After nearly three weeks of watching election results come in slowly, enough ballots have now been counted to declare winners in the Menlo Park City Council election.
Cecilia Taylor from District 1, Drew Combs from District 2 and Betsy Nash from District 4 will take the dais starting in December. Each has been elected to four-year terms.
The election signals a shift in Menlo Park politics, as both Combs and Nash have unseated the council incumbents they ran against who had each been seeking third terms: Combs will take the seat of Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, and Nash will take Mayor Peter Ohtaki's seat.
There were 9,969 unprocessed ballots in San Mateo County as of 4:49 p.m. on Nov. 24, according to a report filed with the California Secretary of State's Office. It's not known how many of those are district ballots in Menlo Park.
District 1 covers the city east of U.S. 101. According to results posted Sunday, Nov. 25, Taylor dominated District 1 with 1,127 votes (77.3 percent); George Yang had 227 votes (15.6 percent) and Mike Dunn had 103 votes (7.1 percent). Those results show 1,588 votes had been counted, indicating about 59.7 percent voter turnout. The district has 2,659 registered voters.
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 over 30 years.
Taylor will be the first African-American woman to serve on the council, and the first Belle Haven resident on the council since former councilman Billy Ray White ended a term in 1986.
"I think it's long overdue we have someone from our district on the City Council," Dunn said.
Taylor and Yang were not immediately available for comment.
District 2 covers the Willows, Flood Triangle and Suburban Park neighborhoods.
In that district, Combs had 1,806 votes (62.8 percent), while Keith had 1,069 votes (37.2 percent). These figures include 3,075 ballots counted out of 3,952, or 77.8 percent of the registered voters in the district.
The District 2 race 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.
A ruling has not yet been made by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Keith voted recently to approve a 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 project 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 said he was "really excited about the high turnout."
"I think it could be considered a plus for the district system. It is clear that with the switch (to district elections) people didn't become disengaged," he said.
He said the support of voters "gives me a sense that the things that I was talking (about) are things that resonated with people."
In comments on election night, Combs said that if he and Nash won council seats, the voters of Menlo Park would be giving the city a "clear indication" that they value new energy, faces and ideas.
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 residential 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.
In an email, Keith congratulated the newly elected council members. "I wish them all the best. It has been an honor to serve the residents of Menlo Park for the last eight years," she wrote.
District 4 covers downtown Menlo Park and the Allied Arts neighborhood.
As of Sunday Nash had 1,732 votes (55.2 percent), while Ohtaki had 944 votes (30.1 percent) and Ron Shepherd had 463 votes (14.7 percent). Those votes add up to 3,440, or 78.3 percent of District 4's 4,392 registered voters.
Nash said on election night that her campaign was "grassroots" and had about 180 people involved. She said her key priorities would be to choose a new city manager, work on staffing and improve traffic safety. She said she wants to make it easier and safer for people to ride their bikes downtown.
Ohtaki said on Nov. 7 that he was disappointed with the 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."
Shepherd said he wanted to congratulate Nash for hard work and added that he stands by the way he ran his campaign and the policies he promoted.
"If I had to do it again, I'd probably do it the same way," he said.
As he sees it, government should aim to provide the services taxpayers need in the most cost-effective manner possible. Pensions, he added, are a big problem for the city. "It needs to be resolved so that we can deliver what we promised the retirees," he said.
"I don't think there's anybody that will be on the council that has the understanding of finance that I do," he said.
He added that he'll continue to work on the city's Finance and Audit Committee. "Maybe I can have an input there," he said.
Nash and Ohtaki were not immediately available for further comment.
Over the next four years, Facebook's proposed Willow Village, the city's largest-ever development, is likely to come before the 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. (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 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, provide relocation assistance to tenants who are displaced, among a number of other key policy discussions ahead.
But the first order of business for the council, once the new members are seated, will likely be the selection of a new city manager, a process expected to begin in earnest after the holidays.
For further coverage of the 2018 Menlo Park City Council elections, see:
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.