Three candidates are running to be the first District 3 City Council representatives in their historically underrepresented area of Menlo Park: Chelsea Nguyen, Max Fennell and Jen Wolosin.
Each of the three candidates brings unique experiences and perspectives to the table, and presented compelling ideas for how to solve some of the biggest problems being discussed in the community: housing and its affordability, climate change, police reform and more. But only one will join the (virtual) dais after Election Day.
Forums with District 3 candidates were scheduled on Wednesday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 3. Go to is.gd/2020forums for more information about upcoming candidate events.
Chelsea Nguyen, 56, is a Vietnamese-American U.S. Air Force veteran, single mom of three and former theology student who works as a project manager at Cisco. She holds a degree from Menlo College in business management, studied theology at Oxford University and has lived in the district on and off for 40 years. She served in the U.S. Air Force for almost 10 years, working in the Military Police and Information Systems Security areas and serving in Europe and the Middle East. She has volunteered with the American Red Cross, Junior League Mid-Peninsula and San Mateo Blue Star Mothers organizations and served on a mayor-appointed committee to administer community development block grants in Palo Alto. Her campaign website is chelsea4mp.com.
Of the three candidates running for office, Chelsea Nguyen has lived in the area for the longest time. She immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as a refugee, and her family was sponsored by the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. She grew up in the community and has lived here on and off for the bulk of the past 40 years, she said. She has three children – two sons who are involved in the military and a special needs daughter.
Her top three priority areas to address, if elected, are affordable housing, transportation and the environment, she said in an interview.
Locally, she's been involved with the Red Cross as a CPR and first aid instructor, with the Junior League of the Peninsula, and as a volunteer with the VA in Menlo Park, where she and other members of the Blue Star Mothers organization plan barbecues and game nights with the residents.
She said she's running, in part, because she is opposed to Wolosin's campaign. She characterized Wolosin as privileged and questioned her ability to understand discrimination through a video training, or to understand the city's need for affordable housing as a market-rate homeowner. Nguyen added she felt she would bring "more to the office than somebody who says, 'I go to meetings.'"
She expressed frustration with the city's below-market-rate housing program, noting that she lives in a below-market-rate home that became available after she had been on a waitlist for about 20 years.
"I"m not ashamed to say it. I know my kids are ashamed, but I'm not ashamed to say it. It took me 20 years to be on the list," she said. "It was a struggle."
She added that she'd like to increase the requirements the city places on developers to build and pay for below-market-rate (BMR) housing to 30% or 40%, up from the current 15%.
"We still have a 15% requirement for developers to give to the BMR program, and we have more than 15% of people in Menlo Park who are in the poverty threshold because we have a shrinking middle class right now," she said. The city should also focus on building affordable rental housing on public land that it already owns. It could consider acquiring the USGS site and developing affordable housing there, if possible, she said.
The city should also rezone properties on a quarter acre or larger to permit two homes, as well as some areas designated for businesses to permit more housing, she said. "I think we need to be less strict with our zoning rules. I think we need to start from there and be a bit more flexible."
She said she feels sympathetic toward a young couple she met recently who told her they can't afford to have a family.
"I think it's hard for young families," she said. "I think each partner would have to make $100,000 just to buy a shack." She also talked about a senior who had lived in her district for many years but around five years ago had to move to the East Bay because she could not afford to rent in Menlo Park.
"I don't know how anyone can live here, unless you've owned your home for a long time and you didn't sell it and you pass it on generation to generation, or you're filthy rich and you move in and you can afford it. But for young families and single people, there's no place to go. ... I don't want someone like me to wait 20 years to get a place to live," she said.
She said she also would prioritize revitalizing downtown Menlo Park, saying that she often goes to downtown Palo Alto rather than Menlo Park because restaurants are open later and there is more variety when it comes to cost. Pre-pandemic, she said, Palo Alto used to have the Cheesecake Factory, where she liked to meet up with friends in the evening for dessert and chat until midnight. In Menlo Park, she said, "we don't have anything like that. It's a bit dead."
Building underground parking with multi-use buildings could help improve downtown vibrancy, she said, and there should be more variety in restaurants between expensive and cheaper food options.
To help households struggling during the pandemic, she said she would favor a food drive or housing subsidies to assist people without depleting the city's financial resources.
On police reform, Nguyen said she would favor halving the police force. "We are not a high-crime city," she said. The funding not spent on policing could be repurposed for community outreach and services.
Police reform should focus on more than just training, she said. "It's about attitude. It's about background. You have to have empathy," she said. "You can train somebody who is a racist all your life but (if) that person doesn't have empathy and care, then it doesn't matter."
On climate matters, Nguyen said she favored things like planting more trees, using fewer cars and reducing light pollution. One idea to reduce driving is to build a tram or light rail system up and down a lane of El Camino Real, she said.
When someone recently told her that the idea was discussed and nixed years ago, she said, "You can't say just because something didn't work a decade ago that we can't bring it back and put it on the table. Let's talk about it."
