The pool of seven candidates for Pleasanton City Council answered questions about top local issues including East Pleasanton development and the Valley Link rail project at an online forum last Thursday night.
Candidates Nancy Allen, Valerie Arkin, Jack Balch, Randy Brown, Jarod Buna, Zarina Kiziloglu and Chiman Lee participated in the 2-1/2-hour livestream event -- which also featured a separate debate for mayoral candidates before the council portion.
Presented by the Pleasanton Weekly in partnership with the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce, the forum was hosted live via Zoom (with a video-recording available afterward) and moderated by Weekly publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh.
The year's biggest issues took center stage during the 90-minute council forum, including the candidates' views on the east side and Stoneridge Mall area, and how they would identify development locations in order to meet the city's anticipated regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) obligation of 4,000 to 5,000 new housing units.
Brown, a local Realtor who currently chairs the chamber's Board of Directors, said the council needs to "look at the entire city and have a balanced plan to try to grow and fill those RHNA numbers."
"We could put together a task force and look to see what's available, and try to balance that out," Brown said. "We don't want to have any one area to be overburdened with too much growth and stress on the infrastructure. It would cause traffic issues, it would cause issues with the schools, so we need to look at the city as a whole and, again, balance it out to fulfill those numbers."
Brown said he didn't "believe in trying to fight the state on that," but the city could "try to challenge them and work with them, because we are different than San Francisco but...we're going to have to make that plan before the state takes that control away from us."
Buna, an attorney and Amador Valley High School alumnus, noted "some legal requirements here that require us to include affordable housing in Pleasanton," and called East Pleasanton "our best opportunity" for development.
"It is the best place for us to create a new environment, a second downtown that includes both retail and housing, and housing that can be affordable to those families that want to come back to Pleasanton," said Buna, who first ran for council back in 1996 as a teenager.
Buna continued, "Stoneridge is not an option. In order to put these new homes in, you're going to have to add a school. There is no space near Stoneridge to add a school, so adding significant housing to the Stoneridge area is not an option."
Calling mixed-use development "a solution that many cities have integrated into their environments with great success," Buna also added the council "can be thinking about these spaces in a post-COVID environment that includes parks and open spaces."
Lee, a regional director at Corporate eWaste Solutions and former member of the city's Economic Vitality Committee, zeroed in on developers paying in-lieu fees to opt out of building affordable housing and said, "As a city councilmember, I would get rid of that fee or make it so high that it's just not practical for them to not build affordable housing."
Allen, a Pleasanton planning commissioner, concurred: "We could've built about 75 more homes if we built them as part of our inclusionary zoning versus taking in lieu fees, and we need to start doing that immediately."
Arkin, who currently serves on the Pleasanton school board, said she has "advocated developers providing land for a school" since the city's planning task force was in place and that "we need to keep concentrating on keeping our high quality schools, because that is the number one reason people move to Pleasanton."
When asked about the transportation and roadway projects they would prioritize within the city and the Tri-Valley region at-large, and whether those views have changed amid the pandemic and economic downturn and their respective impacts on jobs, commuting and government funding, ValleyLink received wide support from most of the candidates, who also gave varying opinions on other transit items.
"The work environment is going to start moving towards remote ... but there's the demographic that can't do remote work, the laborers," Lee said. "I'm not so sure about ValleyLink because I read in the proposal that they're thinking about putting in these diesel trains.
Instead, Lee proposed looking at electric trains "or maybe electric buses with wi-fi on the route so we could save a half-billion estimated for the project."
Allen said that locally "we just need to see practical solutions that can improve circulation and reduce travel time -- for example, adding a lane to Hopyard Road near Chick-Fil-A is something that's on the drawing board but not funded. That will improve traffic, it will make that area a lot safer."
"The big local question will be El Charro (Road), and what do we do with El Charro as East Pleasanton is built out," Allen added. "That will be very controversial, so it's critical we get the right data and we have strong public discussions so everyone can understand the tradeoffs in making that decision. And it won't be easy."
Arkin said a BART extension to Livermore "would be better than ValleyLink because people don't want to change systems from Valley Link and then get on BART." She also supported expanding the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train, finishing Highway 84 to Livermore, expanding local bike lanes and improving traffic light timing in Pleasanton.
Balch, who also sits on the city's Planning Commission, said he wants to ensure that "while the state is facing its budget shortfall, we have secured the funds from the state to build the Stoneridge Mall to 680 north interchange, because that is not subject to the (Costco-related) lawsuit."
"I've asked staff to make sure that whatever the city needs to do so those funds don't get reallocated by the state, we are doing now," he added.
