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By Jay Thorwaldson

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 [email protected] with a cc: to [email protected]