The suspenseful election of Pat Burt and Greg Scharff on Monday night to serve as Palo Alto's mayor and vice mayor marked a new chapter for the City Council, which will no longer be led by the council's slow-growth "residentialists."
But, for some residents, the election of Burt and Scharff after a pair of 5-4 votes wasn't as surprising as the fact that, despite the men's clashes throughout last year, the two voted for one another -- thus securing both appointments.
Nor was it as surprising as the fact that Burt was nominated by Liz Kniss, with whom he had exchanged snipes throughout 2015. Or the fact that Burt chose to support Scharff for vice mayor over outgoing Mayor Karen Holman, the leader of the residentialist group and a council member with whom he has generally been aligned. Or the fact that, for the second straight year, the council abandoned its long-running tradition of electing last year's vice mayor as this year's mayor.
When the dust settled Monday, it was the council's quintessential centrist -- Burt -- who found himself in the central chair on the dais after voting against two residentialist candidates. It was the four residentialists -- so triumphant a year ago -- who ended up on the losing end of the two votes. And it was Scharff, a member of the council's minority faction after the November 2014 election, who ascended to a leadership position for the second time in his council career.
The sudden alliance between Burt and Scharff disappointed some of their residentialist colleagues. Tom DuBois, who supported outgoing Vice Mayor Greg Schmid for mayor and Holman for vice mayor, was one of many people who saw the results as an indication that Burt and Scharff had made some kind of a deal before the vote. DuBois told the Weekly he was disappointed to see Burt align himself with what he called the "pro-growth" side of the council.
"I just think, at the end of the day, it's kind of putting the ego in front of ideals," DuBois said. "I also think this tradition of vice mayor becoming mayor -- that's clearly taken a pretty big hit. I don't think it applies anymore."
Holman, who was lauded on Monday for uniting the council just after losing the contest for vice mayor by a 5-4 vote, told the Weekly that she found the votes inexplicable.
"The very council members who did not support Pat Burt for vice mayor in 2015 supported him for mayor; and the very same council members who supported Greg Schmid for vice mayor did not support him for mayor," Holman said. "It's confusing and, almost on the surface, seems irrational."
Two people who did not appear at all surprised on Monday were Scharff and Burt, each of whom gave a prepared speech just after his nomination. In separate interviews, both adamantly denied that they had made any kind of a deal before the vote. Each told the Weekly that he hadn't known how the vote would end up.
"There was absolutely no quid pro quo," Scharff said.
"We didn't have any agreements," Burt said.
They did, however, have a conversation before the Monday vote. Scharff said he had spoken to both Burt and Schmid in the days before the election, though he emphasized that the conversation was focused on their respective visions for the city. The subject of who they would support for mayor or vice mayor did not come up, Scharff said.
"We didn't have any discussions about who would vote for whom," Scharff said.
But these conversations, like many others that took place among council members in the run-up to Monday's vote, demonstrate the intricate behind-the-scenes maneuvering that characterizes mayoral races in Palo Alto -- a process that pushes California's open-meeting law, the Brown Act, to the legal limits and, at times, beyond.
By law, no more than four council members can discuss a subject that will be on a future agenda -- in this case, the election of mayor and vice mayor. When a fifth member joins the discussion, either directly or through an intermediary, this becomes a serial violation of the Brown Act.
For regular council items, such as new smoking restrictions and development proposals, it's fairly easy for council members not to talk to one another outside of the Council Chambers. But when it comes to mayoral elections, a topic of broad interest and one that is near and dear to hearts of the members, the line gets blurry fast as they split into coalitions that, at times, exchange information through intermediaries, council members have acknowledged.
They make no secret of the fact that the Brown Act is difficult to follow when it comes to electing a mayor. Holman told the Weekly that it could be a challenge for every council member to track every conversation on the topic.
"One of the reasons I think the election of mayor and vice mayor is difficult is because the campaigning for positions can start early, and over time I think it's possible that violations can happen," Holman said.
To avoid violations, council members generally limit themselves to discussions with only three colleagues. For the four members of the council's residentialist side, this is fairly straightforward: They have one another. DuBois told the Weekly that before the mayoral election, the residentialists -- he, Eric Filseth, Holman and Schmid -- discussed their strategy for Monday, which is legal under the Brown Act provided no one else joins the conversation.
Other council members were also mindful of the limitations, even as they struggled to limit their contacts. But given the web of different conversations, as well as the existence of third-party intermediaries and unsolicited emails, most members had a clear sense of how the vote would end up, interviews with council members suggest.
