Almanac

News - November 10, 2010

Menlo Park City Council acquires new shape post-election

by Sandy Brundage

Incumbent Heyward Robinson and educator Chuck Bernstein are reflecting on their unsuccessful bids for Menlo Park City Council, as Peter Ohtaki, Kirsten Keith, and incumbent Rich Cline were elected Nov. 2.

The latest vote count: Peter Ohtaki, 4,735; Kirsten Keith, 4,441; Rich Cline, 4,134; Heyward Robinson, 3,844; Chuck Bernstein, 3,028; Russell Peterson, 1,560.

The Elected

Top vote-getter Peter Ohtaki didn't expect to finish in first place. "I thought I'd come in second, third, or fourth. I was very pleasantly surprised and quite frankly didn't believe it until 21 of 21 precincts reported in," he said.

Mr. Ohtaki gets excited about number-crunching in a way most people reserve for great Christmas gifts. He sounded gleeful when describing his eagerness to work on the city's budget, and while he admitted that his enthusiasm may seem a bit odd, the newly elected council member thinks his fiscal responsibility resonated with voters.

He shared a campaign trail highlight with The Almanac. "One Sunday morning, where we were at the farmers' market, it was Heyward, Chuck, myself, and Kirsten's husband all passing out fliers at the north end," he recalled with a laugh. "It got to the point where people were cutting through booths to get out of the way. The poor customers were like, 'Enough!'"

Since he currently serves as president of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board, discussions about how to replace him are under way before the new council is sworn in on Dec. 7.

Mayor Rich Cline sounded surprised and grateful for his own third-place finish. The mayor said he thought fellow incumbent Heyward Robinson would've taken the spot. So that shows you how much I know," he said.

He thinks people will like the open demeanor and fairness of the two new council members, whom he described as "quality folks."

According to the mayor, the votes this year were split by Measure L and Measure T, as well as by concern over the economy and the downtown specific plan. Like Mr. Robinson, he endorsed Menlo Gateway, but unlike his colleague, did not oppose the pension-reform initiative.

"I think four years ago it was very much one side against another — so that vote split was really on a single issue — so you saw thousands of votes between winners and losers. In this case it was a few hundred for each," he said.

The remaining council member-elect, Planning Commissioner and attorney Kirsten Keith, appeared ebullient as she monitored the polls first at the "Yes on Measure L"' election night party, then over at David Bohannon's Measure T gathering at the Oak City Bar and Grill.

She said she's looking forward to working with Mr. Ohtaki, who she praised for running a great campaign, and Mr. Cline, who provided support during the election season.

"I've been volunteering on Menlo Park commissions for a decade. My commitment to collaboration and cooperation will continue as I serve Menlo Park on City Council. I look forward to working with everyone on behalf of the residents of Menlo Park," Ms. Keith said.

The Unelected

Incumbent Heyward Robinson, who ran a close fourth to Mr. Cline, thought an anti-incumbent vibe and a targeted smear campaign contributed to his loss.

"It didn't help that two of my council colleagues campaigned against me," he said. "I don't think there's any one thing, but it all kind of added up."

"Voters took us for granted a bit, not appreciating what we're doing," he added. "One of my concerns with the two new people coming in is our ability to be effective advocates on high-speed rail, and the Dumbarton Rail project. It's frustrating for me because we get no press coverage; no reporter ever comes to those meetings."

Still, Mr. Robinson, who doesn't think he'll run again, was pleased with his strategy, describing it as a very positive, issues-oriented campaign.

So was challenger Chuck Bernstein. "I ran the campaign I wanted to run, and I felt like I said the things that needed to be said, and I don't have regrets about any of it."

Don't expect Mr. Bernstein to retire from the political arena any time soon. "I'm going to have a response to the letter (city manager) Glen Rojas wrote about the budget. I'm still on the case," he said, laughing. "I've always been involved, and yes, I'm disappointed, but I'm not going anywhere."

High-speed rail activist Russell Peterson placed last, with 7 percent of the vote. There were "off-screen" surprises for the candidate, who said he'd found more collegiality than conflict. "There are a lot of civic leaders and engaged residents that really worked to make the process better for all of us, regardless of their political stripes," he commented. "Conflict makes headlines but when non-supporters and others are generous with their time and willing to share their experience and knowledge I can only be grateful."

On the bright side, losing the election does allow Mr. Peterson to continue scrutinizing high-speed rail; as a council member he would have had to recuse himself from those discussions.

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