Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 6, 2013

On Deadline: Mayor Greg Scharff on 'home stretch,' but should mayor terms be longer?

by Jay Thorwaldson

Just about every mayor in recent years has complained — many directly to me — that the one-year term limit as mayor is too short to accomplish any personal agenda as mayor.

Most start out with positive ideas about how they would like to perform as mayor of a prestigious, high-tech, progressive community.

But time flies, and before the mayor knows it he or she is looking at a downhill slide into the home stretch as the end of the year approaches. Some have felt frustrated and dissatisfied, even if their year as mayor was relatively smooth in terms of conflicts or city crises.

In tough years, as in the early part of the last decade when a personal power struggle preoccupied the council, the mayorship can be a bit of hell. Several mayors indicated they just would rather not talk about those times, thank you. One even suggested that I was asking that mayor to "spill my guts" about the experience.

Current Mayor Greg Scharff is not one of the bad-experience mayors and seems to be having fun in his open, optimistic style. He has had frustrations, as in his efforts to mediate the emotional neighborhood dispute over the low-income senior-housing plan, with 12 single-family homes, at Maybell and Clemo avenues.

And he still hopes to accomplish some legacy things before the end of his year, or at least firm up the directions things are going, he said in a recent interview.

One big priority for his last few months as mayor is to "solve parking" — meaning overflow parking from commercial areas into residential neighborhoods and even parking from apartments in East Palo Alto that spills over Newell Road bridge into Palo Alto neighborhoods.

"My goal is to solve the downtown parking problem," he declared, echoing six decades of discussion by city officials, property owners, businesses and residents.

He envisions finding a way to build two new parking structures, one for downtown Palo Alto and one for the California Avenue business district.

He also feels the city must "close all the loopholes for developers" that enable them to build projects without adequate parking for those who work or visit there.

"Then we need to address the existing (parking) shortfall. That means we have to take cars off the road" with effective "traffic demand management" (TDM) programs for downtown, California Avenue and the Stanford Research Park.

"Everyone uses 'density' as shorthand (for growth concerns) while it's really trips and parking and congestion," he said.

Another goal is to address the concerns about "planned community" (PC) zoning and the trade-off between increased size and intensity of a project and some type of "public benefit," notoriously poorly monitored and not enforced.

"I think the (PC) process was broken" long before some of the contentious proposals now before the city, he said. Staff is now actively analyzing the return a developer would get versus the cost of a proposed public benefit.

On the broader question of mayoral terms, Scharff agrees that one year is too short a period to accomplish what an enthusiastic mayor might envision at the first council meeting in January, when the mayors are elected. Family members often are in the audience, some traveling from distant locales — reflecting the prestige of the position of mayor in Palo Alto.

But the mayor in Palo Alto has limited power, having to rely on leadership skills primarily as one chairs council meetings, makes assignments and serves as city figurehead at special events, groundbreakings and business-openings.

As for the one-year term, it is not covered by any law or regulation. It is a custom that has developed over the past three decades in Palo Alto, which once upon a time regularly had sequential multi-term mayors. Councilman Larry Klein is a three-term mayor, but the terms are separated by years.

The last sequential multi-term mayor appears to be Alan Henderson, who served as mayor from 1979 to 1981. The late Stan Norton served as a two-year mayor from 1975 to 1977, and Kirke Comstock served three years from 1971 to 1974.

Ed Arnold served two consecutive years from 1968 to 1970, after an earlier one-year term, and Frances Dias served two years from 1966 to 1968. The latter three served during highly contentious times when a growth/slow growth/no growth battle rocked city politics.

Notable multi-term mayors included Noel E. Porter, a Hewlett-Packard Company vice president who served five years from 1955-1960 and helped set strong growth policies that led to "residentialist" opposition in the 1960s.

The city's first mayor, Joseph Hutchinson, served eight years, from 1894 to 1902, and Byron J. Blois served eight years from 1940 to 1948 (serving on the council from 1934 to 1953).

So there's no inherent magic in one-year mayors.

