Palo Alto's young mayor packs policy experience | January 6, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 6, 2012

Palo Alto's young mayor packs policy experience

Yiaway Yeh brings understanding of government, history of community building to position

by Gennady Sheyner

When Yiaway Yeh cast the deciding vote last July to send a labor-reform measure on the November ballot, just about everyone in the Council Chambers raised an eyebrow or two in disbelief.

Yeh, 33, who this week became Palo Alto mayor, had been a staunch ally of the city's public-sector unions since he first joined the council in 2007. For the past two years, he has been a consistent opponent of repealing binding arbitration, a longstanding law that enables a panel of arbitrators to settle disputes between the city and its police and fire unions. In 2010, he was one of five council members who voted against placing the repeal of the law on the ballot. He continued to oppose the repeal last year, arguing that the binding-arbitration provision gives much needed leverage to public-safety workers who, unlike most other city employees, are barred by state law from striking.

But on July 18, Yeh surprised both his colleagues and his union supporters by reversing course and joining Council members Greg Scharff, Karen Holman, Pat Burt and Greg Schmid in voting to place the repeal on the ballot (the other four council members advocated modifying rather than repealing the measure).

Yeh's reason for supporting the placement of repeal on the ballot was drastically different from that of his colleagues. While the other four all maintained that binding arbitration is an unfair procedure that gives too much power to unelected arbitrators and strips the council of its budget-setting responsibilities, Yeh had no such qualms. Instead, Yeh voted for the ballot measure because he wanted to gauge the sentiments of the voters on the issue.

"I kind of reached a point where I want clarity," Yeh said at the July 18 meeting. "I want to know where the voters ultimately are."

His vote made a dramatic difference. In November, voters approved Measure D by a roughly two-to-one margin. But while Yeh's vote led to a policy change that he has consistently opposed, it also illustrated his legislative style and his philosophy toward local government. As a councilman, Yeh has been among the least dogmatic and most technocratic elected members, as comfortable discussing pension plans for public employees as debating renewable-energy goals and the latest labor legislation coming out of Sacramento. An auditor who currently works for the City of Oakland, he is well-versed in Palo Alto's budget process and has helped craft the city budget as a member of the council's Finance Committee.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss, herself a former Palo Alto mayor, predicted at Tuesday's election ceremony that Yeh's extensive experience with numbers will serve him well as a mayor.

"When you have the auditor as the mayor you know you won't be getting into any trouble," Kniss said.

Much like his friend and mayoral predecessor, Sid Espinosa, Yeh is an articulate speaker who became interested in public policy at an early age and who boned up on the subject at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Like Espinosa, Yeh is well traveled, having served in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. But whereas Espinosa stood out for his omnipresence at local events and his tireless promotion of Palo Alto, Yeh's style on the council has been focused, if quieter. He rarely, if ever, speaks in sound bites, choosing instead to dive right into legislative details and the subtle implications of the policy at hand. He has also been representing the city for the past four years on the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), a task that entailed long meetings and wonky discussions of electric rates and renewable-energy goals.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, who worked with Yeh on Northern California Power Agency issues, half-joked Tuesday that Yeh deserves a "lifetime achievement award" for his service.

"Anyone who spends four years representing this council on NCPA has already paid their dues and then some," Simitian said.

But as his vote on Measure D demonstrated, Yeh's idea of public service far transcends data crunching and policy analysis. As early Election Day results showed the measure winning by a heavy margin, Yeh told the Weekly that while he was disappointed by the repeal of binding arbitration, he hopes the process of negotiations between the city and its public-safety unions will benefit from mandatory mediation.

Councilwoman Gail Price, who like Yeh opposed the repeal of binding arbitration, praised Yeh this week for his understanding of the public sector.

"His commitment to social justice is clear, broad and deep," Price said. "And as you all know, he served in the Peace Corps, and he brings those values with him every day."

Councilman Pat Burt praised Yeh for being "somebody who truly believes that government is here to serve the community and that government can be conduced in a way that is open and fair and deliberate and efficient and through those means that government will do what's best for the community." He also lauded Yeh for carrying himself in a way that engenders respect and admiration from his colleagues.

"I think each leader has his own style and Yiaway's is one where he will continue to have that quiet and yet strong leadership that we've seen from him throughout his four years on the council to date," Burt said.

In accepting his election to mayor, the 33-year-old Yeh spoke extensively about his interest in building community and said much of the year will be devoted to repairing the city's aged infrastructure, promoting youth well-being and finding ways to make provision of city services more efficient.

"I will work hard to keep us focused, efficient and effective as best as possible so that we can best serve Palo Alto," Yeh told the council.

He also proposed on Tuesday a series of "Mayor's Challenges" — athletic competitions throughout the city with the aim of bringing neighbors and members of different generations together.

