On Deadline: How young is too 'inexperienced' for Palo Alto leaders? | January 7, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 7, 2011

On Deadline: How young is too 'inexperienced' for Palo Alto leaders?

by Jay Thorwaldson

Tuesday evening's elect-a-mayor-and-vice-mayor turned into a unanimous sweetness-and-light event that was exceeded only by the white-frosting cake in the lobby reception afterward.

The result was the election of the youngest mayor/vice mayor team in city history, mentioned several times Tuesday night.

The sugar rush of the cake — which someone noted was a bit out of step with Palo Alto's PC image of healthy, "green" eating — gave the reception some juice, but mostly it was quiet chatting in small groups.

The calm reflected many of the discussions at the City Council meetings in the past year under the chairmanship of Mayor Pat Burt.

The new mayor, Sid Espinosa, was vice mayor under Burt, who is recognized as an experienced council member due to many years on the Planning and Transportation Commission — credentials shared by Councilwoman Karen Holman.

Longtime on-again, off-again Councilman Larry Klein still holds the senior-in-experience title on the nine-member council.

Both Burt and Espinosa have said there will be a smooth continuum between their mayorships.

Perhaps it will be as quiet as the election and reception, reflecting Espinosa's characteristic soft-spoken style. But one thing I've learned over many years in journalism, interviewing and observing scores of community officials and leaders, is that softness of speech does not mean softness inside. A velvet-glove voice can cover a steel fist, or at least a firm hand.

One suspects that may be the case with Espinosa in terms of his style of leadership in pushing the agenda and priorities for the council and city staff, and in helping set the tone for community dialogue — and perhaps moving meetings along efficiently.

Ages aside, a valid concern about the Espinosa/Yeh combination is that they have only served on the council since January 2008.

The big danger of relatively short-timers in leadership positions is that they may be unaware of potential land-mine issues that could blow up in their faces on one hand or of dangling strings, vines and ropes that could hang them up.

But those who have spent time with either Espinosa or Yeh say they are impressed with how much they know about the community and broader Midpeninsula, Bay Area and statewide issues. They seem to be quick studies of Palo Alto-ology.

In terms of their ages, Espinosa and Yeh are the youngest leadership team at 38 and 32 respectively in Palo Alto's history.

Espinosa is virtually tied for being the second youngest mayor, with Gary Fazzino. The youngest is someone virtually no one remembers: Byrl Salsman, who was 33 when he was elected mayor back in 1937, serving for two years. He was later elected to the state Assembly and still later appointed to a judgeship. He died in 1977.

Fazzino, who maintains detailed records on Palo Alto, was first elected mayor when he was 38, after serving on the council several years in the early 1970s. He earlier was the host of the KZSU Stanford student radio station broadcasts of City Council meetings for three years — the Vince Larkin of his time.

From a fairly regular observer of council meetings, covering them for the former Palo Alto Times for 13 years and following local issues since, my overall observation of the existing council is one of intelligent, caring individuals sincerely trying to do a good job of providing guidance to the city staff.

There seems to be no "bloc voting" split on the council as in past decades. The members state their thoughts or positions (some at greater length than others), listen politely to each other and then vote, aligning green or red lights on a board to the left of and above the council dais. The vertical green-and-red lights line up differently on different issues.

This was not always the case.

There was a bitter split on the council, then at 15 members, reduced to 13 in 1965 and ultimately to the present nine members. The split began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It grew into a divisive and deeply personal all-council election in 1967 and finally tapered off in the mid-1970s. Scars of that 1967 campaign remained on both sides for years — still do for some persons.

The split, mostly over growth and traffic issues, divided the community and resulted in the creation of a virtual two-party system of the slow-growth "residentialists" vs. development-minded "establishment" supporters.

At one point, on Halloween night 1966, the split became so personal that two council members, Bob Debs and Bob Cooley, started outside the council chambers to engage in fisticuffs. They were stopped by City Manager George Morgan and his assistant, Cecil Riley, as I scribbled notes a few feet away. I have always wondered who might have come out ahead, the hefty fighter Debs or compact, pugnacious Cooley.

A truce in the two-party division was declared in 1975, following several years of a "polite 5-4 split" on the council. An actual written agreement was signed in 1975.

The council went through significant turmoil in the early 2000s when former Councilwoman Nancy Lytle began building a bloc of votes. For several years that made meetings pretty interesting, with significant hidden agendas and strategies. The Weekly covered one elect-the-mayor meeting by running a cover story showing overripe tomatoes smushed against a wall bearing the city seal, reflecting an attack by Lytle on new Mayor Dena Mossar at the meeting.

Having observed both bloc-voting councils and individual-voting councils, I will offer two observations.

The first is that bloc voting makes for very interesting meetings, and politics. The give and take and back-and-forth voting becomes almost like watching a sporting event. But it's destructive to good leadership and management, leaving staff confused, overly cautious and burned out beyond the point of being effective — creating a cover-your-backside culture rather than being one that fosters open, creative problem-solving.

The second is that councils of individual voters seem to have a greater challenge in defining courses of action, a situation perhaps akin to herding cats, or living in a democracy. Smart, thoughtful cats.

And that situation puts greater importance on clear, transparent, professional management by city administrators.

Welcome to Palo Alto 2011.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.


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