Driving down Alpine Road on her first visit to Portola Valley was a moment that has stayed with Sarah Wernikoff over a decade later.
"The first time we came down Alpine Road I was instantly in love with Portola Valley," said Wernikoff, who grew up in Chicago and moved to the Bay Area with her husband in the late '90s before settling in Portola Valley 14 years ago. "We were definitely automatically attracted to the rural nature, but we knew we needed a really strong community and school district, and we made the right decision."
Wernikoff says it's her love and appreciation for the town that's the driving factor behind her decision to run for a seat on the Portola Valley Town Council. She is the first to qualify for the November ballot and has already racked up a list of endorsements, including from all current council members and former and current elected officials such as former Mayor Jon Silver and Assemblyman Marc Berman. Mary Hufty, a retired Palo Alto Medical Foundation family physician who has served on town committees, has pulled papers and confirmed her candidacy via email Tuesday. (An article about Hufty's candidacy is planned for the Aug. 7 edition.)
Ann Wengert, who has served on the council for 13 years, is not running for reelection, she confirmed in a statement Tuesday. Mayor Jeff Aalfs told The Almanac he has decided to run for reelection, but has not yet pulled papers, according to the San Mateo County Elections Office candidate roster.
Although this is her first time running for public office, Wernikoff is no stranger to politics. She recently worked nearly two years as the chief of operations for Close the Gap California, a Palo-Alto based organization that recruits women to run for office and helps them launch their campaigns. Its goal is to increase the percentage of women in the state Legislature from 33% to 50%.
Wernikoff also spent the last eight months working as the campaign manager for state Senate District 15 candidate Ann Ravel, which helped influence her own decision to run for office.
"That was an incredible opportunity and I learned a tremendous amount and find the work really interesting," she said. Her background is in management of nonprofit organizations and e-commerce general management, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Wernikoff has three children — a son starting college in the fall, a daughter heading into her junior year at Woodside High School and another son going into eighth grade at Menlo School — and has served as a community volunteer in the Portola Valley School District, fulfilling a number of roles including parent-teacher organization president, foundation trustee and member of the Measure Z Leadership Committee.
She credits her daughter, who has Down syndrome, with inspiring her to get more active in the community.
"My advocacy and civic mindedness turned on from my work with the school district," she said. "She was the only kiddo with Down syndrome the entire time we went through (the district). I benefited from their partnership with me and our family in terms of helping us assure the best outcomes for her."
Wernikoff also joined the LuMind IDSC Down Syndrome Foundation shortly after it was founded and was there for 12 years, including three years as board chair.
"I dealt with having to hire two different executive directors ... and we had board members across the country who didn't really know each other," she recalled. "I learned there are always going to be difficult issues you have to navigate, and you need to be thoughtful and balanced and a good listener."
She said the decision to run for office now was "super spontaneous" and not based on any particular issues or platform.
"I am not getting involved over an issue — I am doing it because we live in a special place and this is the kind of work I like to do," Wernikoff said.
She said it's fair to say she's not looking to shake things up from how they've been run, saying she respects the town's general plan and considers it the "backbone and guidepost for what you're using to make decisions." At the same time, she said the town should be "evolving in a way that respects the intent of the general plan."
Wernikoff anticipates some of the major issues on the council in the years to come include housing and wildfire preparedness. Asked about balancing the interests of building more housing to meet state mandates and retaining the rural character of the town, she said, "My hope is you can do both."
"The town clearly needs to address the housing issue and it's a state requirement so it's not if, it's when and how," she said. "I hope if I have the opportunity to serve we can find the right path forward that fits the rural character and the intent of the general plan."
She said she does not have an opinion on the town's recent work to engage residents on racial equality and policing or the Stanford Wedge project, a plan initiated by Stanford University to build faculty homes and affordable rental units on property it owns along Alpine Road.
"Our town could clearly benefit from more diversity," she said when asked about the council's race and policing subcommittee.
Wernikoff has a bachelor's degree in international relations from Miami University and an MBA from the George Washington University School of Business. Her campaign website is sarahforpvtowncouncil.org.
Councilwoman Ann Wengert, who joined the Portola Valley council in 2007, issued a statement after she decided not to seek reelection.
"Thank you to all I have had the pleasure to meet and work with over these 17 years of public service," she said. "I am excited to embrace new opportunities and challenges, and to continue my exploration of all this area has to offer."
Wengert was appointed to the council after running unopposed and served as mayor three times, most recently last year.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Wengert said she had been weighing whether to run again for over a year and that it came down to "length of service."
"It felt like a natural time for me to step down," she said, adding that the pandemic "wasn't really a factor" in her decision.
Looking back on her tenure, Wengert says much has changed since she joined the council. Back then the council dealt with much more localized issues, and now "we have a much greater role in regional representation," she said, noting her participation in the Select Committee on aircraft noise issues and county committees. Housing, finance, and bicycle and pedestrian safety are among the issues "where I've developed expertise and interest," she said.
Wengert added that she hopes that there will not be council candidates campaigning around a single issue, and that whoever takes her place will offer a new perspective. She also hopes the council continues to work on addressing the town's housing shortage.
"While we've had an ethos of wanting to preserve our local culture and I agree with that, it requires a modification and growth that allows for reasonable change," she said. "Now is the time, and now we can't delay any further because the need is critical."