During Menlo Park's inaugural district elections, there are eight candidates vying for three City Council seats – each of those seats contested by people passionate about their platforms. Voters will elect council members for District 1, which covers Belle Haven and Menlo Park east of U.S. 101; District 2, which includes the Willows, Flood Triangle and Suburban Park neighborhoods; and District 4, which includes downtown, Allied Arts and a southern segment of El Camino Real.
Only voters residing in the district can cast a ballot in that district's election. Look up your district here.
District 1 candidate Mike Dunn. (Contributed photo.)
District 1 candidate Cecilia Taylor. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova.)
District 1 candidate George Yang. (Photo by Corrin Rankin.)
District 2 candidate Drew Combs. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
District 2 candidate Kirsten Keith. (Contributed photo.)
District 4 candidate Betsy Nash. (Contributed photo.)
District 4 candidate Peter Ohtaki. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
District 4 candidate Ron Shepherd. (Photo by Kate Bradshaw/The Almanac.)
In District 2, incumbent and lawyer Kirsten Keith, and planning commissioner and Facebook employee Drew Combs will square off.
And in District 4, incumbent "numbers guy" Peter Ohtaki faces two challengers: Complete Streets Commissioner Betsy Nash and Finance and Audit Committee member Ron Shepherd.
The following candidates are presented alphabetically by district.
Occupation and civic engagement: Software engineer at Fitbit, YMCA volunteer for Youth & Government and Summer Camp programs.
Education: Bachelor's degree -English and creative writing.
Family and local ties: Married to Norayma and parent of 3-year-old son, Crawford. Born and raised in Los Altos, current Menlo Park home for eight years.
Campaign website: Mike4menlopark.com.
A newcomer to Menlo Park politics, Fitbit software engineer Mike Dunn said education and traffic are his key reasons to enter the City Council race. "My whole motivation to run is because I want my son and, of course, all of his neighbors ... to have the same great schools that Menlo Park is known for," he said.
He ran for a council seat instead of a school board position, he said, because there are five school districts in Menlo Park, and he hoped that as a council member, he might be able to bring their leaders together and start discussions about the Ravenswood City School District, which adminsters Belle Haven Elementary School.
He argued that he's got "more skin in the game" than most to promote educational equality and keep traffic from worsening in the city.
"I don't know anyone who would be more passionate," he said.
He lives the reality of having one's day dictated by the traffic patterns that plague Menlo Park, and of worrying about where he's going to send his son to school. He commutes daily down Willow Road to the Caltrain station, and takes the train to San Francisco, about a two-hour commute both ways, he said. He often stays around downtown Menlo Park in the evenings until traffic eases up and he can get home more quickly.
While he hasn't served on any city commissions, he has been involved in the community on a civic level as a volunteer in Palo Alto at the YMCA, where he has taught high school kids about the importance of local and state government, he said.
On the traffic front, he said: "I think we've inherited a problem that is not going to be an easy fix. ... People need to make sure the neighborhood isn't negatively impacted. We need to make sure all the considerations are made, not just build as big as possible and see what happens."
He thinks Menlo Park should be more "inclusive," especially for youth. The city should offer the same level of public amenities, after-school and recreation programs in Belle Haven as are offered through the city's Burgess Park recreation facilities.
He said that as a Belle Haven resident, he's so far seen some positive impacts of Facebook in the neighborhood: "I don't want to badmouth Facebook for being there. The stuff they're bringing is helping a lot in the neighborhood. ... Development isn't a bad thing."
On Facebook's proposed Willow Village, he said he's excited the neighborhood may get a supermarket – given how traffic can lock his neighborhood in, it would be great to be able to get food nearby, he said.
Regarding the woes of the Willow Road/U.S. 101 interchange, Dunn said he was at a meeting where council members talked about landscaping instead of safety at that section of roadway, making him wonder if any of them had tried traversing Willow Road at rush hour.
