She is the second Asian American woman to serve as the city's mayor; the first, Yoriko Kishimoto, was appointed by her colleagues in 2007.
In its first meeting of the year, the council unanimously voted to select Kou as its leader for the current year and also swore in three new members and bid farewell to three outgoing ones. The mayoral outcome was largely predetermined given Kou's position as vice mayor in 2022 and the city's loosely followed tradition of elevating the vice mayor to the mayor's chair.
Shortly after taking the helm, she and her colleagues voted to elevate council member Greer Stone, her friend and political ally, to serve as vice chair, putting him on the path toward becoming mayor in 2024.
Stone, who nominated Kou for the council's top leadership position, praised her "breadth of experience, her passion for work and her empathy for those whom we serve." He cited her many years as a community volunteer in emergency preparedness and her enthusiasm for helping residents get ready for storms over the past week. With the creek flooding, Stone said, Kou helped fill sandbags and knocked on doors to check in on residents in the flood zone.
"Most importantly, she doesn't do any of this to further any political image," Stone said. "She does it because she simply is a good person."
His colleagues concurred and lauded Kou for her commitment to her principles, her love for the city and her passion for assisting residents.
"I don't know of anyone with greater passion and compassion for our community," Mayor Pat Burt said shortly before Kou took over his position at the center of the dais. "And having served with many council members, I don't know of anyone who is more committed to the job, who does her preparation more thoroughly and feels greater devotion to our community than Vice Mayor Kou."
Council member Vicki Veenker also noted that it's been five years since Palo Alto has had a woman mayor (Liz Kniss filled the role in 2018).
"That is too long," Veenker said. "And it's been 11 years since we've had a person of color as mayor — and that is way too long."
In accepting the nomination, Kou said she was "blessed and proud to live in this community."
"We've had challenges in the last couple of years and we certainly still have many challenges ahead of us," Kou said. "We've been on the road to recovery over the last couple of years and we'll continue to work on community resiliency to address what we have learned from a series of atmospheric river storms, and continue our discussion on key priorities that benefit residents, small businesses and economic recovery."
With Kou's ascension to mayor effectively preordained, the only moment of drama in the largely ceremonial meeting came during selection of vice mayor. The contest came down to Stone and council member Greg Tanaka, who has spent six years on the council but has not yet held a leadership role. Stone prevailed by a 5-2 vote, with only council members Julie Lythcott-Haims and Tanaka voting for Tanaka.
Veenker kicked off the process by nominating Stone, lauding his ability to facilitate compromises and his commitment to transparency. She pointed to his status as the only council member who had voted against the Police Department's controversial policy of encrypting police radios — a policy that the department abolished under new Police Chief Andrew Binder.
"His initiative and commitment to the integrity of our policing and criminal justice practices is admirable," she said.
Lythcott-Haims followed by nominating Tanaka, pointing to his longer length of council service and his "deep passion for all of us, as regular folk in Palo Alto." She cited Tanaka's policy of holding regular office hours for constituents. She also noted that Tanaka is set to conclude his council term at the end of 2024, which leaves little time for him to take on a leadership position on the council.
"To me, tonight the pertinent question is not: 'Why Council member Tanaka for vice mayor?' but 'Why not?'"
Tanaka also made his case for taking over as vice mayor, noting that he had received more votes than Stone in 2020, when both were on the ballot.
"I bring more experience, better skills and more community trust," Tanaka said.
For Tanaka, however, the election was an uphill climb. He has often set himself apart from his colleagues for his dissents on items that require significant expenditures, for routinely voting against the city budget and for regularly criticizing his colleagues and city staff for what he deems to be excessive spending.
Stone, who was the favorite for the vice mayoral position going into the meeting, had little trouble securing the majority of the votes. Like Kou, he has been a member of the council's more slow-growth wing, often referred to as "residentialists," which continues to enjoy a council majority.
Council member Ed Lauing cited Stone's service as a former chair of the Human Relations Commission and his experience as a council member in working with local commissioners and community volunteers.
"He truly wants to hear multiple points of view," Lauing said. "And that approach and that reputation is invaluable for helping our mayor lead the council and getting things done, which we all say we want to do."
The reorganizational meeting began with the swearing-in ceremony for Lauing, Lythcott-Haims and Veenker and featured the passage of resolutions in honor outgoing council members Alison Cormack, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth. Council member Pat Burt also received a resolution of appreciation after concluding his term as mayor.