An online forum featuring candidates for Pleasanton mayor on Thursday night touched on key local issues including support for small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, affordable housing and development, and policing reform and oversight.
Candidates Karla Brown, Monith Ilavarasan and Jerry Pentin participated in the 2-1/2-hour livestream event -- which also featured a separate debate for City Council candidates after the mayor portion. The two other candidates on the mayoral ballot did not attend.
Presented by the Pleasanton Weekly in partnership with the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce, the forum was hosted live via Zoom (with a videorecording available afterward) and moderated by Weekly publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh.
Some of the biggest issues of 2020 featured prominently during the hourlong mayoral forum, including the global COVID-19 health crisis and its impact on residents and local businesses.
"What we can do to help these residents, and to ensure they do not get displaced, is to have a rent moratorium … and ensure that we have resources available for them to be able to pay off their rent or mortgage," said Ilavarasan, a tech product manager and 2010 Amador Valley High School graduate running for city office for the first time.
"One other key way that we can help (businesses) is to do a similar thing for businesses in terms of rent forgiveness to ensure that the high rent prices they're paying doesn't force them out of business at a time when revenues are low," he added.
Pentin, a second-term city councilman, highlighted his recent council motion to quadruple the amount of financial relief for local businesses through the city's $3 million COVID-19 relief micro-loan program and said "that's going to bridge the gap as different businesses come out of COVID-19."
"When it comes to the rent gaps, we've instituted a program that we earmarked $500,000 to get people to bump their loans to $2,500," Pentin said. "It's not meant to pay your rent for months but it's meant if you can't pay your rent, it helps you with the gap."
Brown, who is also in her eighth year on the City Council, shared her past work and stance on the issue: "One of the things, I'm going to say I was very frustrated with the council majority, is when the original plan came forward for a very small amount, which was $2,500 for a two-year loan -- and it was a loan, not grant -- for our small businesses."
"That's why … the rest of the $3 million sat stagnant, because the cost of doing the paperwork and time wasn't worth $2,500," Brown said, adding that she was in the minority on the matter at the time. "Very few people took advantage of (the program), so we significantly raised the number. That was wholeheartedly supported by the council."
"We do have emergency rent assistance; I know small businesses themselves are calling me and thanking me for helping them out," added Brown, who like Pentin is terming out from a regular City Council seat but is eligible to run for the mayoral post.
Questioning on community policing and social justice reform prompted a variety of responses from the candidates about the specific types of actions and policies they would support and recommend to bring positive change to the Pleasanton Police Department.
Pentin brought attention to the council's recent actions like hosting "a number of listening sessions, and in our last council meeting we had our chief come and make recommendations based on their police manual and their policies. And we had a unanimous council vote to support the chief's recommendations."
With a pilot mental health crisis team program in the works, Pentin said he preferred a model that "keeps a sworn officer onsite."
When it came to the idea of implementing a citizens oversight committee for the police department, Pentin added, "I think we have an oversight committee: It's called the City Council."
Brown said she supported reviewing PPD policies in relation to an item to fund $1.3 million in body cameras and use of tasers in May but that "Councilmember Pentin said absolutely no."
"Six days later, George Floyd died at the knee of a police officer and now everybody's talking about policies that should've happened way before Mr. Floyd died," Brown said, adding that she supports Pleasanton's police officers but they "shouldn't be asked to do more than they're trained for." She was also in favor of supplementing the police department with mental health support.
Ilavarasan said he supported an oversight commission and that it was important "to include all members of the community," including mentally disabled individuals and people of color.
"A citizen oversight commission allows the ability for a diverse group of people to have diverse perspectives in terms of their interactions with the police department, and allows us to have a more holistic grade of representation for the services and how the community has reacted to different situations," Ilavarasan said.
Because a mental health response plan would require additional funding, Ilavarasan said he would prioritize reallocating the next series of funding to that program, if elected.
The three candidates each said they support the proposed Costco store on Johnson Drive, with Pentin supporting the entire surrounding Johnson Drive Economic Development Zone package but Brown and Ilavarasan did criticize parts of the proposal.
Pentin called it a "great opportunity to grow that part of Pleasanton" and said "the other benefit of this is we get two hotels."
"We need the hotels in Pleasanton for business and the different events. We have the opportunity to grow that part of Pleasanton, which isn't growing, and that is something we should work towards," Pentin said.
Brown said she declined to take a stance on Measure MM in 2016 when it came to the ballot because "I wanted the residents to decide."
"It was controversial not because it brought a Costco to Pleasanton, but because of the pre-funding needed for the roads and infrastructure," Brown said.
Of the cost-sharing agreement for infrastructure work, Brown added, "It concerns me that the travel industry, including the hotels, is right now so slow that Marriott may or may not be interested in that transaction. And if Marriott pulls out, you can imagine that the traffic will come down, we'll have to re-do the numbers and see if we still have a project."
Brown continued, "But for Costco, and Costco alone, it is still moving forward, with the exception of the environmental impact report studies and the two lawsuits. I'm disappointed that the city and their environmental impact report wasn't complete enough to stand up to the challenge of our residents and an attorney review, and so now we're going for a second round of questioning on those reports, and so we'll see."
Ilavarasan called the Costco lawsuits "a vocal minority pushing back" but said he did not support "the broader economic development zone initiatives."
"I don't think we need two hotels right next to Costco to increase the congestion there and, also, due to the effects of COVID-19 and the travel industry deprecating over the past few months and for the next year. I don't think that's a super-wise decision to push through at this point in time," Ilvarasan said.
"On the Costco in particular, I think we need to do what we can to push it through," he added. "If we can extract more concessions from Costco to help supplement some of the transportation infrastructure that we need to build to support them, I think we need to push forward and support that."
The issue of affordable housing rendered a greater variety of responses, with some candidates advocating for local control while others championed for more projects to benefit lower income households.
"It's common around Pleasanton to hear local control, but it only works if the people who are in control locally fight for what the residents want," Brown said. "What we need is more affordable homes, and affordable can be many things."
State lawmakers recognize the housing crisis in the Bay Area, Ilavarasan said, and "their intention is to try to address that issue, but we as a local government need to get ahead of that and build for incomes of all scales."
"If the local population doesn't show a political drive to build increased affordable housing, then the state recognizes that and then attempts to push us in that direction," he added.
Whether proposing splitting up a single-family lot into smaller parcels or building more micro-units, Brown said state-proposed solutions like Senate Bill 1120 -- which seeks to expand California's accessory dwelling unit law -- aren't practical for local decisions and that "local control with local people you trust is the answer."
Highlighting his experience on the council's Legislative Subcommittee and hashing over various housing bills with state lawmakers in the past, Pentin said the city has done a great job of collaborating with the state but needs to stay abreast of housing demand if they want to keep decision-making at the local level.
"One thing is for sure we are going to see more housing production bills come to the legislature -- if we don't plan our own future in Pleasanton, and take care of our own business, the state will do it for us," Pentin said.
Pentin, Ilavarasan and Brown also shared their opinions on topics such as safe drinking water, campaign fundraising, transportation projects and how to lead a diverse group of council members to a decision that benefits the entire Pleasanton community. Watch the full forum video via YouTube here.
The Pleasanton mayoral election is on Nov. 3, with five candidates on the ballot seeking the two-year elected term to succeed Mayor Jerry Thorne, who is terming out. Candidates Tom Turpel and Druthi Ghanta declined the invitation to take part in the Weekly's forum.
Editor's note: Coverage of the City Council candidate forum will follow in the days ahead, after the holiday weekend.