Cecilia Taylor, elected to the Menlo Park City Council in 2018, was named the city's new mayor on Dec. 17.
Taylor first ran for City Council in 2016, but was defeated in the city's at-large election. In August 2017, the city was threatened with a legal notice that said it had to switch to district elections or face a lawsuit on grounds that the city's at-large election system made it harder for candidates preferred by minorities to win election.
The city made the switch to district elections in time for the 2018 ballot. When Taylor ran for the seat representing her district in Belle Haven, she won by a wide margin. After serving on the council for a year, she has been chosen by her fellow City Council members to serve as the city's mayor for 2020.
We asked her a series of questions as she starts out in the role. Here are her answers, with some minor edits for length and clarity.
When you were campaigning for City Council, I know a big goal for you was to give a voice to the Belle Haven neighborhood. A year into your council tenure, how do you feel you've done with that goal?
Overall, I feel a sense of accomplishment for 2019, and excitement for the year ahead as the mayor in 2020. I am very grateful that my community has placed their trust in me. In the last year, I have been deeply encouraged to see how engaged my community is in the city's process in comparison to previous years.
Belle Haven residents are serving on commissions and committees, attending City Council meetings, writing letters to the city, and providing inputs through public comment. In the past year, I have developed deeper empathy and understanding of the needs of my district. Here are some topics on how I gave a voice to District 1 through my role on the council:
1. Expanding hours of operation at the Onetta Harris Community Center, a vital resource for the health and wellness of District 1.
2. Bringing equitable development into discussion over land use policies and practices – i.e., where we build is affecting all areas of Menlo Park. Both (the El Camino Real/Downtown Specific Plan) and ConnectMenlo are close to reaching caps within a two-year period of time.
3. Advocating for constant air quality measurement in an area of our city surrounded a freeway and two highways. The decision to monitor air quality was successfully approved by the City Council in September 2019. Monitors will be installed by early to mid-January 2020.
4. Proposing a moratorium to slow down development until we have measured our Guiding Principles as a city.
5. Improving health and safety of the residents of Menlo Park, specifically relating to traffic, through elevating discussions with the county on boards and committees.
District 1 is not just the neighborhood of Belle Haven; it includes the Life Science areas, M2, and the residential buildings on Haven Avenue. It is important that we maintain inclusion within our entire city.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing Menlo Park?
In my opinion, the biggest problem facing our city is the impact of development without balancing the needs for transportation infrastructure and housing. This directly impacts the quality of life of our residents. For a city of our size, we have invested in over 2 million square feet of office space while neglecting to plan for adequate housing and traffic mitigations first.
Just to put it in perspective, Menlo Park ranks first throughout the Bay for the greatest year-over-year percentage increase in rents. According to the Healthy Cities, San Mateo County report (2018), 46% of Menlo Park residents are rent burdened and 96% don't live where they work.
As mayor, I want to work with the staff to learn from the past and ensure transparency and accountability.
We need to prioritize easy access to financial reporting and accountability, clear metrics for the city's Guiding Principles and equitable development to prevent economic and residential displacement.
What are your top three priorities as mayor this year?
While my priorities are issues affecting the city as a whole, I recognize that there is a lack of parity between districts. We need to bring all districts to the same level for us to thrive as a city. For me, equity is an investment, not just a word you insert in a sentence in a report. My top three priorities are the following:
1. Focus on financial transparency to ensure that we are investing to meet the needs of our communities. For example, we must invest in providing equal access to public services in all districts;
2. Invest in traffic infrastructure to mitigate cut-through traffic and safety; and
3. Plan equitable development by prioritizing affordable housing and transportation to address traffic impacts and jobs/housing imbalance. Focus on revitalization of downtown businesses and small businesses throughout the city.
How has serving on the council differed from your expectations?
When I was elected, I did not know what to expect. What was clear to me was that there was a need to serve and represent the communities within the city. Instead of highlighting problems that we all know exist, I had to shift my thinking to more of a "solution mindset" in how I interacted with the council and the city staff.
I wanted to have an impact quickly and my approach had to be different because I had to learn how to operate within the City Council policies and procedures.
As mayor, I will continue to ask myself these two questions: 1) How can I be most effective? And 2) How can I encourage my city to continue to be civically engaged? We all need to work together along with the city staff to make our city a vibrant and beautiful place to live.