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Political Climate with Mark Simon: Caltrain power struggle may derail progress

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SamTrans buses may not have names as memorable as Prancer and Vixen, but they will be picking up passengers on Christmas Day. On Tuesday, December 25, SamTrans will operate on a standard Sunday schedule. Schedules for specific routes can be found here. Service on Christmas Eve will operate on the standard schedule. The administrative offices of the San Mateo County Transit District, which manages Caltrain and SamTrans, will be closed on Christmas Day. Customer Service will still be available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and can be reached at 1-800-660-4287.

You had to look quickly or you would have missed the notice of a special, closed session meeting on this month’s Caltrain agenda. The significance of the short-lived notice is that there is a struggle going on at Caltrain over how the agency is managed and by whom.

And that’s a shame. Of the transit systems on the Peninsula, Caltrain has been the most effective and most efficiently run.

For decades, the Caltrain board was a model of regional cooperation and there were numerous instances when a representative from one of the three counties on the Peninsula would put their parochial interests aside in favor of what might have been the greater good for the entire Caltrain system. None of which seems to matter to people who can’t seem to leave well enough alone.

It was too good to last, I suppose, but there is no question representatives of San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are determined to assert their own interests, particularly as San Francisco and San Jose scurry to build huge infrastructure projects of which Caltrain is a central part.

They will say they are doing this under the name of restructuring Caltrain’s governance, and that they want Caltrain to be an independent agency. Putting aside how impractical – and expensive – such an independent agency would be, what they really object to is that Caltrain is managed independently from them, and they can’t stand that thought, something that was made very clear in a recent posting by one board member on the Friends of Caltrain Facebook page.

Of course, San Francisco’s track record of running transportation keeps getting worse. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority hasn’t especially covered itself in glory, either, whether it’s running bus and light rail or delivering the massive BART-to-San Jose project on time and on budget. So, certainly, let’s give them more authority over a transit system that is widely considered successful.

In the interests of full disclosure, I worked for Caltrain for more than decade, the last two years for Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett, who also is a friend of mine and whose integrity and sense of fairness are beyond question. I have not talked to him about this column, but, most assuredly, my views are a direct result of serving Caltrain.

Anyway, back to the special session, which was described as a performance review of Hartnett. The Caltrain board actually has no “performance review” authority over Hartnett. Hartnett works for the San Mateo County Transit District, which is one of three partner agencies that own Caltrain, the other two being the City and County of San Francisco and VTA.

Since 1992, when the Caltrain partnership was formed, SamTrans has been the managing partner. That means the general manager of SamTrans also is the executive director of Caltrain (and also runs SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority – three jobs in one, managing five separate budgets and three separate boards of directors. The job is not for the faint of heart). The SamTrans board hires the general manager, and, in so doing, hires the executive director of Caltrain. The SamTrans board does the general manager’s performance review and it includes his performance as executive director of Caltrain and the TA.

When Mike Scanlon left the agency and Hartnett was hired to replace him in 2016, San Francisco representatives, in particular, were upset they didn’t get to make the decision. It’s an objection that didn’t come up when Scanlon was hired, or any of his predecessors. Only once Hartnett was hired have some board members tried to insert themselves into his performance evaluation and raised the specter of governance, which, again, is a code word for putting Caltrain in the hands of San Francisco and Santa Clara County.

They don’t care whether the agency is being well-run. They care that they don’t get to run it.

And, it should be noted, the management of Caltrain by SamTrans is an astonishing bargain.

SamTrans employees who work on Caltrain – either full-time or part-time – are billed to Caltrain, but at a rate that comes nowhere close to the amount of actual work being done.

Consider Hartnett as a prime example. He is paid an annual “stipend” of $85,000 for serving as executive director of Caltrain. That amounts to 16 percent of his total compensation. I can absolutely guarantee you that Hartnett spends more than 16 percent of his time on Caltrain. If you add the stipend to his base salary, it still represents only 22 percent. It’s the same for most of the executives at SamTrans who work on the Caltrain system.

In fact, SamTrans has been carrying Caltrain for years.

Aside from screwing up a well-run agency that is moving forward with revolutionary plans to electrify, this behind-the-scenes maneuvering is likely to torpedo any effort to pass a three-county sales tax and finally bring home the Caltrain holy grail – a permanent, dedicated and reliable source of revenue.

As recent polling showed, the tax measure is on the cusp of defeat. That can change for the better. Or, if the Caltrain board continues to wallow in parochial self-interests, it can get worse.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Flintstone House is cute, but property restrictions are bedrock law

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All the outrage over the prehistoric decorations at the Flintstone House boils down to this: It’s cute, it’s whimsical and it’s reasonable for the city to order it taken down.

The Flintstone House and its display of dinosaurs and related detritus, visible as you cross the Doran Bridge driving north on Highway 280, is the object of widespread love and efforts by the Town of Hillsborough to remove the backyard array has resulted in more than 28,000 Facebook petition signatures in opposition.

But the authority of a city to restrict what homeowners can put up on their property is, you should pardon the expression, bedrock law.

