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On Deadline blog: Is Palo Alto big enough for an elected mayor? Yes and no, maybe

Uploaded: Dec 26, 2011
Former Mayor (twice over) Gary Fazzino has renewed a proposal he first surfaced about two decades ago: that Palo Alto is a big and complex enough town to directly elect its mayor.

OK, few would argue that Palo Alto is the biggest little city in the world -- oops, that's already claimed by Reno, which isn't so little anymore. Perhaps Palo Alto could amend it thus: "The biggest little city in the universe." Who says it isn't so?

But Palo Alto has held pretty steady in its night-time population, which in the past half century has only grown from about 56,000 residents to about 64,000 today, give or take a few.

In contrast, as almost every adult Palo Altan knows, the city's daytime population runs about twice that of night-time residents, sometimes swelling to approximately 140,000 (in boom times).

Fazzino, in a guest opinion in the Dec. 16 Weekly (http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=16066), cogently made two points: That one year isn't long enough to be an effective mayor and that it's time to consider directly electing a mayor.

First, he said, the City Council's recent tradition of electing a new mayor every year doesn't give the mayor time to be really effective in some of the things he or she would like to get done. Just as they're learning the ropes of the job their term starts winding down, as current Mayor Sid Espinosa has observed (without making a bid for a second term for himself this January).

Espinosa echoes the sentiment expressed a year ago by then-Mayor Pat Burt as he ended his term. Several earlier mayors over the years have expressed similar feelings about the one-year term.

No one is quite sure -- or perhaps quite remembers -- how the one-year tradition developed. It's not in the City Charter or council procedures, or state law. It seems to have emerged as a courtesy to council members, to give nearly everyone a chance to be mayor. Put more bluntly, virtually all council members wanted to be mayor at some point. Some council members have served multiple one-year terms with some years in between, such as Fazzino and current Councilman Larry Klein.

Many decades ago mayors served much longer terms, such as the five-years Noel Porter was mayor in the 1950s. There were some even-longer terms, as cited by Fazzino.

But the one-year-term practice in itself has caused some hurt feelings and embarrassment -- even bitterness -- when a council majority passed over someone they felt might not be up to the job of mayor. And it has even caused some council members to decide not to seek reelection when they felt they would not be elected mayor. So the one-year limit has problems.

Fazzino's second point was that Palo Alto should consider directly electing its mayors because of the city's complexity and regional leadership role in several areas, notably high-tech innovation and environmental "sustainability" matters. The city also owns its on utilities, which combined have a budget as big as the rest of city government. A highly engaged citizenry adds to the complexity of city governance, especially when some people seem more engaged than informed.

He didn't mention whether the elected mayor should have a salary or be full-time -- other topics to toss into the Palo Alto discussion hopper.

Re-opening the dialogue on the mayor's term and selection is timely and likely to generate much comment on Town Square and other online forums.

But it seems to me it's important to keep the length-of-term question separate from the mayor-selection issue. They are quite separate issues, with the length of term likely far less controversial than the selection process -- except perhaps among council members who wouldn't get a turn at being mayor. Both are separate from the council-size question, also -- another debate altogether.

Yet generally speaking how a city chooses its mayors is by an unwritten "rule of thumb," namely that larger cities benefit from having voter-elected mayors, usually with far more powers than the meeting-chair council-elected mayors of smaller cities. To get personal objectives done, council-selected mayors must rely on personal charisma and "bully pulpit" position, as Fazzino notes.

The dividing line between big and small can be debated, but most officials and students of government with whom I've discussed this over the years peg it at about 100,000 residents, give or take 10 or 20 thousand. Under that measure, Palo Alto falls short.

So years ago I came up with a solution that should make everyone happy, or as happy as possible for critical Palo Altans:

Because Palo Alto falls substantially short of a "big city" in terms of night-time residents but exceeds 100,000 population during the day my idea is to have a council-elected mayor serve at night and a directly-elected mayor serve during the day. That could provide stronger, more consistent regional leadership even if it makes the race for mayor more personal and competitive.

Two mayors could get more done. It would also be something like the "war chief" and "peace chief" of the Plains Indian tribes of centuries past, calling for different skill-sets, so to speak.

The directly-elected mayor could serve multiple years and provide added stability in terms of policy and project follow-up, working closely with city management, while the council-elected mayor could concentrate on running efficient meetings, herding cats, attending ribbon cuttings and ceremonial events, and basking in the prestige for a year, passing it around as now.

Fazzino didn't think much of this idea. I wonder why no one else picked up on it.

NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a cc: to jaythor@well.com.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of ,
on Dec 26, 2011 at 11:16 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

I suggest that in year 1 the voters elect a Mayor and a Vice-Mayor and in years 2 and following the previously elected Vice-Mayor becomes mayor and the voters elect a new Vice-Mayor. Such a system ensures both a recognition of the will of the voters and continuity of leadership with each Mayor having had experience as Vice-Mayor and also having been vetted by the election process.

