In the wake of Japan’s earthquake, coastal tsunamis and nuclear reactor crises, meeting disaster-preparedness goals is a top priority for Palo Alto, Mayor Sid Espinosa said in an exclusive interview with Palo Alto Patch.
As Espinosa wraps up his first quarter as mayor, he is adjusting to a bulging schedule in which disaster preparedness—— is just one of five major initiatives he is moving forward with City Council members in meetings that can last into the wee hours.
“The tragic events of Japan are an important reminder that we need to be working on disaster preparedness,” Espinosa said. “We’re starting production next week on a video to instruct viewers on personal emergency preparedness, which will debut at the May 1 Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Safety Faire and be shown at community forums and schools around town.”
But Palo Alto has a long way to go, he said.
“Our city is only 15 percent of the way there,” Espinosa said. “Preparedness relates to individuals and their own responsibilities, but the city needs to do the work for our facilities, the infrastructure and the care and management of citizens and partnering with regional agencies following a disaster.”
Land use and transportation planning is also a priority for Palo Alto.
“The City Council’s biggest issue of 2011 is the expansion of Stanford Hospital, which wants to add 1.4 million square feet to a new earthquake-compliant structure. This will have significant impact on traffic, congestion, pollution, etc. We are still in the process of negotiating $175 million in mitigation fees.
“We also have a lot more jobs than we have housing in Palo Alto,” Espinosa said. “Our city nearly doubles in size during the weekday with the working population. Part of the housing expansion is for allowing people to be closer to their jobs.”
The city’s financial health also weighs heavily on Espinosa’s mind. While many cities across the U.S. face bankruptcy, Palo Alto has benefited from being run conservatively. Espinosa served on the finance committee, and members agreed that they didn’t want to make short-term cuts.
“We wanted to look out 10 to 20 years, make long term structural changes and work within the budget that we have. We need to plan for what we think the world is going to look like in 10 to 20 years, based on what the economists tell us we’re going to face.”
Espinosa and council members have taken the long view on all priorities and have rolled over the same priorities for the second year.
“Sid’s toughest challenge as mayor is always trying to get eight other people to agree on the issues,” said Councilman Larry Klein, a former Palo Alto mayor. “A good mayor has to use limited power to move things along. This isn’t a basketball game where you play, and two hours later you have a score. The mayor works on achieving consensus. Sid is a good consensus builder.”
Juggling his new job as mayor while continuing his role as Microsoft’s director of citizenship, attending innumerable meetings and speaking functions, and answering 500-600 emails a day, seven days a week, doesn’t allow much down time.
Espinosa admits, “I don’t take care of myself. I eat well, but I would hit the gym everyday. Now exercise slips through the cracks.”
On Saturday, Espinosa will start his day with tree planting for all Palo Alto elementary schools, led by Canopy. Then he’ll speak at the annual meeting of the College Terrace Residents’ Association. After the neighborhood meeting, Espinosa will head to a fashion show fundraiser to give another speech. Afterward, he’ll run the torch to kick off the Bay Area Senior Games at Stanford University, followed by a speech to game participants. Finally he’ll answer as many emails as he can before he crashes.
But as mayor, Espinosa is fervent about solving citizens’ problems and seeing the fruits of his labor. “I tend to be the strategy person who drives to get work done and accomplish things. I focus on results, articulating the problem, motivating people to want to address the problem and creating the plan to make it happen.”
Espinosa is also fervent about enlisting the community to solve city problems. “Join your neighborhood association; serve on a city commission. For social issues, work with a nonprofit or check out Family Resources—all available on the Palo Alto website. We can’t meet our priorities without you.”
Espinosa contrasts his role as mayor with his experience working for the federal government during President Clinton’s administration.
“At the Justice Department when I worked for Attorney General Janet Reno, you could work on an issue for 15 years and still not see a resolution,” he said. “As Palo Alto mayor and City Council member, I can take on an issue, like our libraries. We spent two years and got the library bond measure passed.
“Now we’ve opened the newly renovated . The is almost complete and will reopen in July. will be completed in 2012, and the renovation starts next year and is due to open in 2013. You can come to the city with issues, and we can do something without it.
“Sid is deliberate and very focused,” said Barbara Waugh, close friend and colleague at Hewlett Packard while Espinosa served as director of global philanthropy. “He was sought by many for advice, including by me. Although he saw me as a mentor, I found that I got more out of the relationship than I believe I gave him. He is also extraordinarily cool under pressure. HP became a pressure cooker, but you could always count on Sid to look terrific and act calm, cool, collected and rationally.”
Just as when he was in his role as city councilman, Espinosa is doing the job of Palo Alto mayor at full throttle.
“Life is about choices," he said. "I do this work, because I love it. If I can’t have the biggest impact, I’ll change what I’m doing.”