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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

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate by
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.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Peninsula Democratic Party elections expose left-wing divide

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate by

There was good news and some not-so-good news from the Peninsula Democratic Party this past weekend.

The good news is the massive turnouts at two caucuses to elect regional representatives to the California Democratic Party. The caucuses are held in each of the state’s Assembly districts and turnout Saturday in the 22nd (represented by Kevin Mullin) and in the 24th (represented by Marc Berman) was huge with well over 600 attendees at each event.

This is a dramatic improvement over prior caucuses, where turnout was a couple of dozen or so.

Clearly, Peninsula Democrats are energized by the success of the 2018 congressional races, by the policies and conduct of the current president and by the prospect of winning the White House and the U.S. Senate in 2020.

The not-so-good news is that the party is split between self-described progressives and “establishment” Democrats, reflecting a national divide that could undermine the Democrats’ chances of winning in 2020. And, because this is the Democratic Party, there is even a split among the progressives, although it can get a little confusing because every Democrat running for these delegate slots seemed to self-describe as a progressive.

And speaking of self-description, the party doesn’t divide delegates into male and female candidates. They divide themselves “self-identified female” and “other than self-identified female.” Sometimes a thing just speaks for itself.

In the 22nd District caucus, a slate of Peninsula Progressives essentially took the lunch money of a slate backed by Mullin and state Senator Jerry Hill. The Progressive slate won 9-5 over the Mullin/Hill slate, despite the very high-profile presence of both legislators at the caucus.

Some of this is a function of fundamental politics – the Progressive slate, said to have been organized by political activist and county Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan, worked harder to get more of their voters to the caucus.

Still, it’s a slap at the influence of two well-established Peninsula politicians. The Mullin/Hill slate was heavily populated by other elected officials and three of the five lost – Burlingame Councilwoman Emily Beach, Belmont Councilman Charles Stone and San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina.

In the 24th, the fight was between two Progressive slates and while they each won their share, it does not bode well for Democratic unity that the left wing of the party is competing with itself.

ANY NUMBER OF ANGRY PEOPLE: If there is a message in the defeat of an establishment slate, it might be further reflected in a 12-8 vote Friday by San Mateo County Cities Selection Committee to put Millbrae Councilwoman Gina Papan on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and oust Redwood City Councilwoman Alicia Aguirre.

One of the factors driving Papan’s victory was concern – more like anger and distrust — that the region is moving swiftly to establish housing construction quotas that are aimed, quite particularly, at San Mateo County. Papan positioned herself as someone who would be appropriately aggressive in fighting that effort, and her selection is another example of an insurgent victory over the local status quo.

AN OPEN FIELD: The 24th Assembly District caucus was a nice win for former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, who is running for Hill’s Senate seat. She was the top vote-getter among the “self-identified female” candidates, showing she still can carry the day among Santa Clara County progressives.

Lieber was a Mountain View councilwoman before winning an Assembly seat in 2002. She ran against Hill for the open Senate seat in 2012, and he won by a 2-1 margin. But Lieber outpolled Hill by 8 points in the Santa Clara County portion of the district.

The Senate candidates will report their 2018 fundraising totals at the end of the week, and it is expected that public interest entrepreneur Josh Becker will report a total in excess of $300,000, well ahead of his three opponents – Lieber, Redwood City Councilwoman Shelly Masur and Burlingame Councilman Michael Brownrigg.

You can expect they will say it is too early to assume anyone has taken command of the race, and that is the problem for the four candidates.

Rumors are quite active that another candidate could get into the race and change everything. The names that are being offered – not by these individuals, but by those who want them to run – are Mullin, who represents half the Senate district, former Assemblyman Rich Gordon, now president and CEO of the California Forestry Association (and, by all accounts, quite happy to be out of Sacramento), and San Mateo Mayor Diane Papan.

