For the first time in seven years there is a contested Town Council election in Portola Valley, with four people vying for two seats: technologist Angela Hey, retired family physician Mary Hufty, community volunteer Sarah Wernikoff, and sustainability professional Jeff Aalfs, who is the current mayor.
The Almanac conducted videoconference interviews with the four candidates last month, asking them about all these issues and more.
Angela Hey, 67, is a technologist who has lived in Portola Valley for 29 years. She has served on the town's Bicycle, Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee since 2013 and previously sat on its first Sustainability Committee. As a volunteer, she also chairs the board of SpiritCare Ministry to Seniors, a Burlingame-based nonprofit serving the spiritual and emotional needs of seniors, and serves as vice president of the Imperial College Foundation. She has a Ph.D. in management science from Imperial College (which was part of the University of London), a master's in mathematics from the University of Waterloo and a master's in mathematics from the University of Cambridge. Her campaign website is angelahey.com.
A 29-year resident who served on the town's first Sustainability Committee and has sat on its Bicycle, Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee since 2013, Angela Hey now seeks to take her knowledge and experience to the council. She's running on "risks, residences and relationships," with a desire to address the need for affordable housing, mitigate risks such as wildfires and cultivate relationships among people in town.
She believes the budget is the top issue facing Portola Valley currently (the Town Council is slated to approve the new 2020-21 fiscal year budget Oct. 14 after implementing an interim budget for the start of the fiscal year based on 2019-20 figures.) Fire risks and "the risk that people are worried, and health risks" round out her list of the top issues residents are confronting.
"People are stressed and worried, and by mitigating risks you reduce worry in people," Hey said.
To aid local small business owners hit hard by the pandemic, Hey says the council could ask residents to help them or seek grants, but she's unsure if the town should dedicate any of its own funding toward that endeavor.
"There have to be ways — maybe subsidizing peoples' rents for awhile or working with landlords — but I don't know that that's the job of the Town Council," she said. "The council has to set up the atmosphere where these people can get together and have a discussion."
Asked about where new housing could go and what types should be included, Hey said accessory dwelling units have worked well in Portola Valley, but added that zoning should allow homes to be subdivided while retaining the appearance of single-family residences.
"You can either build high or sprawl," she said. "I don't think we have a contiguous space short of putting things on slopes where they're prone to landslides or near the San Andreas Fault or where there's a fire risk."
Hey said the town's disproportionately white population has "been a problem in the past," with housing covenants, conditions and restrictions that once prohibited people from selling certain homes to people of color.
"I hope no one is going around saying this is a place for white people," Hey said. "I would welcome anyone of color to come and live in Portola Valley, but of course you've got to have the money."
She added that she would support building below-market-rate housing if a location and developer could be identified for it.
Hey said Stanford University has "done a decent job" on its initial plans for 27 single-family homes and 12 affordable multifamily units on vacant property it owns along Alpine Road, and believes Stanford has the right to build on its own land; however, she thinks the plans may ultimately require more fire mitigation work. A proposal for the Stanford Wedge project is currently in the environmental review stages.
Town staff has been working hard on wildfire mitigation initiatives, she said, but she'd like to see the town conduct evacuation drills and would welcome a fire break on upper Alpine Road.
"I think the CZU fires have woken up the town. Was there enough done beforehand? No," she said.
With climate change impacts like wildfires and sea level rise becoming increasingly stark, Hey believes Portola Valley could help the environment by installing more solar panels and holding a seminar series on climate change to further educate residents. Tree removal would improve conditions for solar power and lower the town's fire risk, she said.
The town needs to preserve its rural character and open space, Hey said, noting that Windy Hill Open Space Preserve has seen an uptick in visitors this year that has led to the quandary of whether to create more parking or whether "you say like the Getty Museum in LA, 'No we don't have a lot of cars parking, you come here on your own public transport or your bike or Uber, and we won't provide the car parking.'"
Asked if she believes any changes are necessary at the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, she said police should not shoot mentally ill individuals.
"When you have somebody with a kitchen knife trying to attack a policeman, you don't pull out a gun and shoot them," she said. "I'm not into defunding the police at all; I think one should fund the police because I think the police's job is to keep order in society. But I do think we need to make sure when people are mentally ill and they're confronting policemen, they're not shot, and that they're given the appropriate mental health treatment."
Mary Hufty, 70, is a retired family practice doctor and mother of two adult sons who has lived in Portola Valley for 30 years. She is an environmentalist who has volunteered as a docent with Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve for over 30 years and has previously served on the town's Westridge Architectural Supervisory, Conservation and Trails committees. She helped found Portola Valley Neighbors United, a volunteer-run organization started in January to help the community preserve and enhance its rural character. (She has stepped down as president of PVNU because of her campaign.) Hufty graduated with a bachelor's degree in human development and biology from Stanford University and doctor of medicine degree from University of California at San Diego. Her campaign website is maryforcouncil.org.
A retired family physician, Mary Hufty now considers her role as an environmentalist ("and proud of it") part of her occupation. Her concerns about protecting the environment propelled her to help found Portola Valley Neighbors United, a volunteer-run group created in January "to respond to several difficult town issues and preserve the town's rural nature," according to its website. She has stepped down as president of the organization in light of her council campaign.
