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Los Altos Hills changing-of-the-guard ceremony fraught with friction

George and Stephanie Tyson
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Newly elected Los Altos Hills City Councilman George Tyson, left, takes the oath of office Dec. 13 as his wife of 39 years, Stephanie, beams.

Los Altos Hills’ final city council meeting of the year – at first a jovial parade of presents and proclamations for outgoing members John Radford and Gary Waldeck – took an awkward turn Dec. 13 as two remaining figures on the dais scrapped for the vice mayorship.

Councilwoman Michelle Wu ultimately secured the title with four of five votes, including one from challenger Courtenay C. Corrigan, but the conflict exposed a rift between the two council members.

“The water’s been boiling for so long,” Wu said later. “It finally was tipping.”

Wu described her relationship with Corrigan in a phone interview with the Town Crier last week. She said Corrigan is “negative” toward her and has attempted to hinder her success because she mistakenly believes Wu, a non-native English speaker, struggles to communicate and understand topics of council discussion.

“When you have people trying to set you up for failure, you know it,” Wu said. “And that’s not what I want to promote. That’s negative energy.”

Corrigan declined to comment for this article, but new Mayor Roger Spreen offered some insight about the meeting’s palpable tension.

“It’s always a sensitive topic when we appoint anyone to any committee, and that’s why I think it might have felt awkward,” he said.

Unlike Los Altos, Los Altos Hills does not have an official policy dictating mayoral rotation. Traditionally, however, the council member in office the longest who has not served as vice mayor is elevated to that position through a council vote. After a year, the council typically votes to make that person mayor.

Council members at the Dec. 13 meeting unanimously selected Spreen as mayor; he served as vice mayor under the now-termed-out Radford. The council had to weigh two candidates vying for second-in-command, however: Wu, who had not previously served as vice mayor; and Corrigan, a former vice mayor and mayor.

Anticipating opposition, Wu urged her colleagues to follow Los Altos’ example and Los Altos Hills’ history. But Corrigan wasn’t deterred.

“I appreciate that the town has had a tradition – it’s a very good word for it – of allowing everyone to have their chance to serve,” she said. “I also respect the fact that this takes a majority to win, and if the policy or tradition stated that the person who has on a red shirt automatically gets the vote, it still requires three people to make that happen.”

Corrigan soon learned she wouldn’t get two of those votes from new council members Kavita Tankha and George Tyson, who took the oath of office just minutes before the discussion.

“I think as a general rule, it’s best to follow history and tradition as long as both the candidates being recommended for a certain seat are equally qualified,” Tankha said.

With that, Corrigan motioned to nominate Wu for the position – and Spreen, Tankha and Tyson voted in favor. Wu abstained, a decision she described last week as “a courtesy” mirroring how former council members have responded in similar situations.

Despite the recent friction, Wu reflects positively on the council’s future and her new leadership role.

“The past is past. It’s history,” she said. “I need to move forward and be the best vice mayor I can be.”

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