Contact Mark Simon at

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Heightened diversity in local government to inspire diversity of issues

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate by

Here at the Political Climate International News Center, we have talked a lot about how change is affecting our region, because, you know, it is.

But the recent election and subsequent reorganizations of our various city councils is another demonstration that a more fundamental and profound change has taken place, bringing the prospect of what can be termed a political revolution.

In short, the burgeoning diversity of our community is reflected increasingly in our most basic, grassroots-level politics.

There are 20 cities in San Mateo County. Among the councils that represent those cities, 10 have a woman mayor, nine have a mayor from an ethnic minority and eight of the councils have a majority of women. Add in the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which just elected Carole Groom as president, and 11 of the county’s political jurisdictions are led by women (not to mention the fact that two women also represent the county in Congress).

Not that long ago, the election of any woman to any city council or as mayor was a noteworthy occurrence.

When Pacifica elected an all-woman council in 1992, it was national news as the first such body to achieve that milestone.

Now, Pacifica has four women on its five-member council. So does Colma, and Redwood City’s seven-member council has six women. The extraordinary has become that status quo.

Look deeper at who is holding office and it might well be time to retire the phrase “ethnic minority” since the county now is a “minority majority” county, where Caucasians, while still the largest ethnic group, are outnumbered by the combination Latinos, Asians, African Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Indeed, consider the lineup of mayors and vice mayors of color: Daly City, Mayor Ray Buenaventura, Vice Mayor Glenn Sylvester; Colma, Mayor Joanne F. del Rosario; South San Francisco, Mayor Karyl Matsumoto; San Bruno, Mayor Rico Medina; Millbrae, Mayor Wayne Lee; Belmont, Mayor Davina Hurt; Redwood City, Mayor Ian Bain; and Foster City, Mayor Sam Hindi, Vice Mayor Herb Perez.

And then there is East Palo Alto, a council made up of three African Americans and two Latinos, led by Mayor Lisa Gauthier and Vice Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones.

If you added in Millbrae and Foster City, there would be 12 cities with woman mayors, except in both those cities, some serious behind-the-scenes maneuvering and public snubbing denied mayor positions to two women who looked to be next in line had councils followed the customary rotation.

Ah, the job of mayor. It’s a job that, at most, is symbolic. In every Peninsula city except San Bruno, the mayor is selected by council colleagues. It’s a one-year job, except in Redwood City, where it’s two years.

It’s a job that as substantial as cotton candy. Big, puffy, colorful and tasty, but largely air, signifying nothing more than it’s one council member’s turn.

Still, some city councils manage to pick a fight over this job because some of them don’t like each other. I suppose we would have to describe that as impressive.

SO WHAT? What is the significance of all this diversity I’m ranting about?

We are opening up the halls of power to more people – specifically those who have been denied access. They will bring a different sensibility to the job and a different perspective.

Mary Hughes, leader of a statewide campaign to recruit progressive women to run for legislative office, said that expanding the range of those who hold office means a bigger agenda of issues, such as early childhood education, extended parental leave, more and easier access to college.

Women are “more likely to put issues forward having to do with real-life challenges,” Hughes said. “Women lead with a 360-degree perspective about life. There hasn’t been a consideration of the home life as part of public policy. What we see is women look at their whole lives when it comes to public policy.”

BUT NOT EVERYWHERE: Sometimes, the old lineup stays intact and it has got some people hopping mad in Redwood City.

A month ago, at its meeting to swear in recently elected members, Redwood City Council members looked to a year disagreeing civilly and to an abiding effort to work together.

On Monday, faced with their first symbolically significant decision, the council voted to appoint two middle-aged white men to the Planning Commission, which now has only one woman in its ranks. One decision apparently was easy – Rick Hunter, who narrowly lost last year’s council race, was appointed unanimously.

The other, Bill Shoe, was appointed by a 4-3 vote. Shoe is a former principal planner at Santa Clara County and he has had a low profile in Redwood City affairs, if he had one at all.

