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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

*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

*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

*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: Who will rise to be next Hill?

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Political Climate with Mark Simon: Who will rise to be next Hill?

It is tempting to think it is much too early for all the activity around the race to replace State Senator Jerry Hill.

But the 2020 primary election is less than a year away and the 13th Senate District is huge – more than 900,000 residents, more than 500,000 registered voters and a geography that runs from South San Francisco to Sunnyvale.

Which is why four of the candidates – Redwood City Councilwoman Shelly Masur, venture capitalist/philanthropist Josh Becker, Burlingame City Councilman Michael Brownrigg and former Mountain View Assemblywoman Sally Lieber – are already working hard raising money, amassing endorsements and making as many public appearances as possible.

Perhaps it’s the size of the district or a commentary on the political mood, but among political insiders, there is the sense that the field of candidates is still unsettled. The rumor continues to circulate that San Mateo Mayor Diane Papan may get into the race. And now comes word that Millbrae Councilwoman Anne Oliva is in the race.

Those who have been at it awhile filed campaign finance reports at the end of the year and they showed a massive amount of money raised by Becker, who parlayed his extensive ties to the tech industry to report a total raised of $352,329. The number is slightly misleading. Eight of his donors doubled-up, giving him the maximum donation for both the primary and the general election, so the number of funds raised for the March election is closer to $317,000.

But it’s still a lot of money — $100,000 more than was raised by Brownrigg, who collected $195,811; six times more than was raised by Masur, who collected $52,259; and, shall we say substantially more than Lieber, who reported contributions of $2,320 at the end of 2018.

Becker received 35 contributions of $4,4,00, the maximum an individual can donate to a legislative candidate, and another 46 donations of $1,000. The donors are almost exclusively from the tech and venture capital industries. The two highest-profile donors are Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and Steve Westly, venture capitalist and former state Controller and unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2006. Each of them gave the maximum of $4,400; Hoffman gave another $4,400 for the general and Westly gave another $1,000 toward the general.

BROWNRIGG’S BUCKS: The $195,000 raised by Brownrigg is an impressive amount given that he got into the race much later than Becker or Masur, but it’s of note that the total included a single contribution of $50,000 made by Brownrigg himself, or more than 25 percent of his funds. Brownrigg has been a venture capitalist for a dozen years, most recently as founding partner of TOTAL Impact Capital, an international firm that invests in companies that are financially and socially impactful. Add in another $13,200 from family, and it looks like it’s nice to be a Brownrigg. Like Becker, Brownrigg also collected donations for the general election, which means the money he has available for the primary is more like $142,000.

MASUR’S MONEY: Masur’s $52,259 reflects her extensive local political roots as a first-term councilmember, former school board member for 10 years and CEO of a statewide education foundation, the latter raising the possibility that she could have significant labor connections that will result in more fundraising totals. She already has received $4,700 from the Sprinklers, Fitters and Apprentices and $9,300 from the electrical workers union. Her local donors include newly minted Redwood City Councilwoman Giselle Hale (of whom Masur was an early endorser), Belmont Councilman Charles Stone, San Carlos Councilman Ron Collins and San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos. Asked about raising an amount of money that was much less than Becker’s, Masur touted her list of endorsements, which includes 59 current or former city council and school board members from the district.

AND THEN THERE WERE FIVE: Millbrae’s Oliva confirmed with Political Climate this week that she is in the race. She posted that she is running on her Facebook page on Sunday. There are not many details available yet, although her announcement seemed to generate the requisite amount of enthusiasm on Facebook. Oliva was re-elected for a second term on the council last year. She owns her own real estate firm and has been active in the California and National Associations of Realtors. … In a district as large as the 13th, Millbrae would seem to be an iffy foundation for a Senate run, but given how development issues and the jobs/housing imbalance have dominated local politics in recent elections, real estate interests could be poised to play a major role in this campaign.

SPLITTING THE VOTE: The 13th District’s voter registration is 66.5 percent San Mateo County and 33.5 percent Santa Clara County. With Oliva, there are four candidates from San Mateo County and only one, Lieber, from Santa Clara County. All five are Democrats. There is the real possibility the four from San Mateo County could split their county’s vote and tilt the outcome toward Lieber. It also means all five could divide the Democratic vote and clear the path for a Republican to make it into the general election, even though the Republican registration in the district is a skimpy 15.7 percent.