As one person commented on the Facebook petition page, “Homeowners pay property taxes and should be allowed to decorate their home and yard however they please.”

Well, no.

And for good reason. Suppose it was something not so cute. Suppose it was a display of something so fundamentally offensive that the same people signing the petition to save the Flintstone display would be rushing just as fast to sign a petition demanding it be taken down.

Suppose it was pornographic. Or offended your religion. Suppose it was a huge display extolling the virtues of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, the former more likely in Hillsborough than the latter. Suppose it was a burning cross. Or a swastika.

Yes, those last two are extreme examples, and I’m certainly not suggesting the dinosaurs are anywhere near the equivalent of such patently offensive symbols. But those examples are exactly why a city has and should have the authority to regulate what people do with their property.

Had the property owner, Florence Fang, actually sought a permit from the city, there’s a good chance she would have been allowed to decorate her yard like a modern Stone Age family. Instead, she just did it. Over months, the city has provided her the opportunity to seek a permit – sought her out and asked her to obtain a permit – and she has refused. For flaunting the law, Fang has been sued by the city, which is one of its options for enforcing the law.

And now, Fang, through her attorney, Angela Alioto, is countersuing, alleging that Fang is being singled out because she’s Asian. Irony abounds, of course. Alioto is in hot water herself for using the n-word several times at a recent San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee meeting in an apparent attempt to demonstrate how pervasive racism is in San Francisco government.

Then, there’s this additional comment from Alioto that reads like it was translated from another language. “My clients say the word. ‘The n-word’ doesn’t mean anything. You do not sugarcoat or whitewash that word when you’re in litigation mode.”

MAYOR AND OTHER MATTERS: A recent story of mine in Climate Magazine about San Mateo County’s relative stature in Bay Area politics included reference to a proposal that the Board of Supervisors be expanded from five to seven seats – six district seats and one countywide supervisor who would be the equivalent of a county Mayor or President or Grand Pooh-bah. Even before anyone has proposed the necessary legislation to make such a change, there is speculation about who might be eager to run for such a job, and the two names that popped up immediately are Supervisors Don Horsley and David Canepa. … As for Canepa, he is listed as endorsing Democrat Rishi Kumar in his race for Congress. There are many reasons why this is remarkable. First of all, Kumar, serving his second term on the Saratoga City Council, is running against Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who will be seeking her fifteenth term in 2020, and who routinely wins re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote. So, for reasons unclear, Canepa is endorsing an unknown challenger to a popular and well-entrenched incumbent. Second, Canepa’s supervisorial district includes none of Eshoo’s congressional district, so there’s no local issue that would seem to be prompting the endorsement. Third, there seems to be no other issue that would prompt Canepa to support Eshoo’s opponent. Indeed, when Political Climate contacted Canepa’s office to ask why he had endorsed Kumar over Eshoo, we were told he had no comment. As endorsements go, that is less than ringing.

TRACKING POLL: As Climate Online recently reported, a three-county survey shows a sales tax increase to fund Caltrain operations and programs has a tough road ahead. To quote from the report by EMC Research to the Caltrain board: “Support for a revenue measure is just below two-thirds today, with Caltrain riders more supportive than other voters. … Support is solidified at just about the two-thirds level with additional information, although there is some evidence that the measure would be vulnerable to opposition.”

The matter starts off at 63 percent approval, below the two-thirds needed for passage. In the world of tax measures, a proposal usually has to start at about 70 percent to be assured passage – support tends to diminish over the course of a campaign. Even when likely voters are given all the reasons to support a measure – traffic stinks, Caltrain service takes cars off the road and reduces pollution – the measure still barely clears the two-thirds threshold. And given a list of reasons to oppose it – taxes already are high, including a recent gas and sales tax increases for transportation – voter support drops to 55 percent.

It is likely the Caltrain board will go ahead – having worked at Caltrain for more than 13 years, I can guarantee they need a steady and sustainable source of money to keep operating the revenue. The farebox and contributions from the three partner agencies – SamTrans, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency and San Francisco – aren’t enough to cover Caltrain’s annual operating budget.

Still, the latest polling is not the only problem facing a Caltrain ballot measure. Last time we checked, Carl Guardino, president & CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, was pressing ahead with his own Caltrain measure – he actually wanted to do one in 2018 and had to be talked into waiting until 2020. You can expect some behind-the-scenes interplay for control over the measure. VTA faced a similar challenge over a ballot measure in 2016.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

Photo credit: Getty Images

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Big cities wrong about San Mateo County’s commitment to housing creation

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It might be easier to get behind the regional effort to force more housing on the San Mateo County cities if it didn’t feel like bullying from a bunch of arrogant officials who just happen to represent big cities.

And yes, they are arrogant, fully invested in their own self-righteous view of who has been doing the most to resolve the widely acknowledged housing crisis.

None more so than Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who, I’ve been told, recently lectured the county Council of Cities on their obligations to the region, as he appears to see them.

