In the span of a few minutes Burt first denied last year's vice mayor, Greg Schmid, the opportunity to serve as mayor during his last year in office, and then, aligning himself against his four "residentialist" colleagues, was the decisive vote in electing Scharff vice mayor, going against his friend and political ally Karen Holman.
Those paying attention smelled a rat.
How could it come to pass that two openly competitive colleagues who have regularly sparred over both policy and procedural matters end up allied with each other to win the council leadership positions? And why did the process appear so scripted?
Both adamantly deny any deals were made to secure each other's support and say the outcome surprised them, but the optics of the evening can't help but raise questions.
With the council's so-called residentialists (Burt, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Holman and Schmid) holding a majority last year — with those considered more sympathetic to development interests (Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Scharff and Cory Wolbach) in the minority — it was assumed that Schmid would move into the mayor's chair, an opportunity that has eluded him for the last seven years, and that another residentialist would be elected vice mayor. With Scharff having nominated and supported Schmid a year ago for vice mayor over Burt, there was no reason to think he would flip in the face of the same choice this year for the mayor's position, or that there would even be a second candidate for the mayor's post.
But that's not the way it came down.
Instead, after Schmid had been predictably nominated for the mayorship (by Filseth), Kniss nominated Burt, who graciously accepted with prepared remarks that indicated he was aware of Kniss' intent and had decided to welcome the opportunity to repeat as mayor (serving previously in 2010).
As the residentialist camp was still digesting the impact of Burt's preemptive win over Schmid, Wolbach nominated Scharff for vice mayor and DuBois followed by nominating just-dethroned mayor Holman.
In the ensuing vote, just-elected Mayor Burt surprised just about everyone by casting the deciding vote for Scharff instead of Holman, a long-time ally whom he had unsuccessfully nominated in 2013 and 2014 for the position.
One might think from all this maneuvering that it really matters who serves in these two positions. In reality, Palo Alto mayor's primary job is meeting management and representing the city at public events. The vice mayor's role is even less important, standing in if the mayor is absent.
While their impact on policy decisions is no greater than any other member of the council, an effective mayor can make a significant difference in how meetings are run, including how the council's discussion and deliberations are handled on controversial issues. The mayor also assigns members and chairs of committees. Both the mayor and vice mayor meet weekly with the City Manager to set the agenda for council meetings, probably the greatest opportunity for influence.
Ironically, in their previous stints as mayor, both Burt and Scharff faced criticism from colleagues, and each other, for their heavy-handedness when running meetings and for being dismissive of certain council members and their ideas. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how these two may change their approach when conducting themselves at council meetings this year.
The Burt-Scharff combination might lead to a more collaborative council and prompt these two gentlemen to tame their open competitiveness and occasional disrespect for each other. More cynical observers might point to this fall's council election, when Burt and Schmid are unable to run due to term limits and Scharff will be positioned for a possible chance next year, like Burt, at serving a second term as mayor.
Such is the way with small town politics.
This story contains 704 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.