Portola Valley has faced significant challenges in recent years, and it's starting to take its toll. While still deep in the COVID-19 response effort, the town got a harsh reality check when the CZU August Lightning Complex fires scorched 86,000 acres, coming too close for comfort to Portola Valley. As then-Mayor Maryann Derwin put it, residents were scared "to the bone" and motivated to do something about it.
On top of a global pandemic and the specter of losing everything to a fire, Portola Valley residents had to contend with a third challenge: State housing mandates requiring the small town -- historically slow-growth and resistant to change -- to zone for far more housing than in the past. Finding suitable locations to put 253 housing units in the next eight years is no small feat for Portola Valley, and it's a hard pill to swallow for those that hold dear the rural feel of the town.
Taken altogether, it's understandable that emotions are running high. What we've seen in recent months is mounting frustration and a perception among some that the town's leadership is not responsive to the public and making decisions contrary to the will of the residents. Less excusable are accusations that town staff cannot be trusted to make the decisions necessary to steer the town in the right direction; pointless and politically motivated lawsuits; and the creation of a political action committee in a town of just 4,500 people.
All of these tough circumstances are the backdrop for the election this November, where five candidates are vying for three seats on the Portola Valley Town Council. Mayor Craig Hughes is seeking reelection, running along with Planning Commission members Judith Hasko and Craig Taylor and residents Dale Pfau and Mary Hufty. The three winners of this election will have a strong voice in steering the direction of the town, and carry the responsibility of ensuring residents have confidence in the council over the next four years. That also means having the right demeanor and a consensus-building approach that will reduce the level of acrimony, lest the city further mire itself in personal and political fights.
With that in mind, we recommend Hughes, Hasko and Taylor for Town Council.
Hughes is the only incumbent in the race, as both of his colleagues with terms that expire this year -- Maryann Derwin and John Richards -- have opted not to run. With at least two fresh faces on the council, it's important to keep some continuity with a candidate that has first-hand experience dealing with tough issues related to housing and wildfire safety. Hughes is quick to acknowledge that the town has fallen short on its responsiveness to residents' questions and concerns, and believes improvements are on the way.
What's more, Hughes understands the town's obligation to zone for housing under the state's Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), and that attempting to fight the state or subvert the process is not a healthy approach for Portola Valley. State officials have made clear that this RHNA cycle is different from the past, and that inadequate housing elements will be sent back for corrections. While some residents want the town to "fight back" against the state, Hughes said he understands the sentiment but nevertheless took a different path with his fellow council members.
Hasko has demonstrated on the campaign trail that she would work to build consensus and try to keep local political debates productive. A lawyer, Hasko said she is used to working with people with differing views, and that it's important to "reset" conversations instead of talking past each other. Hasko is right to be skeptical of the RHNA process -- the quadrupling of Portola Valley's housing requirements and questionable assumptions that the process generates affordable housing -- but she does not advocate for battling the state. Her interest in exploring creative options like expansion of junior accessory dwelling units tells us she is looking for solutions rather than railing against the problem.
Hasko said she takes "very seriously" the feedback that residents want more transparency and access to decision-makers, and that the perception that the town doesn't listen to its residents must be addressed -- though she is quick to clarify this isn't the fault of any one particular council member. We agree with her belief that the town's myriad committees may be the best way for feedback and ideas from town residents to make its way to the town's leadership. Hasko said she is still getting up to speed on all of the safety issues of the town, having focused mostly on housing to date, and that she would pursue a robust evacuation plan and get a better sense of fire risks.
Taylor has also shown that he will take a measured approach to the city's problems and would work to rebuild confidence in town governance -- without tearing down the professional staff that play an integral role in contentious issues. He has no appetite for personal attacks and said town staff are not the enemy, and that it would be up to him and the rest of the town council to help these public servants do the best job they can. He advocates for a productive approach to the disconnected communications between staff and residents, that acknowledges town employees are already overwhelmed with the existing workload.
Consistent with this measure approach, Taylor acknowledges both the shortcomings of the draft housing element sent to the state as well as the constraints placed on the town in trying to pull the document together, including a short turnaround time, limited options to place housing and realistic expectations for accessory dwelling unit (ADU) growth. He also makes clear that while fire safety is a top priority for the town, it's not the only priority, and there's going to need to be some level of balance between allowing new housing and safeguarding the community from fires. With the right regulations and upkeep, he said homes can be protected even in higher-risk areas, and that's an important reality check as the town balances housing needs against safety.
We appreciate Hufty's environmentalist streak and service on the town's conservation and trails committees, and her interest in preserving the rural character of Portola Valley. However we have concerns that her distrust of town staff and comments that they ignore and subvert the will of the residents will not be productive or help the community steer away from the divisive rhetoric we've seen in recent years. Committee members have an important role to play, but it has to be conducted in tandem with the efforts of professional staff and a mutual understanding of differing viewpoints.
Pfau is deeply knowledgeable of the town's issues and has served on the Wildfire Preparedness Committee, but his comments suggest he would create further divisiveness and clash with town staff if elected. We are also troubled by the alleged behavior that got him ousted him from the wildfire committee -- including emails with disparaging remarks about fellow committee members and clear motives to subvert those with whom he disagreed. Pfau's Twitter account, suddenly made private as the election kicked off, shows signs of troubling political views that are out of step with most Portola Valley residents and make it difficult to support him for public office.