After a pair of close votes, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night elected Pat Burt and Greg Scharff to serve as the city's mayor and vice mayor, respectively, for 2016.
Burt, a former planning commissioner who was first elected to the council in 2007, on Monday edged out last year's Vice Mayor Greg Schmid by a 5-4 vote to win his second term as mayor. Burt was also mayor in 2010.
Then, in a separate 5-4 vote, the council chose Greg Scharff over outgoing Mayor Karen Holman to serve as its vice mayor in 2016. Like Burt, Scharff will be returning to a familiar role, having already served as vice mayor in 2012 en route to becoming mayor in 2013.
In both cases, the council's four slow-growth "residentialists" came up just short: Holman, Schmid, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth voted for Schmid and Holman to serve as mayor and vice mayor (a reverse of their 2015 positions). But Burt, who over the past year has often aligned himself with the slow-growth camp, on Monday joined Marc Berman, Liz Kniss, Cory Wolbach and Scharff in both votes.
The two votes mean that the council's top two leadership positions will now shift from members with the heaviest slow-growth residentialist leanings to ones with less predictable voting records. While Burt has played a leading role in the council's recent adoption of an office cap, its efforts to preserve retail and its reform to the "planned-community" zoning, he had also split from the residentialists in supporting several recent developments, including mixed-use projects at 101 Lytton and 441 Page Mill Road (Holman and Schmid had opposed both).
The Monday votes also mean that the council, for the second straight year, broke with tradition and did not select the prior year's vice mayor as the new mayor.
In both cases, it was Councilwoman Kniss who played the role of the nominating party. Kniss, who had served as vice mayor in 2014 and was slated to become mayor in 2015, made the unusual move last year of nominating Holman instead. The rest of the council supported Holman's nomination.
On Monday night, Kniss once again led her colleagues in breaking with custom and not elevating the vice mayor. She praised Burt for his many years of experience in neighborhood groups, on the Planning and Transportation Commission and on the council, where last year he chaired the Policy and Services Committee and the newly re-established Rail Committee.
Kniss also lauded Burt's "history of effective leadership" in both the private and public sectors and his central roles in regional bodies. Burt has been an active participant in a policymaker group focused on Caltrain improvements. He has also spent the past five years as the city's representative on the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency devoted to improving flood control in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
In making her nomination, Kniss highlighted the council's busy 2016 agenda, which includes completing the Comprehensive Plan, making a host of infrastructure improvements and implementing "Fiber to the Premises," a citywide ultra high-speed Internet service. She also noted that the council has gone from "having marked differences in early 2015" to being "a far more collaborative and consensus-oriented governing body."
"This council is coalescing around measures that maintain the quality of life that our residents value and Pat is someone who can build that common purpose within the council," Kniss said.
The vote, however, did not reflect this new spirit of unanimity. While Berman, Scharff, Wolbach and Burt himself joined Kniss in voting for Burt, the rest of their colleagues voted for Schmid, a retired economist whose genial manner and long history of opposing new developments and picking apart traffic data made him popular among slow-growth proponents.
Unlike Burt, whose positions on issues can be hard to predict, Schmid has been a staunch residentialist since well before the 2014 election. Last year, he and Holman received the highest scores from the slow-growth group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, which tallied the council's major land-use votes from between 2012 and 2014 and graded candidates according to their residentialist leanings. According to the scorecard, Schmid took residentialist stances on 85 percent of the votes while Burt earned a score of 55 percent and Scharff, 30 percent.
Early in the meeting, Filseth nominated Schmid and praised his dedication, integrity and focus on data.
"He will strike the right balance," Filseth said of Schmid. "He is collaborative and respectful and has demonstrated his ability to work with everyone. He is ready to take the chair."
After the votes were cast and read out loud by City Clerk Beth Minor, Burt assumed the mayor's chair and highlighted some of the issues that the council will be wrestling with in the coming year. This includes upgrading the Comprehensive Plan, improving parking conditions, developing a plan for a local transportation systems, addressing the city's unfunded pension liabilities and continuing to upgrade streets, bikeways and infrastructure.
Burt also warned that the council's "ambitious agenda cannot be accomplished at once or in a single year."
"Our strong and talented staff is willing to take on multiple challenges, but we as a council and as a community need to set priorities and recognize realistic limits to what can be done each year," he said.
Scharff's election to vice mayor was equally suspenseful. An attorney who served as mayor in 2013, Scharff was re-elected to his second council term in 2014. Wolbach, who nominated Scharff, said he and Burt will together "provide a clear, efficient and experienced leadership for the city."
DuBois then nominated Holman, lauding her ability to bring council members together and effectively represent the community. He also noted that, for all her years of public service, she had never served as vice mayor.
"As evidenced by her landslide win in the last election, she really has tapped into the desires of the community," DuBois said.
After he was nominated, Scharff said that he was struck by the council's "unanimity" when it comes to a vision for the city. He said he supports Burt's vision and priorities and that he believes 2016 will be a "critical year in which we can bring to fruition much of that vision."
"We all want a city that is environmentally sustainable, fiscally sustainable, and has quality of life that is sustainable and doesn't degrade over time," Scharff said.