Or San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who recently told KQED radio: “The reality of the political calculus is, we know an awful lot of suburban voters already have got theirs. Right? They own their homes. Those homes are appreciating rapidly in value. … We’ve got 99 cities and towns in this Bay Area. And right now the three large cities — Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose — are leaning in hard on trying to get more housing built. We’re not going to make progress with just three cities. We need everyone pushing together.”

Of course, nobody likes to get pushed around.

The temptation to launch into a rant about this is almost overwhelming. Something along these lines: If he’s so hot to build more housing, Liccardo can rip up the city’s Rose Garden district and put in as many apartment buildings as he wants. Or bulldoze all those homes in the eastern hills, around which the city put development restrictions years ago. No one’s stopping Ting from whipping right through the Sunset, taking out all those single-family homes and building high-rise, below-market apartments. They want to be big cities, let them go right ahead.

Or how about this: In 2018, Liccardo backed a San Jose ballot measure that would extend the city’s “greenbelt” and, in the words of his own opinion piece, “protect our hillsides and open spaces from sprawl and choking traffic by strengthening the city’s ability to deny such projects in our environmentally sensitive, outlying areas.” Gosh, quoting Mayor Liccardo, is kind of fun.

Anyway, the problem is that if you look past the arrogance – it’s a struggle — there are two fundamental realities that cannot be ignored. The first is that the cities of San Mateo County are building more housing than Ting or Liccardo understand, not that they bothered to find out.

The second, and more important reality, is that they’re right: San Mateo County cities need to build more housing than they already are.

First, the facts, which don’t fit the narrative of the big cities. An analysis by the staff at the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) of San Mateo County, shows more than 6,000 housing units were built in the county from 2014 through 2018. Another nearly 4,000 housing units currently are under construction. Another 3,400 housing units have been granted permits to begin construction. And another 8,900 units are in the planning pipelines of 18 of the cities.

Add it all up and 22,375 units have been built or are somewhere in the construction pipeline. Assuming all of it is built, that will mean a total number of housing units of 300,294 in San Mateo County, an 8 percent increase since 2004. As of the latest census figures, San Mateo County’s population was 771,410. Assuming a standard of 2.8 persons per new household, that’s an additional 62,000 residents, also an 8 percent increase.

Is that smaller or slower than San Francisco, which doesn’t mind cramming people on top of each other, or San Jose, which has been the model of suburban sprawl since the 1950s? Perhaps. But for a county that didn’t grow at all for decades, this is the most dramatic surge in housing and population in San Mateo since the post-World War II boom.

So, 8 percent is pretty good. But there’s a need and an opportunity for the cities to do better.

That’s not just my opinion. You may have noticed some of the local cities have opposed Senate Bill 50, the legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, that is the vehicle for forcing local cities to build with greater height and density at or near transit systems and transportation hubs. What you may not have noticed is that opposition to SB 50 is not gaining widespread support among the county’s most prominent leaders, who are largely quiet about this bill.

That’s because they know the right thing to do is to build at Caltrain stations, at SamTrans hubs, at BART stations and all along El Camino Real. In a column two decades ago, I advocated that the solution to our looming housing crisis was to build higher and with more density on El Camino. I was worried it would be a lost opportunity, killed by local resistance to any kind of meaningful height or density.

A few years later, I was working at SamTrans and colleague Brian Fitzpatrick and I tried to get the San Carlos City Council to approve a 5-story apartment complex at the San Carlos Caltrain station. In the face of vocal and hostile opposition from eastside residents, who represented a minuscule portion of the city’s residents, the council approved a 3-story project. It was a lost opportunity and it is the perfect poster child for anyone concerned the San Mateo County cities will never make the hard decisions that will ease the housing crisis.

Former Assemblyman Rich Gordon, unconstrained by elective office, was quite direct about this issue in a recent interview for a longer story I wrote for the May edition of Climate Magazine:

“San Mateo County is built out, which means we have to build up,” he said. “We’re never going to build high rises in the hills. We’re not going to further develop the coast, which doesn’t have the transportation or water capacity. We will have open space. We’ll have a protected Bayfront.”

What that means is that the cities have to build where they can and in ways they have resisted.

“I do think that communities in San Mateo County need to have greater density. I think what Redwood City has done, which scares a hell of a lot of people, is what San Mateo County will look like if we do the right thing,” Gordon said.

And that is to build along transit and transportation corridors, the only way to resolve the challenges presented by the county’s geography. And the even steeper challenge of changing how things are done.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Could Cañada College become CSU Silicon Valley?

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Two Peninsula legislators are proposing a study to establish a California State University, Silicon Valley, at Cañada College in Redwood City. If ultimately approved, it would be the first community college in the state to become a four-year state college.

State Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, have written to the Senate Budget committee and subcommittee chairs asking for $1 million “for an independent feasibility study and plan for the creation and successful implementation of a permanent CSU, Silicon Valley” at Cañada.

The letter notes that the county has no public four-year university, leaving students to transfer to San Francisco State University, San Jose State University or CSU East Bay.