"I don't want to be there long enough to enjoy the landscaping," he said. "I want to be able to get through it."
For him, safety problems at the interchange are a more pressing concern. Every day, he said, people are "either swerving into people or dangerously changing lanes."
Dunn has pledged not to accept campaign contributions – partly because he doesn't want donors to expect anything from him, and partly because of the amount of paperwork involved.
Occupation: Executive director/founder Belle Haven Action
Education: Bachelor's degree - mathematics, San Francisco State University; working on graduate certificate, Ethnomathmatics, University of Manoa, Hawaii; certificate, early childhood education, Canada College.
Family and local ties: Married to Alfred, has five stepchildren and six grandchildren. Grew up in Belle Haven neighborhood, attended local schools. Returned to neighborhood in 2015.
Campaign website: taylor4menlopark.com. In the two years since her initial run for the Menlo Park City Council, Belle Haven resident Cecilia Taylor has become embedded in the neighborhood as a community advocate. When she didn't win a council seat in 2016, instead of joining a city commission – a more traditional route to eventually pursuing a City Council seat – she launched Belle Haven Action, a project of the UnaMesa Association for Community Engagement, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit.
Through that organization, which she currently heads as executive director, she has come to understand the needs of residents in her neighborhood and launched projects to address those needs, she said.
When she felt that a new affordable housing development for seniors in Belle Haven didn't do enough to alert homeless seniors to the housing opportunity, she started a campaign to help those seniors submit forms indicating their interest in the housing. When World War II hero and longtime Belle Haven resident Karl Clark died in March 2017, Taylor campaigned to have the neighborhood's Market Place Park named after him, rallying Belle Haven residents to attend Parks and Recreation Commission meetings in support of the change.
"The fact of the matter is: How many people on the council actually come and spend more than two hours in the neighborhood that's most impacted by the choices that have been made?" she asked "... I live it."
Taylor said she favors more below-market-rate housing, especially downtown, and some form of tenant relocation assistance that is not burdensome to landlords, but gives priority to longtime residents. She also supports redeveloping the Belle Haven community complex and constructing a new library there.
On Facebook's proposed Willow Village, she said new developments should provide agreed-upon public benefits before structures are built, and incorporate needed infrastructure and police and fire services. "It is a serious discussion about reality," she said. "This area was not built for that number of people. ... I just start adding up the numbers and it's like, are we creating our own little city?"
"We have to start paying attention to residents' needs, not developments'," she added.
One concern that has been raised is that Belle Haven Action has accepted a $75,000 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – a philanthropic investment company funded by the fortune of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan. However, according to City Attorney Bill McClure, the matter is likely not to constitute a conflict of interest that would preclude Taylor from voting on Facebook matters.
On her statement of economic interests filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, Taylor said she plans to resign as executive director of Belle Haven Action when a successor is found, and will instead serve as a member of its advisory board. She also hopes to get back into classroom teaching eventually, but if elected, she will commit to serving on the council full time for the first year.
"The reason why I am stepping down from Belle Haven Action is so that I can commit my first year on council (to) council. ... I would like my primary focus to be on council so that I can learn, because there's a whole lot to learn and there are a lot of issues going on. ... I don't want to be up until 1 a.m. every night for the next four years. I want to be effective."
Occupation and civic engagement: System architect at GARM8 Inc. Current board member of Asian Pacific American Political Association and vice chair of Menlo Park's Sister City Committee. Former board member of Belle Haven Community Foundation and chair of San Bruno Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee.
Education: Bachelor's degree - computer information systems; master's degree - telecommunication management, from Golden Gate University.
Family and local ties: Married to Karen and parent of two kids, 11 and 7. Has lived in Bay Area for 25 years and 11 in Belle Haven.
Campaign website: Georgeyang2018.com.
George Yang, a self-described "tech person," has a wealth of ideas about how to improve regional public transit, promote the development of higher-density housing for local teachers, and call upon tech-based strategies to address some city problems.
