Four years ago, six candidates vied for three seats on the Menlo Park City Council, and this year is no different. But breaking the candidates down into camps was easier back then. In 2010 about the only way to divvy up the candidates is by experience: Incumbents vs. Newcomers.
Mayor Rich Cline and Councilman Heyward Robinson are fighting for a second term against Peter Ohtaki, Kirsten Keith, Russell Peterson, and Chuck Bernstein. Not to say the newcomers haven't paid their dues in public office — all have served the community in some capacity, and all, with the exception of Mr. Peterson, know firsthand the headaches and rewards of political service.
Downtown specific plan
Touted as "the" issue for the 2010 elections, the specific plan presents a new vision for downtown, which the city hopes will revitalize El Camino Real and boost new business on Santa Cruz Avenue.
The plan, which took shape after a series of community meetings, includes parking garages, three-story buildings and housing along El Camino Real, and a network of paseos and parks to encourage pedestrians to shop downtown. However, a group of downtown merchants and property owners are protesting some aspects, such as opening a covered market in the vicinity of the weekly Farmer's Market on Chestnut Street.
The plan has yet to come before the Planning Commission and City Council for approval; in the meantime the candidates are making their opinions clear.
"The general plan is outdated," Mr. Cline said. "This part of downtown needs focus." In response to a question about how to pay for the parking garages, he and Mr. Robinson suggested installing parking meters or pursuing a public-private partnership based on revenue sharing.
Planning Commissioner Keith reiterated the need for a detailed downtown plan; Mr. Ohtaki favors the El Camino Real portion of the plan, but isn't sure about the garages.
Then there's Mr. Bernstein, who said: "There are huge holes — who will pay for the garages, what happens to the Farmers' Market. There's no nexus between what was said at the community meetings and what came out in the report." He proposed focusing on El Camino Real first, then implementing the rest of the plan in stages.
"Stagnation is not the answer for downtown," said Mr. Peterson. "I support the concept of the plan, but would like to see some changes." Those changes include re-evaluating the building height limits to see whether fewer than five stories may suffice.
Measure L: Pension reform
Measure L proposes raising the minimum retirement age for new public employees, excluding police officers, by five years to 60, and also decreasing their maximum pension benefits by 0.7 percentage points to 2 percent of their highest annual salary averaged over three years, multiplied by the number of years employed. Under this measure, a new hire who retired at age 60 after working for the city for 30 years would receive 60 percent of that average. Current employees could retire at age 55, and get 81 percent.
Mr. Bernstein was a driving force behind the campaign to put Measure L on the November ballot. While Ms. Keith, Mr. Ohtaki, and Mr. Peterson support the initiative, incumbents Rich Cline and Heyward Robinson don't, saying it won't solve the problem of how the city can afford the benefits and it also ties the hands of future councils, since benefits could be increased only with voter approval.
The incumbents also had some explaining to do, given that they both voted to increase benefits in 2007, contributing to the current financial unsustainability of the city's pension plan.
"If I'd known then what I know now," said Mr. Cline, referring to the economy's downturn. Three years ago the council "came under a lot of duress" to keep up with other Peninsula cities who had raised their pensions to 2.75 percent.
Mr. Robinson pointed out that the increased benefits were in exchange for public employees agreeing to forego a 5 percent salary increase.
The plan for the Bohannon Menlo Gateway depicts a 230-room, seven-floor hotel, a 4,285-square-foot restaurant, and a 70,000-square-foot gym in one multi-story building. Three other buildings will house office complexes and parking garages. Before construction could start, however, the general plan must be amended to add a "business park" land-use category, and apply it to the 16-acre project site on the east side of U.S. 101, near Marsh Road and Bayfront Expressway, and that's where the ballot measure comes in.
If the candidates cast their votes on the Bohannon Menlo Gateway project right now, the breakdown would probably go like this: 4-1-1. The incumbents and the planning commissioner all chose to approve the project.
Saying he's "against it, but barely against it," Mr. Peterson thinks David Bohannon should be able to develop the site, but expects the environmental and traffic impacts will be bigger than predicted. He also questions whether the city negotiated a good deal by accepting sales tax revenue instead of in-lieu fees. "If only lawyers move [into the offices, what do you get?" he asked.
