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Maternity leave policy debated for RWC commissions, boards

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Political Climate with Mark Simon: Controversial districting process will change status quo

An all-woman dais at Monday’s Redwood City Council meeting was divided on whether to implement a maternity leave policy for those serving on city boards, committees and commissions.

With Mayor Ian Bain absent Monday, the council discussed implementing an attendance policy for voluntary boards, committees and commissions, or BCCs, which the city hopes will encourage attendance so that government business is not delayed due to a lack of quorum.

But some councilmembers took issue with the proposed policy’s apparent lack of flexibility for new parents, particularly mothers.

Councilmember Giselle Hale proposed to amend the policy to allow for three months of maternity leave, with the possibility of requesting up to six months. While Hale’s proposal received support from Councilmembers Shelly Masur and Alicia Aguirre, it got pushback from Councilmembers Janet Borgens, Diana Reddy and Vice Mayor Diane Howard.

No decisions were made Monday. The policy was returned for further review to the council’s Governance Subcommittee and to await a return to the council of the lone male, Mayor Bain.

Hale, who was a new mother when she served on the city’s planning commission, recommended a maximum six months for maternity leave, as it reflects the American Pediatric Association’s recommendation that newborns be breastfed exclusively for the first six months.

“BCC meetings can take up to four hours, they are filmed, they are in front of the public and during that time a nursing mom can experience engorgement, which can be physically painful or minimally uncomfortable,” Hale said.

A maternity leave policy would make it “welcoming for women of child-bearing age to serve our city government,” she added.

Vice Mayor Howard said she’d prefer that leave of absences by new mothers are requested rather than required. Howard cited high demand for BCC positions (“you get 20 people wanting two seats, she said”) and added that guaranteed leaves of absences should not apply to voluntary positions.

Borgens agreed to allowing three months of absence, with the ability to extend, but added, “six months for me is too long.” She advocated for rules that allow for flexibility for both mothers and fathers serving on commissions, including agreeing to have meetings end earlier at night.

“I do respect the rights of a mother who has just given birth and has to nurse,” Borgens said. “I have gone through the same thing. But I made a decision during that time what my priorities would be, and it wasn’t to take on something that was going to put me in an uncomfortable position.”

Added Reddy, “I am concerned when we have a meeting, that we cannot conduct a meeting due to lack of quorum. I would support any accommodation that might be needed short of extending the period from three to six months.”

Masur, on the other hand, favored a six-month leave. With women being elected in record numbers, Masur said it was important to ensure young mothers have an opportunity to serve.

“I don’t want people to have to make a choice between having a baby and sitting on a board or commission for the city of Redwood City,” Masur said. “That’s not how I envision us as a city.”

Aguirre supported Hale’s proposal, and also expressed support for another of Hale’s ideas:

“I’m all for being able to breast feed on the dais,” she said.

County pilot program allowing leashed dogs at certain parks

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An ongoing pilot program is enabling dog owners to walk their pups on leashes in certain San Mateo County Parks.

Currently, park rangers are allowing dogs on leashes at Devil’s Slide Trail, Pillar Point Bluff, Quarry Park, Mirada Surf, Coastal Trail at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Bay Trail at Coyote Point Recreation Area.

Starting this Saturday, June 15, the program will expand to include Coyote Point Recreation Area and Junipero Serra Park.

Throughout this month, park rangers in some locations are actively advising dog owners about the pilot program and providing doggy waste bags and written information. Starting next month, rangers will issue citations to those violating the dog ordinance. Rules requires that dogs are kept on leash, that owners scoop up their poop, that no more than three dogs are with each person, that leashes are kept 6 feet or less when near others, that dogs are kept out of playgrounds and other designated areas, and that wildlife and vegetation are undisturbed.

The pilot program was developed by the Dog Work Group, comprised of members of the public, Parks Commissioners and staff. The group identified the park locations for on-leash dog walking.

Photo credit: San Mateo County Parks Department

Teen recognized for contributions to local, global education

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She’s had a significant impact in local education and has launched a global foundation.

Meet Shriya Jain, the ultra-impressive San Mateo High student who was recognized at the Redwood City Council meeting on Monday night.

Jain was inspired in part by her work as a summer intern at Hoover School in Redwood City. She saw bright students lacking in supplies and educational opportunities. And so she channeled her passion for dance and launched Illusion Dance School, where she teaches Peninsula children in various dance disciplines and uses proceeds from class tuition to fund educational opportunities is Uganda and scholarships at Hoover.

Jain aims to expand her charity to other parts of the world, having founded the organization Empower Future Foundation.

“She has created a web app where children can take the pledge to continue their education and invite their friends to join and take the pledge,” Redwood City Vice Mayor Diane Howard said during Monday’s council meeting. “She is doing a remarkable job with the young people in our community, and we wanted to take this opportunity to recognize her for the fine work that she does in Redwood City.”

Jain was humble and grateful in accepting the city recognition.

