Woodside mayor and retired private-sector financial officer Tom Shanahan is leaving the Town Council after one four-year term. Leaving with him will be his uncommon skill at running meetings, his outspoken Libertarian viewpoint, and his abiding sense of humor.
"I would say that it had its ups and downs," Mr. Shanahan said of his time in local government.
He quickly found himself in sync with the town administration on the handling of public finances, he said. And on policy issues in general, he said he enjoyed interacting with his council colleagues and with the public.
Adjudicating residents' appeals, such as over house plans rejected by the Planning Commission over architectural or construction matters, was painful, Mr. Shanahan said. Decisions calling for technical knowledge, given his business and economics background, left him without a frame of reference and feeling less than confident, he said.
As mayor, by all appearances, he had confidence to spare. "I tend to be willing to take charge," he said. "I enjoyed being mayor only because I felt I had the ability to guide the pace of the meeting and help structure the conversation to shape actionable ideas."
"It's a management challenge," he said when asked about his approach to meetings. "My attitude is, 'How am I going to get through this?'" He said he would study the agenda with the town manager days ahead of the meeting, thinking through each item and its possible outcomes.
"He runs a great meeting and he's very thoughtful," said Councilwoman Deborah Gordon. "I think he has been a delightful person to work with, and I certainly did not expect that coming in," she said in a comment on the chasm between her politics and Mr. Shanahan's. "I will miss him."
The public, town volunteers and Town Hall staff are all "really going to miss" Mr. Shanahan, Planning Director Jackie Young said. His manner was firm but inclusive, and supportive of and encouraging to the continuous improvement of town processes, she said. "The icing on the cake, though, is his quick wit," she said.
Humor is part of his personality and an effective management tool, Mr. Shanahan said. People (like himself) who have strong views and aggressive styles can use humor to temper what may be perceived as intimidation, he said. "If you can get people in groups to laugh about something, it can take some of the emotion out of the discussion," he said.
The District 3 seat on the council is seen, by some, as appropriate for a "horse person," Mr. Shanahan said. He plays polo and is on the board of the Horse Park at Woodside. He was asked to run in 2011 and did, unopposed, out of a sense of obligation to Woodside's equestrians, he said.
Asked for his views on government, Mr. Shanahan said he prefers small government and local funding. "So much of federal government spending is transfer payments among the middle class -- from young to old, from non-college people to college students, from city-folks to farmers -- rather than transfers of spending power to people below the poverty line," he said. "(It's) much better, in my view, to be done at state or local levels or left undone so that people can decide for themselves."
In setting policy, listening is key, Mr. Shanahan said. "I was used to the pace of private enterprise and it is often a challenge to listen to testimony at these public forums," he said. Listening can be "like watching ice melt," but government should not be run like a business, he said.
"Office holders should understand that the purpose of government is not necessarily efficiency, but to make sure that everybody gets a hearing," he said. Governments have power to compel action, so "you've got to be damn sure that the people on the losing side get a chance to make their case," he said.
If that last point sounded lawyerly, it's worth noting that Mr. Shanahan had been accepted to law school and business school at Harvard University. At the time, he was finishing up a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant in Vietnam.
He grew up in Pasadena, has a bachelor's degree in economics from Stanford University and a master's degree in business from Harvard. He conducts 10-week seminars at Stanford to talk about "the interaction between Silicon Valley emerging companies and Wall Street capital-raising and merger/acquisition activities."
An auxiliary building at Mr. Shanahan's home houses an extensive HO-scale model-railroad setup of his own design. This small world has panoramic photo backdrops for imaginary representations of Woodside, the Peninsula, San Francisco, Monterey and the Central Valley. Among the points of interest: a cafe in Woodside, San Francisco painted-ladies-style homes, Fort Ord, a cotton company, an oil refinery and a ghost town.
The Woodside council recently approved a climate action plan, but only after a majority vote removed references to Woodside's climate-change-related goals and federal government statements as to why climate change is happening and what its impacts are likely to be. In the majority were Mr. Shanahan and council members Dave Burow, Anne Kasten and Peter Mason.
Asked to explain his vote, Mr. Shanahan said the council should not associate itself with conclusions that global warming is or is not happening. "I did not want to see the council step into a recitation of facts," he said. "Some people don't accept those facts."
In an email, he elaborated: "From my reading, my current opinion is that climate change is a fuzzy concept and that the degree of human contribution to it is fuzzier still. Based on current information, I would be extremely cautious in formulating public policy and public spending in response to poorly understood concepts of 'climate change.'"
Asked whether the council has leadership obligations on this matter, Mr. Shanahan replied: "No. I don't believe in leading my community. People are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their property. I don't see the Town Council as taking a leadership role in public policy beyond the boundaries of the town."