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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, January 09, 2002

On Deadline: What, or who, makes a good mayor? On Deadline: What, or who, makes a good mayor? (January 09, 2002)

by Jay Thorwaldson

Palo Alto's mayor for 2002 was selected Monday night against a backdrop of talk about the how the City Council should select a mayor -- or even if the City Council should select the mayor at all.

But at least it didn't take 46 ballots, as it did to elect Ed Arnold mayor in 1965 during the era of a split-down-the-middle, 15-member council.

And it didn't take even 37 ballots, as it did to elect Byron Sher (now a state senator) mayor in 1974, when a "residentialist" majority split ranks over the issue, and Sher squared off against "next in line" Councilwoman Enid Pearson.

Today there is talk about whether Palo Alto needs a directly elected mayor serving, say, a four-year term, as proposed by Councilman Gary Fazzino and others. This will get tied into an initiative proposal for the November 2002 election that would cut the size of the nine-member council to either seven or five members -- or perhaps six members plus a directly elected mayor who votes.

Fazzino for the first time in years will not be on the council due to term limits. But if Palo Alto opts for a directly elected mayor, he likely would seek that position.

In mid-December, the council took up the "process of selecting a mayor," whose primary job is chairing the council meetings and showing up at community events. The question: Should the council pass the job around according to seniority, with the vice mayor stepping up to be mayor, or select a mayor by merit? Or, put bluntly even though not mentioned during the discussion, by politics (as in who can garner a majority, for whatever reason).

No action was taken, but comments leaned toward merit over seniority.

How important is this subject? Some have tweaked the council for wasting time on another "Palo Alto process" topic.

But the mayor of Palo Alto is the official city representative, a figurehead for a small city with a big reputation nationally, even internationally. And the mayor also has the opportunity, at least, to exert some degree of leadership within the council, affecting the tone of meetings and how efficiently the council functions.

The mayor also, in theory, is the primary council connection to the city manager and other council-appointed officers (the city attorney, city clerk and city auditor), although the "authority" rests only with the full council.

Fazzino in December outlined the history of mayor selection from the time the city was formed in 1894. History clearly shows that there has been a mixed tradition that is not tied to seniority -- the "mayoralty by seniority" emerged only during the courtesy years of the last couple of decades.

Fazzino pointed out that some mayors served multiple years and wielded a great deal of influence, if not direct power.

The city's first mayor -- officially the president of the town's Board of Trustees (made up of five men) -- was Joseph Hutchinson, who served in that post from 1894 to 1900.

"Palo Alto resents outside interference," he wrote soon after the town incorporated. "She is able to take care of herself."

Hutchinson presided over the crucial early years of the town's development, and was instrumental in overseeing the creation of the town's municipal utilities -- especially creating a dependable water system. With a $40,000 bond passed in 1896, Palo Alto started buying up the various wells, windmills and storage tanks in town and improving the delivery network.

After he left office, Hutchinson summed up: "Above and beyond the political battles, and there were many, the shouting and yelling, and there was much, I shall never forget the selflessness of the Palo Alto people. The people of this town will not only build with their hands but with their brains as well."

Then as now, one might say.

The council over the years usually selected leaders for multiple years, apparently based on ability (as perceived by other members of the board or council).

World War II brought an inundation of people to the Palo Alto region, propelling a slow-growth university town with a largely blue-collar population into a fast-growth, high-tech center of commerce and innovation. The influx threatened to overwhelm city services and finances, and the more leisurely style of governance.

In 1950, the city adopted a charter that created a council-manager form of government, to replace the older commissioner-style system. Byron Blois served as mayor from 1940 to 1948, followed by Walter Gaspar from 1948 to 1951 -- he spearheaded the charter-election campaign.

"We hired someone to tell us what to do," Mayor Gaspar quipped when the city hired its first city manager, Jerry Keithley.

Mayor J. Pearce Mitchell served in the early 1950s, as Palo Alto's population doubled and the city struggled with a weak revenue base and exploding demand for services. Noel Porter -- considered one of the city's strongest mayors -- served from 1955 to 1960, setting the stage for the strong tax-base of the Stanford Industrial (now Research) Park and a decades-long debate over the rate of community growth and city priorities.

Then as now, it seems. Jay Thorwaldson is editor of the Weekly and covered the council for the Palo Alto Times in the late 1960s and 1970s. E-mail him at


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