“Though geographically close in proximity, the realities of severe transportation congestion and increased housing scarcity and insecurity … particularly on the Peninsula … make accessing these universities difficult for many students and for many others simply impossible,” the letter states.

Community College Board President Maurice Goodman described traffic, housing challenges and the cost of living as “barriers” that have prevented students from transferring and attending the nearest four-year state universities.

“I’ve seen students get accepted to San Jose State or CSU East Bay who couldn’t go,” Goodman said. “The cost of housing and transportation is almost like going to college around the state or out of state.”

Said Hill: “The congestion and the cost of commuting have made San Francisco State and San Jose State unviable options.”

Fifteen of California’s community colleges offer officially sanctioned four-year degree programs, including Skyline College, where a student can obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in Respiratory Care in cooperation with San Francisco State. Cañada offers four-year Bachelor’s degrees in Human Services, Business Administration and Arts in Psychology. But those degrees are awarded by Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. Cañada provides the facilities. Other degrees were offered at Cañada stating in 2002, but funding cuts forced the program to close in 2008.

Hill called the Cañada campus “a perfect location and perfect campus,” a sentiment echoed by Goodman, who said the campus can accommodate the growth in student population that would come with a four-year college.

“The state of our facilities is excellent, it’s a beautiful campus with land to build on in the heart of Silicon Valley,” Goodman.

The legislators and Goodman noted that a CSU at Canada would save the state the cost of building a new CSU campus, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hill said he thought a CSU campus at Cañada could mean an estimated 5,000 students at the Redwood City campus, which currently has an enrollment of about 7,000, according to the most recent data.

A data sheet included with the Hill-Mullin letter “confirms that thousands of students are graduating from community colleges throughout the Peninsula with nowhere to go.”

From 2012-2018, 13,490 students earned degrees or professional certificates from the districts three colleges, but 7,112, or 52.7 percent, did not go on to enroll at a four-year institutions, according to the data. Those students who did not continue on to college and a four-year degree “were more likely to be members of marginalized and underserved communities of color, with 1 in 3 also being first-generation students,” the data sheet reports.

“There is an unmet need for public, four-year university education in San Mateo County,” the letter concludes.

Hill said if CSU, Silicon Valley, ultimately is approved, it would take three to five years for the new university to be up and running.

He said he is optimistic that the proposal will be welcomed by the Senate and Gov. Gavin Newsom. “This is the kind of innovative, out of the box thinking that is typical of this governor,” Hill said.

To see the letter sent by Hill and Mullin and associated data sheets, see below.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

Photo credit: Cañada College

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Unwise to sell valuable Crestmoor High site

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It is not difficult to understand why the San Mateo Union High School District trustees are exploring the possible sale of the Crestmoor High School site atop a windy hill in San Bruno.

The potential cash payout from the sale of 40 acres of land (pictured in part above) available for residential development is an understandable temptation in an overheated real estate market that is likely to get even hotter with the wave of IPOs expected this year.

But those who have watched other school districts dispose of surplus property will tell you the same thing I would: Don’t sell the property. Find some way to make it work, build teacher housing, but hold onto the land. As Will Rogers once said, “All my money’s in land ’cause they ain’t makin’ any more of it.”

This is not just the urgent plea from a Crestmoor graduate (Class of 1969 – Go Falcons), but a practical point of advocacy.

I can assure you that the folks who sold the San Carlos High School site in the 1970s wish they hadn’t. And some former Palo Alto officials will admit that selling off the Cubberley High site was one of the worst decisions they made.

At the time those decisions were made, no one had any idea what was going to happen to the real estate market on the Peninsula.

The SMUHSD trustees have the benefit of experience. It seems like a pretty straightforward reality. Once the land is gone, it’s gone. If they hold onto it, it is an asset that will only grow in value and potential revenue.

WHERE THE LIVING IS EASY: Apparently, San Carlos Councilman Ron Collins was surprised to read here that he wasn’t going to run for a third term. He told Political Climate that he has been deciding whether to retire from his insurance business or from the council and he still hasn’t decided. His musings — “At first, I was thinking of not running,” he said — seem to have sent the rumor mill into full spin. But, he said, “I enjoy the council stuff more than I enjoy my insurance business,” which certainly sounds like someone who is going to run. Maybe we ought to just wait until he decides.

THE DISTRICT SHUFFLE: As the Redwood City Council nears the finish line of what has turned into a marathon effort to draw new racially reflective districts, one consistent question keeps coming up: Why was this so difficult?

Drawing district lines is so old that the term for manipulating them – Gerrymandering –  is more than 200 years old.

The source of the difficulty is evident — most of the council, not all, turned the process into a political one in which the principle objectives seemed to include protecting incumbents and providing help to friends and allies who might want to run under the new system.

Some council members described the districting process as having a steep learning curve, but that still doesn’t explain why the council opened up the map-drawing process so substantially to the public, essentially inviting candidates and their supporters to lobby for their own political purposes. In essence, they are giving equal weight to maps drawn by residents as those drawn by the districting expert hired by the city.  Indeed, the expert and city staff have been directed to”fix” any issues that may have rendered resident maps void.

