San Ramon candidates for mayor tried to set themselves apart during an online forum last week as they debated the finer points of local issues in their efforts to win voters.
Presented by DanvilleSanRamon.com and the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce, Thursday's forum saw chief medical officer Dr. Dinesh Govindarao, City Councilman Dave Hudson, small business owner Aparna Madireddi, small business owner Susmita Nayak, businessman Sanat Sethy and Vice Mayor Sabina Zafar.
Moderated by DanvilleSanRamon.com publisher Gina Channell and editor Jeremy Walsh, the forum saw candidates answer a variety of questions based on themes identified as important by residents that covered topics including the local response to the coronavirus pandemic, social justice reform, affordable housing and transportation.
Candidates are seeking to replace outgoing Mayor Bill Clarkson, who is set to term out at the end of the year after being elected to four two-year terms.
Starting off with a discussion facing government agencies throughout the country, candidates reviewed the city's response to the ongoing pandemic and discussed their ideas for supporting local businesses and residents impacted by the shelter-in-place and economic downturn.
Citing San Ramon as one of the communities that has not been hit as significantly by the virus as other Bay Area cities, councilman Hudson said, "our numbers sure are a lot better than the rest of the county and we should have been a lot more open than we are now, but things are proceeding. We are going to follow the health officer's edicts and I just hope we realize sooner rather than later the direction we ought to be taking."
"I am really looking forward to something that I saw over at the City Center where Bishop Ranch is trying to do some sort of tree lighting (for the holiday season). I feel like that will go a long way toward people feeling we really are opening," Hudson added, advocating for safety conscious events that promote a sense of normalcy in San Ramon.
Arguing that as a physician who often deals with various issues related to the virus, Govindarao said he could offer the city a perspective that would be invaluable in dealing with the virus and advocating for local needs to county and state agencies.
"You really need a physician leader who can take a proactive approach and, unfortunately, at various levels of government, you have non-medical professionals making medical decisions, which has contributed to the crisis that we are in. We need to be taking a data driven, scientific and practical approach to address these issues, to develop policies to support this" he said.
Candidate Nayak countered that in her opinion the council needed to do more to support local businesses, saying, "Our city could have done more to help our residents and small businesses and retailers. Just the stimulus package offered by Fed(eral government) with plenty of complicated paperworks and time-consuming approval processes... It is not enough."
"The solution to what the city could have done is more stimulus, or more local grants, some kind of funding. The city has not taken any initiative apart from the federal things, we could have done much better," she said adding that the city should have also done more to support local schools during the pandemic and cited municipal broadband fiberoptic as a way to support locals.
When it came to addressing social justice reform and the national movement to defund or reallocate money from police department budgets, candidates were split on finding solutions. While none outwardly supported completely defunding the San Ramon Police Department, some were open to reallocating resources from police to other services.
"I don't like the term 'defund the police.' I feel this term has heavily divided our country. I'd rather use the term 'police reallocation of resources.' I'm not in favor of strictly defunding," Govindarao explained.
"I would like to focus our efforts on de-escalation techniques and avoiding police brutality, that should be a part of our culture. Our police department instituted the '8 Can't Wait' campaign and I understand more has to be done," he added. "Training our police officers on systemic racism, implicit bias, cultural awareness is paramount. I support rapid decertification if there is a bad police officer we all need to be held accountable for our actions."
Govindarao further advocated for allocating resources to mental health services, saying that trained professionals should be the ones responding to and helping police deal with mental health crises.
Advocating for an open dialogue between the city and all its residents, Zafar added "when we did have the Black Lives Matter protest in San Ramon, you really saw the partnership between the SRPD and residents come together… A lot of our residents and a lot of our children came out and spoke about what they have experienced and I want to listen."
Countering any argument to reallocate or defund, candidates Madireddi, Nayak and Sethy voiced explicit opposition to defunding the police department, generally saying that if any change is needed, it can be made in different ways.
"I do not support defunding. I feel it is more important for people to express their opinions, exercise their first amendment rights, but the moment you cross that line of vandalizing property and disrespecting residents, our businesses and law enforcement, I stand back and support our law enforcement," Madireddi, said of this past summer's protests -- some of which in cities like Oakland and Walnut Creek resulted in looting and vandalism.
