To become a Palo Alto mayor, a City Council member typically has to meet two requirements: a vice mayoral term in the prior year and an ability to get along with colleagues.
Given these traditions, Liz Kniss is the odds-on favorite to win the honor on Monday, when the council chooses its mayor and vice mayor for 2018. A political veteran who twice held the position during her prior council stint, Kniss served as vice mayor in 2017, a year in which her side of the council's political divide held a majority.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss. Photo by Veronica Weber.
City Councilman Eric Filseth. Photo by Veronica Weber.
City Councilman Cory Wolbach. Photo by Veronica Weber.
Yet her potential ascendancy to the mayor's chair is also unusual in another respect. If elected, she will be sworn in as Palo Alto's mayor while also facing a state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) probe over her failure to report a series of developers' contribution before the November 2016 election. In addition, she had failed to list the occupations of 18 contributors to her campaign, listing them as "unknown."
During the 2016 campaign -- her 10th run for an elected office -- Kniss had initially said she would not accept developers' contributions but later reversed this decision. And though several developers who gave her money told the Weekly (or indicated in their filings) that they had given her cash well before the Nov. 8, 2016, election, she did not report these $1,000-or-more contributions within 24 hours of receiving them, as required by state law. Instead, she reported these contributions on Jan. 11, well after she was re-elected to the council with more votes than any other candidate.
The FPPC investigation began in March and is still in progress as of this week. By contrast, the FPPC's 2017 investigations against council members Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka were each resolved within a few months of being opened.
When asked about the length of time the Kniss probe has taken, FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said the agency works to ensure that every investigation is both thorough and timely. He said the agency is aware of the city's looming elections and "tries to take them into consideration."
"The flip side is you can't rush, or hurry, or skip any aspects of any investigation simply to try to accommodate those types of dates, since that in and of itself could undermine or compromise any investigation," Wierenga said.
Whichever way the council's vote goes, it should have a familiar ring for Kniss, a retired nurse and former Santa Clara County supervisor, who served as mayor in 1994 and 2000. If elected by her colleagues, she will join former Councilman Larry Klein (who was mayor in 1984, 1989 and 2008) as the only other person to hold the position three times since Kirke Comstock served as mayor in 1971, 1972 and 1973.
At the same time, Kniss also knows what it's like to be a vice mayor who does not move on to the top spot. She found herself in that position in 2014, when Palo Alto voters elected a slow-growth "residentialist" majority, led by Holman. In response, then-Vice Mayor Kniss made the unusual move in January 2015 of nominating Holman for the mayoral position -- a post that is often described as "ceremonial" but that gives a council member the power to shape agendas and run meetings.
While the council has generally deferred to the tradition of electing last year's vice mayor as this year's mayor, 2015 wasn't the only exception to the rule. In 2016, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid was narrowly passed over for the central chair in favor of former Councilman Pat Burt. A year ago, the tradition was restored, when then-Vice Mayor Greg Scharff was unanimously elected mayor.
If Kniss doesn't take the mayor's seat Monday, the position could go to one of two other likely candidates for the role: council members Eric Filseth and Cory Wolbach. If she does, one of them will have a strong shot at getting elected vice mayor -- a vote that often provides the only measure of suspense in the annual reorganizational meeting.
Filseth, a retired tech CEO, served in 2017 as chair of the council's Finance Committee and is the council's strongest voice for addressing the city's ballooning pension liabilities. Though he was elected in 2014 as part of the "residentialist" wave, he has governed as a moderate and has often assumed Burt's former role as the council's swing vote.
Wolbach, who was also elected in 2014, chaired the Policy and Services Committee and helped craft the city's policies on marijuana, surveillance technology and smoking. A Democratic activist and staunch housing advocate, Wolbach has voted consistently with Kniss and Scharff throughout the year and could have the edge if the council splits among partisan lines.
Both Filseth and Wolbach will be up for re-election in November, when the council size will shrink from nine to seven members.
The council seat of Councilman Tom DuBois, who chaired the Rail Committee in 2017, will also be up for grabs later this year. When it comes to the vice-mayorship, his general affiliation with the council's slow-growth minority may make it more difficult for him to win five votes on Monday.