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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.

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

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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

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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.

Political Climate with Mark Simon: As battle heightens between local and regional interests, county must unify

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San Mateo County – all 20 cities and the county – better gear up. Because it looks like the county is about to be overwhelmed.

Throughout the county, we are seeing an increased move to district elections. A valid case can be made — and more significantly, an indisputable legal case – that district elections mean more representation to those long shut out of the political process.

But district elections mean the slicing and dicing of representation. That is likely to mean a rise in highly localized politics driven by neighborhood-level, parochial interests.

It also is likely to mean increased influence of neighborhood associations as political brokers, which have not proven to be a consistently positive element of a city’s governance. Too often, elected officials who come out of neighborhood associations have limited scope, see their job as representing solely the interests of those who supported them and are deeply suspicious of city staff.

District elections are only going to mean more of the same – a narrow focus on a district’s issues at the expense of an understanding of citywide concerns. We’re seeing this already on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, where district elections have been in place for two election cycles and supervisors are focused much more closely on district issues.

As San Mateo County turns inward and smaller, the region is looking outward and larger. The region is going more regional while San Mateo County is going more local.

The most notable example, but not the only one, is the recent “nonbinding” vote by the Metropolitan Transportation Association to adopt a regional approach to housing.

The only real power directly in the hands of local government is land use. But a few leaders at a regional level think local cities have done too little to build housing and they want to take control of what they perceive, correctly, as a regional crisis.

Regional leadership, as you might expect, is dominated by San Francisco and San Jose, the two largest cities in the Bay Area. Both cities are known for their own internal political strife, but when it comes to asserting their regional interests, they have no problem uniting in a common cause, aided by the presence of a mayor, who can speak for the whole community.

The power structure of each city regards San Mateo County as a pass-through county, an obstacle that stands in the way of their own regional goals. San Jose and San Francisco each have long term plans for a major regional transportation hub and each have labeled their hub the “Grand Central Station of the West,” which gives you a flavor of their outsized ambitions.

Land use is not the only issue they want ruled regionally. Transportation is the other. That debate is playing out at Caltrain, where long-term planning could easily result in a regional transit authority that has sway over Caltrain, BART, the Capitol Corridor and Altamont rail systems and even the region’s local bus systems.

Should San Francisco and San Jose win the long-term battle, it is quite likely that Caltrain could make only a handful of stops in San Mateo County. The massive Google project adjacent to the Diridon Caltrain station in San Jose will only heighten the expectation in San Jose that Caltrain must be reoriented to serve its employees and its residents ahead of those quaint little stops in San Mateo County. And San Francisco. Well, San Francisco is always surprised by the presence of others.

Transit, even an electrified Caltrain, ultimately is a zero-sum gain. To add service somewhere, it has to be taken from somewhere else.

THE UNC0MMON NATURE OF COMMON INTERESTS: San Mateo County leaders long have been proud that its varying political jurisdictions have a history of working together. Because no single city dominates the county, everyone has to get along to get anywhere. Part of that consensus-building ability rests in respecting each city’s own interests.

The same leaders also bemoan the minimal regional impact of the county. This is, they say, because San Mateo County doesn’t have a mayor – a single, dominant political figure who can speak for the whole county through the news media and the regional political structure.

Well, I think it’s time for these same leaders to stop complaining and find a new way to do this.

The answer is to do it in that uniquely San Mateo County way – working together. There already are a couple of countywide entities – the City/County Association of Governments and the Council of Cities, each composed of a representative from each city.

And there are any number of other countywide entities – Home for All, the countywide housing initiative; the Grand Boulevard Initiative, which unites the common interests of cities on El Camino; SamTrans, the countywide transit agency; and the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, the voice of the county’s rapidly expanding business and economic interests.

Rather than wait for the election of a countywide mayor, which is never going to happen, the cities should decide on a regional strategy that best meets the common interests of each city, using one of these entities are creating a special countywide task force dedicated to asserting the county’s strategic needs regionally.

