In 2009, Margaret Abe-Koga took her first turn as mayor of Mountain View. It wasn't as fun as it was cracked up to be, due to factors beyond her control.
The impact of the Great Recession was just beginning to sink in: home values plummeted, development froze, the city budget shrank and cutbacks became mandatory. Being mayor of a medium-sized city meant hard decisions, grim sacrifices and "a lot of lost sleep," she said.
Now more than a decade later, Abe-Koga returns to the mayor's seat, this time with a vastly different set of circumstances. On the books, things look great: unprecedented city budget surpluses, a booming economy, and more jobs than anyone knows what to do with. Mountain View is a city where a real estate investment at San Antonio shopping center can reap a 600% return in just three years, as evidenced by the Los Altos School District's recent purchase.
But for many others, the city is still reeling from deep-seated turmoil linked to homelessness and housing inaffordability. With many people's homes and livelihoods on the line, an undercurrent of fierce political strife has become normal on issues such as rent control, redevelopment and the city's future vision for North Bayshore. In many ways, this time around will be more difficult, Abe-Koga said.
"This is a completely different situation now, and in all frankness, I've had to change my perspective somewhat," she said. "The issues we face now are more complex, less clear-cut in terms of solutions."
At its Tuesday, Jan. 7, meeting, the Mountain View City Council voted in Abe-Koga as the city's new mayor in a unanimous vote. Ellen Kamei was voted in as vice mayor, putting her in line to be the mayor in 2021. Outgoing Mayor Lisa Matichak welcomed her successor with a hug, and received a standing ovation for her yearlong stint wielding the gavel.
Abe-Koga, 50, takes the helm as mayor at a very tenuous time in Mountain View's history, and she inherits a set of challenges that will be far beyond the scope of what one elected leader in one city can hope to solve. But she still says there are realistic priorities that she can work to achieve.
Among her goals, Abe-Koga would like to streamline City Council meetings to avoid grueling sessions that stretch into the early-morning hours. It's an idea that few would oppose, but how to do it?
Abe-Koga pointed out she can't abbreviate public comment or her colleagues' discourse, but she does have other tools to move things along. In talks with City Hall staff, she has urged city employees to be more aggressive in making professional recommendations for elected leaders to adopt. More council decisions should be able to reach consensus quickly, especially if easy decisions can be notched off through straw votes, she said.
"I don't think that meetings that run until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. are good for anyone," she said. "There's little techniques that we can use to move things along."
Abe-Koga's term as mayor will also put her on point for quarterbacking the city's controversial March ballot measure to amend local rent control. This has been a focused priority for her since last year, when she led efforts to draw up a list of rent control tweaks that were later inserted into the city's measure.
She views these amendments as a sort of middle path between the landlord-tenant divide, allowing rent control to remain in place but tempering it to make it sustainable for apartment owners, she said. She expects to help organize a campaign to promote the measure in the near future. Politically, this job will require convincing tenants to vote against their short-term interests, while also persuading landlords to resist a more aggressive measure slated for November.
"We're not trying to get rid of rent control, and I'd really like us to move beyond that rhetoric," Abe-Koga said. "We need to see if we can find a happy medium so that we can put this issue to rest."
The ballot box will be a theme for City Council politics in 2020 in more ways than one. Another potential measure that could come before voters is a referendum to overturn the city's ordinance prohibiting large vehicles from parking on most city streets. This so-called RV ban has received harsh criticism for its impact on the city's homeless population who live in vehicles.
Among her first actions as mayor later this month, Abe-Koga must decide with her colleagues whether to place the ordinance on a future ballot, or to rescind it entirely. City officials are currently investigating whether the referendum can be placed on a special April election, Abe-Koga said. In either case, the referendum means the parking ban can't take effect for months, and that means the city's homeless efforts may be frozen for a while, she said.
"I see these restrictions as going in unison with the safe parking lot program ... I never thought that allowing RVs to park on the street could be a permanent solution," Abe-Koga said. "My hope with the RVs is to eventually get the folks into permanent housing, so how do we work on that?"
It's a question that is bewildering mayors across the Bay Area as they try to grapple with a homelessness crisis that cuts across city boundaries. Abe-Koga said she previously tried to persuade Google to open up the shuttered Gold's Gym off Shoreline Boulevard as a temporary shelter, but the company declined. The city needs to keep searching for other solutions, she said.
Where Abe-Koga sees more potential to enact change is improving the culture at City Hall. For too long, city employees have been beleaguered with hefty workloads and constant grind. Maintaining the city's quality means that Mountain View also need to make life easier for its staff, she said.
"For us to keep good people and maintain our service levels, we are going to have to do things more efficiently," she said. "We've been running at an intense pace in general at City Hall, and I think we need to reexamine that."
To that end, Abe-Koga signaled she doesn't have any sweeping priorities that she would push city officials to embark on. The city's list with more than 80 goals that was drafted last year should suffice, she said. Meanwhile, the city's template for building out about 15,000 new housing units in the coming years should serve well as as a road map for developers to follow, she said.
If there's any new priority the city needs to take up, it would be transportation, she said. Mountain View needs to put pressure on VTA to ensure the North County is represented and receives adequate funding. Meanwhile, Mountain View needs to "fill in the gaps" left by the county transit agency with the city's local shuttle service or other systems, she said.
Mountain View's mayor is charged with leading city meetings and calling speakers, but the position has little in the way of additional power compared to other City Council members. For the most part, the mayor's job is ceremonial: to act as the city's lead representative to meet with dignitaries, cut ribbons or give speeches.
While that may sound like the duties of a figurehead, the position does wield significant soft power, and pretty much anyone who has held the job can attest to its hefty workload.
Asked about what will be different from her 2009 turn as mayor, Abe-Koga emphasized the time demands of the job have dramatically increased. More than ever, the mayor is bombarded by media calls, corporate visits and constituent emails.
"People just don't know how much of time commitment this job is. Frankly, it's hard to describe," she said. "We're the center of Silicon Valley now, with all the companies we have here, so I guess that's added a spotlight onto the city."