Kiziloglu, a city Housing Commission member who cites affordable housing as her top campaign priority, said, "Vision 2050 Plan Bay Area has included the ValleyLink from Lathrop to here ... that will help, might help, with easing the traffic and being electrically charged, but it doesn't solve the housing crisis and the essential workers commuting long distances."
"I do support the Valley Link ... but it's not a fool proof project that can be done," Kiziloglu added. "There should be other things in conjunction with Valley Link in order to drop the number of cars on the road so we will have less of an environmental effect and more people are closer to their jobs."
With the COVID-19 health crisis and sheltering in place entering their seventh month in Pleasanton, the candidates shared their ideas for protecting local businesses and residents from the pandemic's negative impact on their finances, and how they felt about reopening.
The chamber "worked very hard to get downtown closed down to through traffic for the weekends and then opened up to restaurants and retail," Brown said of his role supporting local businesses that were forced to significantly reduce operations this year.
After commending the city for helping small businesses with rent assistance, finding grants and issuing zero-interest micro-loans through its $3 million COVID relief program, Brown added, "What the restaurants have done by forming a coalition, I think is brilliant, and reaching out to the retail to try to do cross promoting with each other, and I think we can a better job with that as a city."
Allen called the pandemic "the worst crisis most of us have ever seen" and said she "also went to the (Pleasanton Downtown Association), and I asked what else we could do, and they said, 'We need a dedicated person to help us manage our pending permits,' so I got them someone from the planning department to be their single point of contact."
From that campaign, Allen said she "developed a preferential preference program, and everything is purchased locally, as long as I can get it for 15% of what I would get it online for, because we need to support our small businesses."
The city "has done a great job with the small business loans," but Lee also said there's "too much focus on the downtown area."
"Downtown has a special privilege; we closed off the street, it helped out all of the restaurants, but what about the other businesses in Pleasanton? What have we done there?" Lee said. "We haven't really done a lot to really help them out, so I propose to start a task force of people that understand and knows how to navigate the COVID-19 rules and regulations."
"That task force could help guide the small businesses -- that could be just a sole proprietor, they don't have the time to go navigate all these rules," Lee added. "Let's guide them, help them look for grants, look for loans and try to just open up and find solutions to open up."
The candidates also addressed what actions and policies they would take or recommend on social justice reform, as well as their thoughts on reallocating Pleasanton Police Department funds for mental health services and on forming a citizens oversight commission.
None of the candidates expressed support for defunding the police department, with some wanting to maintain the city's quick response time of four minutes or less for emergency service calls. Most also stated they did not support an oversight commission and said there would be too much potential for politicization. However, the addition of mental health professionals for crisis intervention was unanimously favored.
"I do believe that our City Council is our oversight board," Balch said. "I support the city council having a more active involvement in the role, and would allow direct accountability to the voters of Pleasanton by this method."
Buna said an oversight committee would invite "a very political element that adds to the complexity of solving the problem" and that having a more diverse council instead would be better.
"And there are problems, no doubt about it; there are diversity problems," Buna said. "But the mental health issue is not the only one. We're seeing across the country, people of color scared of the police, and that's real, and it starts with leadership, and it starts with diversity."
Kiziloglu said, "What we've seen with the Black Lives Matter is something that we have to see, that this is part of our community as well. We're not isolated; we don't live in a bubble."
"We have to deal with the issue of housing and inequality, that's what they want, that's what we need to do, if it means police changing things," Kiziloglu said. "I'm not saying defund the police, but if it means changing things around, we should be able to work with them. It's only fair."
There is bias in the policing system but Lee said Pleasanton's force "has been doing well."
"I don't support defunding police, but I do support having a police policy review committee similar to our current committees that report and give advice to the City Council," Lee said. "I think that would be helpful where they could review all the policy, maybe all the cases that went through the police force, and make suggestions to the city council."
Arkin, whose brother is an active police officer of 30 years, said, "Having a high regard for our police and wanting oversight and transparency is not mutually exclusive." Though Arkin was undecided about having an oversight commission, she said "that could be something that we explore."
"Any public agency funded with taxpayer dollars has to have oversight and transparency," Arkin said. "Oversight by the City Council is absolutely needed, and unlike what some of my fellow candidates have said, there is no oversight by the City Council currently. That is not acceptable, and that has to change."
See all the candidates' responses, including their thoughts on the proposed Costco development on Johnson Drive, in the full forum video via YouTube here.
The Pleasanton City Council election is on Nov. 3, with seven candidates on the ballot battling for two at-large seats (four-year elected terms) with both incumbents termed out.