Because, let’s face it, there really is no significant difference between Redwood City, Burlingame, Belmont, Millbrae, South San Francisco or just about any other city, except in the minds of those who want to fight over nonexistent distinctions. The same kinds of people live in every city with the same kinds of concerns and interests.

And here’s the key: If this doesn’t happen, the region’s leaders are going to address those concerns and interests and they will do so in a manner that meets their own needs first.

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: At a time of giving, consider these local nonprofits

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In “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ short novel that, in many ways, formed our collective understanding of the meaning of the season, Ebenezer Scrooge is approached by a representative of a charity, who is seeking a donation. He appeals to Scrooge, noting it is “a time of year when want is most keenly felt.”

If it is a time of giving, it also is a time of asking.

Countless charities race to the December 31 deadline to get their year-end pitch in our hands in the form of mailed appeals. Make one donation to an environmental group, for example, and you are on a dozen lists of other worthy causes.

They’re all worthy. That’s the challenge, not just for the nonprofits trying to distinguish themselves in the wave of requests, but for those of us who want to give and want to be assured that the money we donate goes to the causes we intended.

Nonprofits are held to a peculiar standard in which we expect them to do sweeping,important and challenging work with virtually no staff and a minimalist administrative budget.

A case could be made that nonprofits should have a much heftier administrative budget, particularly in the area of marketing and fund development, so that they can push to a new funding level.

That’s a debate for another day, better left to someone more versed in the topic than I.

The purpose of this column is to offer up my own endorsement of several local charities with which I am familiar or have some direct involvement. All of them do great work. Each of them has absurdly low overhead, which means the money given to them goes directly to assisting those you want to help.

THREE THAT ARE PERSONAL: I’ll start with three nonprofits on whose boards of directors I sit.

Sequoia Awards was started more than 25 years ago to provide scholarships to high school seniors from Redwood City. So many scholarships are based on athletics or academics. This one is based solely on the community volunteerism of the student. In awarding scholarships, a student’s academic record is not even considered, except to the extent that we can be assured he or she has grades good enough to get into a college – any college.

The great majority of our awardees are Latino, an even greater majority are the first members of their families to go to college. Many of them devote hundreds,even thousands, of hours doing hugely impactful community work, even as their own families are struggling to make ends meet, or even to remain together.

These are stories to stir the soul and to bring hope for the next generation.

And here’s the additional incentive: Sequoia Awards has no staff. The board does all the work.

You can find Sequoia Awards here:

Bay Area Cancer Connections also was founded 25 years ago to support women with breast cancer. The main mission then is the same now:Put women in charge of the decisions they face when confronted with a diagnosis.

My wife died four years ago from metastatic breast cancer after 23 years of fighting the disease. We have been engaged and supportive of this organization since its inception.

BACC has expanded its scope to include women with ovarian cancer and we have ambitious goals to reach more people throughout the region with services that are caring and empowering.

BACC can be found here:

Peninsula TV has been home to my TV show, The Game, for more than 20 years, but I’m also on the board of directors of PenTV. Our ambition is to become the source of news and information for our community. We have big plans, but we will need funding to make it happen.

You can find PenTV here: Because we’re overhauling the website, it’s a little more challenging than it ought to be to find the page for donations, so here it is:

ANOTHER WAY TO MAKE IT PERSONAL: Amidst all the need, how do we choose where to give?

I’ve always taken the approach that giving should be value-based.

If you love to read, give the gift of reading. Donate to Project Read, an outstanding program that helps children and adults learn to read or improve their reading skills. With programs throughout the Peninsula, it’s also clear that the tutors gain as much as the students. Or give to your local library. Despite the prediction of their demise, libraries are more dynamic than ever and still are a meaningful resource for many in our community who don’t have personal means.

If you love food, give to Second Harvest Food Bank, which is the leading provider of food to those families for whom the cost of living often forces them to choose between rent or dinner. It is always a shock to see how many people in this plentiful county go to bed hungry.

If you treasure the outdoors that are such a distinctive part of our lives, give to the San Mateo County Parks Foundation, which raises funds for projects that make our county parks more accessible to all and more enjoyable.