“It’s such an honor to be here and to be recognized,” Jain said, adding, “I can’t wait to see how Redwood City grows.”

Vice Mayor Howard expressed confidence that Jain will inspire others “to give back to the community the way you are.”

For more information about Illusion Dance School, click here. For more information about Empower Future Foundation, click here.

Photo credit: Empower Future Foundation website photo from the June 2019 Academic Excellence Awards ceremony honoring four students at Hoover Elementary

Construction pre-apprenticeship program nets County grant

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A trades education program in San Mateo County that has graduated 235 students since 2014 and placed 156 of them in union construction apprenticeships has been bolstered by a $100,000 grant, the county announced.

Requested by Supervisor Dave Pine and unanimously approved by the board on Tuesday, June 4, the grant will support operational costs and deliver at least one course in 2020 for the Trades Introduction Program (TIP San Mateo), which is administered by the San Mateo County Union Community Alliance. The certificated pre-apprenticeship course exposes trainees to a wide variety of trades and helps them choose and plan an appropriate career path for their skills and interests.

“Apprenticeship placements include the following trades:  electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers, plasterers, laborers, carpenters, elevator constructors, sound and communication, sign and display, glaziers, drywall, pipefitters and automotive,” the County said in a statement.

Pine called the program “highly effective”and a “remarkable way to introduce candidates to a range of well-paying construction jobs and provide a pipeline for needed professionals that are in short supply in the Bay Area.”

“Without TIP, these opportunities might be out of reach for many local residents,” Rayna Lehman, director of AFL-CIO Community Services for the San Mateo County Central Labor Council, said in the statement.

The $100,000 grant will be funded by Measure K, the 20-year extension of the countywide half-cent sales tax.

TIP is a regional partnership that includes the San Mateo Building Trades Council, San Mateo County Community College District, College of San Mateo, Bay Area Apprenticeship Coordinators Association, NOVA Workforce Board, SMCUCA, and Working Partnerships USA.

Life sciences jobs booming in San Mateo County

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San Mateo County has seen massive growth in life sciences jobs in the last five years, according to a new study from the biotechnology trade organization, Biocom.

More than 31,000 jobs in the county are in life sciences, the report says, and of those more than half are in research and lab services – the bread and butter of innovation and new development. These jobs also come with average earnings of more than $225,000 per year, by far the highest in the nine-county Bay Area region.

While South San Francisco remains the epicenter of life science growth in the county – and the region – new ventures throughout our area, including in Redwood City, are driving this economic growth. More than 674 life science establishments call San Mateo County home.

Life sciences are big business across California, not just in the Bay Area. Statewide the industry is up eight percent in jobs numbers. There are nearly 240,000 life science employees in Southern California. Statewide, life sciences generates over $346 billion in economic output and the state saw a massive $4.24 billion in new funding from the National Institutes of Health last year. More than $1.7 billion of that came to the Bay Area.

“California is the fifth-largest economy globally, and life science is a key component of contributing to the growth, employment and success of the entire state,” said Joe Panetta, President and CEO of Biocom.

The report suggests that life science jobs will increase in the years to come, though there are potential landmines that could derail that growth, including an increasingly fraught trade relationship with China and Mexico. The high cost of living in the Bay Area and California at large, particularly when competitor states are often less expensive for housing and workspace, could also hinder long-term growth.

To see all the data of the report, click here.

Survey: 6 in 10 Californians support requiring multi-family housing near transit, job centers

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Financially-strained by soaring housing costs, six in 10 Californians support requiring all new developments near job and transit centers to be multi-family rather than single-family.

That’s among the findings of a survey released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

In the survey, which weighs all sorts of policy issues impacting the state, 54 percent of adults from the Bay Area, and 45 percent statewide said their housing costs cause a financial strain. The cost places a strain far more on the renters surveyed (67 percent) than on the homeowners (36 percent), according to the results.

That strain has apparently shaped the way Californians view housing policy.

Sixty-two percent of Californians favor requiring local governments to change zoning for new development from single to multi-family housing near transit or job centers, the report states. The same share supports requiring local governments to approve new housing before receiving transportation funding, the report states.

The survey found that 72 percent of renters and 50 percent of homeowners favored tying transportation funds to new housing, while 72 percent of renters and 51 percent of homeowners supported changing housing zoning laws.

However, only 47 percent of all Californians surveyed favored changing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to reduce regulations on housing.

One issue both homeowners and renters solidly agree upon is the need to address homelessness. Two-thirds of likely voters found homelessness to be a big problem in their part of the state, the report said, and 68 percent of voters favor a state budget proposal by Gov. Gavin Newsom to spend $1 billion to address the issue.

The report’s findings are based on a survey of 1,713 California adults, including 1,198 interviewed on cell phones and 515 interviewed on landline telephones. Interviews took place from May 19–28, 2019.

For the full report, go here. For further analysis, read this report in the Los Angeles Times.