A NO-PARTY PARTY: One of the campaigns has tried to make an issue of Brownrigg’s party registration. Brownrigg is a Democrat, but, until fairly recently, he was registered Decline to State, what now is called No Party Preference (NPP) in California. He worked overseas as a U.S. diplomat for more than a decade and “in the civil service, one is highly discouraged from being partisan,” Brownrigg said, and he made the decision to register with no political party. “I’ve always been a Democrat in the polling booth,” he said.

In that sense, Brownrigg is probably like a great many voters in the district, where registration is 49 percent Democrat and NPP is 31.5 percent, twice the number of registered Republicans. “Nobody has the market cornered on good ideas and the best policies are the policies that bring people together,” Brownrigg said.

The same campaign raised questions about a single campaign donation by Brownrigg to Central Valley Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, who was ousted from office in last year’s Democratic surge. Brownrigg’s donation was in 2012 and he said he made it because Denham was one of the strongest opponents to High Speed Rail. At that time, the Burlingame City Council was hungry for allies in their own effort to stop the HSR project. “I respected his opinion on High Speed Rail. … I thought he was calling it like he saw it,” Brownrigg said.

Brownrigg also has donated to Democrats Claire McCaskill, Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton and he said those were much larger donations.

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.

Image: Map of Senate District 13 courtesy of Sen. Jerry Hill’s website

Political Climate with Mark Simon: False Facebook ID fiasco inspires Trumpian reaction in Redwood City

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As some of you noticed, I wrote a column last week about 2018 Redwood City Council candidate Christina Umhofer and her use of a false Facebook identity to harshly criticize Councilwoman Giselle Hale. In that seven-candidate race, Hale finished first and Umhofer finished fifth.

Among the many comments came a furious reaction and a flurry of counter-postings that were – what’s the right word here? – incredible. I want to go over the aftermath, not out of some desire to keep the issue alive, but because it says some unfortunate things about the current political environment and the social media atmosphere in which public officials, and even columnists, must exist.

But, first, to review: I had been researching the column for a few days and sent a list of questions to Umhofer about the fake identity – Ann Marie. She never responded to me, but she did preemptively post on her 2018 campaign Facebook page an admission that she had created the false Facebook identity.

She said she did so because she had been blocked from posting on Hale’s campaign page during the campaign. After the election, Hale unblocked her, but Umhofer admitted she continued to use the false identity to make comments on Hale’s page. She said it was an oversight. And here’s the key element of attribution to the information in this paragraph – that’s all according to Umhofer. She’s the source for this information. Not me, not my fevered imagination.

I then wrote the column, reprinting, word for word, what Umhofer had said. I also quoted Hale acknowledging that she had blocked Umhofer during the campaign, but she unblocked her after the election. I also noted a few examples of related activity by Umhofer, including that she populated the secret identity with false facts, so as to appear to be a real person. And I cited some examples where Umhofer commented directly on postings by her alter ego, calling into doubt that the continued use of the fake identity was an oversight.

And then we were off to the races.

In a related posting, Umhofer described the column as “nasty.” I didn’t expect her to like the column, but all I did was recount an activity that she admitted she had engaged in. To choose that word indicates she wanted the column to be seen as a biased attack. I invite you to go back and look at it again.

Anyway, the reaction of Umhofer’s friends and supporters was unfortunately all too characteristic, which is to go on the attack when faced with facts and information they don’t like and that don’t suit their own particular biases. A good number of people – apparently Redwood City abounds in legal and constitutional scholars – attacked Hale for blocking Umhofer in the first place, describing it in scurrilous terms from illegal to really, really mean. It should be noted that Hale never blocked Ann Marie, so there’s that.

Turning the debate into one over blocking is a classic bait and switch tactic on social media. I guess they view that as preferable to acknowledging Umhofer had no business creating a fake identity. Indeed, some people were outraged that I’d ignored the real issue of Hale’s blocking. I didn’t, of course. It’s right there in the column. By the way, after the column posted, I was immediately blocked from the Ann Marie Facebook page. Incidentally, there also is speculation that Umhofer used another fake identity. I asked her about that in an email and she has not responded.

