It didn't take Palo Alto's newly elected Mayor Adrian Fine long to distinguish himself from most of his colleagues when it comes to housing policy -- and to ruffle some feathers in the process.
Fine, a passionate housing advocate who became mayor on Jan. 6, submitted a letter to State Sen. Scott Wiener on Jan. 17, offering his wholehearted endorsement of Senate Bill 50, a highly contentious bill that aims to increase the density and height of housing developments near transit corridors and in cities with plentiful jobs.
In the letter, which is written on city of Palo Alto letterhead despite the fact that the opinion he expressed is personal and not reflective of his new office, Fine took a shot at the city itself, which he argued is incapable of solving its significant housing problems without Sacramento stepping in.
Fine, who has a master's degree in city planning, said in the letter that his position is informed by his three years of experience on the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, his four years on the City Council and his prior work as a city planner.
"From all of that experience, I can tell you that local municipalities like Palo Alto are incapable of solving the housing crisis -- we simply have too many rules, too much process, too much engagement (and I know it's impolitic to write that!) ... and too little progress."
"When local governments cannot, or will not, solve a problem of regional or state concern, then that is precisely when the state government should step in. I understand that the politics of housing are complex, but the solutions are not. If we want to maintain a diverse, inclusive, multi-generational society, then we must build more housing," Fine wrote.
SB 50 "offers my city and the state the best opportunity to provide secure, abundant and affordable housing for people of all generations, incomes and backgrounds," wrote Fine, who currently works at Autonomic, a company that makes software for transportation services.
Fine's letter is written in first-person and does not claim to represent the views of his council colleagues, but it also doesn't explicitly state that the rest of the council does not share his position -- contrary to city policy.
The council's policy guidebook states, "When presenting their individual opinions and positions, members shall explicitly state they do not represent their body or the city, nor will they allow the inference that they do."
When asked about his decision to offer his view on SB 50 on the city's official letterhead, Fine said there is nothing unusual about the action. Prior mayors, as well as his council colleagues, have submitted letters stating their positions routinely, he said.
"We do it all the time," Fine said. "The letter is extremely clear that this is my own position. I wrote the letter. That's my belief. At no point does it say it represents the council."
But while the practice of mayors writing letters is common, in most cases these letters represent the consensus of the council majority and pertain to things like comments on an environmental impact report, feedback on a transportation agency's business plan or requests for grant funding for a city project. In some cases, letters from mayors reflect legislative positions that the full council either explicitly voted to adopt or that were consistent with the council's broader guiding principles.
While the Palo Alto council has not taken any official positions on the latest version of Senate Bill 50, most of Fine's colleagues have been critical -- and in some cases hostile -- toward the proposed legislation. Last April, the council voted 4-2, with Fine and Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting, to take a position against any legislation that proposes a "one-size-fits-all" approach to local land-use decision -- a veiled reference to SB 50.
Among those who voted in favor of that letter was Eric Filseth, who served as mayor last year and devoted a large chunk of his "State of the City" speech to criticizing the top-down approach of legislation like SB 50 and to arguing for greater contributions from the commercial sector to solve the state's housing crisis.
While SB 50 has changed from last year, Fine's support for Wiener's legislation has been constant. Last year, he was the only council member who publicly supported the bill, which was punted to 2020 and will now need to be voted on by the end of this month to stay alive.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou has been particularly vociferous in her opposition to SB 50 and used Fine's support for it as a reason to abstain from the Jan. 6 vote to elect Fine mayor (he easily won the election by a 6-0 vote). At that meeting, Kou said she has "huge concerns" about Fine's positions on certain bills, especially SB 50.
"It's governance that is one-size-fits-all and top-down and ... any amendments that will be made to it will be lipstick on a pig," Kou said.
Kou told the Weekly on Monday that she has no problem with Fine expressing his position, but she does take issue with his failure to make it clear that the views in the letter are solely his and not the council's.
"He should have put a sentence in the very beginning stating that he is writing in his individual capacity," Kou said of the letter, which is emblazoned with "Office of the Mayor and City Council" in the top righthand corner. "It makes it appear as if the entire council and the city of Palo Alto is OK'ing it -- and that's not OK."
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, who like Kou favors slower city growth, called the letter "misleading."
"The use of the city's stationery -- he shouldn't have done that," DuBois told the Weekly.
After an inquiry from the Weekly, Fine posted a Twitter update Monday afternoon clarifying that his Jan. 17 letter represents his personal views.
"Due to some community and media feedback, I want to make clear that this is my opinion and position alone, not necessarily that of the council or the city of Palo Alto," Fine tweeted.
Fine's letter, which he posted on Twitter, received an overwhelmingly positive reaction, with more than 250 likes, more than 30 retweets, and numerous comments thanking him for his leadership and calling the letter a "beacon of hope" during the housing crisis.
But Kou said his Twitter post, including the clarification, do not suffice in correcting the misunderstanding that his letter may have engendered.
"The council needs to be a place of maturity, of working openly and transparently," Kou said. "Because someone has mayorship doesn't mean they can just go out and do whatever they want."