Its appeal is that it passes around the prestige to most (but not all) council members. And since selection of mayor is by a council-member majority, ah, majority rules — even if a year is too short to accomplish personal agendas.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

Comments

Posted by Less sweet talk, its how you vote, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Mr Scharff is a real estate lawyer.
>He envisions finding a way to build two new parking structures, one for downtown Palo Alto and one for the California Avenue business district.
So he approves of more construction. Developers will support him.
When will he stop approving construction without the required parking?
He voted to give the Chamber of Commerce Below-Market-Rate office space in the big office building at Alma/Lytton. And to allow that developer to underpark.
I will also look forward to his votes - not the sweet-talk - on the Arillaga project.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

If Greg Scharff wants an easy win (low hanging fruit), one that guarantees his legacy, he could enforce the gas-powered leaf blower ban. All he needs to do is to get the council to tweak the ban, so that the property owners are fined, not the gardeners who use them (and ignore the ban).

Within a few years, he will have a bronze statue in his likeness, somewhere in Palo Alto, perhaps in a park in one of our neighborhoods.

The parking issue will go on forever....


Posted by More weekly "journalism", a resident of Midtown
on Sep 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

"In tough years, as in the early part of the last decade when a personal power struggle preoccupied the council, the mayorship can be a bit of hell. "
CAre to enlighten us, Jay as to what exactly you are referring to here?
And the poor Mayor. If it was so hellish, they could have resigned from the council

"Several mayors indicated they just would rather not talk about those times, thank you. One even suggested that I was asking that mayor to "spill my guts" about the experience."
Martyrdom becomes them, I guess. Why don't you do a story--you can call it: "My Life in Hell-One year as Mayor of Palo Alto"

"Just about every mayor in recent years has complained ' many directly to me ' that the one-year term limit as mayor is too short to accomplish any personal agenda as mayor."
Well, you might have told them, Jay, that being mayor is not a vote to push "personal" agendas. They need to be serving the city and the people that elected them. The ego and self-absorption of these self-centered individuals is mind boggling.
ANd why would they tell you, Jay?? Did they expect the weekly to launch an editorial push to change thins so that they would be satisfied?
After all, the weekly is and always has been partial to council members [portion removed.]


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Crescent Park Dad is a registered user.

The mayor position is not an elected slot by the public. So it goes that any PA mayor should not hold sway over the city...newsflash: you're not elected. Therefore you have no mandate from the people. Get over it.


Posted by Leslie, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Definitely "No". We've had some really poor Mayors in the past and Palo Alto voters have been quite glad to get them out of Office. We even had a Mayor who ran for re-election to council the following year and lost. One year terms for Mayor is quite enough.

If you're going to change the City Charter for longer term Mayors, reduce Council from 9 to 7 members at the same time, and be prepared to pay the Mayor a high six figure salary.


Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 6, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Let's be honest-- the mayor is a ceremonial post. All the council members have a self- serving love fest, where they heap prose on one another. Then they get to play mayor and push their little agenda-- most have little to do with palo altos needs or priorities-- remember yoriko and her climate change? Every one gets to be mayor-- even drekmeier!!!! Well almost everyone-- jack Morton was not elected mayor and was barely elected vice mayor.
Not sure why jay did not say anything about personal agendas for non- elected mayors. Well, I do understand- the weekly is the voice of the council. Ever seen the weekly push candidates for council to actually take a stand on issues? They just endorse the usual suspects


Posted by Stoopid, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm

It is ridiculous, time consuming, and costly to have elections annually. How can any elected official be effective in just a o e-year term? Whose brilliant idea was this, anyway? is there ANY other city in the nation that does something so pointless?

last year, the City Council and mayor we had then were AGAINST the Maybell-Climo project when it was first introduced. After the elections, the Council shockingly passed it. What changed was not the plan--it still lacked enough e trances and exits, it would still cause too much traffic ( actually more traffic; by then Arastradero had been narrowed). The change was a new mayor and many new Council members.

Just plain Stoopid!


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:36 pm

You do understand that the council itself selects the mayor, right? They vote among themselves; no city-wide election.


Posted by Why Vote, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 7, 2013 at 12:57 am

Mr Scharff is a real estate lawyer.If I had a chance, I would not vote for him.


Posted by Leslie, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2013 at 1:41 am

Stoopid says: "It is ridiculous, time consuming, and costly to have elections annually. How can any elected official be effective in just a o e-year term? Whose brilliant idea was this, anyway? is there ANY other city in the nation that does something so pointless?"

Our Mayors are elected by the other members of the City Council, they are not elected annually by the voters of Palo Alto. Our Mayor's job is to run Council meetings. Most small cities like Palo Alto rotate their Mayors annually because we have a City Manager who runs the City on a daily basis.