There are some interesting issues afoot here about the collision point between the public’s right to interact with a public official and a person’s right not to be the endless object of harassment, insults and invective. I don’t know how this sorts out and it’s certainly not settled law. It’s an issue we’re going to dive into in Climate, for no other reason than to add some facts to the wave of opinions that have been generated in reaction to this little example.

I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m astonished that blocking became the main focus point and that the same people who raised this issue glossed right over the fact that Umhofer created a fake identity just so she could continue to attack Hale.

Beyond that little sideshow, there was the usual hoo-ha that I’m a shill and that I’m only running interference for Hale and that Climate is all about some set of interests that are dark and sinister. One poster very cleverly described it as “Climate Ragazine.” I should note the prior sentence was sarcasm – I don’t really think it was all that clever. These days, subtlety seems to be in low currency. And, as an aside, I can promise you that Hale doesn’t think I’m doing her any favors.

Some folks tried to post the column on the Facebook page of Redwood City Residents Say What, a repository of people who do not like Hale and like Umhofer, and a page that says it exists for residents to post their thoughts and comments. The column was deleted twice and when someone asked why, a page administrator said it was full of inaccuracies.

Of course, no one has come forward to point out these inaccuracies. I’m puzzled by the accusation. Had Umhofer responded to the detailed questions I posed to her, she could have corrected any inaccurate information I may have had.

This episode affirms some behavioral norms that are engaged in by these folks, based on a year of occasional observation, usually when they force themselves into my consciousness. They qualify as truisms – behavior you can count on – and some of them are tried and true political truisms, many of them in use by President Trump and his voluble supporters.

They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

Whatever they accuse you of doing, they’re doing.

They see the world as enemies and friends, which justifies anything they want to do or say.

And, the one that has been most evident: They forgive their friends everything and their enemies nothing.

As an example of the last one, just imagine how these folks would have responded had Hale created a false identity and began posting criticisms of Umhofer.

Contact Mark Simon at

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Ex council candidate uses false Facebook identity to criticize opponent

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There’s no other way to describe it, but bizarre.

For the past several weeks, Christina Umhofer, former candidate for the Redwood City Council, has been using the false identity “Ann Marie” on Facebook to post harsh criticisms of Councilwoman Giselle Hale. At the same time, Umhofer has been using her own Facebook identity to criticize Hale. Sometimes, Umhofer commented on the postings put up under the fake name.

While the Umhofer posts have been relatively temperate – the key word there is relatively – the Ann Marie posts have been almost relentless, including criticizing Hale for a post praising hometown star New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman for winning the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award. The Ann Marie post referenced that “real” Redwood City residents have long been proud of Edelman.

When confronted by her actions online, Umhofer, in a post on Facebook yesterday, confirmed she had been using a fake Facebook identity.

Today, she posted another confirmation on her 2018 City Council campaign Facebook page that reads:

“Mark Simon of Climate Magazine reached out to me via my personal email yesterday indicating he will be publishing a column later today about a Facebook alias, “Ann Marie”, that I recently used while commenting on Councilmember Hale’s Facebook page. Councilmember Hale blocked me from her campaign page last year and now that she is a public official, has recently unblocked me upon request.

“In the interim,” Umhofer’s post today continued, “I had used an alias “Ann Marie” to respond to some of her recent posts on her Facebook page and I failed to explicitly state it was me. Once my name was unblocked by Councilmember Hale, I resumed using my Christina Umhofer profile to comment on her page; however, there was a brief time that I used both names when commenting, which was an oversight on my part for not paying attention to which account I was logged into. I own it, and I apologize for it.”

I did, indeed, reach out to Umhofer via email yesterday with a series of questions about her use of the Ann Marie identity. I asked her to reply to the questions by 2 p.m. She has not done so. The questions asked for much more detail than Umhofer provided in her posting today, including an explanation of why she was so harshly criticizing Hale.

In an interview today with Political Climate, Hale said that she had blocked a number of people, including Umhofer, during the campaign and that she lifted the block after she was elected to the council.

“In 2018, a record number of women were running for office, and many of these women experienced harassment – more than male candidates. The unfortunate reality is that I faced the same thing,” Hale said.

But once she was elected, her public communications are subject to public-access laws, she unblocked everyone, Hale said.

When she received notification from Umhofer that she continued to be blocked, Hale took the step of specifically ensuring Umhofer could post comments.

But blocked or unblocked, Umhofer “was always able to reach me by email or phone,” Hale said, “She didn’t need to create a false identity.”