The lone voice crying out against Menlo Gateway belongs to Mr. Bernstein. He doubts the project's reality will seem as rosy as the way the developer describes it. Since the project may not be built for years, he said, it won't address one of Menlo Park's most urgent needs — new jobs.
Budget, budget, budget
On this, all candidates agree: Menlo Park spends more than it makes each year, leading the city into an ever-deepening budget deficit. Where they differ is on how to change that, and in a willingness to discuss specific steps.
Ms. Keith suggested raising the city's utility users tax (UUT) from 1 percent, comparing that to Palo Alto's 5 percent. Voters in 2006 approved a UUT of up to 3.5%, and capped the amount paid by anyone at $12,000 per year. However, in 2007, the City Council set the tax at 1 percent.
"Historically we had been running surpluses. The council had to fine-tune [the tax," Mr. Robinson said, explaining that surpluses plus high taxes make for unhappy constituents. "I think 2 percent probably was the right point to set the rate at."
Raise taxes? Not if you're Peter Ohtaki. "Menlo Park is a lot better off than most cities. There's a lot we can do before raising taxes, for example, paying down pension [debt, looking at headcounts and downsizing," he said.
Mr. Cline focused on revenue, lauding the city's new "business acceleration team" of business owners and city staff working to streamline the permitting process. But he agreed cuts are also necessary. The mayor is willing to consider adjusting executive city staff salaries, putting certain projects on hold, and outsourcing services such as maintenance.
Reducing subsides for services like childcare is an option put on the table by Mr. Peterson. As for salary cuts and downsizing, he would want the city staff to come up with the plan.
Mr. Bernstein, who runs a company specializing in child development, called the city's number of managers "a little top heavy." Instead of cutting positions, however, he said initially his efforts would concentrate on reducing compensation.
The Almanac asked each candidate if they would support a policy requiring council members to disclose all private meetings they hold with anyone who has business coming before the City Council. The answer was a unanimous yes. "I don't think anyone should feel like there's anything going on under the table," Ms. Keith said.
Mr. Bernstein was surprised that no such policy currently exists. "It's a good policy and we should be doing it."
Of course, disclosure can happen even without an official policy — Mr. Robinson said his council calendar is already open to the public.
An equally unanimous response — this time no — came when each candidate was asked whether they support the current options for high-speed rail through the Peninsula.
>> CANDIDATE BIOS
Occupation: CEO, Early Learning Institute
Experience: Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform; former member of California State Coalition on Special Education, Menlo Park Budget Advisory Committee, Residential Review Task Force, and Child Care Task Force; co-founder Willows Citizen Patrol
Education: B.A. Princeton; PhD in languages and linguistics, and MBA, Stanford University
Occupation: President, Voce Communications
Experience: City Council since 2006; Finance and Audit, High Speed Rail Subcommittees; Chair, Peninsula Cities Consortium; former Parks and Recreation Commissioner; former member of Child Care Task Force, Sports Field Task Force, and Off-Leash Dog Park Task Force
Education: B.A. in journalism, California State University, Hayward
Experience: Planning Commission since 2004; Legal Aid Society since 1997; former member of Menlo Park Housing and Mediation Commissions; County Commission on Status of Women; former board member for League of Women Voters and Sor Juana Inez Battered Women's Service Agency
Education: J.D., Golden Gate University School of Law; B.A. in political science, University of California, Santa Barbara
Occupation: Executive director, California Resiliency Alliance
Experience: President, Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board; former member of Mid-Peninsula Water District
Education: B.A. in economics, Harvard; MBA, Stanford University
Occupation: Stay at home dad; volunteer
Experience: Co-founder Community Coalition on High Speed Rail; president of Felton Gables Homeowners Association
Education: B.S. in aviation technology, Purdue University
Occupation: Senior scientist, SRI International
Experience: City Council since 2006; Chair, San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority; former Parks and Recreation Commissioner; member of Playing Fields Task Force; Menlo Park Environmental Award recipient
Education: PhD in materials science, Stanford University