The fire next time: As wildfire season nears, are we ready?

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On Sunday, September 27, 1970, just after 11 a.m., an 8-year-old boy wandered into the dry brush behind the homes on Dover Court in San Carlos to sneak a smoke.

A hot, dry wind had come up. The papers and TV news were filled with reports about wildfires that had been destroying Southern California homes for a week.

The threat didn’t register with the boy. He tossed away his cigarette. Minutes later, a corner of the 6-mile-long Devonshire Canyon was aflame.

“I had a feeling all morning this was going to happen,” said Elizabeth Stuart, who lived on a ridge overlooking the canyon.

More than 300 volunteer and professional firefighters rushed to the area, every available crew from San Bruno to Palo Alto.

Five aircraft responded, including at least one huge World War II B-17 bomber that swooped into the canyon and poured a red stream of fire retardant into the blaze, allowing it to burn only west, toward what was then open space.

Fire engines and tankers clogged the 3300 block of Melendy Drive. Residents of seven homes were asked to evacuate. Some left, but others chose to stay and hose down their roofs, mostly made of highly flammable cedar shakes.

Ron Collins, now vice mayor of San Carlos, was a 20-year-old college student who lived on Plymouth Court. “I remember seeing those bombers flying low over the hill and drop fire retardant. It was breathtaking to see the entire canyon burning. It was a different time— there was open land from the top of Devonshire Canyon to the ocean except Canada Road and Skyline.”

The fire burned to within 50 yards of the baseball diamond at the north end of Crestview and 100 yards of the Melendy homes.

Just as it looked grim, the winds unexpectedly died down at 3:30 p.m, and the fire was contained shortly after. There were 35 acres burned and no major injuries.

The Redwood City Tribune called it a “Southern California-style brush fire,” lacking much local precedent. “Had the customary late afternoon winds sprung up Sunday, fire-fighters admit they probably could not have contained the blaze” before it escaped the canyon, the paper said.

Firefighters almost instantly guessed the cause, and by the next day, the mischievous child was identified. No charges were filed, although he did get a stern lecture from his father.

Almost half a century later, smoking rates are much lower, so fewer kids have easy access to cigarettes. In most other respects, though, the risk has increased that the Peninsula could suffer a devastating wildfire.

“There’s a lot more danger now,” said Dave Pucci, deputy fire chief for the Redwood City Fire Department, which also serves San Carlos and some unincorporated areas.

He says fire seasons are worsening for several reasons, including higher temperatures that have lengthened the fire season by 92 days since the 1970s, more periods with offshore winds that dry out vegetation, increased wildland-urban interface development, and more brush that can ignite tree canopies.

Take a half-hour walk around Harold Drake Loop Trail in Big Canyon Park, and the problem will become obvious.  Gnarled oaks on the steep hillside grow branches that hang low, touching shrubs, weeds and grasses that that will soon be brown and highly combustible.

Ian and Carol Gray, who live on Melendy Drive overlooking the canyoWn, see worrisome signs. “There’s a lot of fuel down there and I don’t think it would take much for it to ignite,” Ian Gray said. “There’s a lot of poison oak and that doubles the danger, since inhaling the smoke is twice as bad.”

Some help is on the way. Armed with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that pays 80 percent of the $525,000 price tag, the fire district has a plan to clear brush from Big Canyon, Crestview, Eaton, and Highland parks as well as other city-owned parcels.

The first stage, which was scheduled to begin in mid-May, involves renting a movable crew of goats to munch on grasses for 30 days. The second stage, to begin in midsummer if an environmental review is approved, will send in orange-clad Cal FIRE prison inmate crews to cut back brush and remove tree limbs below the 6-to-8-foot level, creating a shaded fire break, Pucci said.

But not all the land belongs to the government. “How do we get private landowners to take some responsibility maintaining the horrible over-vegetation in the canyon”? Carol Gray asks.

“We have a fire break but the neighbors don’t,” she added. “It’s the steepness and there’s so much fuel. If there was a fire, we’d just go.”

Ian Gray has tried to interest his neighbors in a grassroots movement to reduce risk, including by trimming vegetation deep in the canyon where there are no structures. “I contacted 24 neighbors and only three responded,” he said.

State codes require property owners to have 100 feet of defensible space around structures in a mountainous area, forest and brush-covered lands. However, they do not require removal of vegetation on privately owned parcels without structures.

The codes are not uniformly enforced among the many fire agencies in the state. Bill Dodd, a state senator from fire-hit Napa, is sponsoring S.B. 190, which would include a model brush clearance program mechanisms to enforce defensable space.

Building codes enacted in 2008 require new homes in high-risk areas to have fire-resistant roofs and siding. However, older homes make up the vast majority of the housing stock, and they don’t have to be retrofitted. Even on the most threatened blocks of Melendy, a few houses still have shake roofs.

Only a few communities, such as Big Bear Lake, have enacted strict codes banning shake roofs and requiring retrofitting.