Several times, in Facebook responses to postings under the name Ann Marie, Hale offered to meet with her over coffee to discuss the concerns being expressed. It’s “surprising and a little sad that a person I had invited to coffee turned out not to be a real person.”

Hale said the postings were meant as “intimidation and harassment … intended to bully someone” and that shouldn’t be a part of the public debate.

“I feel we had a robust public debate (during the campaign). The public spoke. The public voted,” Hale said. “We need to focus on the issues facing the community.” She said she would rather be talking about the issues facing the city, rather than this matter.

“I’m more than willing to work with people with differing opinions,” Hale said.

As for Umhofer’s post today, there are gaps in the explanation she offers, starting with using Ann Marie as an “alias.”

The Ann Marie Facebook page contained information that appeared intended to mislead and to convey that this was a distinct individual. That included a listing that she recently took a position at “Beauty company” and that she was married in 2009. Those details contradict information that had been posted on Umhofer’s personal Facebook page, which, incidentally, appears to have been deleted.

Umhofer also used both her real Facebook identity and Ann Marie at the same time on several occasions. In her posting today, she described that as an “oversight” but there are several instances of Umhofer actively “liking” or commenting on a posting by Ann Marie. In one instance, Umhofer asked Hale why an Ann Marie posting had been deleted.

Ultimately, the usage of both names at the same time prompted other posters to confront Umhofer. Some of them cited a photo of a leaping dog that appeared on both the Ann Marie and Umhofer Facebook pages. One poster noted that Umhofer appeared to be struggling to keep her two identities straight.

Umhofer’s posting today does not address why she has been such a harsh critic of Hale, either as herself or Ann Marie. Umhofer was an opponent of Hale’s in last year’s city council race. Hale received the most votes in a seven-candidate race for three seats. Umhofer finished fifth, nearly 3,300 votes behind Hale and more than 1,500 votes behind third-place-winner Diana Reddy.

Roughly since the beginning of the year, Hale has been posting consistently on city-related issues on an official Facebook page titled Councilwoman Giselle Hale and on a page named “I Love Redwood City” that she has been using for several months.

If there are any consistent themes to Umhofer’s postings, it is that they appear to call into question Hale’s legitimacy as a representative of the city. The postings attempt to label Hale as a hypocritical newcomer who doesn’t understand local issues or have genuine local roots.

In a posting on the issue of providing “middle housing” to protect the presence of the middle class in Redwood City, a position Hale took at her campaign kickoff, Umhofer, posting as Ann Marie, demanded to know Hale’s solution, and then criticized her for not providing details. In the string of comments, Umhofer also weighed in from the account using her real name, crediting herself for a project that met the definition of “middle housing.”

In a posting on Hale’s I Love RWC page about the Redwood City Education Foundation, a community-supported nonprofit that provides financial support to local schools, Ann Marie commented: “Giselle, we both know that RCEF is a sham. When you are sitting at one of the Board meetings, why not tell the rest of the Board to stop using the Latino-based students for RCEF’s propaganda. RCEF’s ‘leadership’ needs to stay in their lane and concern themselves with the children of our district and not promising unbridled development.”

In a posting on efforts by local school districts to build teacher housing, Ann Marie said, “Giselle, what you post, what you say, and who you received money from speak different stories.” Donations Hale received show “you compromised your decision-making.”

In an I Love RWC posting about $500 million for housing from a fund spearheaded by the Redwood City-based Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ann Marie dismissed the money as a “dismal number.” Umhofer subsequently demanded to know why the Ann Marie post had been deleted and did not disclose that she was posting under the name Ann Marie.

Most, if not all, of the Ann Marie postings have been deleted, apparently by Umhofer. While the Ann Marie page still can be found, all information and photos on it have been deleted.

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.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: What’s to come east of 101?

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Amid the hours of comment on Redwood City’s Harbor View project, the 400 letters to the Council, the multiple citizen-expert reviews, and attacks on the project and the detailed questions from the City Council, one fact stood out: something is going to be built on the 27-acre site east of Highway 101.

What that something might be is also likely to be opposed by the same forces currently arrayed against the current project, but the reality is so undeniable that it is worth noting again: something will be built there.

