The public dispute between Palo Alto's mayor and vice mayor over a ballot measure to fund Caltrain escalated Tuesday, when Mayor Adrian Fine fired off a missive defending himself from accusations that he had overstepped his authority in declaring the city's support for the measure and accusing Vice Mayor Tom DuBois of favoring a "do-nothing approach."
In a letter that he emailed to the mayors of San Francisco and San Jose, supervisors from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and the boards of the various transit agencies in three counties, Fine defended his issuance of a Monday letter, on behalf of the city, strongly urging San Francisco supervisors to support placing a sales tax measure to fund Caltrain on the November ballot.
The move caught his colleagues by surprise and prompted Vice Mayor Tom DuBois to issue his own letter, explaining to the various city and county officials that Fine does not represent the full council, which has yet to discuss or take any positions on the issue.
While Fine had declined to discuss his Monday statement, he argued in his Tuesday follow-up letter that DuBois' message was "disputatious and misleading" and maintained that his own letter was written "in full accordance with city council and city policies," including the city's legislative priorities and the council's advocacy guidelines.
"In short, the letter is not contrary to my authority as Mayor; my colleague the vice mayor just disagrees with the substance of the letter and is using process to dispute that. It's a pattern I've seen before, and it undermines the credibility our city has. Maybe that's the purpose," Fine wrote.
DuBois wasn't the only council member who said he was surprised to see Fine take a position on behalf of the city. He told this news organization that he had spoken to council members Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou on Monday afternoon and neither of them had heard about it. Liz Kniss, who is typically aligned with Fine, also said she was disappointed in not receiving a warning from Fine about the letter.
While council members have generally supported finding a funding source for Caltrain, they have also expressed concern over the years about the governance structure of the rail service, which is overseen by the San Mateo County Transit District.
The argument over governance is now the main sticking point between the three counties where Caltrain operates (San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara) and the biggest barrier that the ballot measure faces.
Given the debate, DuBois and Kniss had both told this news organization that they would have preferred to see what the measure looks like before taking a position.
"This is a more complicated issue than just funding Caltrain," DuBois said Monday. "There are a lot of governance questions that would need to be addressed before we'd commit to supporting a tax."
Fine agreed in his Tuesday letter that, when it comes to the substance of the measure, there are "issues with governance, ridership during COVID-19, and the regressive nature of a sales tax."
"But the focus on governance and process issues that the vice mayor raises — while some of them valid — is really just a road to nowhere, a do-nothing approach," Fine wrote.
Fine wrote that he and his city support regional transit and called Caltrain a "vital part of our transportation network." He also said he was "disappointed to air Palo Alto's dirty laundry in a letter like this."
"Personally, it's become tiresome and predictable to continuously have the vice mayor run interference on the city's business with which he disagrees," Fine wrote. "I hope you all have colleagues who work in partnership and in service of your communities as you discuss and decide on the region's transportation future."