His appointment appears intended to satisfy those who want to slow the rate of growth in the city.

In the process, there are some people who are furious that the commission now is less than diverse.

And some are upset that another Council candidate, Jason Galisatus, was passed over, even though he had been assured he had the votes to win the appointment. The other significance is that while 40 percent of the city’s residents are renters, there are no renters on the Council or the Commission, a point Galisatus made while running for Council. There still isn’t.

As for who had been promised votes, Janet Borgens, who found herself in the middle of that little controversy, denied committing her vote to anyone and she subsequently wrote to Galisatus, indicating “after our last conversation, I made that clear.”

Who knows? Even better, who cares?

Perhaps it’s a holdover from a divisive campaign and all this will settle down when real issues come before the Council. Perhaps it’s a harbinger of more 4-3 votes and that the promise of working together in January was wishful thinking. We’ll find out soon enough.

We’ll leave the last word to Borgens, who told me, “We’re going to butt heads and that’s a good thing because we can learn from our differences.”Contact Mark Simon at

Political Climate with Mark Simon: Key figure in Redwood City’s building boom leaving city staff

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

The Redwood City Renaissance, or ruination, depending on your point of view, had many authors, but one of the key figures in the ultimate outcome of the city’s building boom announced this week he is leaving the city staff next month.

Aaron Aknin, assistant city manager/community development director, said he plans to form his own strategic consulting firm.

Aknin, 41, has been with the city for five years and has spent nearly 20 years working on the Peninsula in various planning positions, including stints at San Bruno, Palo Alto, Redwood City, Belmont and San Carlos, which, as we know, comprise the unofficial royal flush of cities.

Aknin told Political Climate his firm will focus on providing strategic consulting services and staffing to Bay Area cities, many of which are facing the kind of pressure to grow with which he dealt at Redwood City.

Aknin was at the center of the implementation of Redwood City’s Downtown Precise Plan, which resulted in dramatic growth in commercial and residential development, remaking the once-moribund city into a dynamic center of business and recreation.

The downtown plan projected growth over a 15- to 20-year period, but pent up economic forces accelerated the plan and much of it was accomplished in the five years Aknin was a key planning figure.

Indeed, during the same time, there was considerable turnover in the city’s Planning Department, leaving Aknin as, in the words of one real estate developer, “a very steady hand during a time when the city had unprecedented growth.”

Aknin said the city ended up with a positive outcome as a result of the precise plan and, significantly, the public input that led to modifications of the plan as it was implemented. He described the citywide debates over growth as essential to influencing the final outcome.

“The pushbacks resulted in reductions” of some elements of the plan, but the process allowed the plan to go forward and fulfill its ultimate goal of a transformed downtown, now characterized by high-rise residential units within walking distance to the city center and to regional transit and commercial development. The growth has revitalized the downtown as an employment center.

The lessons learned from the experience, Aknin said, is “not to be afraid to listen and to make changes to the plan where it can be improved without losing the overall vision of the plan.”

He said he is fully aware that the changes were unacceptable to a segment of the city’s population. “I get people’s perspective on the role of change.” The net result is a “lot different that we’ve seen in the suburbs. But I do think we’ve done the right thing.”

The kinds of changes seen in Redwood City can be expected in cities throughout the Peninsula, Aknin said.

“You have to allow a certain amount of growth,” although other cities are unlikely to see the breadth of growth that occurred in Redwood City, which had a downtown with more space, larger parcels and a reduced amount of impact on residential neighborhoods.

One unexpected development, Aknin predicted, will be the development of a citywide transportation system that provides more transit options for residents and workers. That’s not to say the city is going to move heavily into business as a transit operator, but that the planning set in motion by the downtown plan will lead to a citywide transportation strategy that will seek to enhance mobility and reduce traffic.

Aknin had been mentioned as a possible candidate for one of several city manager vacancies in San Mateo County. Instead, he has opted to go into business for himself. His last day at the city is Feb. 13, he said.

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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