Max Fennell, 32, is the owner of Fenn Coffee and a professional triathlete. He studied for an associate's degree at Montgomery County Community College near Philadelphia and has lived in the district for four years. He volunteered with programs to introduce youth to triathlons and endurance sports and was recently appointed to USA Triathlon's Diversity and Inclusion Board. His campaign website is fennellformenlo.com.
Max Fennell, a professional triathlete and owner of Fenn Coffee, is running for City Council for a number of reasons, but key among them is that he, like many city residents, is a working person struggling with rent.
He sees a crisis in the community members he observes – people leaving the area or friends considering living in a van. "I'm in the same boat, and I just don't see anybody stepping up to tackle these issues," he said."The reason I'm running ... is because I think it's important for there to be a voice on the City Council that is really able to tap into what the common person is going through, not just someone who's trying to assume what the community members are going through."
The four-year resident of Menlo Park says he regularly cycles the streets of the city, but his first appearance in City Hall was more recent, when he pitched the City Council on an idea to offer a free swimming lesson program to children at the Belle Haven pool. The proposal requested a $12,000 pool fee waiver from the city and the contract didn't come together. The experience, he said, opened his eyes to who's on the City Council and how the process works. It also made him wonder: "Where are all the initiatives for individuals like myself, that are just working folks, that are renters?"
Max's first name is actually Jeremy, but he picked up the nickname from his brother and it stuck, he said. He's from Philadelphia, where so-called affordable housing rents align with what he calls "reasonable" housing – set between $700 and $1,500 per month for a one- or two- bedroom apartment. "I think we've got to be around the $1,000, $1,400, $1,500 (number) to be reasonable," he said. However, he added, "When I talk to property builders, their idea of affordable housing is around the $2,800 number."
He added that he'd like the city to prioritize working with and incentivizing companies interested in building one- to two-bedroom housing units that cost about $1,400 per month over those proposing to build luxury apartments.
As a small business owner, he added, it's a problem when many potential customers are spending the majority of their money on rent. The high cost of housing "causes us to pull back on the amount of money we spend with our local businesses," he said.
He has several proposals for how to mitigate the impacts on renters struggling with pandemic-related unemployment or underemployment. First, he said, landlords could have some type of longevity discount. Loyal tenants who have paid high rents consistently for at least two or three years should be eligible for longer-term leases of two years at lower monthly rates.
As a Black resident of Menlo Park, he also sees problems with the Menlo Park Police Department. He said he has been pulled over five or six times since he's lived in the city. He said he'd favor reducing the number of officers and its budget. Some of the budget cuts from the police department could go toward helping residents who have been hardest-hit by the pandemic, Fennell said. That could be helping with housing costs, or providing those in need with a stipend or paying for part of the rent. He said if he were on the council, he'd make phone calls to property managers and have conversations with them about how to keep renters from moving out.
But cutting funding to the department won't necessarily fix policing in Menlo Park, he added. "The problem is how they view certain people, and there is a systematic structure that's in place," he said.
He said he'd favor creating a mandatory racial understanding training that all officers have to complete and track. "There's a reason why I've been pulled over so many times ... and community oversight's not going to do anything to deal with those types of situations," he said.
When it comes to traffic and climate change, Fennell said he favors promoting alternative forms of transportation like bikes. He'd favor a bike-share program coming to Menlo Park. He's also interested in helping more people feel comfortable navigating the city by bike.
Fennell said he was also interested in working with former inmates. The city could help support those looking to join local fire departments, or consider hiring them to remove trees and clear brush in high fire risk areas, he said.
He also had a number of ideas for bringing vitality to downtown Menlo Park. The city could start a program like other cities have on the first Friday of every month, when businesses open up their doors, showcase local artwork and vendors, and serve wine and cheese. The city could create a program to allow small vendors like himself to set up shop at a table somewhere downtown. The city could also be more proactive about helping fill the empty storefronts downtown by offering commercial rent subsidies to small businesses, he said.
"We have the ability to have this diverse community, but that just takes the right leadership coming with the ideas and then creating that environment," he said. "I would like to see more diversity in Menlo Park, but you can't be pricing people out. We can't have people being discriminated against."
Jen Wolosin, 46, is a community advocate and parent who founded the Parents for Safe Routes organization in Menlo Park in 2017. She holds a bachelor's degree in sociology from University of California at Berkeley and a master of business administration degree from UC Davis. She has lived in the district for seven years. Her community service experiences include serving on the city's Transportation Master Plan Oversight and Outreach Committee and a number of local traffic and safe routes task forces and advisory committees, being a former member of Menlo Together, and spending time as president of the San Mateo Mothers Club and program director of the Jewish Baby Network. She previously worked as a market research professional. Her campaign website is jenwolosin.com.
Menlo Park resident Jen Wolosin got involved in local politics several years ago on a simple premise: to help her third-grade kid get to school safely on a bike. She started appearing at City Council meetings around August 2016, identified herself as a "Laurel Mom" and asked the council to consider a detailed plan she'd developed to make biking and walking safer for neighborhood kids before the new Upper Laurel Elementary School opened.