An analysis by the Sacramento Bee of last November’s devastating Camp Fire in Butte County showed that 79 percent of homes built before 2008 suffered major damage, compared with only 41 percent of homes built afterwards.

A.B. 38 by Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa would have created a $1 billion revolving loan fund to help homeowners replace shake roofs and otherwise harden their homes against fire. An Assembly committee removed the funding after Govenor Gavin Newsom refused to commit to it, but Wood vowed to continue fighting for the spending.

The bill might also make it impossible to sell an older home in a very high fire severity hazard zone that hasn’t been retrofitted. It would require sellers after July 1, 2025, to provide a certificate to buyers showing that low-cost retrofits developed by the State Fire Marshal have been undertaken.

Cal FIRE maps are available online, with the most dangerous areas delineated in red. Interested users may Google “California fire hazard severity zone map San Mateo” and click here.

There are two maps for the county, covering areas of state and local responsibility. On the local responsibility map, more than 3,000 residential units within the Redwood City Fire Department’s responsibility area fall in the very high fire hazard severity zone, all of them in San Carlos, Pucci said.

But other residents of Redwood City and San Carlos could face danger too. Flying embers can travel up to three miles. The 2017 Tubbs Fire, whipped by extreme winds, made a four-hour, 12-mile run from its origin near Calistoga, jumped the six-lane Highway 101 in Santa Rosa and destroyed hundreds of homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood. The area is not in a high-risk zone and not subject to the strict state building code, even for rebuilding after the fire, according to the Bee.

On the state responsibility map, the very high hazard zone includes much of the sparsely populated western portion of the county, but there’s also a large red oval east of Interstate 280 encompassing Emerald Lake Hills and Palomar Park. Those unincorporated areas are served by Cal FIRE under contract with San Mateo County.

Cal FIRE is in the process of preparing new maps to replace the current ones, which date from 2007 and 2008. These may include additional high-risk zones, according to Jonathan Cox, division chief for Cal FIRE who oversees San Mateo County. He says his department has two big priorities this year.

First, local fire departments and Cal FIRE are working on standardizing evacuation plans so that emergency operations centers and dispatchers can provide the same information to everyone during fast-changing fires. One problem discovered during the fast-moving Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise last November was that agencies’ plans weren’t fully coordinated when evacuation routes suddenly had to be changed.

“Everything is a competing priority,” Cox said. “Evacuation planning is probably at the top because at the end of the day we have to get people out.”

The second priority is to clear brush. Every year, Cal FIRE sends engine crews out to inspect homes in high-danger areas to make sure they have defensible space, provide information, and assess risk. “We try to get to all of the homes—it takes months,” Cox said.

This year, two areas in the Cal FIRE domain have qualified for special state grants to clear brush.

A project to clear low-lying plants and lower tree limbs along Kings Mountain Road above Huddart Park was ranked as the second highest priority in the state by Cal FIRE, based on risk and proximity to population centers. (The top priority is a fire break along Highway 44 near Redding). Trees’ upper canopies will be retained, creating a shaded fuel break at the side of the road.

The steep, wooded terrain west of Woodside has a history of fire. In September 2017, Kings Mountain Road and the adjoining Huddart and Wunderlich county parks were closed by the lightning-sparked 60-acre Skeggs Fire near Bear Gulch Road and Skyline Boulevard.

The other state grant will be used to create a fuel break in the El Granada/Quarry Hills area. As the fires that have burned the homes of Hollywood celebrities in Malibu have shown, offshore winds are a danger to the coast. “There’s a lot of fuel, and with offshore wind events, fire burns downhill toward the oceans. Downhill winds converge on communities like El Granada, which has a history of fire,” Cox said.

Further down Cal FIRE’s priority list is to assess the feasibility of installing wildfire-spotting cameras, scouting out locations, checking the bandwidth necessary, Cox said.

The Woodside Fire Protection District covers 32 square miles, all wildland-urban interface zones, in Woodside, Portola Valley and surrounding communities, and all at high risk.

Denise Enea, fire marshal for the district, bluntly criticizes short-sighted thinking from homeowners and local governments.

“Historically, 50 to 100 years ago, residents cleared the underbrush, promoted grasslands and more open landscapes,” she said. “For some unsubstantiated reason, communities changed their way of thinking and started allowing brush to fill in everywhere.  Many of the old ranch homes were torn down and new homes were built. The new residents along with building and planning departments wanted and recommended an overabundance of vegetation, mostly for screening of the new homes.

“Many roadways have vegetation encroaching into the roadways and compromising evacuation routes.  This contiguous vegetative fuel bed is far from the native oak woodland that the previous residents understood and values for fire resistance, native wildlife habitat and the important control of invasive plants.”

Another problem is fire suppression. Vegetation that previously would have been burned in a small wildfire has been allowed “to grow unchecked, creating increased fire intensity, record rate of spread and crown fires that are unprecedented in our lifetime. Where fire agencies used to allow certain areas to burn, this is no longer possible as homes are now situated within these areas,” Enea said.