Districting can be a non-political process. Allow the public to have input on the criteria, but name an independent citizens’ commission to draw the final lines and have the council act only to approve the new districts. It’s an object lesson for the other cities that will have to do this in the near future.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

Political Climate with Mark Simon: ‘Mr. Sunshine’

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Plenty of studies show that boys don’t really become men until we are well into our late 20s. Most men I know, and most parents of boys, can pretty much confirm that.

This particular contemplation is on my mind on this date because 26 years ago Alexander Mark Simon came into the world and into my arms. I remember thinking I would never want to let go. Turns out I was right.

He’s large and furry. He has a mop of largely unkempt hair and a big, bushy beard and I wish both were more than a little tidier. Although, I notice a lot of men his age with mops of unkempt hair and big, bushy beards and it doesn’t seem to bother me, so I really ought to recognize it is what some guys do at his age and I should just get over it.

As we learned a generation ago, when we all were growing our hair long, none of that really matters much.

What really stands out about him is joy. When he was little, we called him “Mr. Sunshine” because he was always so happy. Much as he did as a child, he will burst into a room, full of noise and motion and the newest thing that excites him or makes him laugh or has got him miffed in a way that is fun and funny to watch. He can fly high and sink low, but he’s learning how to manage both and that’s a big part of growing up.

It has taken him a while to shake off the curses that constitute the teen years. His mom died four years ago and that’s never easy for anyone. He went through some rough times. Don’t we all? It’s during those times that you work as hard as you can to help him through them, only to realize he has to do the work himself. Along the way, he is learning how to do his own hard work – not just how to start, but how to stay — and that should serve him well the rest of his life.

But what has reemerged is the joy. The way he can fill up a room with noise and laughter and enthusiasm and sheer energy.

He has a wife and a 3-year-old son. It was my honor to preside at their wedding on Halloween. He was dressed as Frankenstein and his wife, Karen, as the Bride of Frankenstein. It is a privilege to watch as they work through all that is involved in being a new family. And it is inspiring to see them work through the struggles facing young families in a place where it is far from easy for young families. It’s more than a little amusing to see my son trying to be patient with his son, who recently discovered how to be uncooperative in that way so unique to 3-year-olds.

And it is more touching than I can say to see him with his own son, holding onto him like he never wants to let go.

At my age, there is more behind me than there is ahead, but it feels fine – like this is the way it’s supposed to be. There is so much ahead of him. Boys don’t become men until well into their 20s.

Anyway, this is what I’m thinking on this particular day. It was a Sunday, right around Easter. And in a hospital room, he was putting up a fuss and someone put him in my arms and I held him and rocked back and forth, trying to soothe him. It worked that day. Over the years, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But I never stopped trying.

This column isn’t very political and if you’re looking for the usual political fare, I’ll write another column. But sometimes, some days, it’s good to think about other things and that’s what I felt like doing on this day, because 26 years ago, Alexander Mark Simon came into my life.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com

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

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

As Redwood City hits the reset button on its turbulent districting process, one thing appears certain: The city is going to end up with two districts in which Latinos will be the majority of the voting age population and a third district heavily dominated by an Asian-American voting population.

This will be distressing, no doubt, to those who want to preserve the status quo, which was well represented by the district map adopted by the council nearly a month ago by a 4-3 vote, a map now abandoned in the face of legal challenges that the council was warned were all too likely to be successful.

We can dwell on the fact that the council appeared to adopt a set of maps that was illegal. Or that in a city that is more than 52 percent nonwhite and nearly 40 percent Latino, the council managed to adopt a map that created only one minority-majority district. Or that the council, cautioned by a consultant not to negate the will of the voters who elected them, appeared much too focused on making sure that the sitting council members had a district all to themselves. Or that the consultant who gave them all this advice apparently is working on other projects now.

Not only can we dwell on these things, it appears we did.

For those of you just joining us, the reason for dividing up Redwood City into council districts is that the city is moving from an at-large system, in which all seven council members run for office citywide, to a system of seven districts, where voters elect only the council member who lives within their district. The city was compelled toward this transition under the threat of a lawsuit asserting the at-large system was systematically diluting the electoral impact of minority residents and denying the opportunity to elect more minorities to the council. The seven-member council has only one Latina.

There are those who are unhappy that the city’s political fortunes are being determined along racial lines. I can assure you there are plenty of ethnic minorities who know just how that feels.

Meanwhile, there is an expected amount of maneuvering already underway and speculation about who might run for which districts.

One of six draft maps set to be reviewed during a public hearing at Redwood City Council on April 8, 2019.

We won’t know how that plays out until after next Monday’s council meeting, where they will review new maps (which are posted online here) that have been produced by the new lead consultant and by members of the public, and, presumably, start the process of adopting one. Until then, speculation can wait.

What is likely, however, is that incumbent Councilwoman Janet Borgens, up for re-election next year, is going to end up in a Latino-majority district.