Making change, though, starts by inspiring people with ambition, he said. "The quote that I sometimes use is: If you want to build a boat, don't just start giving out planks and giving out nails. You inspire people to the ocean. You long for the ocean, then you get it done."
As a member of Menlo Park's Sister City Committee, he encourages the city to look abroad for ideas for how to improve traffic and integrate residential and commercial spaces.
One of his ambitious proposals to address traffic – which is so ambitious it transcends the jurisdiction of the City Council – is to advocate for a comprehensive light rail loop around the South Bay, pushing for the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to expand its light rail system northward past Moffett Field, and then to connect to a rail system across the Dumbarton Bridge. The boundaries between jurisdictions that act as barriers to addressing regional traffic problems need to be broken down, he said – traffic is everybody's problem.
On an old Twitter account affiliated with Yang's 2012 run for a state Assembly seat, which Yang said he no longer has access to, he identified as a Bay Area conservative, rifle owner and born-again Christian. Those labels are mostly still true, he said – minus the rifles. He lost that election, against incumbent Rich Gordon, receiving 29.6 percent of the vote.
For his campaign for the council, however, he said he "would like to focus on solutions that transcend party and ideology."
"I really feel like we need to have consistent traffic solutions before we move forward to more development," he said. "Right now I think our transportation resources are being pushed to their limits."
One idea he proposes: Instead of running a shuttle program that sends shuttles out around town whether there are passengers or not, the city could put funds toward a program that gives seniors money for ride-share programs during non-peak traffic hours to run their needed errands.
Moving forward, he'd support further development on a case-by-case basis, based on traffic and neighborhood impacts, he said.
On Facebook's proposed Willow Village, he compared Willow Road to a river, and said, "We don't want Willow Village to be a citadel, a fortress on the other side of the river that we just can't get to. We need a way ... for people to go there and be a part of the same community."
While he said he'd like to see locals have greater control over schools in Menlo Park that are part of the Ravenswood City School District, including Belle Haven, and better governance in that district, those concerns are better addressed through the school district board. "The City Council does not have jurisdiction over education," he said. "As a candidate, I do not want to make a promise that I cannot keep."
Occupation and civic engagement: Online operations manager at Facebook; current planning commissioner; member, Heritage Tree Task Force; volunteer, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.
Education: Bachelor's degree in urban studies from Columbia University, law degree from Harvard Law School
Family and local ties: Married to Alexa, parent of toddler, Dailey. Resident of Menlo Park for six years.
Campaign website: www.drewcombs.com.
Drew Combs, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2014 and is serving his fifth year on the city's Planning Commission, said he is running for office because of concerns he has about City Council ethics, and to promote "the idea of returning the focus to residents."
"That's something that has seemingly not been a priority with my specific opponent," he said.
"If you look at some of the ethical issues that certain members of the City Council have faced in recent months, it's not just that ... they did these things and faced these issues that are problematic," he said. "There seems to be no humility, ... no real sense of 'This is wrong, I'm going to take these actions to make sure this never happens again,' or 'This should not have happened,'" he said.
He questioned, too, the ethics of the decision for the city to prioritize holding elections for districts 2 and 4 this year, giving consideration to current incumbents. He said the districts chosen for having elections this year should have been selected randomly.
The council has taken many steps to make it easier for developers to build major projects in the city, through the downtown and ConnectMenlo zoning plans, he said, but has done little to streamline the approval process for residents who live on substandard lots – of which there are many – to renovate their homes.
"It can be a pretty hellacious experience," he said.
If elected, he wants to develop a plan for those homeowners to streamline renovation proposals so that they do not have to go before the Planning Commission in situations where neighbors support the project and there aren't other objections.
