Editorial: Our choices for Menlo Park City Council

DAILY POST EDITORIAL

If you’re a Menlo Park resident, ask yourself a few questions. Has your life improved in the past few years because of actions by the city government? Has traffic gone down, or has it increased? Has the downtown Santa Cruz Avenue area been revitalized? Is it safer for kids to get to school on a bike?

By any measure, things are worse in Menlo Park than they were eight years ago when Peter Ohtaki and Kirsten Keith were first elected to council.

Instead of finding ways to reduce traffic, they voted for three major development projects that in the years ahead will flood the streets with cars — the Facebook expansion on Constitution Drive, Stanford’s development at 500 El Camino Real and Greenheart’s development at 1300 El Camino.

Desperate council

When it comes to Stanford and Greenheart, council was desperate to get something built on the empty car lots along El Camino, and they said “yes” to the first thing that came along rather than driving a hard bargain.

With Facebook, the council appeared to genuflect at the feet of a major tech company without demanding significant traffic improvements or much housing.

This newspaper isn’t anti-development. But we think that if any development threatens to make the lives of its neighbors worse in terms of traffic or the jobs-housing imbalance, it needs to solve those problems.

City Manager Alex McIntyre is leaving for a new job in Ventura, Calif., and there are a number of vacancies in top positions at city hall. A new council can start with a clean slate and go to work solving the city’s problems.

A new feature in this election is that the city is broken up into districts. Here are our choices for each district:

Cecelia Taylor in District 1

District 1 comprises the area east of Highway 101 including the Belle Haven neighborhood.

Of the three candidates in this race, the most knowledgable and prepared is Cecelia Taylor, who has remained active in city politics since she lost her last bid for council two years ago. She appears to have learned the ins and outs of the city process. From her activism in the past couple of years, she intends to be an effective voice on the council for the east side.

We like her position on housing — that affordable housing should be a requirement of every office development. If that had been council’s policy in the past, the housing-jobs imbalance wouldn’t be so extreme today, and rents might be a bit lower.

She’s not anti-growth but favors moderation and transparency when it comes to the development process.

Drew Combs in District 2

In District 2, the incumbent is Kirsten Keith. When you ask her about traffic, she’ll respond by pointing to the city’s Transportation Master Plan, which has yet to be completed. Maybe a consultant-driven plan will be a panacea? Assuming it will be, why wasn’t she working on this eight years ago, before the problem got out of hand? Offering this Master Plan in her eighth year in office strikes us as too little, too late.

Keith, who is collecting campaign contributions from developers, voted for the Facebook expansion, Greenheart and Stanford’s El Camino development. She has a hard time saying no to development. She even went to the groundbreaking of the California High-Speed Rail project and took a selfie with Gov. Jerry Brown.

Her ethics have also become a problem. Earlier this summer, she was caught violating the state open meetings law, the Brown Act, for lobbying another council member over the downtown library development — a violation that caused City Attorney Bill McClure to postpone consideration of the project until a new council could be seated. That delay may have been the reason why billionaire John Arrillaga decided to withdraw his offer of $35 million for the library project.

The China trips

Another ethical problem are the repeated trips she’s made to China, paid for by a nonprofit that appears to be funded by Chinese businesses. At one of these meetings, she wore a pin saying she was mayor when she wasn’t the mayor. The Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating a complaint about whether the nonprofit that paid for her travel was eligible to make such a contribution to an elected official. Regardless of how that investigation turns out, council members shouldn’t be accepting free gifts like this. The only reason they’re being offered these trips is because they’re elected officials. They shouldn’t be profiting from your public office.

When Keith is asked about her opponent Drew Combs, who works for Facebook, she points out that he won’t be able to vote on Facebook’s “village” proposal for Willow Road. Of course she doesn’t point out that when a crucial study session on the village project happened in March, she was missing — taking another trip to China.

Combs, who ran for council in 2014 and is serving his fifth year on the Planning Commission, said one of the reasons he’s running is to promote ethics on council.

He favors a proposal to have council members disclose when they meet with people who have business before the city. Keith has opposed that idea.

Combs has down-to-earth ideas to benefit residents. For instance, many residents want to expand their homes. But some can’t because they live on “substandard lots,” meaning they are shaped differently than conventional lots. That means those residents, when they propose plans to expand their homes, go through a confusing process that often puts them before the Planning Commission. He wants to make it easier for residents on substandard lots to make home modifications.