Whether in its current form or some other, the debate over Harbor View raises another, larger issue: what should be done – or can be done — with available property on the east side of the Peninsula? More on that further down.

Concerning the Harbor View project, it can be safely assumed that the developer, Jay Paul Company, already had in-hand a scaled-down version of the project long before the recent City Council hearing, at which it was obvious the current proposal is dead on arrival. Full disclosure: the Jay Paul Company is represented by the same people who publish Climate. They have not been consulted about this column.

Winning approval of a project is a lengthy to-and-fro and Jay Paul is not new to the process. They are seeking what the traffic will allow, and they probably have a pretty good idea of what kind of project still generates enough revenue to make it worth their while.

AN OPPORTUNISTIC DEVELOPER: Jay Paul was called “opportunistic” at the same council meeting, which is an odd thing to call any developer, in particular one who has been trying to get something approved for several years. Or, put another way, an opportunistic developer? What is the world coming to? It is the very definition of land development – buy a hunk of property, propose to build something new, make money. It is neither inherently good or bad. Someone wants to make money off it. Welcome to America, land of opportunity

Along the way, the developer may provide a public benefit, first in the form of the project, which will provide housing or office space for residents and businesses, and, second, in the form of other amenities – open space, access to public waters, sports fields, cleanup of a toxic site. In the second category, those amenities often are made to make the project more palatable to a community or a city council. And they often are trade-offs for other impacts, such as traffic. All of which is to say, so what? That’s the way it works. Get something, give something, or vice versa – it’s universal equation.

In Harbor View, the site is what used to be Lyngso Garden Supplies, which moved to San Carlos, and the Malibu Grand Prix amusement park, which moved to the Great Beyond, where there are some existential similarities to San Carlos. The last proposal, which is not going to be approved, called for more than 1 million square feet of high-end, office space contained in four seven-story buildings, plus one two-story amenities building (whatever that is), two parking structures and 36 percent of the site devoted to public open space.

The environmental impact report prepared on the project showed that the huge number of people commuting to work there would make traffic at Highway 101 and Woodside Road worse, if that even seems possible. Council members also were worried that it would worsen the jobs/housing imbalance that is driving up local housing costs.

A HOME OFFICE IS NOT A HOME: An obvious answer would be to build housing there, which may have the same impact on traffic, but would certainly affect the housing shortage.

Except, building housing east of 101 seems to be a non-starter, for a host of reasons, of which the Harbor View site is a good example.  There is significant toxic contamination on the site from prior usages; the environmental burden for housing is substantially stricter than for office buildings, which means additional costs to the developer. It’s true up and down the Peninsula – east of Bayshore historically has been industrial, and not just light industry, like an auto shop, but heavy industry, like a cement factory.

Then there is the specter of sea-level rise. Much of the Peninsula east of 101 is landfill. As huge hunks of the Arctic ice break off and the oceans rise, it appears the bay could reclaim the property now considered waterfront land. I suppose we won’t want the bay to reclaim the toxics, either, but that’s a problem for another day. Anyway, for a host of reasons, cities that consider development of the eastside will approve commercial development, but not housing.

And that’s too bad.

The Peninsula is facing increasing regional pressure to build housing. Certainly, some cities haven’t done their share, but the choices are going to grow increasingly unpleasant.

We all agree El Camino Real is the most likely place for widespread development of high-rise, high-density residential projects. But few cities will bite the bullet the way Redwood City has and build more than three or four stories. What’s left, especially if the east side of 101 is out of the equation?

And what can be done in the face of political pressure to do nothing?

At the same Redwood City Council meeting, a couple of public speakers told the council that last year’s election meant that the council was supposed to hit the pause button, and by pause, they mean stop. Putting aside whether that is an accurate analysis of the most recent city council race, it’s clear the most vocal sentiment is for a citywide pause on development, and not just on commercial property, but housing.

It is an interesting dilemma: we all know there’s a shortage of housing and everyone thinks it ought to be built somewhere else. Finding a solution is going to mean some council members up and down the Peninsula will incur the wrath of an energized opposition.

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.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: What Gov. Newsom’s announcement really means for High Speed Rail

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In the vast panoply of confusion, cost overruns, delays and miscommunication that is the California High Speed Rail project, it is entirely fitting that no one can figure out what Gov. Gavin Newsom’s major announcement about the project means.

