New housing developments, the drinking water supply and public safety were just some of the topics that five Pleasanton City Council candidates running in the November election addressed during a public forum this week.
Participating in the live two-hour event in the council chambers at the Pleasanton Civic Center were newcomer candidates Jeff Nibert and Dean Wallace running for City Council District 1 and incumbent Councilmember Julie Testa and challengers Joel Liu and Jamie Yee for District 3.
The Nov. 8 general election will be Pleasanton's first time following a district-based format for City Council seats, with District 1 representing the northwest Pleasanton neighborhoods and District 3 representing the southwestern part of the city.
Both positions are four-year terms on the City Council. At least one seat is guaranteed to change over as current Councilmember Kathy Narum is termed out this year.
Presented by the Pleasanton Weekly on Monday evening, the forum was hosted in-person along with a livestream option and moderated by Weekly publisher Gina Channell Wilcox and editor Jeremy Walsh.
All five candidates answered questions at the same time, regardless of district, during the debate. "While only voters in districts 1 and 3 will be able to cast a ballot for their preferred candidate, council members represent the entire city," Wilcox told the audience. "It's important that all residents get to know the candidates and hear about their views, values and vision for the city's future."
District 1 candidates
Finding places in Pleasanton to build affordable housing units in order to meet the state's mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation is going to be one of the top priorities for the upcoming City Council.
Nibert, a 35-year resident of Pleasanton and a current member of the city's Planning Commission, said he does support affordable housing in areas where it makes sense.
"We all agree that more affordable housing is needed, and I support the increased developments of affordable housing in places where it's appropriate and makes sense," Nibert said. "The city has already been successful with affordable housing, and we will do more."
But what he said he does not agree with is the state taking away the city's local control.
"Working as a planning commissioner, I see our hardworking staff in the planning department," Nibert said. "They are very capable of doing the work to implement standard processes and to make sure that permit conditions are complied with. The state has taken that local expertise away from Pleasanton."
He said taking away those standard processes of city and public review allows developers to "just check off the boxes and the city must give them a permit."
He said it allows projects such as the proposed Harrison Street development -- a five-story, mixed-use building on the edge of downtown with no onsite parking -- to get approved even though the majority of the community have issues with the height and lack of parking.
"That monstrosity in Harrison Street should never be built. Of course, it probably will," Nibert said. "This is more appropriate at another location. There are other places in Pleasanton where we could use that type of policy. This is not it."
On the other side of the argument, however, was Wallace who is running for the same District 1 seat.
Wallace, a 22-year resident of the Tri-Valley and a political staffer who currently works as a district director for Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Berkeley), said he wanted to run in this year's election mainly to shift the tone regarding affordable housing.
He cited a recent study done by the city of Pleasanton that he said showed that the No. 1 priority for Pleasanton residents was the lack of affordable housing and the cost of living in the city. He said in the same survey, 70% of respondents said the cost of housing in Pleasanton was a serious or very serious concern.
"When it comes to building affordable housing in the city, the city has failed," Wallace said.
He said he supports a balanced and well-planned-out affordable housing plan in Pleasanton and that the only reason the city lost its local control to projects like the Harrison Street project is because the city did not do enough in the last five years to meet its state housing goals.
"(Senate Bill) 35, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. That's five years ago," Wallace said. "The city is now at five years to take the steps needed so that a project like Harrison Street wouldn't happen in the first place."
He said in SB 35, there is a provision that says if the city meets its housing goals and needs, those types of projects would not be allowed to be streamlined.
"I think it's a failure on the city's part ... to take proactive measures to make sure a project like that doesn't happen," Wallace said. "The city could have been engaging with the developer a long time ago to make sure that whatever is built there is done in a way that makes sense for that community."
Both Wallace and Nibert did agree on other topics discussed in the forum including the focus on getting clean, non-contaminated water to residents and maintaining the city's public safety.
"I think this is one of the most important questions that we're going to face this election cycle, when it comes to PFAS or the forever chemicals that are seeping into our water supply," Wallace said.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been widely used and long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time.
In recent years, city officials have discovered PFAS in the city's groundwater supply facilities -- specifically in the city-maintained wells -- and have been working to address the problem. The council recently pressed pause on a PFAS treatment and wells rehabilitation project to weigh out other options like outsourcing the rest of its water needs to regional water providers such as the Zone 7 Water Agency.
"I think that given all the uncertainties that currently exist around what an acceptable level is, what the cost will be, what's currently in the water, I think that pause was a good thing," Wallace said. "I support looking into all the possible solutions to this problem, which includes blending of water, greater treatment of water or looking for new supplies of water."
Nibert said that being an engineer and a project manager would give him the experience to tackle such a large project.
He said that he also agrees with the decision to pause the treatment project because the city needs to consider things such as the cost of the project -- which was last projected by the city to cost $46 million -- resources and the scope of the project.
"I support the decision of the council to take a pause right now and take a look at what the alternatives are and the regional water quality supply alternatives," Nibert said. "In the meantime, the treatment option remains the plan. It's still a viable option, and it's one that I would support if it is indeed selected."
Both District 1 candidates also concurred that the city's police department is doing a good job in maintaining public safety and that there is no need for additional oversight apart from the City Council with input from the recently formed Police Chief's Advisory Board.