"We need to build very strong cross cultural, cross racial alliances in our city," added Madireddi, who is also a founding member of the San Ramon Valley Diversity Coalition. "I've recommended for three years now a citizens' police advisory committee from different age groups, ethnicities partnering with the diversity coalition and providing input to the police department for community trust and community policing."
Hudson praised the efforts of the SRPD to make it one of the safest communities in the state and advised residents that police services are not nearly as high in the city as they are in other areas.
"What we pay for our police department is very low compared to just about anyone," he said.
Hudson did acknowledge that existing problems around equity exist in San Ramon, and added that he has advocated for local civic leaders to take classes on equity since 2018 -- saying they should be taught in the same way ethics and sexual harassment are for local leaders.
Touching on another pressing issue facing many communities throughout the Bay Area and state, candidates addressed growth and the need for affordable housing in the city.
"San Ramon is the one city in the Tri-Valley that has the most affordable housing, right now. We have really done quite well, especially with the Dougherty Valley. When I moved to San Ramon I was able to do it because we have apartments that were here that are affordable," Zafar said.
"San Ramon has an ordinance that actually allocates 15% of all housing by default for affordable housing," she added, explaining the city's current policies. "On top of that we have an affordable housing fund in San Ramon which actually lends money to people who want to come and build affordable housing in San Ramon, so we can support affordable housing for our seniors, for our young and for all our people."
Candidate Sethy countered that he did not believe that the city had suitable affordable housing for residents and claimed that the housing that was designated as such was only actually affordable to wealthier residents.
"I don't think we really have any affordable housing. The state is forcing us to build houses and saying that 20% or 5% goes to some affordable, but real people can't afford it. I don't think so. (We need to) make sure that affordable houses are affordable for the people who need it. Not $1 million affordable houses. I don't support that," Sethy said.
"We need to build affordable houses that real people can afford, not just namesake affordable houses," he added.
Agreeing that affordable housing needs to actually be affordable, Madireddi criticized the city's recent approval of the CityWalk Master Plan -- which will create 4,500 housing units on the Bishop Ranch property over the next 25 years -- saying that its affordable housing offerings are inadequate.
"My biggest concern (with CityWalk) was the $600,000 price per unit. Nobody can afford that on a limited income, a retired income or working families," Madireddi said. "The CityWalk project, again, my main concern was traffic and people spilling over Bollinger (Canyon) and Crow Canyon (roads), and our infrastructure is unsustainable at this point."
Continuing on the city's infrastructure and public transit, Madireddi said she had "pretty much given up on regional transportation" but that there was plenty the city could do to improve its situation.
"My focus is within the city, which we can really work on and improve. We have over 500 lane miles and each lane mile takes upward of $300,000 in order to maintain. It is unsustainable," she said.
"The public commuting and transportation, we don't have good transportation," agreed Sethy, who strongly advocated for increased bus routes and services, particularly for students. "When schools go back open, I think we need help on all the public transportation... We need to work with (state, regional and local) agencies and leaders to have more public transportation."
Touching on a transportation and traffic flow-related passion project, Hudson championed for the Iron Horse Trail Bollinger Canyon pedestrian overpass, which has been approved by the council but not yet built, citing it as a way to increase traffic flow for vehicles and safety for residents enjoying the trail.
"The project that I have championed since day one -- and I thank my council for finally backing me with money which it takes -- is the Bollinger Canyon overpass," he said. "This is the busiest section of the Iron Horse Trail and I was the last president of the Iron Horse Trail advocates and I have run every inch of that thing, and this is going to get busier."
"If you have pedestrians and bikes coming to that intersection on Bollinger Canyon Road, you are going to have a parking lot. That is the major project for me over the next two years -- get that pedestrian overpass," he added.
To view each candidates' response to the aforementioned topics and more, residents can view a video recording of the roughly 90-minute forum on the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce's YouTube Channel.
There, residents can also view the San Ramon City Council candidates forum, which was held later the same evening as the mayoral forum.