Among her backers are Woodside Vice Mayor Brian Dombkowski; Peninsula Open
Space Trust co-founder and board member Ward Paine; and Stanford Graduate School of Business professor George Parker.
Hufty has previously served on the town's Westridge Architectural Supervisory, Conservation and Trails committees and said her knowledge of Portola Valley and experience as a "listener and facilitator" make her the best candidate.
"I'm trained in listening and finding out what the problem is and directing people to the solution to that problem without beating them over the head — that makes me completely different from anyone else that's running, only in the sense that listening is key, not positioning myself," Hufty said.
She believes the top issues facing residents are safety; diverse, equitable and affordable housing; and population diversity, respectively. State regulations "need to be pushed through the lens of a small town in a wildland urban interface," she said, adding that the most appropriate place for new housing would be near the Town Center.
"It's going to be slow and steady," Hufty said. "That being said, now is the time to start the change. The town has been sitting on $3 million for years that should have been paid out for affordable housing and has failed to locate a place to spend that money. That has to be done forthwith, because we have people who need housing and people in town who could benefit from a subsidy on those things."
Hufty, however, does not support the Stanford Wedge housing project as currently proposed due to concerns about wildfire hazards on the property.
She said she sees the town's disproportionately white population as "a huge problem," and believes council members should be reaching out to people of color in Portola Valley.
"People have to be recognized and celebrated for their diversity, not punished for it," Hufty said. "I think they (the council) need to be respectful and reach out to people of color in town and support their points of view and find out what it feels like to be Black or Hispanic in town. Find out what's going on instead of bringing in experts from elsewhere."
To support small business owners during the pandemic, Hufty said, the town should ease restrictions on outdoor operations.
Preserving Portola Valley's open spaces and keeping trails accessible is important, as is wetland protection, as far as climate change is concerned, she said. To mitigate wildfire risk, Hufty believes the town should create a fire ordinance and the job of a safety officer who would enforce the ordinance and lead other preparedness efforts, like evacuation drills. Grant funding could support those endeavors, she said.
Asked about opportunities for reform in the local Sheriff's Office, Hufty said she believes police need an unarmed component to handle mental health calls.
"Doctors go into rooms of people with behavior disorders without a gun," she said. "It is definitely not my style to think mental health issues and behavioral disorders are dealt with by an armed police force."
Sarah Wernikoff, 49, is a community volunteer with a background in web-based product management who has lived in town for 14 years. She has volunteered with the Portola Valley School District and served as trustee of a national Down syndrome research foundation. She has a bachelor's degree in international relations from Miami University and an MBA from the George Washington University School of Business. She has three children: a son who's a college freshman, a son in eighth grade at Menlo School and a daughter in her junior year at Woodside High School. Her campaign website is sarahforpvtowncouncil.org.
Community volunteer Sarah Wernikoff says her motivation to run for public office for the first time stems from a love for Portola Valley. As a Portola Valley School District volunteer she has served a number of roles, including on the Measure Z Leadership Committee and as parent-teacher organization president and vice president. She has also worked in a variety of leadership roles for private and public organizations, shifting from a career in consulting after business school to web-based product management.
For the last few years her work has been focused in state politics, spending 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 — and most recently working as campaign manager for state Senate District 15 candidate Ann Ravel.
Wernikoff has received the backing of all current Portola Valley council members and school district board members, as well as endorsements from a number of local and regional officials such as Menlo Park Councilman Ray Mueller, San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, and state Assemblyman Marc Berman.
"I really just appreciate the town, and I marry that with the experiences I've had over the last three years learning about state and regional issues and really growing a true appreciation for civic duty," Wernikoff said.
She identifies emergency and wildfire preparedness, the housing shortage and need for affordable housing and the need for a "refresh of community cohesion" as the top three issues residents are facing.
"We are a little bit more spread out and fragmented in Portola Valley," Wernikoff said. "There are silos based on peoples' interests or the age of their kids ... There are a lot of opportunities in town for us to cross-support the different groups we have."
The lack of diversity is a problem, she said, recalling that she sat in her now 18-year-old's kindergarten class and thought it was weird that the class was all-white.
"Currently speaking, the lack of diversified housing limits the number of people from being able to live in the town," Wernikoff said. "What I reflect on is, if I were a person of color of a certain minority group, would I want to live in Portola Valley? You don't want to live in a place where there's not a lot of people that look like you, and you don't want to raise your kids where they'll be feeling like they're the only ones who look a certain way."
On the housing front, Wernikoff said Portola Valley needs affordable housing, which she wants to prioritize for people who live and work in town.
"Diversity of people at different levels of income is not only healthy for the community, but obviously the right thing to do for the region," she said.
Wernikoff is supportive of the Stanford Wedge project based on current information, but that support is contingent upon how Woodside Fire Protection District officials ultimately feel about the housing proposal.
"I would never, ever advocate for anything that wasn't in absolute lock step with the fire marshal and Woodside Fire," she said.
