the VTA.
Cormack said she was qualified for the role, a conclusion that was confirmed by Mountain View City Council member John McAlister, who chairs Group 2 and who represents the group on the VTA board. She cited her service on the council's Rail Committee in 2019; her involvement in Manzanita Talks, a regional collaboration on traffic improvements; and her longtime advocacy for expanding the citywide shuttle program (which, despite this advocacy, sputtered and died during the 2020 budget season).
Former council member Gail Price, who had represented the city on the VTA, also urged the council to nominate Cormack.
"By not engaging in condescending and bullying behavior, she treats colleagues respectfully despite the differences in opinions and methods. These are attributes that her colleagues should emulate," Price said. "This effort to change the 2020 nomination has been launched by the current … mayor and vice mayor … white males who I believe have intentionally carved out more leadership roles for themselves despite the significant and numerous roles they have already enjoyed."
The council, for its part, gave Burt the nod, voting 5-2 to make him the city's nominee for the VTA position. DuBois had initially proposed nominating both Burt and Cormack and letting the Group 2 representatives decide between them. After Cormack suggested sending just one nominee, the council found itself choosing between herself and Burt.
The vote reflected the council's new political dynamics, with Burt and Greer Stone joining the three council members on the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing: DuBois, Lydia Kou and Eric Filseth.
Tanaka supported Cormack's nomination.
"I think she's always been very prepared," Tanaka said.
In a dig at Burt, Tanaka shared with his colleagues two newspaper articles: a 2016 story in which Burt expresses confidence that the VTA will provide $700 million to the north county for grade separation, as Measure B requires, and a more recent story about VTA's new scenario that calls for diverting most of funds from the 2016 measure toward BART for the next 10 years.
Tanaka's presentation didn't sway Burt's allies, who said that it only underscored Burt's many years of experience with transit and his involvement in Measure B and other VTA issues. Burt, who had previously served on the council between 2008 and 2016, was heavily involved in the city's response to the state's high-speed rail project and Caltrain improvements. He had previously served on the VTA's Policy Advisory Committee and on Caltrain's Local Policy Maker Group.
"I was very active in the Measure B campaign, and the success of getting what was anticipated to be $700 million for grade separation — and major portion of that to Palo Alto — is the whole basis by which we were able to proceed on our grade separation plan," Burt said. "We recently did have a threat to that, and that's why we need strong advocacy to support our position there."
Kou and Stone both said that they believe Cormack is well qualified for representing the city on the VTA. But they cited Burt's many years of involvement in transportation in explaining their decision to choose him for the seat.
"This is nothing personal. … And too often, these discussions seem to have that feel, of it being personal, but it just comes down to who is the most qualified person in this role," Stone said.