Amid a contentious process to plan for housing in the years to come, five candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for three open Portola Valley Town Council seats on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The contenders are Mayor Craig Hughes, Planning Commissioners Craig Taylor and Judith Hasko, former candidate Mary Hufty and Emergency Preparedness Committee Chair Dale Pfau. Council members John Richards and Maryann Derwin will not seek reelection.
While election years have gone by in Portola Valley without a contested race, this year is different. Prior to 2020, the last contested election in town was in 2013, according to Town Clerk Melissa Thurman. The final day to file nomination papers is Wednesday, Aug. 17, after The Almanac's Wednesday afternoon press deadline.
The 2023-31 state-mandated housing element has been a huge undertaking for the town and an issue of critical concern for candidates, who would be tasked with helping complete the element, which is due to the state in January 2023. The town saw a jump in the number of new units it is assigned to plan for this cycle (253 compared to just 64 last cycle).
At the same time, the town is planning for an updated state safety element.
The following interviews were conducted over the phone or through emailed responses to The Almanac's questions.
Hasko, an attorney working in the life sciences industry, joined the Planning Commission in 2014, where she said she's helped make decisions regarding accessory dwelling unit ordinances, planning projects and the latest housing element.
The town is at an important crossroads, given the safety and housing challenges it faces, along with the retirement of two council members this year, she said.
"I would like to continue to highlight and encourage the continuation of the town's tradition of volunteerism and self-governance, provide forums for open discussions on issues by all interested residents, and identify approaches to address the complex issues the town faces while respecting the principles laid out in its general plan," Hasko said.
She said she is running to give back to Portola Valley, a town so beloved in the family that her mother-in-law moved from England to live at The Sequoias retirement community for many years.
"We are constantly hiking and running on its extensive trails, and are amazed at the wildlife we encounter and open space experiences that the town offers," she said.
Hasko and husband Phil Reilly have lived in the Bay Area since 1994 and in Portola Valley since 2007, according to The Almanac's archives. She's also chaired the Trails and Paths Committee and served on the Portola Road Corridor Plan Task Force and the Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee.
In these roles she has focused on understanding the issues well, listening to the concerns of all involved, and striving to make a balanced and fair decision based on the information available and input provided, she said.
If elected, she would prioritize how to manage the town's safety challenges given the specific geologic, fire and drought risks facing Portola Valley.
Hufty, who retired from her job as a family physician for Palo Alto Medical Foundation for 25 years, last ran for council in 2020.
If elected, she said she would like to see major changes at Town Hall, namely, she fears committees have lost much of their effectiveness and autonomy. She also said that the council and committees have to stop publicly shaming residents who speak out. She would like to see the town's rural character maintained while the town diversifies its housing stock.
In recent years, she has increased her environmental advocacy work, particularly around Bay restoration efforts in recent years.
In 2020, she founded Portola Valley Neighbors United, a volunteer-run group that's focused on "fire and seismic safety, affordable housing, and natural habitat, to encourage informed and active participation in governance, and to influence public policies through education and advocacy," according to its website.
"Urban consultants and developers now have our planning by the throat," she said. "The non-resident rapidly growing town staff needs to be guided, not guiding, decisions, while we must strive to support the best staff possible."
"The conundrum of our current political and physical environmental changes is a challenge but I have learned from 30 years of practicing family and preventive care medicine that, if you listen for three minutes, you will understand the problem but if you listen for eight minutes you will be told the solution," she said. "I will be a good listener, a consensus builder, and a practical solution finder."
Hughes has been serving on the Town Council since 2013. He's running to "continue preserving the natural, rural beauty of Portola Valley that 50-plus years of focus has kept for us, while complying with state law."
"I want to make sure that while we do our part to help house the growing regional population, we do so cognizant of the wildfire and geologic danger in our WUI (wildfire urban interface) community where the San Andreas fault runs right past many of our homes," said Hughes was a member of the Portola Valley Architectural and Site Control Commission for over four years before joining the council.
He started PV Donuts, roundtables with residents and council members to improve communications. He'd like to continue to make sure that everyone's voice is heard when the town faces tough decisions, and to benefit from the wealth of expertise that community members bring to Portola Valley.
He hopes to bring creative options to renewal of its San Mateo County Sheriff's Office contract, which is up in the summer of 2023.
Demands on the town services continue to grow and he wants to continue to focus on helping the planning director as the coming RHNA cycle and state requirements will more than double the work of planning and building staff. The town has begun setting the groundwork for this over the last year, he said.
Hughes said he is proud of the work he did to help create Peninsula Clean Energy, which has been providing 100% clean power to town since 2016.
Pfau, a technology consultant, was embroiled in controversy in April, when the town removed him as the Wildfire Preparedness Committee's vice chair but didn't explain why. He said he requested additional information about the complaint, but was told that attorney-client privilege prevented any disclosure of the nature of the complaint, the person who made it, the circumstances surrounding it, or any other information relating to it.
"I wish I had been given an opportunity to address the complaint, but without receiving any information whatsoever, I had no foundation for any kind of a response," he said.
Pfau and his wife raised three children in Portola Valley who attended Ormondale, Corte Madera, and Woodside Priory schools. Dfau served on the Priory Board of Trustees for eight years.
Pfau, who moved to town in 1997, said he's running because he is concerned about wildfire threats in town and he believes strongly in the town's committee system.
"The more I learn about wildfire in the WUI, the more concerned I become about our precarious position here in Portola Valley," he said. "While Portola Valley has done much to address wildfire, there is much more to do, and safety should be the first concern on every significant decision in the town."
Recently, he said he has seen staff and consultants "dominate" important issues as the housing and safety elements.
"The general plan was originally written by resident volunteers; we need to return to that ethos and return power to the committees and the residents who serve on them," he said. "Portola Valley is fortunate to have an extremely talented and resourceful population. We need to encourage the community's participation in the committees and return to our town's roots of bottom-up, not top-down governance."
The town is currently recruiting for more committee volunteers. There are 13 town committees with openings, according to the town's website.
On the Emergency Preparedness Committee, Pfau said he has, for example, helped install a town AM radio, developed a strong relationship with Woodside Fire Protection District and is working a town evacuation plan.
Taylor, a retired tech executive, has been on the Portola Valley Planning Commission since 2018 and also sits on the town's Open Space Acquisition Committee. He formerly served on the Trails and Paths Committee and volunteers with the Bay Area Mountain Rescue unit.
He said he is running on a platform of civility.
Public discourse has been heated in recent months. Council member Sarah Wernikoff said that over the last four months, town staff and council members have "spent an inordinate amount of time debunking misinformation" and Rebecca Flynn, who runs the town's online social network PVForum, said in April that a few people in town are on a moderated status "because they have shown themselves to be unable to post respectful messages," some of which are directed at Town Council members and staff members.
"Some of these sort of attacks do not feel like what we should be having in Portola Valley; national politics has bled down into Portola Valley," said Taylor, who moved to town in 1984.
With an increase in public records requests, state mandates and other administrative demands, he would like to set up a committee to field comments from the public.
"My goal was always to be civil with everybody who came on," he said, in his capacity on town committees. "During public comments, I welcome them and thank for their comments. Small gestures actually make a difference. ... Not everyone is going to agree 100 percent; at the end of the day we're all neighbors."
As chair of the trails committee, Taylor said he helped broker a deal to acquire the Herb Dengler Preserve in 2007. He then raised funds and designed the trail extension that is known as the Joan Targ Trail.
He'd also like to dig into the general plan and not have it just be a background project handled by staff.
The official candidate statements can be viewed here.