It also seems clear the Latino community has some significant work to do identifying viable candidates in the new districts in which they will be the majority.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: If Redwood City was not the first penguin off the ice floe – that was Menlo Park – the process should be an object lesson to the other cities that are likely to face similar legal challenges to their at-large election systems, most notably San Mateo, Daly City, Foster City, Millbrae and South San Francisco.

Menlo Park appointed a citizens’ commission, which functioned largely independent of city politics. There’s an important distinction to be made, by the way, between a citizens’ committee, which is appointed by a city council, and a commission, which has an inherently more independent appointment process.

Of course, the net result of the process in Menlo Park is that two well-entrenched incumbents were defeated in the first all-district election, which may not be all that attractive to an incumbent council. Interestingly, the two winners were not the top spenders.

LABORING: This weekend’s 50th San Mateo County Progress Seminar in Monterey – the annual gathering of business, government and political leaders to work on the tough issues of the day — was almost derailed by a labor dispute at the Hyatt hotel that has hosted the event for as long as anyone can remember. The hotel ran afoul of a local union, which put up pickets and put the hotel on the no-fly list.

That would be a real problem for the elected officials who were planning to attend the event and curry support from labor for their campaigns, which is almost everyone, and who aren’t going to cross a sanctioned picket line.

But credit goes to Amy Buckmaster, president and CEO of the Redwood City/San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the Progress Seminar, and Julie Lind Rupp, executive officer of the county’s Central Labor Council, who worked out a temporary solution that allows the seminar to go forward at the original site. In essence, they got a one-time waiver for the weekend.

They reached the solution quietly, without a huge fuss and by working together in a collaborative manner rarely seen in labor-business relations. That’s an outcome that is uniquely San Mateo County.

THE POLITICAL CLIMATE: That is the name of the column, after all, and there are plenty of political tidbits to share.

Belmont Councilman Charles Stone is about to declare for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors seat held by Carole Groom, who will be termed out in – 2022. Yes, she just got reelected last year. Nonetheless, Stone apparently feels compelled to start now because there are likely to be more than a few candidates for the seat. Among those who is openly saying he will run is San Mateo Councilman Rick Bonilla.

In the Groom district, San Mateo is the predominant city and Belmont is not even close. That’s reason enough, it appears, for Stone to start campaigning early and often in the hopes of gathering endorsements and money sufficient to discourage Bonilla and, presumably, anyone else. Among those also rumored as possible candidates are Maureen Freschet and Diane Papan, two of Bonilla’s colleagues on the San Mateo Council.

In San Carlos, where a Black Mountain development proposal – notably absent affordable housing – is likely to be one of the hot-button issues, incumbent San Carlos City Councilman Ron Collins is opting not to run for another term, which means the council is losing its most effective veteran. Incumbent Mark Olbert is said to be seeking a third term. The departure of Collins means the council will have four members in their first term.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated San Carlos Council incumbent Mark Olbert is seeking his second term, when in fact he is seeking his third term. The story has been corrected.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Council changes course on district map amid opposition

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Redwood City is reopening public input and proposals for new council districts, following extensive complaints and public protests about a plan that had been adopted preliminarily by the City Council.

The council is set April 8 to hold “an additional public hearing to receive and review additional maps proposed by the demographer or the community,” according to a statement by City Attorney Veronica Ramirez.

More than 50 people, the majority of them from the Latino community, rallied outside City Hall Monday in protest of the district map that had been approved by the council on March 11 by a 4-3 vote. The council was scheduled to take a second and final vote on the map last night, but removed the matter from the agenda late last week amid mounting objection.

The reason for dividing up Redwood City into council districts is that the city is moving from an at-large system, in which all seven council members run for office citywide, to a system of seven districts, where voters elect only the council member who lives within their district. The city was compelled toward this transition under the threat of a lawsuit that asserts that the at-large system was systematically diluting the electoral impact of minority residents and denying the opportunity to elect more minorities to the council. The seven-member council has only one Latina.

Opponents of a proposed council district map rallied at Redwood City Hall during the City Council meeting Monday, March 25, 2019. (Photo: Jim Kirkland)

Opponents of the district map approved by council on March 11 say it doesn’t achieve fairness for minorities, creating only one Latino-majority district. The map, critics say, also fails to create another district in which minorities are the majority of the voting age population, despite a citywide ratio that is 52 percent non-white. The map also faces criticism for not putting the Redwood Shores neighborhood in a single district with Bair Island.

At Monday’s rally, protesters said they felt ignored after making several efforts to influence the map-making decision.

“The outreach was very little and very quick,” said Redwood City Realtor Arnoldo Arreola.

Protestors were carrying signs that read, “We Are Redwood City, Too,” and “SOY – Shame On You.”

“We want respect and we want a seat at the table,” said Yeshua Villa, a freshman at Woodside High School.

“We want an elective body that’s better reflective of our city,” said Connie Guerrero, a leader of Latino Focus and one of the organizers of the rally.

During closed session Monday, council decided to reopen public input on the map-making process. And then during open session, Ramirez made a statement about that decision, and Mayor Ian Bain urged the community “to take a close look at proposed maps and submit new ones.”