In 2017, she founded the Parents for Safe Routes organization and began advocating to make roads safer for kids trying to get to school on foot or by bike throughout the city.
Over time, she said, she has expanded her interests outward beyond "safe routes" issues to larger transportation problems, as well as land use, housing, sustainability and equity.
That she's running for City Council is not surprising she filed paperwork signaling her run for office in 2018, announced her candidacy in January and began campaigning before the pandemic hit. Prior to the COVID-19 shelter-in place order, she said, she was able to canvass about 20% of the households in her district.
She also had a head start on campaign fundraising compared to the other candidates. As of Sept. 24, she had raised $11,179 and had collected a number of endorsements from local leaders, including San Mateo County supervisors Dave Pine and Don Horsley, and 27 current or former appointed city commissioners. Nguyen and Fennell have each raised less than $2,000 and told The Almanac they are not seeking or reporting endorsements for their campaigns.
Wolosin's desire to run for City Council came from a desire to pivot from being an advocate to a decision-maker, she said. She was also a part of local nonprofit Menlo Together for about two years but stepped back in June, she said.
"I've spent years going to City Council meetings, organizing community members, making a case for different policies, but at the end of the day, advocates have to convince decision-makers. And so, in order for the values that I care about to be realized in the city that I love, I realized that I need to become a decision-maker," she said.
The top three issues facing Menlo Park are COVID-19, the economy and climate change – though each is also infused with a fourth issue: inequity, she said. To tackle the first two issues, she said, the city should focus on public safety efforts such as broadening community outreach beyond online posts and ensuring that staff has adequate personal protective equipment. Hosting City Council meetings online during the pandemic has made them more accessible to community members, she said, adding that she'd like them to continue to allow online participation.
"While we are all focused on COVID and the economy, we cannot take our eyes off of the existential threat of climate change," she said.
While traffic may be in a lull during the pandemic-driven "techsodus," a term she ascribed to the departure of remote-working tech employees from the Bay Area, the future of work in the Bay Area will probably still involve a lot of people wanting to be in Silicon Valley, she said.
"I think we'd be fooling ourselves to think that it's just going to go away," she said. "We still have to reduce vehicle miles traveled. We still have to get people out of their cars to reach their climate goals."
She favors building electrification, sustainable transportation, and land-use policies that put more housing near jobs and transit, and increasing the number of electric vehicle chargers. Wolosin said she supports recommendations from Menlo Park's Environmental Quality Commission for the city's Climate Action Plan, which is to either halt the use of natural gas citywide by 2030 or require that gas appliances be replaced by electric alternatives when they stop working. She also favored subsidies, rebates and other programs to help low-income residents meet those requirements.
"The way we reacted to climate in the past, for the most part, hasn't been to scale at the level of the threat that climate change is. You know, recycling is wonderful ... but that's not going to lower the temperature of the planet to where it needs to be so that Belle Haven doesn't flood."
Both COVID-19 and climate change are having disproportionate impacts on communities of color and low-income residents, she said. "The Belle Haven neighborhood will be first area of Menlo Park to flood when sea level rise hits. We've seen higher death rates and hospitalizations among people of color, so we have to look at all of the levers at the City Council's disposal to right a lot of these wrongs of historical inequities and the legacy of redlining and segregation."
Wolosin also brought up the topic of equity in the context of the city's zoning processes. As the City Council embarks on a new cycle under a state mandate to zone for more housing, she said, the city should reflect on its precedent of concentrating housing growth in Belle Haven and District 1. "It's left a huge concentration of development in and development impacts for our lowest-income, formerly redlined neighbors, and we've also left them with the fewest services," she said. "We really need to look at ourselves and the community and say, 'Who do we want to be and how do we want to grow?'"
She added that she favored increasing the density of housing downtown, near services, and considering additional steps to increase the availability of housing in single-family neighborhoods through accessory dwelling units. She likes the duplexes in her neighborhood in Vintage Oaks, she added.
"I think people tend to fear the unknown, but I see it as an opportunity to create a community that is multi-generational and inclusive and friendly. And when we have this greater concentration of people, then we can have all the things we want in our community," she said.
As a cost-effective way to support low-income residents affected by the pandemic, Wolosin said she'd favor investing in communication with residents through multi-language mailers or delivering information door to door, and expanding or increasing the city's contributions to local nonprofits like Samaritan House, LifeMoves or Second Harvest.
Wolosin said she favored police reform, adding she felt that issues of systemic racism extend beyond the police department.
"The police do the bidding of the community," she said. "I think we can't just look at the police and say, 'Shame on the police.' I think we have to look at ourselves as a community and ask what we have asked the police to do, which is basically to keep our communities segregated."
Within the police department, she said, the city should: Adopt a process to recruit a new police chief that uses community feedback; establish a citizens advisory committee that is more transparent and representative of the community; evaluate how money is spent in the police department; and study "if it's appropriate for people with guns to be doing all the things they're doing," she said.