Almanac

News - August 18, 2010

Menlo Park election: Who are these people?

• Scrutiny of Menlo Park candidates begins.

by Sandy Brundage

All six candidates running for Menlo Park City Council have spent time in the public eye, one way or another, some moments more pleasant than others, but rewarding enough that they're back for more.

The teacher

Educator and "unofficial" community leader Chuck Bernstein stands opposed to the Menlo Gateway Project (Dave Bohannon's big office-hotel development proposal that will be on the November ballot) and high-speed rail, and led the drive to put the pension-reform initiative on the ballot. He served on a Willows neighborhood watch group, the city's 2005 budget advisory committee, and task forces on residential development and child care.

Mr. Bernstein released a statement Aug. 12 calling for campaign-spending limits and a voluntary code of conduct, proposing a ceiling of $40,000 per candidate.

Although he said there are no groups from whom he won't accept a limited contribution, one clause of the campaign spending limit agreement calls for candidates to exclude all contributions from anyone with a current or pending matter before the City Council during the past six months or upcoming six months.

The lawyer

Criminal defense attorney Kirsten Keith indicated she agreed with the essence of Mr. Bernstein's proposals and would sign, provided a few tweaks were made. She did not specify what changes she wanted.

A self-described fiscal conservative, she said she has a track record of building consensus after listening to all sides. In addition to serving on the Planning Commission for six years, she has volunteered time with county agencies dealing with women's issues, including domestic violence, and city commissions on conflict resolution and housing.

Now for the "big issues" of this year's election: She voted in support of the Menlo Gateway project. A two-tier pension system, she believes, would prevent the city's finances from buckling under spiraling pension costs. That leaves high-speed rail. As with the other candidates — no one likes the idea of aerial tracks — Ms. Keith supports an underground solution.

The mayor

Many residents know Mayor Rich Cline's positions on high-speed rail through his work with the Peninsula Cities Consortium, which opposes the current above-ground design, and on the Bohannon Gateway project (he voted to put it on the ballot).

The city needs pension reform, he said, but a two-tier system won't solve all the problems. "Pension reform is but a small part of a long-term realignment of our city's organization to provide the high level of service we have come to expect, but more efficiently and with an eye toward long-term sustainability," he said.

He has drawn a line regarding campaign funding. "Given the current environment with employee negotiations and some development projects, I will not take money from employee unions and the developers with projects under way or pending," Mr. Cline said. "Conflict of interest concerns are real."

Why should he be re-elected? "We want leaders who are willing to make decisions that may go against their own personal convictions if the community feedback and data collection proves that decision correct," he answered, citing his focus on preserving Menlo Park's quality of life while building financial soundness.

The CFO

Peter Ohtaki, likewise, said he will not accept contributions from unions. The board president of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District said he supports the pension-reform initiative, and thinks his background as a former chief financial officer would help the city control expenses. He referred to high-speed rail as a "very risky make-work program," and opposes elevated tracks.

On the issue of development, Mr. Ohtaki said: "We need to revitalize our local economy, including not only east of Bayshore but also along El Camino Real. The council promised to fix the empty dealerships on El Camino and empty storefronts on Santa Cruz Avenue. That hasn't happened. Menlo Park deserves better. "

The businessman

Russell Peterson, perhaps best known by local residents as the man who sued the high-speed rail authority, would also like to be known for other qualities.

"I'm an independent thinker with a reasoned approach. I tend towards a smaller footprint in Menlo Park," he said. "I want to add the voice of folks I don't think are being heard as much as the developers or the anti-developers." He referred to "certain legalistic or Brown Act things that get in the way of doing what most people would consider sensible."

He describes his budget approach as "fiscally conservative. If you don't have it, don't spend it." That philosophy applies to his campaign, which he intends to conduct primarily online. He doubts the unions would donate, even though his father was a union man.

Where does he stand on the "big four" issues? Smaller Gateway development, same for the downtown plan, yes to pension reform — "you don't plan to fail; if the plan is to be bankrupt in the future, I don't think it's a good plan" — no to putting issues like these on the ballot, and then there's the last issue: high-speed rail.

Speaking with Mr. Peterson, one characteristic becomes clear —he can't go more than one minute without mentioning high-speed rail. It remains to be seen how his dedication to that topic would gel with sitting on the City Council, as the state ethics commission would likely not allow him to vote or speak on the issue as a councilmember. Mr. Peterson himself is not sure he wants to surrender that option; he's taking the month of August to decide whether to actually run. "I filed to qualify for the ballot," he said.

The councilman

That leaves Councilman Heyward Robinson. The engineer joins Mr. Cline and Mr. Ohtaki in stating he will not accept money from unions, or developers with projects pending before the city, but added a caveat: that only applies to unions who represent Menlo Park employees.

He voted yes to pension reform, but doesn't think the ballot box is the place to decide such matters, since that leaves the initiative open to legal challenge. "It's best to continue our history of having council make decisions about pension rates in the framework of labor negotiations and as part of a total compensation package," he said.

Like the sixth member of a Greek chorus, Mr. Robinson voiced his dislike of elevated high-speed rails, saying it "would be a disaster for our city."

Not so much dislike for the Bohannon project, however, which he said would be located in an appropriate non-residential area, and increase Menlo Park's available office space while adding jobs and revenue.

"There's no substitute for experience," Mr. Robinson said when asked why he should be re-elected. "I ask better questions than when I joined the council. Better questions result in better solutions."

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