Scharff, for instance, knew he would be nominated based on his conversation with Cory Wolbach before the meeting -- a conversation that each confirmed. Burt also knew he would be nominated by Kniss, with whom he had spoken (Kniss confirmed the conversation).
Kniss said she was "very careful not to have conversations with four people," but she also noted that council members meet informally on many occasions throughout the year and it's hard to avoid the topic of leadership. In mid-December, Kniss said, she had coffee with Schmid to discuss the topic, though she emphasized that he had never asked for an endorsement. She said she talked to Burt about the election but noted, "We talked about a whole variety of things."
Kniss has long been critical of the Brown Act. In June, when the council was discussing its legislative priorities, Kniss lamented the fact that "we are tied to the Brown Act," and contrasted the council with the state Assembly and Senate, where elected leaders talk to one another without such restrictions in an effort to get things passed.
"I really find it offensive ... and will speak out whenever I have a chance," Kniss said at the June 22 meeting.
In an interview this week, she said discussions of council business with colleagues are hard to avoid, given that council members constantly run into each other at community events and parties.
"In December, I think I've run into all of our council members at some event," Kniss said. "I met Greg Schmid many times throughout the year, and we often talk about leadership and many other things, though he had never asked me for support."
Schmid, for his part, acknowledged that he spoke to two people beyond the group of his three fellow residentialists, though he emphasized that he said at the very beginning of the conversations with those two that he would not discuss endorsements for mayor or vice mayor.
"When the conversation started, I said, 'Don't ask me for an endorsement' and then I said I would be happy to talk to them," Schmid said. "I didn't get a clear notion of whom they were voting for. The conversations were about policies."
Even so, he said he heard from a third party that the contest for mayor would be close. Thus, he said he wasn't surprised to see Burt challenge him and prevail. Schmid said he has no reason to think Scharff and Burt made a deal before hand. The bigger factors in Burt's victory, he said, likely have to do with politics and personalities. Schmid said he believes the key role of the mayor should be to get items onto the council's agenda to foster an "open public debate and see what comes out." Others on the council think "maybe the mayor should have a stronger role in pushing decisions." But while not surprising, Schmid said he found the vote disappointing.
"It would've been a nice way to end (my) tenure on the council," Schmid said. "But, on the other hand, I think the critical role of a council member is to be prepared on the issues and have a good public debate about where we're going as a city."
Several of his colleagues have confirmed that when they reached out to Schmid, he declined to talk because of Brown Act restrictions. Wolbach was among them. Thus, Wolbach said, the three members he limited himself to speaking with were Scharff, Burt and Kniss.
Scharff, on the other hand, did speak to Schmid and counts him as one of the three people he legally spoke to (along with Burt and Wolbach), even though he said that the discussion was limited to Schmid's vision for Palo Alto. If the conversation between Scharff and Schmid touched on the Monday vote, this would constitute a serial Brown Act violation because of Schmid's conversation with fellow residentialists. Similarly, if Burt had discussions with his residentialists colleagues about the vote, this would also constitute a violation (Burt declined to disclose to the Weekly which colleagues he talked to before the nomination).
But there were other ways that council members who took pains to avoid conversations with more than three colleagues got unexpected previews of things to come. Marc Berman, who is in the midst of a campaign for the state Assembly, said he did not speak to a single colleague about the election. Even so, he knew about Burt's impending nomination.
"I got an email from a member of the public a few days beforehand, encouraging me to support Pat for mayor," Berman said. "That's the first time I knew he was under consideration."
Beyond the council itself, long-time council observers -- in the minutes before Monday's election -- were predicting a Burt-Schmid showdown based on things they had heard in the prior weeks.
Holman said that, over the years, "It's been natural for people to have questions about elections of mayor and vice mayor especially when the outcome has been somewhat surprising."
In her view, one way to solve this problem and put an end to the political intrigue is to have residents directly elect a mayor.
"Conversations (among council members) about those elections can start many months before the event and can be difficult to track. And memory is unreliable over time," Holman said. "For a number of reasons, including that, I've been thinking and gathering other people's opinions for a good while now about whether it may be time for Palo Alto to go to a directly elected mayor."
Whether or not the results of the vote were a foregone conclusion or a genuine surprise, Burt said his decision to support Scharff had nothing to do with Scharff's decision to support him. Burt said his vote for vice mayor "was independent of what anyone else did."
In an interview, Burt also praised Holman for doing a "very good job as the mayor" but said he didn't want to see the same leadership remain on the council year after year.
"I think that until we change the City Charter, we really don't want to get into a pattern of people going through this continuous process of going from mayor to vice mayor into mayor again," Burt said.