Posted by Mayor, a resident of ,
on Dec 26, 2011 at 11:23 am

What a ridiculous suggestion two mayors. Typical of the Weekly to not want to take a definitive stand until they figure out how the powers that be in palo alto weigh in, or in other words the Weekly opinion has to be the one that will not negatively effect ad revenue. And why don't you come out and say it, the council would not elect jack morton mayor because they knew he was not fit to serve as mayor. That is the most recent example.

Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on Dec 26, 2011 at 11:37 am

I have no particular opinion about this other than the same for all our elected officials which is to make sure that they have an election manifesto which they must be held accountable to.

We need to know where all candidates stand on various issues and not in fancy language but in specifics. What are they going to do to bring increases into our sales tax revenue from retail improvements? How are they going to encourage more businesses to move into town? How are they going to prevent retail and business from leaving town? How are they going to find the funding to fix our aging infrastructure? How are they going to improve traffic flow on our major arteries? What are they going to do to improve basic services to our increasing population? How are they going to do this without raising taxes or calling for more money from Bonds or Parcel Taxes? How are they going to improve the quality of life in Palo Alto without causing the residents to find entertainment and affordable necessities to venture into neighboring cities?

Unless these issues are answered in a satisfactory manner, no candidate is worthy of being voted into office.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of ,
on Dec 26, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

No how are they going to make us greener?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of ,
on Dec 26, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

On second thought, I go with Jay's idea. Elect a drudge mayor and a green mayor. The drudge would handle the everyday affairs of the City like maintenance, law n order, etc. Then, if anything is left over in the budget the Green Mayor takes over.

Posted by Say-Good-Night-Gary!, a resident of ,
on Dec 28, 2011 at 7:51 am

This whole idea/topic is preposterous. The other day a blogger somewhere listed the top ten US companies that might disappear in the near future. Struggling HP made the list. Is it any surprise that Gary Fazzino is talking about a possible permanent role for himself, and his friends, running Palo Alto after HP disappears (should it actually go the way of the DoDo bird)?

Before a change like this would ever be contemplated, there would have to be large set of problems that the current political/City Management ?governance? had failed to address, and which seemed insurmountable under the current Charter-based government. So .. what kinds of problems is Palo Alto faced with?

The City currently is paying about $2M a year in actual (and a little less than this amount has been promised in deferred salaries via pension payouts) for the current City Management team. The system is called ?Strong City Manager/Weak City Council? (although those terms are ?text bookish? and don?t appear in the City Charter). So .. besides not really knowing what all of these people do for $2M a year due to a lack of transparency that has never been opposed by any past, or current, unelected Mayor, what is the problem here?

The Charter does not speak to the role of the Mayor. (Sadly, many things are not clearly addressed in the Charter). So, a significant Charter amendment would need to be drafted which would clearly call out the role of the Mayor, and the Council, better than it does now.

And then there would need to a mechanism to get rid of the elected Mayor that would not take months of process put in place.

But since no one seems to be able to provide any hard evidence that there is any problem to solve, other than Gary Fazzino?s never-ending mantra of ?look at me? ? ?look at me? .. let?s put this topic to bed and get on to more meaningful issues.

Posted by pat, a resident of ,
on Dec 28, 2011 at 10:09 am

Re current political/City Management ?governance?: I just discovered (from an org chart in the city budget) that Pamela Antil, Assistant City Manager, is also the COO. That was a surprise. I assume that makes Jim Keene CEO.

Do other cities have CEOs and COOs?

Keene also has Deputy City Manager, Steve Emslie, and Debra van Duynhoven, assistant to City Manager James Keene for sustainability. (She does not appear on the org chart.) And he has his exec staff in the various department heads.

Supposedly, the city council?s job is to set policy and provide oversight, though I don?t see that happening. Policy seems to be set by staff presenting plans for the council to review. Oversight is missing at all levels.

What would an elected mayor do to fix all this?

Posted by Say-Good-Night-Gary!, a resident of ,
on Dec 28, 2011 at 11:47 am

> What would an elected mayor do to fix all this?

The current Charter makes it a "Misdemeanor" for any City Council Member to interfere with the functions of "government" (or words to that effect). If we think back just a few years to the infamous "Morton Memo" that claimed that Council Members Lyttle/Kishimoto/Freeman had crossed the line, and that they also were involved in something close to a "serial violation" of the Brown Act.

While Morton's claims were not found to be valid by an "outside consultant", the City got a good look at what a Council Member can, and can not, do under the Current Charter.

The Council can, without reason, terminate the contract of a City Manager who is not "working out". If the Mayor wanted to the power to fire the City Manager (or other Council Approved Employees), then more language in the Charter would be needed.

In short ... an elected Mayor could not do anything that the current Mayor does .. without significant changes in the Charter.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of ,
on Dec 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Toro! The council has the authority now to fire the manager. Whether they have the guts is another story. As I understand it, the Council sets policy, the manager enacts it. If the Manager wishes to set policy, then he damn well ought to run for election. As for buying him a house, how about the city buying a house for the Manager during his term. A reasonable rent could be collected. All these assistant managers should have to justify their position, and the manager should have to explain why he cannot find time to undertake those now passed down duties.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of ,
on Dec 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" an elected Mayor could not do anything that the current Mayor does .."