The Woodside district has several innovative programs to reduce risk, including:

  • Offering a free residential wood chipping program that allows residents to stack tree branches and large brush by the roadway. Residents may keep their chips for mulch and weed control or have it trucked to a recycling center. The $90,000-a-year program is funded by WFPD, Woodside and Portola Valley.
  • Publishing maps of evacuation routes and holding yearly drills so newer residents, especially, can become familiar with roads they may never have seen.
  • Working with homeowners who receive non-renewal notices from their fire insurance companies by conducting top-to-bottom inspection. Sometimes this results in a “fire makeover,” including adding defensible space and hardening the house against fire. “After the work is complete, we send a letter to the agent and it’s often enough to retain the insurance,” Enea said.

Kent Johnson, agent at Redwood City Insurance Center, was complimentary of the Woodside district’s efforts, saying they “try to get rates down for people.”

Insurance companies recognize everything west of Alameda de las Pulgas as being in a danger zone, Johnson said. For some residents it’s been “a nightmare” to get insurance.

“We’ve had 100 customers non-renewed because of insurance companies not writing on the Peninsula, above Alameda,” he said. “Some areas you can write, some you can’t, based on the maps.”

For residents who have been canceled, the next option is to go to non-admitted or surplus lines carriers—those that aren’t regulated by the state, such as Lloyd’s of London.  These firms have seen their business more than double in the last year.

However, they charge far more. Johnson estimates that the cost of insurance in wildland interface areas is triple that of homes in the flatlands—on the order of $3,500 to $4,500 for a 1,500 square-foot house.

Residents he deals with aren’t too upset, though. “When you have a $2 to 3 million house you have the money to pay for it.”

The last resort for homeowners is the California FAIR Plan, which offers bare-bones insurance to meet mortgage requirements at high rates.

At a community meeting in San Carlos on April 13, about 100 residents showed up to discuss the situation with representatives of the fire department and the sheriff’s office. The meeting began with three questions posted on an easel.

  • Have you prepared a personal family emergency plan?
  • Have you planned escape routes and alternates?
  • Do you manage the vegetation around your home?

“We have tons of info to look at on our website and our wildfire action guide,” Pucci said, noting it’s especially important for families with children and people with medical issues to practice evacuations.

State and local authorities recommend residents:

  • Rake leaves, dead limbs and twigs, and clear out all flammable vegetation within 30 feet of buildings, while cutting annual grasses to within four inches in the 100-foot safety zone.
  • Remove leaves and rubbish from under structures.
  • Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns, and remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground.
  • Remove dead branches that extend over the roof.
  • Prune tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet of a stovepipe or chimney.
  • Mow grass regularly.
  • Clear a 10-foot area around propane tanks and barbecues.

With the destructive wildfires of the last two years in places like Santa Rosa, Paradise, and Malibu raising awareness, there has been a large increase in the number of homeowners who have called to report their neighbors. Crews annually start going door-to-door in May to check compliance.

Pucci advised residents to be aware of days with hot offshore winds, keep important personal items where they can be reached quickly, and check up on elderly neighbors. Sign up for phone alerts from public safety agencies here, but don’t count on them to keep up with fast-moving fires. “Anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, leave, don’t wait.

“Ultimately it’s the individual’s choice. If the fire reaches you (after an evacuation warning),  you’re on your own.” Residents may choose to stay behind to defend their homes, but should understand they’re risking their lives.

Formal evacuation maps are being prepared. The department’s general advice is to get to the El Camino Real or Industrial Road shopping districts and wait there. To reduce congestion, take only one vehicle per household.

Problems with evacuation planning include a lack of ways down the hills and roads too narrow for two-way access for fire trucks and evacuating homeowners.  New homes must have streets 20 feet wide with 12 ½ feet clearance.

Residents at the meeting were especially concerned with a gate placed by Belmont at the city line, where Crestview Drive turns into Hallmark Drive.

Collins, the San Carlos vice mayor, says the issue is politically complicated.

“When Crestview was first finished, Hallmark was intended to be a through street to Ralston. Sometime in 1970s Belmont decided to put up a barrier. Over the years, it’s become the third rail of Belmont politics. To me, it’s a new day, it’s not just traffic, it’s fire safety.”

He suggests that residents could be allowed to remotely activate the gate for emergencies.

Another possibility that could unclog evacuation routes is to add an on-ramp to Interstate 280 so that not all traffic would be forced east. In the 1970s, Caltrans proposed connecting the existing Vista Point offramp to Crestview, but never did so.

The ramp could be either permanent or gated, for use only in emergencies. “We’re talking about public safety,” Collins said. “People need to have as many options as possible. We don’t know where a fire could come from, the winds could come from any area.”

One of PG&E’s high-voltage transmission lines that carries power from generators to the distribution system runs down the Peninsula near Interstate 280, a very-high wildfire risk area.

PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff program, begun last year during periods of high fire danger, has been expanded this year to include transmission lines. Sparks coming off one of those lines are blamed for the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed 13,972 residences including most of the town of Paradise, killed 86 people and forced the utility into bankruptcy.

While customers in high-risk areas are most likely to be affected, everyone should be prepared for blackouts.

“Because the energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions, your power may be shut off, even if they do not live or work in an area experiencing high winds or other extreme weather conditions,” said PG&E media representative Andrea Menniti.

One issue that came up at the San Carlos meeting was whether PG&E could put more of its electric lines underground to reduce fire danger.

The utility is cool to the idea. “Undergrounding is a complex process which can take years to complete” and is not a near-term solution,” Menniti said. It also comes with its own set of problems, such as excavation damage by contractors.

PG&E prunes or removes 1.4 million trees every year. “While our enhanced vegetation management program is focused on the roughly 25,200 miles of overhead distribution lines in high fire-threat areas, we will also be inspecting all electric transmission lines for overhanging branches or limbs as part of our routine inspections in 2019,” Menniti said.

PG&E’s website contains preparedness tips for residents, such as creating a kit with a week’s worth of food, water, and other supplies; having a backup way of charging cell phones; and knowing how to open garage doors manually.

The clock is ticking on making preparations. Because of a heavy crop of grasses from the wet winter, the National Interagency Fire Center’s prediction map shows that by the start of peak fire season in August, the entire West Coast will have above-normal danger.

This story was published in the June print edition of Climate Magazine. 

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Notes, quotes and random motes

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When it comes to politics, it is often said we live in a bubble of liberal tolerance.

“Not a bubble,” says Rob “Birdlegs” Caughlan. “An oasis.”

And with that, we commence another episode of Notes, Quotes and Random Motes, as we survey the ever-restless political scene.

PARTY LIKE IT’S 2022: On the subject of restlessness, speculation already is rampant who might run for the Board of Supervisors seat currently held by Don Horsley. He’s termed out and the prospect of an open seat is catnip to the lineup of people who have wanted to seek higher office but don’t want to challenge an incumbent. Yes, Horsley doesn’t vacate the seat until 2022, but that gives you an idea of the pent-up demand. Before that happens, some folks need to get re-elected to their city council seats, including Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller, who is among those whose candidacy for the Horsley seat is the object of speculation. Also in the rumor mill for the Horsley seat: San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan and San Carlos Councilman Adam Rak. … Maybe all this activity has been spurred on by Belmont City Councilman Charles Stone’s early – really early – declaration for the board seat held by Carole Groom, also termed out three years from now. The rumor is that San Mateo Councilman Rick Bonilla wants to run for the same seat, but no movement from him yet. … Meanwhile, despite rumors otherwise, Supervisor Warren Slocum tells Political Climate that he intends to run for re-election next year. And there are plenty of rumors about who might run for the seat held by Dave Pine if he opts not to run for re-election to a third term. Among the names in circulation: Burlingame Councilwoman Emily Beach, seeking re-election this year, Hillsborough Councilwoman Marie Chuang and San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina.

IT’S MY PARTY: The aforementioned Sabrina Brennan appears determined to cut a bold swath through Peninsula politics, and there may be no better example than a posting of hers concerning historically nonpartisan nonpartisan offices, such as city councils and school boards. During the 2018 campaign, she posted this: “I’m sick and tired of Democrats who endorse Republicans. I’m talking about Jerry Hill, Kevin Mullin and Jackie Speier. During past elections, I’ve sat quietly and observed all three of them endorse Republicans for local elections in San Mateo County. … San Mateo County Democrats must get their priorities in order and work on building a farm team at home. Stop doing political favors for the Republican Party.”

Of course, there are no Democrats or Republicans in local elections, and that includes the Harbor District, where Brennan serves. No one runs for these seats with a party affiliation. It’s true that candidates for partisan office usually start at a local, nonpartisan office. Should these offices be seen solely through a partisan prism at a time when more and more people are choosing not to affiliate with a political party? And what difference does it really make? While there are Republicans on local councils and district boards, when was the last time one of them was elected to any partisan office on the Peninsula? When was the last time one of them got more than 30 percent of the vote? Still, that particular debate aside, it’s a bold move to “call out” the three most influential officeholders in the county.

JERRY MEANDERING: The busiest local race is for the state Senate seat soon to be vacated by Jerry Hill. No one has been more present in this county over the past 20 years than Hill, who clearly has been willing to go anywhere and meet anyone. But term limits mean it is winding down for him, and if you ask him what he plans to do next, it is clear he has no immediate plans.

