By Chris Cooney
Bay City News Service
Six of the seven candidates vying for an open seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors met in Redwood City on Thursday for a forum discussion on some of the issues facing the county as the June 5 primary election draws near.
The 4th District seat, which encompasses East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Menlo Park, and North Fair Oaks, has been held by Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson since 1999.
At the forum -- hosted by the nonprofit alliance group Thrive -- the candidates squared off on varying approaches to confronting San Mateo County's ongoing structural deficit, implementing the state's realignment plan, and creating increased revenue for the county's coffers.
Businessman and Redwood City Planning Commissioner Ernie Schmidt suggested that the county needs to work harder to promote itself as friendly to businesses and attractive to tourists.
"Economic development is huge for me," Schmidt said. "We should be trying to figure out how to get more people to shop here."
Schmidt also suggested that he opposed generating revenue through new taxes. Three countywide measures on the June 5 ballot would raise the transient occupancy tax and impose new taxes on parking facilities and vehicle rental businesses.
"I'm not a believer that taxing and cutting are a way to prosperity," Schmidt said.
Memo Morantes, a local business owner who has served on the San Mateo Board of Education for 11 years, agreed that promoting tourism and providing incentives to businesses are key elements to economic development. "We need to bring that reputation outside the county, that we are business-friendly," Morantes said.
Shelly Masur, who currently sits on the Redwood City School District Board of Trustees, called San Mateo County "asset rich and cash poor," and said that establishing a revenue stream through the new tax measures could help prevent further cuts to services in the county's safety net. "Those tax measures will bring in $13 million and I do support them," Masur said.
Menlo Park City Councilman Andy Cohen suggested that removing red tape for building secondary dwelling units on single-family lots would benefit the county by increasing its property tax base, and help reduce the region's unemployment by providing construction jobs.
Cohen said that coming up with new ideas to solve problems is something that has served him throughout his 8-year tenure on the City Council and a 20-year career as an attorney.
Carlos Romero, a 3-year city councilman from East Palo Alto, acknowledged the county's 5-year plan to tackle its ongoing budget deficit, but called into question the decision to build a new jail that will cost an estimated $165 million to build and $30 million a year to operate.
Romero said the county should direct state realignment money toward reentry programs instead of new jail facilities. "Let's not use it for prisons, let's use it for programs," Romero said.
Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith, an attorney and legal aid advocate, said that the focus needs to be squarely on job creation in order to address social inequities and improve the economic vitality of the region.
"Jobs are crucial," Keith said. "If people don't have jobs, they end up running into me in the criminal justice system."
The other candidates agreed, each mentioning in turn the need to promote job creation and tackle the income disparity between San Mateo County's residents with education and job training services.
Former County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Warren Slocum, also in the race for 4th District Supervisor, did not appear at the forum.
If none of the seven candidates receives more than half the vote on June 5, the two top vote-getters will face a run-off election in November.
The candidates are required to live in the 4th District, though supervisorial elections are countywide.