Five residents think they're the right people to help guide the city through those choices and opportunities. They are competing for two seats on the five-member council. The winners will be elected to four-year terms.
"Honest, hard-working, driven," said Dave Bragg when asked to describe himself in three words.
He's a Marine combat veteran turned firefighter whose campaign slogan also boils down to three words — "Born to serve."
His top issues: implementing the specific plan, restoring vibrancy and attracting business to Menlo Park. As the owner of a construction company, Mr. Bragg spoke from personal experience when observing that property owners remain confused about what's allowed under the new rules installed by the specific plan.
And the permit process in Menlo Park — that's another area crying out for renovation, he said. Speaking from a builder's perspective, Mr. Bragg shared stories of clients afraid to apply for permits because of the expenses racked up by the city's drawn-out, ambiguous process. He's advocating for a streamlined process with a clear-cut checklist, and if the city wants to mandate green building features, great. "When you try to convince clients to spend more to go green, they say, 'money's green too.' If it's law, that's easier to do."
Affordable housing is on the minds of many voters as the city works to wrench its housing plan into compliance with state law. "It's not a matter of opinion; it's something we have to do," Mr. Bragg said. "A lot of folks in west Menlo Park don't want affordable housing with them. ... I got asked, do you want it next to the duck pond in Sharon Heights or in Belle Haven?" He noted that Belle Haven seems less resistant to the idea.
As a firefighter, Mr. Bragg might be expected to feel strongly about pension reform. And he does. "It needs to happen. But it needs to be negotiated. We could have done better for the city than Measure L if it had been negotiated," for example, with a greater employee contribution, he said.
Mr. Bragg is a newcomer to city politics. "I'm not a drawn-out talker," he said with a grin when asked what quality he hopes to bring to the council.
Catherine Carlton's personal snapshot: "Good listener, tenacious, smart. Caring, resilient."
Rounding out Ms. Carlton's list of top issues for the city: the blight of El Camino Real, fiscal responsibility, and creating a better reputation as a city that "wants business to come; Menlo Park has a reputation as 'difficult.'" Concern for the infrastructure of emergency response ties into that. Without redundant systems in place, "we're not as well-prepared as we could be," she said.
The current race to update the city's housing plan came about because of a lack of proactive steps by the council, according to Ms. Carlton. She said an argument might be made for adding housing affordable by newly divorced parents, seniors and teachers. The Parks and Recreation commissioner doesn't favor converting parks to housing or adding sites near gas pipelines or potential areas of liquefaction, but thought "infill seems like an intelligent way to go for some of it" along with counting secondary, also known as granny, units.
She's eager to see what happens with pension reform on the state level. "The elephant in the room is police and fire. I am so in love with the safety of Menlo Park, and would never do anything to jeopardize police response." Adding more non-sworn personnel rather than sworn officers might be one way to enlarge the police force while controlling costs, Ms. Carlton suggested. She said she hopes the next council has the wherewithal to address issues without leaving that to ballot measures like Measure L.
Unions figure large in the political landscape of pension reform, of course, and as the daughter of a teacher, Ms. Carlton emphasized her empathy and respect for what they do. But one comment during a recent meeting with a union lingered in her memory. "They did say one thing that really stuck with me. That if you said you were going to vote 'X', and didn't, they would give you a call. They let you know without any doubt that they expected you to haul the line. Fair enough, but I lost sleep thinking over it. ... Integrity is important, and I'd hate to sign a statement saying I would always vote 'X'. I can't promise that."
"Kind, passionate, smart, in tune with the community," was Carolyn Clarke's self-portrait.
Her top three issues: Traffic, affordable housing and finding new revenue streams. "I know people think of affordable housing as the projects, but that's not what it is. This is housing for working people, for local families," she said.
Ms. Clarke, a housing commissioner, has also been serving on the steering committee charged with identifying sites to rezone to increase Menlo Park's housing capacity in compliance with state law. That includes setting aside sites and incentives for developers to build affordable housing. "Getting the buy-in is going to be a challenge, but I'm optimistic." She analyzed sites based on what type of population would be served, such as seniors, and which are close to transit.
It has been about 25 years since a Belle Haven resident last served on the council. As a resident of that neighborhood, Ms. Clarke would like to see that change. "I'd like to see east and west (Menlo Park) get to know each other more," she said. "I also want to see Belle Haven become self-sufficient" by supporting services such as a credit union, retail, small business owner seminars, and the long-awaited (and still on the city's drawing board) police substation. Raising the quality of education for the neighborhood's students to match that of those in the Menlo Park City School District is another area of focus.
Ms. Clarke voted against Measure L, the Menlo Park pension-reform initiative that passed by 72 percent. She supports pension reform, she said, but thought putting it in the hands of the voters was a mistake because voters don't have as much information as the council does, and in the meantime no one knows how state reform efforts will play out on the local level. "Pension reform needed to happen, but I had a problem with the process."
