When he , Mark Santoro pledged transparency and a return to civility in city government. Throw in , and his propensity to give fish and crabs—all self-caught—to city staff and Santoro might just be the most intriguing civil servant to grace Cupertino in awhile.
"He's a very sincere and conscientious human being," said Mahesh Nihalani, owner of Jewels in Style in Sunnyvale and a friend of Santoro's. The two met when both were running for city council in 2009. Santoro, the incumbent, won the election, but the businessmen have remained close.
"Every councilmember has his or her own reasons for why they run for city council," Nihalani said. "Some run for political ambitions or personal gain. Mark came with the agenda to work for the people and he’s been very successful at doing that.”
Santoro ran for office, Nihalani said, to make the city work better for its citizens.
Fellow councilman Gilbert Wong attested to Santoro's desire to turn city government into something residents feel sweats for them and not the other way around.
"He wanted to see how he could make more user friendly," Wong said about why the Micro Magic, Inc. CEO ran for office. “I see him less as a career politician and more as an elected official there to serve the community.”
This sense of duty, he said, stemmed from Santoro's own experience trying to build a house—"his dream house”—on Lindy Lane in 2007.
"Mark had to go through a lot of hoops to build his home," Wong said.
The city's overlay zoning codes had dramatically lowered the number of properties that could be built in the hills, Vice Mayor Orrin Mahoney explained, but the coding was done in such a confusing way that Santoro and his neighbors took the issue to the city. When they were met with unresponsiveness from both the council and planning commission, Santoro decided to do something about it.
"He ran a very unconventional campaign," Wong said. "He was really running for Cupertino. Not a party or an agenda, but he wanted to do what's right for Cupertino."
Santoro fundraised very little, Wong said, and relied on door-to-door visits to get his message across to voters. This personal interaction helped Santoro explain who he was and what he stood for to his constituents.
"I thought he was crazy to run like that," Wong said. "But he wanted to be open and transparent."
Santoro seems to have approached his job as mayor with the same tenacity he did while running for office. Mahoney said Santoro goes through documents with a fine toothcomb, often picking up details others have missed.
"Some of the packets we get are 700 to 900 pages long, and while I'm not saying he reads every single page, Mark will really dig into it and sometimes he'll pick up stuff that staff doesn't catch," he said. "He works harder than anyone on council."
While his analytic thinking helps him pick up minutiae, Santoro's business background brings a unique skill set to the council.
"He really treats this job as if it's his own company," Wong said. "He really looks at finance numbers and contracts. If contracts are fuzzy and they don't have specific dollar amounts, he's not going to pass it and he's going to call it out."
Wong referenced the mayor's refusal to install solar panels into certain government buildings unless there was a guaranteed return of investment benefiting the city.
"Even though he's in favor of solar, he brings value to the council because he looks at things from a financial perspective," he said.
It's his technology background that seems to give Santoro the ability to look at issues with an eye towards the highest return.
"He's absolutely brilliant," said Liz Kniss, a long-time friend and a Santa Clara County district supervisor. "He does see things very clearly and sometimes sees things differently than others do. He can be independent, perhaps to the point of being difficult from time to time, but he's very effective at what he does."
Mahoney and councilman both remarked on Santoro's habit of bringing up issues during meetings that aren't agenized and seemingly out of left field.
"It's important for the council to be creative and not get railroaded towards what the staff says we should be talking about," Sinks said. "I appreciate that he is willing to listen to residents and do things that may nor be what city staff would have us do or that developers would have us do."
Santoro isn't afraid to tackle controversial issues, though he does so with eye towards civility. When a reference he made to a Bruce Lee movie during discussions of a dedicated city dog park was taken out of context as a racial slur, Wong said Santoro handled the situation with grace and strength.
"When that happened, he understood the situation and understood that it was a misunderstanding," Wong said. "He apologized for the remarks, but it wasn't an apology for what he said but rather for the misunderstanding."
Wong lauded Santoro for his willingness to speak his mind for the things that he believes in. He’s even begun to take a page from Santoro’s book.
"He's been really helpful to me because I'm someone who likes compromise and doesn't like confrontation," he said. "He's helped me be stronger and to not be afraid that people are going to get upset with you. He's taught me if that if you take a position, at least 50 percent will be happy with you and 50 percent unhappy, but both sides will respect you."