Two ideas are in play. Retiring council member Alison Cormack has suggested a mayor be selected based on longevity in office. If two or three members served the same number of years, then the mayor would be the person who received the most votes when elected. She said that all members are well suited to become mayor.
The other suggestion by Mayor Pat Burt and two other members is to elect the person most qualified. That’s what’s been happening, and oftentimes it turns into a popularity contest.
I don’t think every council member is suited to be mayor. Some are leaders, others may be more adept at analyzing possible paths to follow. And some just turn out to be weak council members – duds.
This year two members are in play for the mayoral post – Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and Councilman Greer Stone. The latter has proved himself a strong member, who has not been afraid to occasionally challenge the City Manager Ed Shikada, or the workings at city hall. Kou, a gentle person, has often accepted Shikada’s responses with less probing. But she is good at helping constituents.
We will find out how votes go Monday night, Jan. 9 – although I suspect council members have already decided who that will be.
But there’s another option I think it is time for this city to strongly consider: Have the residents elect a mayor, not the council. And I will further suggest the mayor be elected for a two-year term. Sure, there would be some wrinkles to straighten out like, what if the person elected mayor is in his/her last year of office, scheduled to be termed out. But good, creative thinking can iron out that problem.
And to elevate that idea: Some cities have a strong mayor/strong city manager form of government, whereby the strong mayor is paid full time and is the head of the city, authorized to do more than run a meeting and cut ribbons.
The mayor, as chief executive, would hire and fire the city manager, with the approval of the council, and, depending on how the job is structured, pick the police chief, the finance director and the director of communications (or other city department heads).
Years ago, when I lived in Illinois, I used to cover Highland Park, where I was managing editor of the local newspaper. The city had a strong mayor/strong manager form of government, with a seven-member council (the mayor was one of the council members).
I watched tis system function for a decade. There were disputes between the two, often argued in the newspaper which enabled the residents to become more familiar with how a city really operates.
The mayor’s salary was less than that of the manager’s, with the manager overseeing employees at city hall and the mayor responsible for community outreach, public and resident concerns. The mayor often “suggested” what the manager should do – but the manager was no wimp. Each stood their ground and each had community support. In major disputes, the council would mediate.
I think it was a very effective form of government. The city did not have its own Utilities plant but it had many amenities and services. Highland Park was smaller than Palo Alto, but the two cities are comparable. Each had bright residents who cared about local affairs. The amenities were comparable, as were the sections with manicured lawns.
Would something like a strong mayor-strong manager government work in Palo Alto? I think so. It’s worth some thought. But let’s not sit around simply cogitating. Let’s consider probing into an alternative form of local government in Palo Alto.
Would it save the city money – with two highly paid positions, not just the city manager? Possibly.
Palo Alto’s city manager’s salary is $573,000 a year including benefits. He also has 2 highly paid deputy and assistant city managers, who handle much of the manager’s daily load.
What I really like about the strong mayor/strong manager set-up is that the mayor, elected by the people. He answers to the people. The city manager is not elected by the people and yet, the way the system works now, he runs the city – and at times, he runs the council. It’s time to end the authority of an unelected manager.
It's time for a change.
If I were on the council, I would move to form a thoughtful, fair, brilliant task force, provide it with a decent budget, to work to figure out a better form of government for Pal Alto, and affirm deadline, say 18 months, and allocate several staffers to assist.
We could consider a strong mayor/strong manager government, and, just think, we may like it!!!