Posted by Estupido Alcalde, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 7, 2013 at 9:36 am

The mayor is elected, just not in an open election by the populace. Sounds like Palo Alto does not really NEED a mayor, it is just a silly ceremonial figurehead position, like the Queen of England.


Posted by Agenda?, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Sep 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

Mayor is ceremonial. It's not to execute a policy agenda. Greg isn't the prime minister of Palo Alto he's the guy who shows up at events. Anyway to the extent that he is executing an agenda what is it? Pass an unconstitutional ordinance criminaling the homeless that will cost the city zillions in legal fees? Draw a referendum and divide the city over low income housing turning neighbor against neighbor? Throw 2 million into the PSN slush fund for a lunch club that does literally nothing with no transparency? Maybe it's to never fix potholes. Or perhaps it's to marginalized and exclude half the council. If Greg Scharff has a agenda I think a year was plenty. And who's the next mayor? Greg's hand picked crony nancy shephard who if she has a thought that is not given to her by Greg on any topic it would be shocking.


Posted by Maybe if the people elected the mayor, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 7, 2013 at 10:31 am

Leslie,

"costly to have elections annually."

WHy?! The people do not elect the mayor in Palo Alto!

Costs nothing, and worth nothing to switch every year, as far as I can tell.

City council elect the "Mayor". The "elected" person gets the "title" and OF COURSE tell the residents everything they want to hear, to then vote for the developers. I was not impressed with Scharff on the Arrillaga thing, he admitted that he met Mr. Arrillaga but it was a casual meeting. A Real Estate lawyer will go for overdeveloping, it is not in his dna to say no to developers or business owners, they are his clients. The development catastrophes in Palo Alto are because guys like him are so impressed with big words like "Gateway" (that ugly thing on Alma and Lytton) to justify just another ugly glass or just plain ugly building towering over the nano sidewalks and nano streets of PA.

Since the people do not vote, one year for the charade is PLENTY.

Not an issue,

"Let's be honest-- the mayor is a ceremonial post. All the council members have a self- serving love fest, where they heap prose on one another. Then they get to play mayor and push their little agenda-- most have little to do with palo altos needs or priorities-- "


Thank you!





Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm

A 2-year term for a mayor when public confidence in all levels of government is plummeting? I think an extended year for Greg Scharff is not only a good idea but essential. Palo Alto as a fully built out city is struggling in this economic boom. Like many Palo Altans I am waiting for greater leadership from the Council as a whole and so far in 2013 I am not impressed. However, I see enough potential in Scharff to warrant serious consideration for a second term. Three things need to happen quickly. The Council needs to show its receptivity to stronger continuity. And Mayor Scharff must lay out a practical, achievable vision for a better Palo Alto during the next 2-4 years. Finally, we citizens must step forward, say what we want and demand greater accountability from the elected folk who have to manage our city. Palo Alto Council must step up its game...changing horses midstream might not be a good idea. 64 thousand dollar question: Can Scharff dial back his pro-growth, real estate lawyer bias? I think he can if citizens demand it.


Posted by Leslie, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 7, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Neilson Buchanan if you want a Mayor for longer than one year you'll have to get the City Charter changed by the voters of Palo Alto, this will not be easy because you'll have to start by collecting an ungodly number signatures on a petition.


Posted by Less sweet talk, its how you vote, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 8, 2013 at 10:06 am

We will have ample time to see how Scharff votes on 27 University in a couple of weeks, on Maybell, on the big glass box proposed for 240 Hamilton, on giveaways to Chop Keenan, and lots of issues.
He started his term as Mayor as a strict disciplinarian, now he seems to be on a charm offensive.
But he seconded Burt's motion to give the Chamber of Commerce BelowMarketRate rent in the monster building on Alma at Lytton, so we need to watch how this chameleon develops.


Posted by residet, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 8, 2013 at 5:37 pm



Less sweet talk,

"We will have ample time to see how Scharff votes on 27 University in a couple of weeks"

What is the upcoming vote on 27 University?


Posted by Less sweet talk, its how you vote, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:13 am

Tentatively scheduled for Sept. 23:
>Traffic Impact Analysis for the Arts and Innovation District (27 University Avenue) (PLNG)<
The city keeps referring to the project with that pretentious name instead of just the address. Makes me wonder how much bias the city will have.


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