Marking a changing of the guard at City Hall, the Palo Alto City Council bid farewell Tuesday night to three outgoing members, welcomed three newcomers and elected as its mayor and vice mayor two veterans who will need no orientation.
With a pair of unanimous of votes, Greg Scharff and Liz Kniss were chosen by their council peers to serve as the city's mayor and vice mayor, respectively, for 2017. Their election came minutes after Kniss, Lydia Kou, Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka took their oaths of office in a ceremony that brought an overflow crowd of more than 200 people to the Council Chambers.
For the council, the meeting also marked the end of an era, with outgoing Mayor Pat Burt and Councilman Greg Schmid making their final appearances behind the dais (Marc Berman, whose term also expired in 2016, was elected to the state Assembly in November). Each outgoing member received a resolution of appreciation from the council and a round of applause from the Chambers.
For Scharff and Kniss, the election to the council's top two spots was little more than a foregone conclusion. Each has served as mayor in the past and each stands to benefit from the political shift brought about in November, when the council majority tilted away from the slow-growth camp and toward those more amenable to new development. With both Scharff and Kniss actively campaigning in support of the candidates in the latter camp (Kniss, among them), it was very likely that they would have ample support for the council's leadership positions.
The city's loosely followed tradition of electing its vice mayor as the next year's mayor also made Scharff, who served as vice mayor in 2016, the favorite for the top spot. In electing Scharff, the council restored the custom that it had eschewed in each of the past two years. In 2015, then-Vice Mayor Kniss nominated Karen Holman (the top vote getter in 2014) to serve as mayor. In 2016, the council narrowly chose Burt over then-Vice Mayor Greg Schmid.
But while Scharff's election wasn't a surprise, the unanimity with which he was named mayor marked a departure from recent past. It was Councilman Eric Filseth, who is affiliated with the slow-growth wing of the council, who made the nomination, which sailed through with no dissent.
In nominating Scharff, Filseth called him "one of our most tenured and most experienced council members" and praised him for his "strong understanding of policy and city government." Councilman Tom DuBois, who is also affiliated with the slow-growth wing, predicted Scharff will "uphold the basic tenets of good government" and urged the new mayor to be fair to those who disagree with him.
"We generally are together on a lot of items, but we are a divided council on other items," DuBois said. "I expect you to be fair, transparent and respectful."
After the votes were cast, Scharff thanked his colleagues and pledged to work with all council members to address the city's challenges, which include completing the Comprehensive Plan update and moving ahead with at least one affordable-housing project.
"I hope we work together, frankly, to compromise, build consensus and continue to solve the challenges we face and the problems that will undoubtedly arise this year," said Scharff, who also served as mayor in 2013.
Kniss, a former two-time mayor who in November earned more votes than any of her 10 election opponents, was the only other council member on Tuesday to get a nomination for mayor. It was Holman who tried to return the favor from two years ago by nominating Kniss for the council's top position. She noted that Kniss is coming off a successful election and has the community behind her.
"I believe Liz has unique experience and influence in the community to gather members of the council together on the dais," Holman said.
But the nomination never came to a vote, with Kniss thanking Holman but then declining and proclaiming Scharff as the best choice. Minutes later, Councilman Cory Wolbach nominated Kniss to serve as vice mayor. Just like with Scharff's vote, there was no dissent.
"I think she brings a calm, steady, unified voice, an understanding of Palo Alto and institutional memory," Wolbach said.
Both Kniss and Scharff are among the council's longest serving members. Kniss served for two terms before joining the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, from where she termed out. She returned to the council in 2012 and was re-elected last November to her tenth term in elective office.
Scharff, a real estate attorney, joined the council in 2009 (same year as Holman) and was re-elected in 2014. He had previously served as mayor in 2013 and as vice mayor in 2012.
After being chosen as vice mayor, Kniss welcomed the three new council members and emphasized the need for all colleagues to work together and respect each other.
"The ability to disagree in public and go in the backroom and be agreeable with each other -- it's very important to do that," Kniss said.