Rally organizers were pleased with the decision.

“I’m so glad they heard our voices,” said Guerrero.

She said she expected the renewed process to result in at least two districts in which Latinos are the majority of the voting age population.

Opponents of a proposed council district map rallied at Redwood City Hall during the City Council meeting Monday, March 25, 2019. (Photo: Jim Kirkland)

In the city attorney’s statement, which was issued following a unanimous vote by the council to waive the restrictions on closed-session disclosure, Ramirez said that the demographers who had been hired to shepherd the city through the districting process, “in a reversal of their previous statements … informed city staff for the first time it was possible to address the public concerns while still adhering to race-neutral districting criteria as well as criteria that the community and the council had identified as being important.

“Before the City Council continues the process of approving a final map, the city’s demographer has been instructed to determine whether there are alternative maps that both comply with all federal and state laws and additional concerns members of the community have raised,” Ramirez said.

At the April 8 public meeting, “the city may decide on a final map,” Ramirez said.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly described the makeup of the City Council. 

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Council postpones vote on district map following opposition

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

In the face of growing dissatisfaction and threats of legal action, Redwood City has put off a vote scheduled for Monday to give final approval to an ordinance establishing a new set of seven council districts that creates only one Latino-majority district, and no others in which ethnic minorities constitute a majority of voting age residents.

The creation of districts was prompted by the threat of a lawsuit asserting that the city’s at-large elections were systematically disenfranchising Latino voters and denying them fuller and more adequate representation on the Council.

But the district map approved in a 4-3 council vote on March 11 has caused outrage in the Latino community, with the Redwood City-based group Latino Focus planning a protest rally 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, just prior to the regularly scheduled Council meeting.

Mayor Ian Bain told Political Climate via email this evening: “After meeting with City staff today, we are not going to put the second reading of the ordinance on Monday’s agenda. Instead, we will conduct additional legal review and bring this back at a future meeting.”

Connie Guerrero, one of the leaders of Latino Focus, said the rally will go forward, even though the vote has been postponed.

“We are cautiously optimistic, but we continue to need to raise our voices,” she said. “The demographics of Redwood City are such that we need to be heard and a lot of people feel that way. We will have to wait and see.”

In the March 11 vote, Bain, Janet Borgens, Diane Howard and Diana Reddy voted in support of the district map, and Alicia Aguirre, Giselle Hale and Shelly Masur voted against.

But after months of discussion and debate over map details, the council could not reach a consensus that could avoid a split vote and now, in the face of rising criticism, it appears the final decision remains in doubt. It seems almost a preordained outcome for a process that seemed to get lost in a maze of conflicting and difficult decisions.

Because the council has until March 29 to approve a districting plan or face a costly and troublesome civil rights challenge, postponing the issue does not appear to be an option available to the council.

That leaves only a couple of equally distasteful choices: Launch a legal defense of the decision the council already made, and risk further alienating the Latino community, among others, or reconsider one of the districting maps it passed over.

Reconsideration would be a win for the community leaders from Latino Focus who are mobilizing in opposition to the plan approved by the Council and were urging the Monday protest rally under the title “SOY,” which is Spanish for “I am” and was doubling as an acronym, “Shame On You.”

A Latino Focus news release said the council “ignored our repeated pleas to create two majority-Latino districts” and “eliminated two coalition districts” that would have had a majority of non-white residents.

The news release expressed support for a map, titled 21d, which would create one majority-Latino district and two other districts where the majority would be composed of Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans.

Latino Focus spokesman Alberto Garcia said the city should have at least two minority-majority districts. “There are so many issues facing the city – displacement, income inequality, educational issues – and as an organization we really want to hold the council responsible to create an attitude of inclusivity,” he said.

Garcia said the council’s approach to the challenge of districting “was very reactive and defensive, as opposed to being more open and receptive to becoming more inclusive.”

Indeed, in public sessions and an interview with Political Climate, Mayor Bain expressed unhappiness that the city has been put into the position of drawing districts based on racial demographics. He said Redwood City residents have a history of not dividing along racial lines and of voting for the individual and not based on race.

The council also seemed, at times, overwhelmed by the number of districting map proposals it was facing – more than two dozen – and the range of considerations that had to be reviewed.

The final outcome not only energized the Latino community, but prompted complaints that the council failed to create a single district out of the Redwood Shores neighborhood, which lies north and east of the city, is physically disconnected from the rest of the city, is actually closer to Belmont and has a high percentage of Asian-American residents.

In creating a Redwood Shores district, the council also included the new development at Bair Island, guaranteeing that Councilwoman Masur would be ensconced in that district, which, it should be noted, she opposed.

Critics called it gerrymandering and noted that the council made sure that none of the current incumbents would be in the same districts and be forced to face off against one another in a future election. Councilwoman Howard expressed particular concern that putting two council members in the same district would be an affront to the voters who put those councilmembers in office, essentially disenfranchising them.

Of course, disenfranchisement is exactly what the Latino community says has been happening to them for decades.

