There are plenty of things that unify the four candidates for Portola Valley Town Council: a deep love for the town's rural beauty, with its network of trails and bucolic open spaces; a determination to protect it from the ever-present threat of wildfires; and concern over the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on residents, local businesses and the town's bottom line.
But with only two seats on the council to fill, voters need to make a choice between incumbent Jeff Aalfs and challengers Sarah Wernikoff, Angela Hey and Mary Hufty. The Almanac recommends reelecting Jeff Aalfs and electing Sarah Wernikoff.
With nine years' experience on the council, Aalfs has shown admirable leadership as mayor during an extraordinarily difficult year, as the coronvirus turned life upside down and the CZU Lightning Complex fires, the largest to ravage the area in at least 100 years, came chillingly close to town. His weekly emails were notable for their clarity, compassionate tone and useful information during the pandemic, and he's well-versed in the town and Woodside Fire Protection District's fire prevention strategies.
Climate change is a major threat to Portola Valley, and Aalfs' experience as a sustainability professional and board member of Peninsula Clean Energy gives him an edge. His idea of turning the Town Center into a microgrid that generates and stores solar power is interesting and worth pursuing. He's committed to taking a close look at the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office policies and practices with an eye to improving them, banding together with other small towns to increase Portola Valley's clout in effecting change.
Aalfs' cautiously progressive approach to the perpetually controversial topic of building more housing — an inevitability, given state law — acknowledges the important role housing plays in increasing diversity in a town that was 91% white according to the last census. Wanting to weed out racial bias in policing is easy to get behind, he points out. Adding more housing for people of different income levels is a tougher sell in Portola Valley, but flows from the same values of equality and justice.
Wernikoff stood out among the challengers for her thoughtful, constructive approach to issues facing the town, her willingness to do her homework and her years of volunteering with the Portola Valley School District as well as her work with Close the Gap California, a nonprofit that recruits and supports progressive female candidates to close the gender gap in the state Legislature. Her experience from holding leadership roles in e-commerce companies and nonprofits should serve her well.
Wernikoff says she fell in love with Portola Valley the moment she laid eyes on it, and that its lack of diversity is one of the only things wrong with the town. Among the candidates, she had some of the most insightful answers on the value of increasing the town's ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Wernikoff is well-versed on fire safety issues and we feel she can be counted on to consider divisive development proposals, like the Stanford Wedge project, fairly and reasonably. We think she's the candidate most likely to hit the ground running if elected, and serve with energy and an open mind.
What does it mean when The Almanac makes an endorsement? Read our explanation here.