I think he wanted to look like he’s against it without being against it. Anyway, it was not his finest hour in communicating, and that’s entirely in keeping with the finest traditions of High Speed Rail.

The people who hate the project – and, boy, do they hate the project – were dancing in the streets to the tune of, “Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead.” Its defenders, and there are many, were perusing the governor’s statements like it was some ancient, oracular text that would reveal untold secrets to the universe.

All Newsom did was acknowledge the obvious – the only part of the project that is capable of going forward is the Central Valley stretch, and it is meaningful that he wants it to be a high-speed rail, and not a regular rail line as initially proposed by the Wizards of High Speed Rail.

The rest of the HSR project was a mess, at best, and, despite the nightmares of Peninsula opponents, the statewide rail system was not coming to the area in the foreseeable future.

That it won’t go from San Jose to San Francisco is particularly amusing given the hilariously ambitious desires of those two cities at either end of the bay. Each of them is so hungry to have the train (and be Very Important) that they went ahead and planned (SJ), or built (SF), two versions of the “Grand Central Station of the West.” It should be noted that the rail station in New York City does not call itself the Grand Central Station of the East. As an aside, it’s an interesting and longstanding tradition in American history for communities to lust after train service, so some things never change.

Anyway, all you HSR-haters in Atherton, I’m sorry to tell you that High Speed Rail is not dead. The organization has not been dissolved. The project has not been repealed.

In fact, the betting is that once an actual high-speed system is in place, in this case in the Central Valley, public attitude will shift dramatically, people will want to know why they don’t have it and it will spring back to life. That’s not just my opinion, but one held by a lot of people who are frustrated that the United States is a Third World country when it comes to rail.

So, it could be argued, Newsom actually has saved High Speed Rail. Not incidentally, there’s another reason Newsom doesn’t want to be killing the project, which our president seized upon immediately – there is $3.5 billion in federal funds in the project.

Meanwhile, this is good news for our favorite railroad, Caltrain, which is known as the Caltrain of the West. Full disclosure: I worked at Caltrain for 13 years.

Because the Caltrain right of way seemed an ideal path for the final northern leg of the statewide rail system, High Speed Rail struck a deal that made the two rail agencies partners: High Speed Rail would help pay to electrify Caltrain, so that when HSR was ready, it would have a necessary infrastructure in place.

It has been a bumpy relationship, largely because the subsequent Wizards of High Speed Rail didn’t like the deal made by their predecessors. What the successors didn’t fully grasp is how ready Peninsulans were to fight HSR and that the only way the rail line was going to be allowed to go from San Jose to San Francisco was under the umbrella of goodwill enjoyed by Caltrain. In short, it was the only deal HSR could make at the time.

The agreement left Caltrain in charge of its own right of way and HSR wanted more authority over how many trains they could run on the Peninsula, how often and where the train could stop. It has led to some odd decisions, the strangest being an argument over the height of the platforms at the shared rail stations, which resulted in an absurd multi-door design on the new electric rail cars Caltrain is buying.

Newsom’s announcement also means many of those arguments are likely to continue. High Speed Rail backed Caltrain’s electrification project to the tune of $713 million or nearly one-third of the total cost of the project. And the state kicked in another $165 million for the new electric rail cars. The state is a substantial investor in Caltrain’s electrification project and, understandably, some officials think they should have some sway over how electrification can affect the ultimate destiny of High Speed Rail.

Right now, though, the Peninsula is one of the few places that will benefit from the High Speed Rail project in the form of a modernized Caltrain with more service, more frequently and rail cars fully armed with WiFi. All in all, High Speed Rail has been a good deal for the Peninsula and the modernization of Caltrain would still be little more than a plan without the HSR money.

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.

Photo credit: California Governor’s Office

Political Climate with Mark Simon: My year-long relapse

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Redwood City Council approves salary increases for city manager, city attorney

I know you circled this date on the calendar, perhaps in red. Maybe even made a note to have some friends over for snacks and celebration. And now you can’t remember why.

I understand. It has been a hectic year, full of traffic, political campaigns and an unrelenting stream of presidential tweets. With all that has been going on, you forgot that this is the one-year anniversary of the debut of this very Political Climate column.

Seems longer than just one, doesn’t it? No one can wear out a welcome like I can.

Anyway, as we embark on our second year together, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the year just past and, as is often the case at the start of a new year, see about doing better.

