The League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County held the 90-minute forum in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers to hear from the candidates and pose questions submitted in writing from an audience of about 80.
The candidates, in alphabetical order, are Andrew Cohen and Kirsten Keith, both of the Menlo Park City Council; Shelly Masur of the Redwood City School District board; Memo Morantes of the county Board of Education; Carlos Romero of the East Palo Alto City Council; Ernie Schmidt of the Redwood City Planning Commission; and Warren Slocum, former Registrar of Voters and county Clerk/Recorder.
One question dealt with the county's budget deficit, projected to be between $24 million and $28 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Most of the candidates said they wanted to see pension reform and reduced labor costs through negotiated agreements with unions.
Ms. Keith cited the 72 percent of voters that approved pension reform in 2010 by passing Menlo Park's Measure L. Mr. Schmidt backed two-tier benefits packages and more transparency in labor negotiations.
Ms. Masur noted that the shrinking deficit and recommended that continuing consideration be given to county program cuts, an idea Mr. Morantes said he did not support, given the deficit's downward trend. "We are running programs more efficiently," he said.
"A serious long-term focus" is what's missing, Mr. Slocum said, adding that to obtain such a focus, the board should seek professional guidance. Mr. Romero struck a similar note in recommending establishing a road map first so as to enable "outcome-based budgeting."
"I think it's important to look at the budget," Mr. Cohen said, "but I refuse to take a gloomy view of it." He said he would focus on ending urban sprawl and promoting infill housing, including second-unit housing.
The county's boards and commissions are not sufficiently diverse, said Mr. Romero, who is Latino. As a supervisor, he said, he would "go out and get that diversity on those commissions" through the appointment process.
Mr. Morantes, also of Latino heritage, said by email that for 19 years, he's worked with the county's Latino Leadership Council.
Ms. Keith, an attorney, said she speaks Spanish, has represented Latino clients, and lived for a time in Chile.
Both Mr. Slocum and Mr. Schmidt said they would meet their constituents where they live. For some residents, transportation is a problem, Mr. Schmidt said. "I don't see those residents going, for the most part, to the county supervisors meetings," he added.
Mr. Slocum called attention to his years reaching out to communities as the registrar of voters, and said that at least one person on his staff would be bilingual and from a local Latino community.
Mr. Cohen reiterated his pledge to increase the supply of affordable housing.
People commuting by car should understand the role of Caltrain: train riders are not out there with them on the road, Ms. Keith said. "It's important to all of us," she said, and an issue for the three counties along the corridor. A gas tax may be appropriate, she said.
Mr. Romero agreed, adding in an interview such alternatives as a small increase in the vehicle license fee or a short-term dedicated sales tax. Also important: improving east-west corridors and bicycle routes.
If there is dedicated funding, all the cities and towns must participate, Mr. Morantes said. Public transit systems typically receive government subsidies of 60 to 70 percent in other countries, he added.
Caltrain ridership and farebox revenues are up, Ms. Masur said. The next steps should include electric trains and better bus connections.
Caltrain needs to promote itself better, Mr. Schmidt said. "I like the fact that ridership is going up, but it's not enough. It needs to go up more."
"None of us can give you a definitive answer here tonight," Mr. Slocum said, noting his support for a regional plan.
The Mid-Peninsula Media Center taped the proceedings and they will appear on Channel 26 as well as on the League's website at www.smartvoter.org.