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By Jay Thorwaldson

ON DEADLINE: Mayor Yeh: Another soft-spoken big-challenges year for Palo Alto

Uploaded: Jan 14, 2012

Palo Alto will speak softly but face big-stick challenges in 2012 as new Mayor Yiaway Yeh puts his stamp on city policies, practices and politics. He is expected to echo 2011 Mayor Sid Espinosa's style, easy-going on the surface but with a strong undercurrent of action and commitment. A quiet echo, but with depth behind it.

Following his unanimous selection as mayor by the nine-member City Council, Yeh made it clear he will continue the attributes other council member credited him with in one-after-another comments of liking and respect. Councilman Greg Scharff was then elected vice mayor by a 5-to-4 vote, converted to a unanimous vote on the suggestion of Greg Schmid, who got the 4 votes.

Both Yeh and Scharff indicated they would move city business along as efficiently as possible, and Yeh ran through a list of upcoming topics the council and city administration would is facing. No mention was made of whether a one-year term provides enough time for a mayor to get done what he or she sets out to do. And only one speaker from the public, frequent critic Mark Peterson Perez, suggested that it's time for the public to elect a mayor directly rather than have the mayor selected by the council.

Yet the truly remarkable aspect of the meeting was the unanimity of praise for Yeh's nearly four years on the council, during which he served on the council's Finance Committee and represented Palo Alto on the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA), which represents cities and agencies that own their own power utilities. He also served on the City-School Liaison Committee, in which representatives of the city and Palo Alto Unified School District try to identify and hammer out issues between them, not always successfully.

The tone of the Jan. 3 meeting contrasted sharply with mayor-election meetings of past years and decades, either those dominated by conflict or by extended celebrations of Palo Alto that spanned two or even three hours.

Notable among past mayoral elections were the late-1960s election of Ed Arnold as mayor after 46 ballots, or the early-1970s election of Gary Fazzino as mayor after more than 30 ballots. More recently, in the early 2000s the normally routine election meeting exploded with a severe verbal attack by former Councilwoman Nancy Lytle on new Mayor Dena Mossar.

In contrast was the extended 1994 celebration that marked Palo Alto's Centennial year, and which set the pattern for several more "inaugurations" during the 1990s, some of which caused even inveterate council watchers to roll their eyes in disbelief at the extended self-congratulatory events.

But the Jan. 3 mayor/vice mayor election was brief and to the point, and the council quickly moved into its regular agenda after the vote.

Councilman Larry Klein, himself a multiple-term mayor, nominated Yeh with glowing praise, noting that Yeh would be the first auditor to become mayor, in addition to becoming the first person of Chinese ancestry to serve as mayor. (Former Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto was the first Asian and Japanese-American to serve as mayor.)

Yeh also is the first graduate of Gunn High School to become mayor, while several Palo Alto High grads have achieved that status.

Klein cited Yeh's working for other governments, most recently as assistant auditor in Oakland, as demonstrating experience in how local governments work. He said Yeh is careful and "tries hard to achieve consensus on issues."

Then followed a parade of praise from colleagues.

Nancy Shepherd cited the "good advice" Yeh had given her about how to be a better council member, and his good service on the city-school committee.

Karen Holman called Yeh a "gentleman and a gentle man" who is "articulate, thoughtful, soulful, respectful" in addition to being "calm and deliberate" and a "grounded, solid human being and a solid council member."

Gail Price said Yeh "encourages discussion in a thoughtful and meaningful way, and his "commitments to social justice are broad, deep" as shown by his service in the Peace Corps and volunteer work.

Greg Schmid said he experienced Yeh's "thoughtful and penetrating comments" on the Finance Committee last year, but "Most important is his enthusiastic caring about people."

Pat Burt observed "how much he is both respected and liked by his colleagues. Day in and day out he carries himself in a way that really engenders that." He predicted continued "quiet and yet strong leadership" Yeh has shown on the council.

Espinosa said he is "excited to see my friend Yiaway nominated." Yeh knows "how to pull people together. But Yiaway is also hilarious, as shown by videos from a birthday party" showing "a great side of you that people will come to see and love this year."

Two non-council members, state Sen. Joe Simitian (who has announced he will run for Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors when he is timed out of his state Senate seat) and Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss (who recently announced she will seek another council term after she is timed out of the Board of Supervisors slot), also praised Yeh.

After his election Yeh commented that it is never easy to hear positive things said about oneself, particularly such heartfelt words. He said over the prior weekend he had reflected "on the diversity of all our life experiences" yet "how well we work together."

Then he listed challenges for 2012, a "year of infrastructure investment" for the city, using a tradition of "tapping the smarts of our community" as in the recent infrastructure-investment and renewal report, a framework for prioritizing needs.

Also, "We have also created an opportunity for the school district and community to engage in discussions on the future of the Cubberley site," he said.

"Youth well-being" should become an "integral part of our businesses, nonprofit organizations and all of us, to build a culture of resilience and bring all of our generations together." Then there are continuing efforts involved in the city's climate-action plan, urban forest, utilities, emergency preparedness, animal services, the waste-to-energy project, he noted -- all in an "era of austerity."

Yeh said one issue community members have approached him on directly is the meaning of the growing Asian population in Palo Alto. Neighborhood leaders and neighbors have "always maintained a tradition of welcoming," he said. To foster that process, he announced a Mayor's Challenge series of athletic events, noting that while many others were better athletes than he was at Gunn High "few enjoyed it as much as I did."

The events, he said, would be designed to "bring together families, neighbors" and others and be "an aspect of community-building ."

"Really, this is the fun part" of the mayor's job to which he is looking forward, he concluded.

(Next week: Some blog thoughts on the growing Asian population in Palo Alto and Silicon Valley.)

NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson may be e-mailed at [email protected] with a cc: to [email protected]