The latest results from the San Mateo County Elections Office, released on Tuesday, Nov. 13, show Menlo Park City Council candidates Cecilia Taylor, Drew Combs and Betsy Nash maintaining their significant leads in the race for council districts 1, 2 and 4, respectively. The first tally was released shortly after 8 p.m. on Election Night and has not changed substantially in subsequent counts.
Many ballots remain to be counted. The election night results included only mail-in ballots that had been received by Election Day and ballots of those who voted early.
Votes from people who submitted their ballots on Election Day, or whose mail-in ballots hadn't yet been delivered, are still being counted, according to a spokeswoman at the San Mateo County Elections Office.
The Nov. 13 results show that Taylor dominates District 1 with 330 votes (75.9 percent); George Yang has 68 votes (15.6 percent) and Mike Dunn has 37 votes (8.5 percent).
In District 2, Combs has 410 votes (60 percent); incumbent Kirsten Keith has 273 votes (40 percent).
Nash has 660 votes (54 percent) in the District 4 race. Incumbent Peter Ohtaki has 348 votes (28.4 percent) and Ron Shepherd has 215 votes (17.6 percent).
The next round of election results is scheduled for release Friday, Nov. 16 at 4:30 p.m.
The total vote count since the last numbers were released last Thursday, Nov. 8, increased by 30 votes to 435 in District 1, by 23 votes to 683 in District 2, and by 16 votes to 1,223 in District 4. There are likely still many votes to count, though exactly how many more is unknown.
According to the county's election office, there are 2,659 registered voters in District 1, 3,952 registered voters in District 2, and 4,392 registered voters in District 4.
The county reported to the state on Nov. 8 that it still had 195,602 unprocessed ballots.
Looking at previous voter turnout in these districts, at the last midterm election in 2014, 618 voters cast ballots in what is now District 1; 2,326 voters in District 2; and 2,566 voters in District 4, according to city statistics.
In 2016, during a presidential election year, which tends to draw out more voters than midterm elections, 1,697 residents of what is now District 1 voted; there were 3,355 voters from District 2, and 3,3767 from District 4.
Eight candidates vied for three seats in Menlo Park's inaugural district-based elections this year.
District 1 covers the city east of U.S. 101; the winner in this race will take the council seat that the district system was intended to create. In August 2017, the city was threatened with a lawsuit unless it switched to district elections in which each candidate must come from a designated area and be elected only by residents of that area.
The city had previously held at-large elections, in which all residents can vote for any candidate to represent the whole city. The city's at-large voting system was criticized in the lawsuit threat because such systems typically make it harder for minority voters to elect people they prefer and, in fact, the Belle Haven neighborhood, which is the city's only majority-minority district, made up of mostly Latino and black residents, hadn't had a City Council representative for 30 years.
No matter who is elected, the Belle Haven neighborhood will have representation on the City Council moving forward.
Counting down to the first round of council election results on election night, Taylor and her supporters waited in the home of Belle Haven resident Pushpinder Lubana for the numbers to be announced.
One of Taylor's biggest supporters, Menlo Park activist Pam Jones – who is also Taylor's mother – waited with anticipation for the results.
"This must be what it's like to be the mother of the bride," she said. "You work as hard as you can, and then it happens."
When the preliminary results came in and indicated Taylor was in the lead, she celebrated with a shout of joy and a giddy dance around the living room as supporters clapped and raised glasses.
If the pattern of preliminary results hold, Taylor will be the first African American woman to serve on Menlo Park's City Council, and the first Belle Haven resident on the council since former councilman Billy Ray White ended a term in 1986.
The most recent mandatory campaign finance reports for the District 1 race show that Taylor reported raising $3,859, George Yang reported raising $900, and Mike Dunn did not report raising any campaign funds.
Taylor told The Almanac her campaign plan was different this time around compared with two years ago, when she didn't win a seat. One notable strategy: using traffic to her advantage. She and supporters today spent time holding posters and talking to drivers stuck at the intersection of Willow Road and Newbridge Street a captive audience, of sorts.
She said one driver told her, "I voted for you. You need to do something about traffic."
Her mindset, she said, was different in this campaign: She found a sense of "glory" in the work she was doing in getting to know the community and listening to residents' concerns.
Julie Shanson, who volunteered with Taylor's previous campaign and has worked with her at Belle Haven Action, said, "She's going to be a terrific leader."
District 2 includes the Willows, Flood Triangle and Suburban Park neighborhoods. This race has resulted in the most money raised for its candidates, compared with the other district races, with Keith raising $27,740, and Combs raising $15,447, as of Oct. 20.