Combs is thoroughly knowledgeable about city issues and the process at city hall, and if elected, will be able to hit the ground running. We enthusiastically endorse him for District 2.

Ron Shepherd in District 4

In District 4, which is made up of the Allied Arts neighborhood and the area between Santa Cruz and Valparaiso avenues, voters have three choices.

The incumbent, Peter Ohtaki, is a nice guy. It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t like him. But you’ve got to measure council incumbents by results, and the city is heading in the wrong direction right now.

Betsy Nash is a staunch opponent of commercial development who, if she had been on council, would have struck better deals for residents when the Stanford, Greenheart and Facebook projects came down the pike. But some of her ideas seem too extreme. For instance, she has suggested possibly putting a bus lane down the middle of Willow Road east of 101. She said that could be accomplished by eliminating the median, but realistically there’s no way to do that without encroaching on traffic lanes. The street is already crowded with cars.

Ron Shepherd is a champion of good government with a wealth of experience given his 16 years on the West Bay Sanitary District Board. When he first started on that board, he and his colleagues were faced with cleaning up a number of scandals from the past.

He’s learned on the job what it means to be transparent and a good steward with taxpayer money. He said his first task if elected will be to scrutinize city spending, line by line, to keep the city financially sustainable.

While Nash hits many of the right notes when it comes to controlling development, that view will not go unrepresented on the next council.

Shepherd, on the other hand, is a unique candidate whose skills are needed by a city that often misspends money. He gets our recommendation in District 4.

It’s time to make a clean sweep at city hall. Sweep out the incumbents and elect Taylor, Combs and Shepherd.

6 Comments

  1. as a long time resident of Menlo Park I could not agree more with the issues pointed out here. The city has not gotten any better in the last 8 years unless you were a developer trying to build more office space. We have seen worsening traffic, safety and problems with our current council. You would think a lawyer would know how not to violate the Brown Act and would have the ethical understanding that getting free trips just because you are an elected official does nothing for the people you represent.

    It is time to refresh our city council and hopefully with people who are honest and who want to help the residents and not help the developers make millions of dollars.

  2. “This newspaper isn’t anti-development.” Thanks for the laugh.

    NIMBY policies like those you’re promoting do nothing but drive housing costs into the stratosphere and drive out long time residents. Trends in rents over the last 8 years are far more troubling than trends in traffic.

    If you’re worried about traffic, support expansions of CalTrain and BART. Don’t hide your head in the sand in the face of inevitable (in fact, essential) development.

  3. Development without taking traffic impact into consideration is what led us to all the problems we are having and that is what is driving out long time residents. Palo Alto is realizing this and doing what they can to limit traffic on residential streets which is just pushing it into Menlo Park (which they do not care about). Menlo Needs a city council that will not rubber stamp every massive development proposed within the city.

  4. Kirsten Keith has got to go. She accepts free trips, she supports high speed rail, she blatantly violates the Brown Act and she balks at a proposal to report who she is meeting with on city business. She has no ethics from what I can see. Drew Combs is a great alternative. He doesn’t give wishy washy political answers and will fight for residents like he’s done on the Planning Commission for the past five years. The choice couldn’t be clearer. (Now I’m hoping nobody steals my yard sign!)

  5. Given that Ron Shephard is so into the budget, I imagine that after he looks through the budget he’ll green light as much business development as possible to increase our tax income. That is not what Menlo Park needs. Betsy Nash is out talking with residents, finding out what our concerns and needs are. She will take the voice of the people to city council, which is much more important than a line by line audit.

  6. @Kristen, you’re doing a strawman. Ron never said he’d greenlight development just to generate city revenue. What he actually said was that he would be reviewing city spending to determine where the city was wasting money. It’s a sign of desperation that a supporter of Betsy Nash has to put words in Ron’s mouth to make an argument. It’s also pathetic that, according to you, Nancy is still in the stage of trying to find out what the “concerns and needs” of residents are. You’d expect a candidate would get a good understanding of what residents want long before entering the race, not 3 weeks before Election Day. Will Betsy be up to speed on the issues before Election Day?

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