“I don’t know,” Hill told Political Climate. “It’s a little scary, it’s kind of exciting – not having a plan.” Since he first ran for the San Mateo City Council, and then the Board of Supervisors and then the state Assembly and then the state Senate, Hill always has had what he called “this trajectory” of thinking about the next office. Now, he has to think about what’s next – out of office. “It’s a little exciting and a little scary,” he repeated, “and maybe there’ll be nothing.” It seems unlikely that Hill’s next step will be nothing, or that it will be purely political. “I’m a little cynical about politics, the money in politics and the decision-making that goes around that money. It’s in a lot of ways disgusting,” he said.

OH, PIONEERS: I have been remiss in not taking note of the passing of three true pioneering women in Peninsula politics. Maureen Ryan was a key staff leader in the congressional office of Pete McCloskey at a time when women rarely held top spots. East Palo Alto matriarch Gertrude Wilks was a groundbreaking leader in educational opportunities and a key figure in the creation of East Palo Alto as an independent city. Nita Spangler was a newspaper columnist for the Redwood City Tribune and for decades was a keen observer of Peninsula government and a paragon of ethical standards. Finally, I want to pay tribute to Paul Shepherd, who also recently passed. He was the land manager for Cargill’s San Francisco Bay Area properties. But, much more than that, he was a model of a community-minded corporate executive who felt a responsibility to be a leader. It wasn’t pro forma – he was genuine and thoughtful and caring.

Contact Mark Simon at

*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online.

Volunteers invited to 1st annual Stulsaft Park Clean-Up

in Community/Featured/Headline/Uncategorized by

Grassroots Ecology is inviting the community to participate in the first annual Stulsaft Park Clean-Up Day this Saturday, June 8 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Volunteers will meet at Stulsaft Park, 3737 Farm Hill Blvd., at the picnic tables by the bathrooms. Come prepared to walk across steep, hilly terrain while pulling invasive plants and enjoying the scenery. Gloves, tools, and light snacks will be provided.

Participants must register and approve the online waiver found here.

Grassroots Ecology is a nonprofit organization that summons volunteers to create healthy lands.

For Redwood City actor JM Appleby, life on stage is about learning

in Community/Featured/Headline by

That afternoon the script was flipped on JM Appleby. Only nights before, the exuberant actor had been on stage making memories for the people who had paid to sit where he was sitting, taking in the stunning announcement: “Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon,” the longest-running musical revue on the planet, the high point of his performing career, was coming to an end. News crews were waiting outside Club Fugazi April 17 after the cast and crew got the word that the New Year’s Eve show would be the last. That night’s performance, Appleby, 33, says, was “the hardest show I’ve ever done. The hardest show.”

Weeks later, the Redwood City resident was still coming to terms with how this unexpected plot twist will play out in his life as an actor. On the one hand, accepting the end of the popular show is hard.  He’ll sorely miss working with cast and crew members who have become like family. “People are in their feelings right now,” he says. “Understandably.”

On the other hand, “Beach Blanket Babylon” has provided that four-leaf clover in show business: steady work. By the time the quavering Snow White’s perpetual quest for Prince Charming comes to an end Dec. 31, Appleby will have 5½ years’ experience on the Green Street stage, executing seven non-stop, 90-minute performances a week, before celebrities and politicians, tourists and the hometown crowd.

“I signed on (to the show) like a week after their 40th anniversary,” he recalls, “and we’re about to celebrate 45. And so for me, I’m like, cool, this is a really good opportunity to have the consistency of experience before such large audiences. That’s definitely in my toolbox. Not only that, but being able to do things a lot quicker, pick up new lines, be open to having to change a line from show to show.”

In 2014, Appleby had just relocated back to the Bay Area from a second time living in New York when his friend Dan Demers recommended him to the “Beach Blanket Babylon” producers, who were looking for “a funny black dude.” Appleby hadn’t had time to prepare for the audition, but says he’d been doing stand-up in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and when it came time to show what he could do, “I was not scared.” He pauses for emphasis. “At. All.”

He sang and danced.  And 11 minutes out the theater door, his cellphone rang.

“I’m back behind the (Green Street) mortuary and I’m seeing my life change before my eyes,” Appleby retells the career-altering story. He immediately called his mother, Nina Sakelarios, who had been a solo parent from about the time when he was four years old. Appleby grew up in a large extended family and particularly credits his hard-working grandparents – first generation Greek immigrants who were like a second mom and dad – with giving him the “same standards and expectations that they had.” Though not related to him, Appleby considers family friend “Uncle” Kenny Ortega, the famed choreographer, a role model who led by example in pursuing a theatrical career.

Nina put her son through the Church of the Nativity School, where he was the loudest kid singing in church. But the fork in the road that would ultimately lead him into acting emerged when he enrolled at Belmont’s Charles Armstrong School, for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Teacher Scott Douthit heard the fourth-grader vocalizing down the hall and sat him in front of a piano with an accompanist to join in singing a tune they’d written.