As far as wildfire safety is concerned, Wernikoff praised the town's communication when the CZU fires ignited nearby and the work of its Wildfire Preparedness Committee, which made a number of recommendations that the Town Council approved late last year. She said the town should make sure to follow through on executing those recommendations and work to synthesize communication.
Wildfire mitigation efforts are critical in tackling climate change, she said, and the town can also look at its own assets and make sure they're being run in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
Preserving Portola Valley's rural nature is a big priority for Wernikoff, and she said she would continue "prioritizing nature" as the Town Council has done.
The town could do a little more to communicate to residents about supporting local businesses, she said. Wernikoff is open to considering spending town funds to help small businesses if elected, but it's dependent upon the town's budget.
Asked whether she believes any policy changes are needed in the Sheriff's Office, Wernikoff said she's fully supportive of examining various policies.
"Every community needs to take a good look at the policies that are in place and how they're being executed," she said.
Jeff Aalfs, 51, is the mayor of Portola Valley and has served on the Town Council since 2011. Prior to that he served three years on the town's Architecture and Site Control Commission. He works in energy and green building consulting and serves as the Portola Valley representative on the Peninsula Clean Energy board. Aalfs has a bachelor's degree in molecular biology from University of California at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University. He has lived in Portola Valley for 14 years and has two children, a daughter in eighth grade at Woodside Priory School and a son in fifth grade at Corte Madera School. His campaign website is aalfs2020.com.
Mayor Jeff Aalfs is seeking his third term on the council, which he said will likely be his last if reelected. This election marks the first time he is running for a contested council seat, as he was appointed to the Town Council in 2011. He previously served on the town's Architecture and Site Control Commission for three years.
Aalfs has received endorsements from all of his fellow council members, as well as the Portola Valley School District board and a number of town committee and commission members.
"I've enjoyed a really good relationship with my colleagues on the council," Aalfs said. "We don't agree on everything but we discuss things, and I feel like the five of us come to very good decisions because we work together, and I plan to continue doing that."
The top three issues for residents are public safety, including fire and earthquake safety; housing; and security, Aalfs said.
"I don't think we've had a lot of crime here, but I think people do kind of worry about being safe around town," he said.
Aalfs said that accessory dwelling units have been a good solution to addressing the state Regional Housing Needs Assessment, and the town has also developed affiliated housing partners — institutions like Woodside Priory School — that it has agreed to work with if they want to build employee housing on their land. The school has 17 housing units on its property for faculty and staff members.
Aalfs sees ADUs and institutions as the "big thrust" for adding housing moving forward, adding "the more inventory we have, the better, really at almost any (income) level."
"The next level up would be somebody coming in and building duplexes or fourplexes or even an apartment building somewhere in town. That's a big step, and I'd be very nervous about seeing that happen," he said. "To get to some of the numbers we're hearing it might be the next necessary step. I would think long and hard and it would take me a long time to get comfortable with that."
Aalfs said he thinks the Stanford Wedge property is a reasonable location to put housing, but he couldn't make a decision without seeing the forthcoming environmental and safety reports.
"If the fire marshal were to come back and say, 'This project is dangerous and we can't fully mitigate the increased hazard,' then I can't imagine moving forward," he said.
The last few years have served as "wake-up calls" for the town with regard to fire danger, Aalfs said. He represented the council on the Wildfire Preparedness Committee and said all of its recommendations that the town adopted are on course to be implemented by the end of the year. The town had planned to conduct an evacuation drill this summer that was postponed due to the pandemic, and it will do more to educate residents on when and how to evacuate, he said.
As climate change continues to exacerbate natural disasters like wildfires, Aalfs — who works in energy and green building consulting — said if reelected, he looks forward to continuing his work on the Peninsula Clean Energy board, which now provides electric generation services to 98% of county customers.
"We can extend decarbonization into transportation with more electric vehicles, we can make our houses more efficient and fossil fuel-free by electrifying them," Aalfs said. "We've talked about making the Town Center a free-standing microgrid. ... We ran into some large pricetags for doing it, that was one of the impediments, but I'd like to see that move forward."
Asked about the town's disproportionately white population, Aalfs said single-family zoning has created a dearth of affordable housing, and adding affordable housing would be one way to promote diversity.
Aalfs said the Sheriff's Office has done pretty well, but there are causes for concern, pointing out that there have been several incidents in the county in which people having mental health episodes died in police custody.
"My guess is they're doing a pretty good job and they're trying to address these problems, and my guess is we'll find things to be changed," he said.
Asked about supporting small businesses hit hard by COVID-19, Aalfs said the town doesn't have enough money to keep those businesses afloat. That said, he said he would still listen to local business owners if they approached him with any ideas on how the town could help.
Portola Valley's rural character is "one of the bedrocks of the town," and Aalfs imagines the town, if mandated to build more housing, would construct it in areas that are already somewhat developed.
"We've always tried to concentrate the building in certain areas to keep it from overwhelming too much of the natural environment," he said.
So far, none of the candidates has exceeded the $2,000 threshold to file campaign finance reports, according to Town Clerk Sharon Hanlon.