You get the idea.

Many of us are blessed with a roof over our heads, food on our tables and the life choices that come with an education.

Much has been given to us. Much is expected of us.

And I can promise you, it will make you feel good to find a little extra time or money or skills that can be put to good use on behalf of those for whom “want is most keenly felt.”

Contact Mark Simon

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

*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: Redwood City mayor calls for respect on new council

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Political Climate with Mark Simon: Redwood City mayor calls for respect on new diverse council

All over the Peninsula, new council members are taking office, incumbent council members are taking their leave and there are efforts to move past the natural disagreeability that unfolded during the course of a campaign season. But in some instances, those disagreements are still fresh and it is not yet certain if some will be able, or are ready, to move on.

In Redwood City, newly elected Councilwomen Diana Reddy and Giselle Hale took their oaths of office last night amidst the customary ceremonial flourishes,and each of them pledged to represent the whole city, not just those voters who supported them.

For each, their election was more than a little improbable.

Hale, by her own description, was turned down for a Planning Commission appointment little more than four years ago. Yet, here she was, being sworn in as the top winner in the November election with an historic number of votes.

Reddy referenced her own history outside of elective office, seeking a voice for those who feel they are overlooked by the power structure. “I will serve Redwood City as the community organizer that I am,” she said, “by listening and by bringing people to the table.”

Hale reflected the sentiment of her now-colleagues, when she said, “Tonight is about putting the campaign behind us and uniting as one council in service to this great community.”

She said during the campaign it was clear what people wanted: housing affordability, less time in traffic, they want to “get around safely” and, “particularly for working families,” they want day care more widely available.

Addressing her opponents in the campaign, Hale said, “I know that each of us loves this city and we are committed to a prosperous and vibrant future. … My door is always open to partner with you on shared goals.”

Reddy said her campaign was “an all-volunteer, grassroots campaign that resonated with the residents of this community. … We made a covenant to this community to listen. I’m making this covenant to all residents that I will listen.”

Mayor Ian Bain, in his own remarks preceding the two newcomers, also appeared concerned that the disagreements of November might be hard to leave behind.

“We are a diverse group with a diverse set of opinions, but this is a group that is committed to modeling civil civic engagement,” Bain said. “We are going to agree to disagree. We are going to disagree respectfully and we’re going to model that behavior for the community.”

FRACTIOUS FOSTER CITY: Whatever happens at the round of installation meetings taking place this month, they’re all likely to look like a lovefest compared to Foster City.

With two new council members, Richa Awasthi and Sanjay Gehani, sworn in last night, the council promptly split 3-2 in re-electing Sam Hindi as mayor, with Awasthi joining Hindi and Herb Perez in denying the post to Catherine Mahanpour. Then, they did the same thing in electing Perez as vice mayor and rejecting Mahanpour by a 3-2 vote.

A PAIR OF PAPANS: The moment has passed, but for a week or so,San Mateo County had two mayors named Papan. Diane Papan was elected mayor of San Mateo last week, and today, her sister, Gina Papan, finishes her term as mayor of Millbrae.

Their late dad, legendary Assemblyman Lou Papan, would have been thrilled.

Contact Mark Simon at

Photo by City of Redwood City

*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: 2020 election campaigning begins, but there’s more to say about Nov. 6

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Political Climate with Mark Simon: 2020 election campaigning begins, but there's more to say about Nov. 6

Clean Up on Aisle 2018.

Or, put another way, there are a few leftover items from the election to note before we move on to the 2020 election.

The 2020 election?

Why, yes. In the next presidential election, California will hold its primary on March 3. That’s a scant 15 months from now, which is why the candidates running to replace Jerry Hill in the state Senate are swinging into full campaign mode already.

Interestingly, or ridiculously, depending on your perspective, there will have been four primaries or caucuses before March 3 – the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary on February 29. In South Carolina, they know how to take full advantage of a Leap Year.