He also proposes to convene people to discuss developing a special zoning district on the Willow Road corridor – and potentially developing a "Specific Plan lite" for the retail and commercial spaces on Willow Road. He plans to promote transparency with a requirement for council members to publicly disclose when they meet with people who have business before the city, develop a district neighborhood council, have bi-weekly office hours, and refuse offers of free travel.
However, more than any other council candidate, Combs is likely to experience significant restrictions on what he can vote on because he is employed by Facebook. Menlo Park City Attorney Bill McClure reports that Combs would not be able to vote on and participate in discussions of Facebook's Willow Village proposal – the city's largest-ever development.
When the city was developing its specific plan, the City Council made accommodations to break down agenda items so that council members who had conflicts because of ties to Stanford, for instance, could still participate in some aspects of council deliberations, Combs said. Something similar could be done for his situation, in close consultation with the city attorney and perhaps with guidance from the FPPC, the state's political ethics commission.
"I'm not completely recused from everything happening in the Bayfront area, but certainly the stuff of which there is a direct impact on Facebook and maybe a sort of clear indirect impact, then I'm recused," he said.
He is also a newcomer to his neighborhood, having moved just in time to file paperwork to run for office. "The homes in District 2 are one of the more affordable areas to get more space," he explained. "I was always either moving to the Willows or Flood Triangle at some point. ... The decision to run was a factor in the move. "It's certainly probable it moved up our timeline a few months." He argues that he knows the needs of the neighborhood well from his previous campaign and his work as a planning commissioner.
Occupation and civic engagement: Attorney, currently on boards of Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, Service League of San Mateo County and the advisory board of CORA, Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse.
Education: Golden Gate University, School of Law, law degree, recipient, Public Interest Law Award; University of California, Santa Barbara, bachelor's degree, political science with an international relations emphasis
Family and local ties: Married to John, parent of two adult children.
Campaign website: kirstenforcouncil.com
Kirsten Keith, a two-term incumbent, has seen Menlo Park through the last eight years.
When she took office, the city was still reeling from the recession. Since then, Facebook has come to town, and the city has completed both its Downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, to change zoning downtown, and its general plan update, to increase the zoning allowances on the Bay side of Menlo Park. Much of the development permitted in those plans has already been claimed by developers.
She's no newcomer to Menlo park politics, having served as mayor in 2012 and 2017 and, prior to her election to City Council, serving on the Planning Commission, Housing Commission, and Mediation Services Committee for Menlo Park. She also has a long list of civic involvement and ties to local groups like JobTrain, Haven House, San Mateo County Legal Aid Society, the Service League of San Mateo County, the state Democratic Municipal Officials, and the Women's Caucus of the League of California Cities.
She currently serves on a number of regional committees for the city and is the city's main liaison on the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, and liaison to the Complete Streets Commission and Transportation Master Plan Oversight and Outreach Committee.
Among her campaign promises is to continue with initiatives she has worked on as a council member.
One is the Dumbarton rail corridor. She says she will "demand that a world-class commuter rail system to the East Bay" be a "requirement for any large-scale development near the rail corridor."
Keith said that one clear thing she can offer voters, in contrast to her challenger, is the absence of a Facebook "conflict." She will be able to vote on Facebook's "Willow Village" project, while Drew Combs, as a Facebook employee, will not.
Keith is currently the subject of an ethics violation complaint alleging that she accepted free travel to China in excess of what the state permits. The allegation hinges on the specifics of whether or not the organization that funded the trip had the proper certification as a formal 501(c)(3) nonprofit. She had traveled to China when the council held a major study session on Facebook's proposed Willow Village project.
No ruling has yet been made by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. She voted recently to approve a City Council policy that would provide clearer guidelines for council members about what steps must be taken in order to accept free travel.
Keith's voting record shows support for bicycle and environment-friendly policies and housing. She pointed to the completion of an affordable housing project for veterans on Willow Road as one achievement during her council tenure.
"We've actually put our money where our mouth is to get projects approved and built to help with this housing crisis," she said.
