Pat Burt will lead the Palo Alto City Council in 2022 after his colleagues elected him as the city's mayor for the third time in his political career.
The election of Burt, a vice mayor in 2021, to the council's top leadership position was largely a foregone conclusion given the city's tradition of elevating vice mayors to the central chair on the dais. But even as most of his colleagues supported hewing to this tradition, two council members, Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka, favored electing Lydia Kou as mayor. Both pointed to the city's growing Asian American population and the fact that the city hasn't had an Asian American mayor since 2012, when Yiaway Yeh filled that role.
"If we do not elect Lydia Kou as mayor, it will be a minimum of 10 years since we had an Asian American in this role," Cormack said.
Cormack also noted that Burt's elevation to the mayor's chair means that an entire class at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools will have gone through high school without seeing a female mayor. The three council members who had preceded Burt as mayor were Tom DuBois, Adrian Fine and Eric Filseth.
Tanaka agreed with Cormack and, citing the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian American residents, said it's a "travesty" that the council doesn't have greater diversity.
"I think representation is really important," Tanaka said. "I think that it's been a long time since we had an Asian American mayor."
The majority of the council, however, agreed that Burt is the perfect choice for the job, given his lengthy experience in local policymaking. First elected to the council in 2007, Burt had served for two terms, which included stints as mayor in 2010 and 2016, the final year of his second term. After terming out, Burt returned to the council in 2020 after winning the most votes in the council election.
Burt's elevation to mayor became cemented after Kou declined Cormack's nomination and moved to nominate Burt. Kou lauded his wealth of experience as both a council member and as an advocate for transportation and environmental sustainability on the regional level. She also suggested that his experience as a policymaker will serve the city well as it continues to recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"As the pandemic continues, health and safety are at top of the mind, and Pat has always been a step ahead in recommending ideas and solutions," Kou said.
The council voted 6-0 to elect Burt as mayor, with Tanaka abstaining. After the vote, Burt said he looks forward to leading the council in the next year as it tries to address its priorities relating to environmental protection and economic recovery.
"This has been the biggest disruption to our community in decades," Burt said, referring to COVID-19. "We're not through it yet but we're on a path to recovery.
"We're currently facing a new rough patch in the road with the omicron, but the indications are that we'll be moving past that pretty rapidly and we'll then continue to proceed on addressing the challenges that the council has set … at the beginning of the year."
Kou, meanwhile, will likely have a chance to serve as mayor in 2023. Immediately after electing Burt as mayor, the council unanimously chose Kou as vice mayor for the coming year. Council member Greer Stone, who nominated Kou, lauded her for her fairness in running meetings and for being a "fierce advocate for issues such as sustainability, affordable housing and always offering a truly passionate voice for our city's residents."
"I think her abilities to be able to look at the complex issues, to be able to examine those issues, to be able to listen to residents and stakeholders and nonprofits and corporations and be a true coalition builder is going to mean a lot for our community ... to be able to strive forward," Stone said.
Unlike Burt, a political moderate who often wields the swing vote, Kou is a stalwart of the council's "residentialist" political camp, which favors slow-growth policies. She has been a fierce critic of recent state laws to encourage more housing — including last year's Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10 — and of regional mandates on housing. She has also been a passionate advocate for strengthening the city's renter protection policies, addressing airplane noise and expanding Palo Alto's tree-protection ordinance.
Kou joined the council in 2016 and was reelected in 2020. Kou said that as vice mayor, she intends to work closely with Burt, the council and staff to achieve the community's "shared vision of a livable Palo Alto."
"I believe there is consensus in the community around addressing our transportation and traffic issues, sensible housing growth that addresses the cost of living here while respecting the trees and the natural environment and resources," Kou said.