In hindsight, it appears the council should have appointed an independent citizens commission that would have drawn a new set of districts and presented it to the council as a finalized product. Concerned it didn’t have enough time, the council tried to do the job itself.

Council members also were hoping to ride out any criticism by noting that the city will be redistricted following the 2020 census. Some admitted they saw this first set of maps as a placeholder and that some of the tougher issues can be tackled in the next round, probably by a citizens commission.

It appears that didn’t work and council is not done with some hard decisions.

“It’s really important that this be done the right way,” said Guerrero. “We want to make sure they do the citizens advisory committee. We already see it didn’t work this way. We kind of left it to the powers that be and it didn’t work out that well.”

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Developer plans for Salt Ponds appear DOA

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that development of the Cargill Salt Ponds in Redwood City is not subject to federal environmental regulations was lacking only one thing – the sound of a starter’s pistol. Immediately, we were off to the races.

Developer DMB Associates, in a demonstration of unbridled optimism that seems distinctive to developers, announced it will engage in a lengthy process of “public engagement” to produce a project that eventually could win support and, ultimately, approval by the City Council.

Yes. Well. Good luck on that.

Just as immediately, postings began flying around in support of prior proposals by DMB dating back to 2009. That proposal called for 1,400 housing units and for half the available land (and wetlands or marshlands or sloughs or salt ponds) to be open space.

And that was before San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine convinced everyone that sea-level rise is a real concern. As far as I can tell, the last DMB plan didn’t include dikes. But it could work, if you define waterfront property as sea water up to the third floor of your eight-story condo. Or maybe something on stilts – like homes in the Louisiana bayou.

Anyway, just as immediately, postings also started flying around expressing opposition to development of the Cargill site as anything other than open space (or more wetlands or sloughs, but definitely not salt ponds). This included those who found the ruling one more thing to dislike about the Trump administration, amid the hope that DMB may suffer by association.

The council that discussed this proposal in 2009 was substantially different than the one that will consider it now, and it’s an interesting quandary for the current council, which is under a clear mandate to build more housing, but not big, new developments and not ones that might be underwater in 10 years.

DMB said it would be looking for “sustainable solutions” to all the challenges facing the area, and this is their own list: “crippling congestion, dangerous flooding, sea-level rise, housing shortages, and a deficit of necessary open space fort parks and marshlands restorations.” I don’t know about you, but I’m disappointed the list doesn’t include a power-hitting left fielder for the Giants.

Anything can happen, I suppose, and, as I said, you have to admire sustained, if not sustainable, optimism. But from this rowboat, DMB’s plans look DOA.

THE OLD COLLEGE TRY: By golly, in my day, celebrities and wealthy people didn’t have to bribe colleges to accept their under-performing kids. The colleges just let them in. Being rich and famous ain’t what it used to be.

In a more serious note, my parents took great pride, as Depression-era, native Californians and taxpayers, that the state college system was created on their watch. When they were growing up, college was for rich kids, people with connections and some athletes. That anyone could go to college and at a reasonable price – well, it was a big deal to them.

Amid this admissions scandal, which seems focused more on prestigious private schools, it would be nice if the controversy was a catalyst for more attention and more resources devoted to one of the great equalizing institutions in our state. A generation ago, I taught some journalism classes at my alma mater, San Jose State University. At the start of every class, I would ask for a show of hands: How many of you are the first member of your family to go to college? Routinely, 80 percent would raise their hands.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: State Senate candidate Josh Becker, whose campaign says he should be described as a public interest entrepreneur, whatever that is, posted something in the midst of the admissions scandal that seemed an odd commentary on a system fraught with over-emphasis on test scores and getting into the “right” school. Herewith his posting: “Access to top schools is not an equal playing field – that’s why I support CollegeSpring – started by two entrepreneurial Stanford students, its mission is to provide high-quality test prep to ALL students not just those that can afford $700 classes. Please consider supporting CollegeSpring.”

INNOVATING INNOVATORS: Last week was what has become one of the more popular public events – the annual Innovators lunch put on by the San Mateo County Economic Development Association. It’s a showcase for a handful of young, up-and-coming companies that have been spawned in San Mateo County.

This year’s lineup was just as astonishing as in years past. The companies included Brava, which has developed a “Pure Light Oven” that makes the microwave look like a Model T; Etagen, developers of a new “linear generator” that is more efficient and low cost; Juntos, which is pioneering the way we connect with our financial institutions; and Zuora, which is expanding the “subscription economy” and which could mean the end to our need to own stuff. The most exciting was Mango Materials, which is converting methane gas into biopolymer products – in essence, biodegradable plastic. Not only could this be a significant answer to the problem of plastic proliferation, but the company was founded and is led by three women.

Samceda CEO Rosanne Foust said that in the 12 years since the Innovators event has begun, 49 companies have been recognized – and 42 are still headquartered in San Mateo County.

It’s a continuing theme of mine, but I don’t think it can be said enough: Tech is here to stay and it is transforming the local economy, along with everything else.

Contact Mark Simon at mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

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

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