The District 2 race has raised questions of ethics and political conflicts, and made for a hotly contested seat.
On one hand, Keith, a two-term incumbent who generally favors housing, the environment and bicycle-related projects, is currently the subject of an ethics violation complaint alleging that on two trips to China in 2016 paid for by third parties, she accepted funds in excess of what the state permits, and in a third trip in 2015 was not clear about the trip's funding source. The allegations hinge on the specifics of whether some of the organizations that funded the trips had the proper certification as formal 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
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.
On the other hand, Combs, a planning commissioner, works for Facebook, so he will have recuse to himself from key discussions about the proposed Willow Village and potentially other projects tied to Facebook.
"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," he said.
Combs' election night gathering, held in his home, had a cautiously celebratory air – although he was leading in the vote count by a wide margin in the preliminary results provided by the county, the current Planning Commissioner was hesitant to provide definitive comments on a likely win.
"If these trends continue," he consistently prefaced each statement, and if he and District 4 candidate Betsy Nash win council seats, the voters of Menlo Park would be giving the city a "clear indication" that they value new energy, faces and ideas – something that's been an "informal tradition" in the city, he said.
Combs ran unsuccessfully in 2014, but said the 2018 campaign was different because there wasn't a key issue shaping the political landscape – like 2014's Measure M, which would have altered the city's newly adopted downtown plan.
Instead, he was able to address the policies he wanted to focus on, such as changing the requirements for house projects on substandard lots, implementing a "sunshine" or transparent calendar policy, and disavowing what he described as the current council's slowness to address traffic in the Willows neighborhood as well as its eagerness to get behind a new main library.
If elected, he said, a top priority will be to home in on what the city should look for in a new city manager.
Fellow Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs told The Almanac that while he didn't always see eye to eye with Combs on the commission, he believes Combs has a "good thinking process." Combs, he said, has earned his respect.
Former City Council member Mickie Winkler explained that her support for Combs came from both positive feelings toward his campaign and "honest reservations" about Keith's, arguing that she doesn't support the council's decisions to support the new Willow Road/U.S. 101 interchange or its plan to separate Caltrain from roads.
District 4 includes downtown Menlo Park and the Allied Arts neighborhood.
The race is Complete Streets Commissioner Nash's first experience running for public office. She said at an election night gathering in her home with supporters that the experience has been a great one, even if she doesn't hold her lead as the favored candidate to win the District 4 seat.
If elected, her key priorities would be to choose a new city manager and work on staffing, and improve traffic safety. She wants to make it easier and safer for people to ride their bikes downtown, she said.
Her key supporters include members of the Parents for Safe Routes coalition, including organization founder Jennifer Wolosin, and Katie Behroozi and Lydia Lee, who are on the Complete Streets Commission with Nash.
"Her energy was where her mouth was," Lee said.
Nash said her campaign was "grassroots" and had about 180 people involved, whether through donations or endorsements.
Her campaign manager, Dorna Hakimi, said that early on in Nash's campaign, it became clear that "her biggest asset is her personality. She cares about the people she comes in contact with," she said.
Peter Ohtaki, current Menlo Park mayor and District 4 contender, said that he is disappointed with the preliminary election results. "It's a clear message that voters want to slow down growth and resulting traffic congestion," he said in a written statement. "I encourage the next Council to move quickly on the Transportation Master Plan, Middle/Burgess underpass and Ravenswood grade separation."
As of Oct. 20, Shepherd had raised the most, at $7,600, followed by Ohtaki at $6,905 and Nash at $6,350. None of the District 4 candidates reported nonmonetary donations.
Whoever is elected will have some big decisions to make about the city's future over the next four years. During that time, Facebook's proposed Willow Village, the city's largest-ever development, is likely to come before the City Council for approval, following environmental review.
The council will also likely be involved in deciding the next steps of the Dumbarton rail corridor project, assuming the environmental review process goes according to an ambitious timeline set forth in a new partnership between Facebook, SamTrans and the Plenary Group, an infrastructure business. (The ultimate approval process will rest in the hands of the SamTrans board of directors).
In addition, the council will also review the city's El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan, which could mean reconsidering the limits of what can be built downtown, including a potential increase in the amount of housing permitted there.
The council is also due to discuss the possibility of a downtown parking garage, iron out a definite preference on what to do about separating the city's roads from the Caltrain tracks, and consider a policy mandating that landlords, in some situations, be required to provide relocation assistance to tenants who are displaced, among a number of other key policy discussions ahead.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Correction: A previous version of this story falsely indicated that the Fair Political Practices Commission allegations against Councilwoman Keith were for a 2018 trip to China. They are for trips to China taken in 2015 and 2016.