Occupation and civic engagement: Former associate director of clinical research at Genentech; member, Complete Streets Commission; former member, Bicycle Commission.
Education: Bachelor's in human biology and psychology from Stanford University
Family and local ties: Married to Horace, parent of three adult children. Has lived in Menlo Park since 1987 and grew up in the area.
Campaign website: betsynash2018.com.
Betsy Nash, who has lived in Menlo Park for 31 years, said she got her first taste of what it was like to create change in the city in recent years when she got involved in promoting sidewalks on Santa Cruz Avenue, which were installed in 2017.
She's lived in the area her whole life, minus three years in Boston, she said. After graduating from Stanford, she pursued a career in biotech and raised her kids in Menlo Park, volunteering over the years as a 4-H leader and soccer coach, among other things.
In 2015, she was appointed to the Bicycle Commission, which eventually fused with the broader-scoped, nine-member Complete Streets Commission. Being on the commission has been "eye-opening" – one realization being that the nuanced discussions by city commissioners that precede City Council deliberations don't always get passed along to the council.
"I'm running because I feel that I can give a better voice for residents of Menlo Park," she said.
Like other challengers in this year's election, she's critical of the direction the City Council is taking Menlo Park. "We've had eight years of the incumbent council and we've got runaway development. We've got traffic that's getting worse and worse. We have an incredible jobs-housing imbalance, that's again, getting worse, and I think that the council really needs to be serving the residents," Nash said. "I can do that. ... At this point I've got the time, energy and experience to be that voice."
Nash said she is independent and data-driven. To remain independent, she said, she is not accepting contributions larger than $250 from individuals and is not accepting donations from organizations or developers.
When it comes to data, Nash said, the city should be better able to provide numbers on some basic matters – like the number of existing square feet of buildings that have been proposed for redevelopment in the "ConnectMenlo" area east of U.S. 101. (Staff recently reported that they had not yet calculated that data.)
As a Complete Streets commissioner, her clearest policy priorities are transportation-related. She favors transit-oriented development – specifically, building more housing downtown near public transit – as the city works on updating its downtown plan, and wants to see a safety-first, multi-modal (bike and pedestrian friendly) approach to traffic infrastructure.
The future of transportation in Menlo Park should be shaped around goals to reduce solo driving in favor of other options, especially for nearby residents.
She said she'll keep a close eye on Stanford's "Middle Plaza" project, now under construction, because she is concerned about bicycle and pedestrian safety and facilities in the project's vicinity.
The most pressing transportation problem, in her eyes? City staffing. There's currently a major shortage of planning and public works staff members who can make transportation projects happen, she noted.
Occupation and civic engagement: Vice president, Enterprise Incident Management for Wells Fargo; Menlo Park City Council since 2010; served as mayor in 2013 and 2018; former member, Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors, serving as board president in 2010.
Education: La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park, Woodside High School, Harvard University; MBA, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Family and local ties: Married to Julie, parent of three kids, ages 9, 11 and 13.
Campaign website: PeterOhtaki.com
Peter Ohtaki, a two-term incumbent who serves as mayor this year, said he's running again because "I think I bring a special talent about being able to analyze complicated issues and come up with a good compromise. ... I think I'm very good at finding solutions and ways to solve issues and problems and get things done."
He says he comes from a "rather quantitative, wonky background" and aims to take a "mainstream" point of view, representing families like his, with young kids, two working parents, and little extra time to follow what's going on in city politics.
His family-oriented point of view, he said, means that he prioritizes both the desires of families who want to see more bike lanes, and those who want to see a parking garage built downtown that makes it less stressful to find parking. That perspective balances the need for reducing the time it takes to transport a child to soccer practice after school with the desire for some families to have housing near transit that's affordable near downtown, he said. However, he's wary of having a large number of children in new apartments downtown because of likely impacts to Menlo Park schools, he added, so favors smaller housing units, and near transit so it doesn't add car trips.