"I know as mayor for 2012, this is the fun part," Yeh said. "I'm really looking forward to working with colleagues to bring new and old neighbors together."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Public-Policy-Is-More-Than-What-I-Say-It-Is
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2012 at 8:54 am

> "I kind of reached a point where I want clarity," Yeh said
> at the July 18 meeting. "I want to know where the voters
> ultimately are."

While Yeh’s vote to allow the electorate to decide whether to rescind their mid-70s vote on binding arbitration was a surprise, given the heavy support provide to Yeh by labor unions when he ran for Council in 2007, claiming that “his own personal clarity” is “policy” is ludicrous. Yeh is to be complimented for his decision (maybe even courage) to allow the voters to rethink the binding arbitration question—seeking “personal clarity” is not remotely the basis for making public policy.

If Yeh has suggested that questions decided by the voters should be redecided every thirty years, or when the need calls for a re-vote—this would have been the basis for “public policy”. If Yeh had authored some white papers about the impacts of rising labor costs on public services, or future taxation requirements needed to pay all public employees more than $200K per year (which is possible within a decade or so)—then this practice, and the information revealed by such studies/reports, etc. would be the basis for “public policy”.

But Yeh has done nothing to communicate with the electorate, the business owners, and the property owners. In all fairness—neither has any other Council Member. But Yeh is now Mayor, and has shown nothing in terms of a paper trail to justify the claims of the so-called “Inner Circle” to be prepared for this role.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 6, 2012 at 9:22 am

Not sure why the Weekly is wasting so much space on the issue of Palo Alto mayor. Let us be clear this is a popularity contest, nothing more. What we have is a story full of present and former council members taking turns patting each other on the back and saying what a wonderful job they are doing. This happens every year.
Another poor story from Gennady Sheynar. Perhaps he should consider pursuing real stories--like the HSR fiasco, the infrastructure backlog in the city, with a focus on why the people in charge are negligent in their duties and are more interested in bike bridges and electric charging stations

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 6, 2012 at 10:31 am

Let me see. A politician reversing course. How shocking!

Like this comment
Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 6, 2012 at 11:37 am

The comment Mr. Yeh made about it being "Greg Schmid's turn" to become Mayor (presumably by becoming vice mayor this year), bothers me. The job is more important than to be passed along on the basis of seniority alone. We've had several mayors who did a poor job - either by only focusing on one program, by letting council members ramble on repeating points they've made, or by plainly not sure how to run a meeting.

I do agree that Mr. Yeh has not shown he can lead with a firm hand, but seems to look to others for direction. The one great thing he did was to permit the thousands of voters to repeal arbitration rather than only 5 council members making the decision.

Public-policy-.... Mr. Espinosa communicated with the business community, electorate and property owners more than the past three mayors combined and was one of the better mayors in recent history.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm

"The comment Mr. Yeh made about it being "Greg Schmid's turn" to become Mayor (presumably by becoming vice mayor this year), bothers me. "

That is the way things go here. You will note Karen Holman felt that her choice for vice mayor was worthy because he "had served his time" on the council. I am sure Holman will feel that she deserves to be vice mayor and mayor when she has served x number of year son the council. Unless you are Jack Morton, you get elected mayor and get to parade around pushing your agenda (climate change, emergency preparedness, traffic, community involvement etc) for a year, while blissfully ignoring our infrastructure backlog.
As I stated earlier, this is a popularity contest with plenty of back slapping and self-serving praise

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

"That is the way things go here." No it isn't, Mayor and Vice-mayors are not elected to serve in those positions because of seniority or longest elected Councilperson.

Several Councilpersons have been passed over in the past because they were not considered able to serve as Mayor or Vice-mayor. They were good Councilpersons but running those Council Meetings requires a nimble mind and orderly control not someone who stalls and speaks forever.

We have even had Mayors who, after nine months, still could not run a meeting according to protocol.

As for Karen Holman, she will probably be Vice-Mayor next year, I hope so.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm

"No it isn't, Mayor and Vice-mayors are not elected to serve in those positions because of seniority or longest elected Councilperson."
Well, i think the only exception you will find in recent times is when Jack Morton was passed over in favor of Peter Drekmeier a few years back. I f you look at all the mayors we have had over the past decade (Mossar, Burch, Kishimoto, Klein, Burt, Kleinberg, Ojakian and others) it all comes down to seniority. It is an opportunity, as I have stated, for the council to engage in back slapping and self-serving praise. Generally you become mayor/vie-mayor in your second term--recently due to a higher than usual turnover (or the fact that Jack Morton was not trusted to be mayor) first termers are filling the positions.
Woe is us when Holman becomes mayor--the focus will be on historic issues and aesthetically pleasing structures.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Re seniority: Let’s not forget when the council gave Jim Burch the mayorship because he was 79 years old and was not going to run for another term.

Like this comment
Posted by Too Tame
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

Glad that pat has weighed in here, although her comments are far too tame to be entertaining. Let's have the vintage pat, please.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Hey Too Tame--having fun being a troll?? You are posting as Dial It up on another thread:
Web Link
Try posting something of interest.