That is absolutely correct but not the issue. Palo Alto does have, by charter, a strong City Manager form of government. It would also benefit by having a mayor who has been elected to that position by the citizens. Such an elected mayor would have greater political power in the effective leadership of the council.

Posted by Say-Good-Night-Gary!, a resident of ,
on Dec 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm

> Such an elected mayor would have greater political
> power in the effective leadership of the council.

Not without a significant Charter change, that clear delineates what that "power" would be. The whole idea of "political power" is vague at best, and sleazy at worst. All we need in this town is more corruption at the top of an already poorly run City government.

The current elections are a joke, as all we ever get is someone wrapped up in a phalanx of kids with balloons and a tagline of "It's for the children", or someone sitting on a bicycle ..

The issue of having the current system modified to have the Mayor sit for two years, rather than one year, might achieve the same effect without having to go through the election process ..

Anyone who has ever looked at the FPPC 410s sees that five to ten people often contribute 50% (or more) of the money to the campaigns of the people who win elected to the Council in Palo Alto. Clearly, an elected Mayor will just end up being a "bought" Mayor.

No thanks .. leave it the way it is .. it's bad enough already .. and could only get worse with an elected Mayor.

Posted by Deep Throat, a resident of ,
on Dec 29, 2011 at 2:29 pm

When Gary Fazzino worked at Hewlett Packard, he hired Sid Espinosa.

If they were both still working at HP, I guess I would call Fazzino's suggestion the Mayor from HP.

However, both Fazzino and Espinosa are now working for other companies, after the decline at HP that started with Carly Fiorina.

When Firoina was a candidate for the Republican Party nomination for United States Senate last year, her advertising consultants invented the term FCINO in their Demon Sheep ad attacking opponet Tom Campbell.

I went back to the San Francisco Chronicle to find out how to pronounce FCINO. Here is what I found:

After some feared they would have to wash their mouths out if they tried to pronounce "FCINO," Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund offered a pronunciation guide: "FAH-SEE-NO."

Web Link

Posted by Jeremy Feldman, a resident of ,
on Jan 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Two mayors? You can't be serious. Palo Alto just loves "leadership lite" doesn't it? I archived this post from some years ago; it's apropos, today.

"That we *currently* maintain a "strong city manager" model of governance is somewhat inefficient, and will become more so as this region evolves.

The governance model that we currently maintain (9 elected policy makers/city manager) works best when there is a surfeit of wealth and opportunity. That's the cycle that we're currently emerging from, as we migrate toward a more challenged, constrained revenue environment.

What significant things can a city manager do to improve *intra-regional* efficiencies (where we must go, if we are to create the efficiencies needed to make our city sustainable)

Is it in a City Manager's charter to initiate negotiations with other muncipalities for cooperation on things like housing, large inter-municipal efficiencies (e.g. sharing police and fire facilities, in a LARGE way)? Answer: no.

Of course, the city manager can suggest things like this to Council, but what's in it for a busy city manager, to do this? More busy work? Managing more consulting contracts to see if his idea is a "good idea", and so on? Forget it.

Further, how does a nine -person Council, already strained with the burden of having to maintain a careful balance of power necessary to maintain focus on things that used to take care of themselves (in better days), deal with city-manager-ideas that significantly alter the political and operational landscape that intra-regional efficiencies (if executed properly) tend to create? Answer: City Councils don't have the bandwidth for this.

Why elect a mayor? So we can ne *led* by a comprehensive vision - a vision that residents mostly agree with. We're trying to maintain a focus here (my hat is off to the current policy-making crowd), but it simply won't be enough down the road.

Some people ask: "What if we elect a "loser"? To that I say "find a better one next time". Voting populations can be adaptive, too. Better that, than continuing to slog through, as other cities and other regions slowly pass us by.

Better to dither towards the best working vision, than slog through years of delay - handcuffed by the inability to move quickly. Times are changing; along with this are new governance needs. We really do need to reconsider how our city is managed - in terms of its governance model - with due respect to all those have managed it so well *to this point*.

This is not about incompetence, bad management - it's more about recognizing the need for change, and having the courage to engage the need to adapt, step outside the comfort zone, and make change happen.

I won't hold my breath waiting for a goevrnance change that calls for a popularly elected mayor, but that doesn't change the need. One way or another, we'll adapt. Whether we adapt in an optimal fashion remains to be seen. Unfortunately, unless we find the political will (guts) to make ourselves slightly uncomfortable for a time, we'll never know what could have been, or what we missed.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Jan 3, 2012 at 9:03 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

For those who may have glossed over the subtlety of the "two mayors" proposal, it was intended as a bit of a spoof and comment on the daily up-and-down of Palo Alto's population. ;-)> -jay

Posted by Jeremy Feldman, a resident of ,
on Jan 4, 2012 at 2:54 am

Senility strikes again. April 1st is 4 months away, Jay.

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