During an at times heated candidate forum on Thursday, Sept. 29, the five people seeking seats on the Portola Valley Town Council next month fielded questions on housing, concerns about town staff's response times, wildfire risk and more.
Taking into consideration questions submitted from readers, Almanac Editor Kevin Forestieri and Reporter Angela Swartz asked council candidates about planning for housing, how to enhance fire safety, discord between residents and town staff and the council, and more, at The Almanac's first virtual candidate forum, which ran for 75 minutes.
About 180 people tuned to the forum on Zoom to see all five candidates – Mayor Craig Hughes, Planning Commissioners Judith Hasko and Craig Taylor, former candidate Mary Hufty and Emergency Preparedness Committee Chair Dale Pfau – square off on these topics.
Longtime council members Maryann Derwin and John Richards opted not to run for reelection this fall.
If you missed the forum, find out where the candidates stand on all these issues and more, on The Almanac's YouTube page at almanacnews.com/youtube to watch a recording of the event.
Housing, specifically how and where it will be built in the town, was among the hot-button issues during the forum. The state is currently reviewing a draft of the town's housing element.
The town is assigned to plan for 253 new units in the 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), quadrupled from just 64 last cycle.
Hasko said affiliated housing programs (partnering with churches, the senior living facility called The Sequoias and others to plan to build housing) and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and junior ADUs are "underexplored" and could be utilized in the plan.
Many of the candidates spoke out against developing Dorothy Ford Field, which is part of the housing element plan. The council did decide that planning for Ford Field and the Ladera Church property will take place together about two years into the 2023-31 cycle. This will allow the town to first evaluate how the plan's implementation is progressing.
Both Susan Ford Dorsey and many residents have stated the town has a moral obligation to keep the property in open space, but other than the two deed restrictions governing the baseball field that expire in 2031, there is no legal impediment to changing the use of the open space portion of the site.
"I'm disheartened that Dorothy Ford Field is on the chopping block," said Taylor.
Hufty said she is also opposed to building housing on the field, saying she is "in love with the field." She described this as a "watershed moment" in Portola Valley's history.
Hughes said the town could preserve and expand the open space while sliding the baseball field over. He said the "Portola Valley way" is to devise creative solutions to problems.
Pfau is not supportive of developing the park.
"Open space once destroyed is never regained," he said.
Residents have voiced growing concerns about the wildfire risk in the town, which is in an Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI. The issue came front and center when the 2020 CZU Lighting Complex fires that burned over 86,000 acres, it was a wake-up call that fire danger needs to remain top of mind.
Hughes argues that the town needs updated fire hazard maps. Its last approved maps are over a decade old.
The Woodside Fire Protection District and CAL Fire are currently working on updating its fire maps.
The town is also in the midst of compiling a safety plan, which will include fire maps.
Pfau said he wants to see the town use the "2008 Moritz map" until Woodside Fire’s maps are complete. The map prepared by Ray Moritz, a consultant in mapping fire-prone vegetation, indicates that threats rated "very high" exist in some Portola Valley neighborhoods, and threats deemed "high" exist in many others, based on the proximity and topography of fire-prone forested areas.
"We need to be honest about our fire risk," Pfau said. He'd also like to use information from the Geologic Safety Committee about all the faults in town to prepare for earthquakes.
Hufty said the town needs to host an evacuation drill to plan for an emergency. Residents staged their own drill last year after town officials said such an exercise wasn't worthwhile.
Taylor encouraged residents to join WPV-Ready, an emergency preparedness group that serves Woodside, Portola Valley, Emerald Hills, Los Trancos and other communities.
Hasko said it is important that the town adopt the best possible maps of fire risk zones in town.
==Town communications, work==
All candidates acknowledged that town staff have been slow to respond to resident questions.
In one of the most contentious parts of the forum was, Hughes noted that staff members have the necessary role of supervising committee members, citing that Pfau, was fired as vice chair of the Wildfire Preparedness Committee in April because he tried to undermine other committee members and made disparaging remarks about them.
"He sent emails to the chair saying things like 'Is this woman clueless or what?' 'Not sure if I trust Jennifer (Hammer) on anything right now. Her appointment is a disaster.' 'Please forward me Sarah (Wernikoff)'s agenda. We will completely ignore it of course.' 'I have a healthy skepticism of anything from MJ (Lee).'"
Pfau responded to what he characterized as a personal attack, breaking with the forum format.
"For the mayor to wait months to provide his purported reason and to do so for the first time in a public forum is nothing less than a deliberate attempt at a broader smear campaign," Pfau said Friday in a statement. "Is this what the residents of Portola Valley deserve?"
Taylor suggested that town volunteers develop frequently asked questions pages on its website to cut back on staff time and help residents understand issues. He’d also like to see consultants more engaged with committees, rather than just presenting them with finished packages.
Hughes said the town is working on the communications issue.
Pfau said the communication issues between residents and town officials is "not as complex as the mayor says it is," while Hufty accused town officials of harassing residents.
Hasko said communications have eroded between residents and town officials.
"There's no excuse to say, 'It's hard, we can't do this,'" she said.
Pfau and Hughes also butted heads over the town's financial audits. Pfau questioned why the town has not completed financial audits for 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Hughes' response to Pfau echoed those of Town Manager Jeremy Dennis. Dennis told The Almanac that the 2019-20 audit has been delayed from its normal completion about one year after the completion of the previous fiscal year because of the impacts of the pandemic (such as inability to have audit staff visit during closure of facilities), changes to the process for submitting materials to the auditors because of the pandemic, managing two fiscal systems during a transition from a legacy product to OpenGov, scheduling challenges and staffing challenges.
Its 2019-20 audit should be headed to the Finance and Audit Committee in October, Dennis said. The 2020-21 audit should be ready in early 2023, he said.