The council chamber was half full Wednesday night, Sept. 29, as the candidates for Menlo Park City Council took turns answering six questions submitted by the audience. The League of Women Voters hosted the event, which ran a good deal shorter than most interminable council meetings.
Incumbents Rich Cline and Heyward Robinson, along with educator Chuck Bernstein, Menlo Park Fire Protection District board president Peter Ohtaki, Planning Commissioner Kirsten Keith, and wildcard entrant Russell Peterson fielded questions.
Before the forum began at 7 p.m., residents milled around outside the chamber, visiting with candidates and picking up campaign fliers. Former mayor Gail Slocum urged people to vote for Mr. Cline and Mr. Robinson, and also suggested taking a close look at Ms. Keith. Doing his part to keep the forum lively, Mr. Robinson was overheard coaching a member of the audience on questions "someone has to ask."
After the candidates got a few moments to enjoy the view from the dais, the moderator presented questions about the city budget, the downtown specific plan, climate change, lack of collegiality on the current council, whether decisions should be made via ballot measures, and, of course, high-speed rail.
High-speed rail, downtown plan
Mr. Peterson, well known for his opposition to high-speed rail, declared, "There is a god!" when he got the chance to respond first to a question about how much time candidates were willing to devote to the issue, and how they would demonstrate the impacts of the project to residents.
He, along with every other candidate, went on to explain why he thinks the current high-speed rail plan should be derailed.
In an evening filled with generalities, Ms. Keith proved willing to offer specific proposals. She proposed raising the utility tax on gas, water, and electricity from 1 percent, citing Palo Alto's 5 percent as an example, to help balance the budget. She also put forth electrifying Caltrain tracks from San Jose to San Francisco instead of building high-speed rail.
Mr. Bernstein, whose voice boomed across the chamber, displayed the most passion in his responses, and did not hesitate to attack. Declaring the amount paid for the study that led to the downtown specific plan "shameful," he said, "I don't like what I've seen of the plan. I don't think I can even call it a plan. Parking garages -- who's going to pay for them?"
Mr. Peterson disliked allowing five-story buildings on El Camino Real, while Mr. Ohtaki suggested focusing first on attracting new businesses to empty lots and storefront. He pledged to fill the empty lots on El Camino Real if elected.
The remaining three candidates reiterated their support for the plan.
A potentially controversial question about whether the council should make decisions instead of leaving items like pension reform (otherwise known as Measure L) and the Bohannon Gateway (Measure T) up to voters didn't stir up much discord. All six candidates agreed that ballot measures, while less than ideal, are sometimes necessary.
"If you were to ask me when I was first running, I would've said, 'no, absolutely not, you need to be a leader,'" Mr. Cline said. But he added that now he's realized some projects have a large enough impact that voters should decide. "Though the council should still take stand and vote on it. We did vote on Gateway."
At least one audience member wondered whether future council members could get along better than the current ones.
Ms. Keith pointed to six years of Planning Commission meetings and a broad base of support as proof that she knows how to work collaboratively. Mr. Ohtaki drew upon his experience with the diverse backgrounds of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District directors, suggesting that setting priorities can minimize internecine squabbles.
For Mr. Bernstein, the answer is simple. "It starts by talking to people, speaking clearly, frankly, directly, being honest, and above all, having respect for other people."
Distinguished from the other candidates by his lack of experience in holding a political office, Mr. Peterson said he'd stay focused on the issue and move on despite disagreement.
The incumbents, of course, have several years' worth of council meetings to demonstrate their working styles, as Mayor Cline said. Mr. Robinson stated he believes the council is less divided now than it was when he was first elected in 2006.
Once again, the candidates found common ground, concurring that approving Proposition 23, which would freeze reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in California until unemployment drops 7 percent, is not a step in the right direction.
Discussion veered toward Menlo Gateway after Mr. Bernstein declared the current council hypocritical for approving what he regards as a non-green project. Ms. Keith, the planning commissioner, and Councilman Robinson countered by referring to the project's potential LEEDS certification and carbon-neutral status.
Video of the voters forum will be replayed on public access television, and also be available soon via smartvoter.org, according to the organizers.