“I fell in love with the song and they made me feel like they fell in love with me,” he says. “And it was a moment I’ll never forget. That was when the spark began to really flicker.” Appleby credits Douthit for intervening in his life and helping him find his direction. The young boy appeared first in “Oliver with a Twist” and then in every musical he could. At Serra High School, he sang in the choir and also did musicals. He went on to San Francisco State and then Foothill College before launching off to Los Angeles, to “kind of just jump into the career of auditioning and getting up early and waiting in line. And then doing it all over again.”

He went to New York in 2006, where he studied acting, auditioned for parts and wrote and performed stand-up comedy routines. Later, he came back and taught at Charles Armstrong School. Over the years, he has appeared with Broadway by the Bay, and the Hillbarn and Pear Street Theaters, among other venues. His longest run prior to “Beach Blanket Babylon” was five months in Great America’s Main Theater. His credits include “Ragtime” and “Chicago” but it was at “Beach Blanket Babylon,” he says “where I got my rocks. That’s where I started getting it going.”

After about six weeks of rehearsals, he went through a final “test” of sorts, singing and dancing in full make-up and costume while the rest of the cast was in their regular clothes. The purpose was be make sure Appleby could get acclimated to other actors rapidly moving on and off stage, that he had the drill down cold without leaning on them for support.

He plays an average of 17 to 18 characters per show, both male and female (“I’m the black guy,” he explains matter-of-factly). He has appeared on stage as President Obama, Kanye West, Bill Cosby, Willie Brown and Serena Williams. (And less famously as a poodle and a garbage can.) Two current roles are particular favorites: James Brown and Oil of Olé, who wears a sombrero topped with a bottle of lotion. The show runs from Wednesday to Sunday nights, with two shows both weekend days. The 10 actors keep up a frenetic pace. “It’s 90 minutes of nonstop action,” Appleby says. “There’s no intermission. … One of my fastest quick changes is less than 25 seconds. So I’m on stage, get off, and 23 seconds later I’m back on in another costume and dancing around.”

The men’s dressing room is up two flights of stairs; the women’s right behind the curtain. It’s a surprisingly small space, where sequined jackets, oversized hats and astonishing headdresses, signs, shoes and other accessories are ready for instant deployment. “It’s a well-oiled machine,” Appleby notes.

On weekdays, he drives up from Redwood City at about 4:30 p.m. and walks around North Beach, a tight-knit community full of bars and restaurants, where everybody knows each other. He must report for work for an 8 p.m. show by 7 p.m., when he does warm-ups and gets announcements “like cupcakes upstairs. Somebody’s child has cookies for sale. It is really a family here.”

The Redwood City native, who grew up in what he calls a “color-blind family,” did not realize he was black until he was four or five years old. His mother knew how much he loved “The Wizard of Oz” and introduced him to “The Wiz,” the 1978 fantasy film that reimagines the classic with an all-black cast. “I saw people on the screen and it was like I was looking in a mirror,” he says.

He went with the family to Greek festivals and only realized in high school that being a black male “was going to be different.” For the 5’10”-tall actor, an outgoing man who laughs easily, it’s “kind of crushing” knowing that “walking down a dark street in San Francisco I can be intimidating somebody.”

One night before a show, the ultra-casually-attired Appleby was hanging out in front of the theater when a woman who had come to see the show approached him and offered him, first some food, which he declined, and then $5, which is also declined. After the performance, Appleby happened to be in a neighborhood pub when the woman’s husband gingerly approached him to apologize. They were from Texas, he tried to explain, and didn’t realize someone dressed like Appleby could be an actor. “We’re not where you’re from,” the man said sheepishly.

It was theatrical anagnorisis played out in real life, the sudden discovery that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge.

Appleby was not offended.  “I’m not a snowflake or politically correct,” he says. “I think people are way too sensitive.” In fact, Appleby believes, what “Beach Blanket Babylon’s” late founder Steve Silver wanted to happen through the show was “to introduce different ideas of how to intercept life. … I thought it was a learning moment.”

Though “Beach Blanket Babylon’s” hourglass is running out, Appleby is committed to keeping his performances fresh, exciting and memorable for audiences. “It’s pretty cool to see people enjoying a moment,” he says elongating the word, “that’s happening in front of them rather than reacting on a screen or a phone and not actually engaging in eye contact. I really enjoy the thrill and the rush. I get nervous every single show. Every single show to this day. I feel like throwing up. But I love it. I really do.  I enjoy it.”

In the April 17 announcement that “Beach Blanket Babylon” was closing, producer Jo Schuman Silver noted that it was originally scheduled to run for only six weeks but became “an international phenomenon and the quintessential San Francisco experience.” Upon its closing, the show will have played a record-breaking 17,216 performances, she added.

Post-Babylon, Appleby plans to take a break to de-stress, but he intends to incorporate what he’s learned as he goes forward. “Where in the moment it sucks,” he explains, “for the artist that I am, wow, you can’t buy this type of education. It’s bittersweet. It’s up to me to come out on the brighter side of it and I think I will.  I believe in myself.”

This story was published in the June print edition of Climate Magazine.

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