Well-managed parks and a city government "that lives within its means" are priorities too, he said.
On the City Council, Ohtaki said, he is proud of his negotiations with Stanford to get funding for half, or $5 million, of a bike and pedestrian crossing at the Caltrain tracks and Middle Avenue.
Moving forward, he said, he wants to work with the community on ways to promote educational equality in the city. "All of our kids go to Menlo-Atherton High School, and we want to make sure everyone's well-prepared," he said. However, the educational disparity that existed when he was a student in Menlo Park continues.
He said he's working "quietly" with the community to try to come up with a solution to address capital needs in the Ravenswood City School District and the achievement gap between students in the Ravenswood district and other districts in Menlo Park.
Ohtaki sat on an advisory committee that supported the development of new zoning guidelines for development on the city's eastern side. He acknowledged that the allowed office development is getting claimed rapidly, but said it was always planned to happen that way.
The designation of some permissible development as life science space was carefully considered, he said, and he isn't ready to convert that to other uses; unlike office space, which causes traffic and doesn't generate revenue, life science space generates less traffic and can produce sales tax revenue for the city, depending on the size of the company. It's also important, Ohtaki said, to maintain diversity among the businesses in the city. "We want to have economic diversification," he said. "Don't have all your eggs in one social media giant."
Occupation and civic engagement: Founder/Treasurer, Shepherd & Associates Insurance Services; former member, West Bay Sanitary District; member, Menlo Park Finance and Audit Committee, Heritage Tree Task Force.
Education: Bachelor's degree in accounting from San Diego State College
Family and local ties: Has lived in Menlo Park since 1972, just celebrated his golden wedding anniversary, and has two adult children.
Campaign website: ronscpa2018.nationbuilder.com
Ron Shepherd's motivation for running for City Council is tied to two things: taxpayers and transparency, as he explained it.
"I'm running because I don't think the taxpayers are well-represented," he said. "Transparency to me is a real issue."
Shepherd is a former board member of the West Bay Sanitary District, serving on that board for 16 years and as commissioner for Silicon Valley Clean Water. There's a lot the city should do to improve its fiscal health, he said, noting that he wants to see more fiscal responsibility from the council and a clearer focus on spending that puts the taxpayers first.
Shepherd comes from a background in finance and works as founder and treasurer of Shepherd & Associates Insurance Services.
An example of the city's lack of transparency, he said, is the recent consideration of an offer by philanthropist developer John Arrillaga to help the city build a new main library, covering the costs after the first 20 million, not including soft costs. Arrillaga's offer was rescinded Oct. 1. Shepherd said he would have stopped planning for the library project unless a majority of residents favored it.
He said that in general he'd prefer the city to spend more time polling the public, and then developing policies, rather than having staff come up with plans that the council then goes along with.
"The trick is not who's the loudest, but what do the citizens want," he said. "My thinking is the government should provide services needed by all residents on a most cost-effective basis, and those services should be provided equally to all citizens."
At the sanitary district, he said, he worked to reduce worker compensation requirements and pension increases to save money.
On the council, he'd want to home in on the budget to get clearer information about where money is being spent, he said. Currently, he said, "the budget is a sales tool, not a financial budget."
Another idea to improve the city's fiscal health is to sell the city's water resources to an entity like Cal Water. There are tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements needed to the water system to replace the pipes, and now is the time to make that change. The city's water department staff, he said, may not have the expertise to know what to do. "And it's not because the employees aren't smart, it's just Cal Water or somebody like that's got thousands of employees, and they've got people who know how to replace pipe."
He said he is good at getting people to work together, something he's practiced as a Republican with liberal friends.
"The thing we say is, look, we all have different views on things, but if you had to list the 10 biggest problems we're facing, seven of them would be on everybody's list. And so if you concentrate on the seven, instead of like Washington, where they throw each other crap over three, you can get something done," he said.