Candidates vying to represent their community on the San Ramon City Council met during an online forum on Thursday, taking the time to debate the finer points of civic governance and sharing their vision for the future of the city.
Presented by DanvilleSanRamon.com and the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce, six candidates debated a range of issues during the roughly 90-minute Zoom forum, including their thoughts on funding for the police department, financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, affordable housing and county taxation, to name a few.
The forum hosted each City Council candidate appearing on the Nov. 3 ballot, which will feature incumbent council member Scott Perkins squaring off against public health professional Luz Gómez to represent District 1, while tech professional Varun Kaushal, professor Reza Majlesi, community organizer Sameera Rajwade and parks commissioner Sridhar Verose seek to prevail in a crowded contest to represent District 3.
District 3 incumbent Phil O'Loane opted not to seek re-election this fall, meaning the City Council is guaranteed to have at least one new member.
This marks the city's first election using district-based voting for board members instead of at-large, meaning residents can only vote for the candidate who lives in their geographic district.
District 1 is primarily located in San Ramon's northwestern region, roughly located west of Alcosta Boulevard and north of Montevideo School Park. District 3 covers a large section of the Dougherty Valley along Bollinger Canyon Road.
Residents in District 2 and 4 will still be allowed to vote for the contested mayor's seat which is still elected on an at-large basis.
Moderated by DanvilleSanRamon.com publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh, the City Council forum featured community submitted questions on the most pressing issues facing San Ramon.
Social justice reform, racial inequality and the "defund the police" movement were among the most contentious of these pressing issues discussed during Thursday's forum -- issues that left candidates divided.
While candidates took opposing sides on the defunding -- or as some put it the "reallocation" -- of police resources, the majority generally agreed that more needed to be done in managing police interactions with residents suffering from a mental health crisis.
"San Ramon has one of the finest police forces in the nation. Time and time again we are noted as one of the safest cities in the nation and our state," stated incumbent candidate Perkins. "Domestic violence and the mental health of our youth and adults is a serious issue and I look to work with the county on developing more of a relationship with county health and mental health staff."
Perkins added that he did not support defunding the police and praised the San Ramon Police Department's implementation of the "8 Can't Wait" principles of deescalation.
Candidate Gómez praised San Ramon Police Chief Craig Stevens, saying that the city was fortunate to have a police chief that "gets it" and strives to improve and support his community. She did add, however, that the SRPD's seemingly annual budget increases seem unsustainable.
"A concern that I have is that the police department budget has been increasing by about $1 million per year for the past five years," Gómez said. "This is not sustainable and I want to look under the hood and see why... A related concern is that policing alone does not make a community safe, investing in community services does."
She also advocated for continuous unconscious bias training.
District 3 candidates had strong, but differing, opinions on funding police. Verose said mental health issues are one of the primary areas of concern and advised that residents suffering from mental health issues be supported through avenues that do not require defunding or reallocating money from the police department budget.
"I understand the civil unrest that has been sweeping across the nation. I support Black Lives Matter," Verose said, adding that he joined San Ramon's Black Lives Matter protest with his son. "I am proud of the San Ramon police department for supporting the protests."
"We need to observe that San Ramon is ranked as the safest place to raise a family in California and the credit goes to our police department and peace-loving community. That is one of the many good reasons why I do not support defunding the (SRPD)," he added. "We need to continue to partner with county (mental health services) and make sure that residents are benefiting... There are a lot of other options that are available."
Candidate Rajwade -- who was one of the main organizers of San Ramon's Black Lives Matter protest in June -- took a firm stance in favor of defunding the police, saying that the defund the police movement "is about emphasizing what public safety is."
"I think that defunding the police means, one, reallocating funds into better mental health services and making sure that we can have actual well-trained professionals and social workers who can handle mental health crisis calls," Rajwade said. "San Ramon is not separated from the issues of the rest of the world. If you saw yesterday, Breanna Taylor did not get justice, and it is important that we address that there are issues within our criminal justice system. Especially here in San Ramon."
"If we reallocate the amount of duties for the police out of mental health services and give it to mental health professionals, why are we still giving the same amount of funding if we are giving them less amount of jobs? To me that makes no sense financially," she added.
Kaushal and Majlesi also came out against defunding, believing that the national issues associated with the movement do not necessarily apply to the San Ramon community.
"What is clear to me is that we do not need to duplicate what is happening on the national level and bring it to our town because it is divisive... Social inequality affects all lives," Majlesi said.
"I cannot support defunding the police because to me it's causing more trouble than anything else. However, some of the responsibilities of the police, like responding to mental health issues, need to be readjusted and addressed. I don't think they are trained for that," he added.