Asked to describe herself in three words, incumbent Kelly Fergusson said, "Disciplined, hard-working, accessible, friendly, analytic, both sides of the brain."
She ticked off land-use planning, service levels and the quality of schools and neighborhoods as the city's top issues. Ms. Fergusson touted her advanced degrees from Stanford as relevant to figuring out the city's future. "There's unfinished business, we still have land-use issues to sort out."
Affordable housing is one of those issues. "I think workforce housing is important," she said. "Working families want to live near their jobs. We all do." That housing could reduce traffic congestion, but must be balanced with increased demand on local schools, according to Ms. Fergusson.
The current housing element update is driven by state mandate, a situation that doesn't appear to sit well with the councilwoman. She listed public safety — police and fire services — as a higher priority. "I'm here to serve the residents, not the state."
Determination to win a third term, despite a lack of endorsement from any current council member, underlined Ms. Fergusson's responses. She declared herself willing to do whatever it takes.
When asked about the Brown Act violation that led to her resignation as mayor in 2010, Ms. Fergusson responded: "I'm glad it's over and the issue is behind us. I'm pleased the district attorney found there was no wrongdoing and the city properly handled the cure."
City Attorney Bill McClure had confirmed the violation, a serial solicitation of votes from two council colleagues conducted outside the public's knowledge. Rescinding the original vote, which named Ms. Fergusson mayor, provided a sufficient civil remedy, according to a statement from the district attorney.
"Family, dedicated, energetic, investigative," was Ray Mueller's brief self-portrait. "Creative."
An attorney, Mr. Mueller demonstrated a willingness to research issues during his time on the Transportation Commission, and that remained in evidence during the Almanac interview — he was the only candidate to bring his homework, in the form of documents and binders for reference, to the meeting.
His top-three issues: Increasing revenue and the long-term financial health of the city; housing; and the environment.
"We do need affordable housing. I like to call it 'economic diversity'," he said. "It makes a community healthy." Ideally that would be located in pockets all over the city, near transit centers.
Now about that revenue: Mr. Mueller said his research shows that start-up businesses leave Menlo Park on the cusp of producing money for the city because the planning process leaves them unsure as to whether they'll get a use permit upon expansion. The city's seen a 41 percent drop in revenue over five years, according to that analysis.
The solution? Streamline the permit process, and revitalize the M2 business districts on the city's east side. "I'm not Pollyannaish. This is going to be a political discussion and it's going to be energetic, and that's fine," Mr. Mueller said. "I've been banging this drum for two years." Bring in the contract planners, if there's insufficient staff. Spend the political capital. Mine the city's proximity to Stanford University and venture capitalists to create a diversified economic engine that doesn't put all its eggs in the Facebook basket, he said.
Like Ms. Carlton, he'd like to see where the state ends up with pension reform "so we know where we are." Mr. Mueller said he's "not anti-union, not at all, but the system is unsustainable. It's not all the union's fault" given that jurisdictions took unwise steps with employee compensation.
Occupation: Firefighter and business owner
Experience: U.S. Marine Corps; safety officer on Little League board; youth sports coach; co-chair, Menlo Fire Toy and Food Drive; Rebuilding Together Peninsula volunteer
Education: Emergency medical technician; firefighter certification through College of San Mateo and Santa Barbara City College
Experience: Parks and Recreation Commission; Sharon Heights Homeowners Association; board member, Vista Center for the Blind and Junior League; South Bay Coalition Against Human Trafficking; Menlo Park AYSO; Girl Scouts troop leader; master composter
Education: B.A. in communications, Tulane University; MBA, Cass Business School, London
Occupation: Accountant and small business owner
Experience: Housing Commission; Housing Element Steering Committee; founder, Belle Haven Community Foundation; Menlo Park Las Pulgas Committee; Habitat for Humanity volunteer; co-founder, School of Wisdom and Knowledge (Palo Alto charter school)
Education: B.S. in business administration, San Francisco State University; CPA
Occupation: Clean energy executive for local government market at Siemens
Experience: Menlo Park City Council since 2004; board member, Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency; high speed rail subcommittee; business development subcommittee; public safety, transportation, environmental quality and public works commissions for League of California Cities; Peninsula Volunteers advisory council
Education: B.S. in applied earth science, M.S. and Ph.D. in civil engineering, all from Stanford University
Experience: Transportation Commission; San Mateo County Domestic Violence Collaborative; Santa Cruz Avenue Downtown Block Party committee; board member, Las Lomitas Education Foundation; Santa Cruz Avenue Neighborhood Group organizer
Education: B.S. in bio-resource sciences, UC Berkeley; J.D. , UC Hastings