On Deadline: Mayor Greg Scharff races against time as one-year mayor, with little frustration — yet | April 26, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 26, 2013

On Deadline: Mayor Greg Scharff races against time as one-year mayor, with little frustration — yet

by Jay Thorwaldson

Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff is racing against time, pacing his goals as mayor against the tradition of limiting mayors to one-year terms.

The idea is to pass the prestigious mayorship around to as many council members as possible.

But the practice has left some mayors frustrated at how fast time passes and how slow progress is made on their goals as mayor.

It doesn't help that the mayor is primarily a figurehead position, elected by fellow City Council members to chair meetings, cut ribbons at groundbreaking ceremonies or speak at special occasions, and participate in setting meeting agendas.

Some mayors have made effective use of the Teddy Roosevelt-style "bully pulpit" the office provides, sometimes seen as privately using more bully than pulpit.

Historically, some mayors have been courageous and others timid, even cowed, by other members with private agendas. A few have left the mayor's seat so frustrated they just didn't want to talk about it.

But Mayor Scharff, a third through his term, exudes enthusiasm in his personal drive to move things along. Under his nudging, even council meetings have picked up the pace, most ending well before midnight.

His agenda for the most part matches priorities set by the council at its annual spring retreat and reflects major issues confronting the city.

The biggest item for Scharff goes under the deceptively simple term of infrastructure.

"We are going to stop underfunding our infrastructure," Scharff declared. "We have earmarked an extra $2.5 million to $3 million. That's to the 'keep-up' part of it. Now we're looking at solving the 'catch-up' part. And then we're looking at fixing all of the long-term stuff. That's why we have the Infrastructure Committee, which is going to focus on how we make sure that we catch up, redo all our infrastructure that needs to be done, and then keep up in the future.

"Because what previous councils did, frankly, was take the money and spend it on pensions and benefits, and on other things. ... The easiest thing to do in a bad budget (year) is to cut your infrastructure." The term encompasses two biggies: a new public-safety building (sometimes called the "police building" or "police headquarters"), and a decades-long challenge known as "fiber to the premises," formerly "fiber to the home" — meaning high-speed Internet citywide.

Three other subjects top Scharff's personal agenda: (1) continuing the push to trim city employee pensions and retirement benefits; (2) extending retail commercial areas throughout downtown and filling in "dead zones" where non-retail businesses exist at street level; and (3) extending no-smoking areas beyond to all parks and perhaps even commercial streets and sidewalks.

The new public-safety building by any name is now estimated to cost about $50 million, trimmed from an earlier high of about $81 million. If the city needs to fund it, voters must give two-thirds approval to a bond measure, likely part of a larger "infrastructure bond." Yet surveys show that while a majority of voters would support a new headquarters building, achieving the magic 66.7 percent would be elusive.

Instead, developer Jay Paul has proposed that he pay for the land and headquarters building as a major public benefit in return for a dense development along Park Boulevard just south of Oregon Expressway, replacing a building that housed AOL for a time.

The public-safety building site is across Park, extending to the Caltrain tracks. Yet it has serious problems with access and configuration, Police Chief Dennis Burns last week told the Planning and Transportation Commission in response to a question.

Those problems can likely be worked out, with some compromises, Scharff believes, echoed by City Manager James Keene in a telephone interview Tuesday. Keene said architects for the city and Jay Paul have made "positive progress" to make the building work effectively. An update is scheduled to be made to the city's Infrastructure Committee at its May 7 meeting.

Without the public-safety building, "I'm actually hopeful we don't have to go out to the public for a bond measure" for any infrastructure items, Scharff said.

The other big-ticket item that has stymied Palo Alto officials literally since the 1980s is a high-speed fiber-optic Internet connection to homes and businesses throughout Palo Alto, an off-ramp to the global Internet superhighway, so to speak.

"My belief is that fiber to the premises is the right thing and we should do it," Scharff said. "But we obviously need to have a thoughtful approach and that's why we need to have a committee. We need to decide if we want to spend the money, and if it makes sense."

In the big picture, "If we're going to do it we should do it and if we're not going to do it we should say why we're not going to do it."

"Then we should have things like — and they're not mutually exclusive — wi-fi (wireless Internet) downtown, or at least wi-fi hotspots like we're doing at Cogswell Park. We should get those kind of things done."

Then comes pensions and benefits.

"The other big push since I've been on the council is pensions and benefits," Scharff noted. "The biggest thing was getting rid of binding arbitration for police and fire. You run into all these equity issues, you see. If you can't make changes in police and fire then everyone else thinks it's unfair. So it affects all of your bargaining groups and it creates huge resentment that they are favored groups."

He sees a growing sense of interest in seeking for "best practices" in lieu of an emphasis on union rules within the Fire Department.

Scharff said he feels especially passionate about extending and reinvigorating street-level retail commercial areas, including working to reduce dead zones of non-retail businesses at street level.

Finally, he would like to see a major expansion of no-smoking areas, beyond small parks to all parks and even, for health and other concerns, to commercial areas generally. Where there's smoke there's ire.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs posted on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).


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