Eight other states will hold primaries on March 3, including Texas, which takes some of the fun out of being early. By the end of March, 23 states will have held primaries.

HOUSING, HOUSING, HOUSING: Looking over campaign themes from the November election, housing was a big winner, and you can expect a housing building boom akin to the office/commercial/corporate building boom of the last five-plus years.

Several cities – Belmont, San Carlos, South San Francisco, Menlo Park, Burlingame and Redwood City – are working on or advancing plans to build more housing on El Camino Real or in downtown neighborhoods, or in future downtown neighborhoods, or even in under-utilized light industrial areas east of El Camino.

But you also can expect a rethinking of zoning regulations that restrict the ability of a city to add housing. There will be more “up-zoning,” in which limits are expanded on a property so that units can be added.

There is a lot more space for a lot more housing.

NOT SO TOUGH: On the subject of South City, Councilwoman Karyl Matsumoto objected to my description of the win by Flor Nicolas in that city’s three-seat race. Nicolas bumped incumbent Pradeep Gupta. I said Matsumoto should get credit for recruiting Nicolas and taking out Gupta. Not so, she said.

“Pradeep enhanced the Council’s presence with his calm and analytical demeanor and it was a pleasure to serve with him,” Matsumoto wrote in an email. “When current Mayor Liza Normandy announced that she would not seek re-election to the City Council, I recruited a woman, Flor Nicolas, to run for the ‘open’ seat created by Mayor Normandy’s decision.  All of my activities were in support of Flor’s candidacy, but never in opposition to any of the incumbents or other candidates in the race.”

Of course, it adds up the same way – incumbent Gupta is out and newcomer Nicolas is in.

MENLO, MY MENLO: An interesting note came into the Political Climate International News Center from John Woodell, husband of Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, who lost her re-election bid to Drew Combs in that city’s first voyage into district elections.

District elections, based on the Menlo experience, are hyper-local. Money makes less of a difference and grassroots, door-to-door campaigning seems to be the new standard, a political imperative reinforced by all-mail balloting, in which every home is a polling place.

Here’s the note Woodell sent in to Climate: “Each candidate knocked on every door multiple times and spoke to these voters multiple times. … The word-of-mouth campaign seems to be 1) incumbents always voted for Facebook, and 2) council didn’t ask for enough in the development agreements, 3) that the general plan update was an up-zoning with no real benefit, etc..”

Woodell subsequently backed off on his own analysis, insisting he is no authority.

OH, THOSE RASCALS: Representatives with the California Apartment Association say they shouldn’t get credit (or blame) for all the mailings that targeted Diana Reddy in the Redwood City Council race.

Reddy won, which was a big loss for the CAA, but they say they only sent two of the mail pieces that made her look like a Visigoth ready to storm the ramparts. Others came from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee. I’ve heard as many as eight pieces of anti-Reddy mail hit during the campaign. I saw six. At some point, what’s the difference? They didn’t work. Or maybe they did, but not how they were intended.

The reality was that the message of the mailers may have reflected Reddy’s progressive politics, but they were in direct conflict with her campaign persona, which was calm, mature, upbeat and much more thoughtful than her opponents wanted to admit.

And, perhaps most importantly, Reddy gives every impression of being pragmatic. It is hard to imagine she is going to find any value in being on the losing end of a series of 6-1 votes on the seven-member council.

BACK IN THE SADDLE: Congratulations to Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, my TV partner, for his re-election as Assembly Speaker Pro Tem, the number two leadership post in the lower house.

The Democrats now hold 60 of the 80 seats in the Assembly, which is what an impartial observer might call a really, really big majority.

They better get some stuff done.

Mullin, on our show, which started airing today on Peninsula TV, Channel 26, said they’ll have to wrestle with a likely recession. And there’s the pension shortfall mess to address. And a crumbling infrastructure. And the highest housing prices in the country. And immigration.

And a new governor, whose preference is for bold initiatives.

Fun times.

Contact Mark Simon at

 UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify statements made by John Woodell about the Menlo Park council election.

*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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