Kaushal agreed that the council should not see its police force "in the same lens (as those in major cities)," but did advocate for a hybrid form of policing that would see mental health professionals respond to mental health crises in San Ramon and support police.
"As a council member my decisions would be rooted in data, which tells us that San Ramon police is the most cost effective per capita and the police have taken numerous steps to train officers in de-escalation tactics and better response to mental health calls," Kaushal added.
Another key issue facing the community, the local response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, was another thoroughly discussed topic, with candidates sharing their vision for recovery.
Kaushal vocalized a desire to continue prosperity through the economic downturn and offered what he saw as practical solutions for supporting local businesses' bottom line until a vaccine can be fully distributed to residents.
"For instance, provide storefront improvement grants matching a minimum 30% or $3,000 to help businesses enhance the look of their stores and increase foot traffic," Kaushal said. "Number two, let go of licensing fees and any late fees or payment penalties for one year and work with the county to provide extensions on commercial property tax payments."
"(Also) have a green business certification and assistance program run by the city that distinguishes and certifies medium and small businesses, allowing them to build their brand and take a leadership role as environmental stewards," he added.
Majlesi said he would like to see the city help local businesses adapt to practices that would help them adapt to the pandemic such as curbside pickup and outdoor seating for restaurants. He also voiced that paying business grants from city coffers was not financially realistic.
"COVID-19 hit the local economy pretty strong. It also is a fact that the majority of our policies should be toward what we hear from the county and the state, so the city has very limited power to control this situation. However in our limited power, we have to do whatever we can," Majlesi said.
Rajwade said that through creating advertising for small businesses and an emergency rainy day fund -- funded through reducing police finances -- local businesses and entrepreneurs can be supported in crisis situations and beyond.
"(We need to) promote how many artists that we have in this city, how many entrepreneurs that we have in this city. These people don't even need to have a physical store as long as the city shows them support for their own businesses, for their own dreams and endeavors. That is what is going to make and show that the city council has solidarity with residents," Rajwade said.
"I want to redefine what a small business looks like," she added. "We need to promote a culture of buying locally, because a robust city means a robust local economy."
Advocating for a collaborative approach, Verose said he is a supporter of micro-grants, loans and collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce to help find solutions and keep the council informed about the needs of the community.
"At this time my top priority must be that our community members stay healthy," Verose said. "To do this I will continue to collaborate with our county to make sure that our residents are receiving the testing that is needed and also collaborating with our county on preparing our logistics for vaccinations."
As a current COVID-19 case and contact tracer, Gómez said issues related to the virus are particularly close to her heart and praised the city's efforts to keep residents informed and help local businesses access state and federal funds.
While praising the city's efforts to keep residents informed, Gomez said, "Unfortunately our reserves have been going down in recent years, and I wish they were healthier so we could do some additional help to our small businesses."
Gómez added that she would like to see the city create a COVID-19 recovery task force as a way for the community to stay informed about developing practices and procedures related to the virus as well as identifying where the greatest areas of concern are for residents.
Perkins highlighted the accomplishments he held achieve while serving on the council for the duration of the pandemic, pointing to the city's decision to spend $40,000 on a consulting firm that assisted local businesses in bringing in more than $10 million in state and federal funding for local businesses.
"The program has been hugely successful," he said. "Fortunately some of (our local businesses) are (also) able to adapt in the spaces out front. San Ramon created and updated our zoning ordinance to allow outside dining during the pandemic and we continue to work with businesses on their reopening plans. Our business recovery program has also had a positive impact."
He also said he has worked closely with county officials to help keep residents informed about the paramount need to practice social distancing and to wear masks.
A clear dividing line emerged when candidates touched on Contra Costa County's half-cent countywide sales tax measure, which is set to appear on voters' ballots come Nov. 3.
Candidates Gómez and Rajwade vocalized support for the measure, acknowledging that while many residents might be hurting financially from the recent economic downturn, the county is in desperate need of funds to provide basic levels of service. Gómez further stated that many of the tax funds will come directly back to San Ramon and benefit the community.
Kaushal, Majlesi, Perkins and Verose came out in opposition to the tax, citing the stressed local economy as a convincing enough reason to not raise sales taxes. Further generally agreeing with Perkins' comment that "sales taxes are in their very nature regressive."
Growth, affordable housing and the CityWalk Master Plan -- which will create 4,500 housing units on the Bishop Ranch property over the next 25 years -- brought further debate among candidates, who generally agreed that affordable housing is a pressing issue but differed on the amount needed for the community.
To view each candidates' full responses to the aforementioned topics and more, residents can view a video recording of the forum on the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce's YouTube Channel.
There, residents can also view the San Ramon mayoral candidates forum, which was held earlier the same evening as the City Council forum.