I wrote a daily newspaper column for 15 years, and an assortment of weekly political columns for well over 20 years, in addition to more than 25 years as a regional, state and national political writer. But I left that business – something I never thought I would do – and went to work for the San Mateo County Transit District. During the 13-plus years I worked for the District, I described myself as a recovering journalist.

I guess I relapsed. In the meantime, and this will come as a shock to you, things had changed.

First of all, I simply forgot how much work it is to write even a weekly (or more frequent) column. The column is not just about my opinion, or even my point of view, although I certainly have license to offer commentary and do so without hesitation. It is about information and it has taken me a while to get up to speed on being the thorough reporter I aspire to be. As Richard Nixon said (and who would have thought he would not be the worst president in my lifetime?), mistakes were made.

Just recently, for example, in commenting on Redwood City Council appointments to the Planning Commission, I noted that the commission had no renters. That’s not correct. There are two. By way of explanation, not excuse, I relied on someone who didn’t really know, rather than doing the work I should have done to find out. In another column, I misstated who organized the Peninsula Progressives slate in the recent 22nd Assembly District caucus – it was Dan Stegink, he says, and apparently, it’s important to him.

Both were tiny parts of longer items in much longer columns that were addressing much larger issues, but the mistakes jump out and undermine all I’m trying to do. Which is be fair and accurate, while being pointed at the same time.

As I noted a year ago, “As a columnist, I have the freedom to express a point of view, but, more than anything else, I believe in fairness, facts and openness in government and politics. Everyone will get a fair shake from me and everyone will be held accountable for what they say, including me. I have no interest in opinion masquerading as fact or opinion built on false assumptions.”

That’s right – I just quoted me. Pretty impressive ego, yes? But I believed it then and I still believe it. As Year Two gets under way (Or Year II in Super Bowl parlance), I will try and expect to do better.

Not incidentally, this is another way things have changed. When I was writing daily columns in the newspaper, I made a point of correcting my mistakes in my column, and not in some little box buried on Page 2, next to the orthopedic shoe ads. I want to do the same here, but writing online has been new to me, and the ethos for that is to correct it in the original posting with a note at the bottom saying the column has been changed. I’m still going to correct things in my column as an exercise of taking direct and personal responsibility for what I do. I’ll let the editors worry about the other stuff.

Also new is the social media environment in which I’m now writing. Clearly, there are some people who feel a social media site is a place to attack, undermine and misrepresent. Write for newspapers for 35 years and spend 13 years at SamTrans and Caltrain and you learn to deal with criticism, but I guess I didn’t expect to see disagreements in opinion so freely labeled as venal or corrupt. I believe I’ve found a way to manage all this without living in a bubble, but, still, there are some really angry people out there. I suppose it’s nice, or, at least, useful, that they have an outlet for this anger. It’s largely anonymous, or removed from any direct, personal interaction, so it seems more like digital courage, but there you go.

This isn’t necessarily new, but I also was a little surprised at the environment of cynicism and suspicion that seems to taint the public discourse, as if every disagreement has at its root some ulterior motive or additional agenda.

For the sake of the permanent record, no one tells me what to write. I don’t write thinking I have to speak for some special interest. I’m happy to treat everyone the same.

That’s the beauty of cynicism. It allows someone to say, “I know why he’s really doing that, I know what’s really behind that,” and feel pretty smart, unencumbered by actual fact. I understand some people are advocates. People should advocate – aggressively, even forcefully. It’s not journalism – or even citizen-journalism – and it doesn’t have to be, but we ought to see it for what it is. Too often, it’s just opinion masquerading as fact.

Anyway, it has been an interesting and educational year, and as I said at the top, I hope and expect to do better.

As we begin the second year, two messages that we often see digitally displayed on roadways linger in my mind:

The first is “It can wait,” the anti-texting-while-driving motto. The problem is, with my rapidly aging memory, if I wait, I’ll forget. The sequence, over a period of about eight minutes, goes something like this: I need to call Melvin. Two minutes later: Oh, yeah, I meant to call Melvin. Two minutes later: There was somebody I meant to call. Two minutes later: Why am I holding this phone?

The second sign is this one: “Expect Delays.” I have seen that sign on more roadways on the Peninsula than I’ve seen stoplights.

I think it’s a good motto for the year ahead.

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.

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