"The effectiveness of the Police Chief's Advisory Board is something that I have heard very good things about," Nibert said. "In regard to community policing, I'm so proud of the efforts that our police departments and our police professionals have made in terms of getting out there among the public and establishing relations to improve not only the image, but to convey to people the good work that is being done."
Wallace said that he will pledge to preserve funding for our public safety and school resource officers and said that even though he doesn't think it's necessary, if the need for more police oversight arises he will be the first to call for more reporting.
District 3 candidates
The competitors for City Council District 3 -- Liu, Testa and Yee -- all had different views on residential growth in Pleasanton and how the city should balance new affordable housing.
Yee, a former Pleasanton school board trustee for 12 years, said she supports affordable housing done right and that even though the city must retain its local control, it should look to build more workforce housing.
"Workforce housing is something that I've been a huge advocate for many, many years," Yee said. "Being on the school board, it was painfully obvious to us that teachers did not live in our community."
She also said she hears a lot from parents who are worried they won't be able to live near their grandchildren because their children can't move back to Pleasanton due to the high housing costs.
"I think the council really needs to balance what is required by the state and our desire to have more affordable housing," Yee said. "I really believe that if we have a functional council that can work together, we can figure out ways to make that happen."
Liu, chair of the city's Committee on Energy and the Environment, also said that the city needs more workforce housing for the teachers and firefighters who can't afford to live in Pleasanton but added that the city needs to retain its local control. He used the Harrison Street project, which he lives near, as an example of poor policy-making with SB 35.
"Housing is a very critical issue in our city," Liu said. "We do need housing for teachers, firefighters, and many other working families, but the location of that policy is wrong."
He said the city needs to work to regain its local control to maintain Pleasanton's history of well-executed planning and to work with legislators to find solutions so similar future projects can be avoided.
Testa, who is in her fourth year serving on the City Council, agreed to every candidate's point of maintaining local control, but she took it a step further in saying that the city needs to fight more against the state's mandated housing laws.
"In our last RHNA cycle, we actually built 370 affordable housing units," she said. "In fact, Pleasanton built a higher percentage of our affordable housing than any other city in Alameda County."
But Testa said that was still not enough to meet the state's housing demands.
"The state housing numbers are unrealistic," she said. "The state has to help us with the funding because we've been set up to fail. They know we do not have the $1.5 billion in subsidy that would be required to build our RHNA affordable housing requirements."
She said she has been working with a group coalition of elected officials from several California cities to fight back against the state's Department of Housing and Community Development so projects like Harrison Street won't happen again.
She argued that a state legislative audit shows the RHNA numbers are incorrect and that the city must do everything to push back against giving up its local control.
"Only 29 cities out of the entire state actually were able to meet their affordable housing goals. Only 29 across the state, and those were cities that were so small that they had tiny, tiny little numbers," Testa said. "We have been set up to fail. All cities are being set up to fail with these mandates because they want the ministerial streamlining."
But Yee, much like District 1 candidate Wallace, said that SB 35 only penalizes cities that didn't do their job, like Pleasanton.
"We had five years to come up with the numbers in the plan and that didn't happen, so the city actually gave up its control," Yee said.
However, she did have a problem with the Harrison Street project in that the main reason the state chose that location is because of the close transportation option of the ACE train, which Yee said made no sense given that the train doesn't run outside of commute times.
She said weaving that fact into some type of provision at the state level could help in pushing back the project.
Treating PFAS in the city's wells and overall water safety is a top priority for all three District 3 candidates.
Both Liu and Yee said it was a good idea for Testa and the rest of the current council to halt the treatment and well rehabilitation project in order to assess other options.
"I think the pause was a good idea only because my experience in making really tough decisions has to do with making sure that you have that data, and I feel we're at a place right now where there's just not enough known about it and all the different options aren't really brought forward yet," Yee said.
She and Liu said the city needs to work more closely with Zone 7 to address the aging wells and find different solutions to get safe water for Pleasanton residents.
"There should be no PFAS in our water. It's a man-made chemical," Testa added, saying that with the shutdown of one well means the city will most likely shut down its other wells.
"We do have short-term options and that would be to purchase water, more water instead of just 80% from Zone 7," Testa said. The city previously used its wells to distribute the other 20% to its residents.
The safety of the community was another top priority for the three candidates with Liu saying it would be his main focus if elected.
"Public safety is my number one priority in my platform," Liu said.
He said he supports Assembly Bill 481, which allows the council to approve police use of military-like equipment, saying it's important for officers to be well-equipped for any situation but that they should also be educating the public on how the equipment is meant to keep them safe.
Testa also said she likes the idea of being responsible for that usage of equipment but, unlike every other candidate on the forum, said that there should be police oversight, just not by the City Council.
"I don't think the City Council should be the oversight," Testa said. "I do believe that we need a professional oversight body. It should be an independent auditor. There are other cities that use independent auditors and it gives community members a place to turn when there's a concern."
Yee said she supports the current Police Chief's Advisory Board so that residents have more of a one-on-one connection with the chief but feels like any more would be too micromanaging.
Other key topics addressed in questions to all five candidates included Stoneridge Shopping Center redevelopment planning, the city's Climate Action Plan 2.0, traffic congestion, and the transition and turnover in the city's administrative ranks including new City Manager Gerry Beaudin.
See the candidates' responses to all questions in the forum video created by Roberta Gonzales Productions and available on the Pleasanton Weekly's YouTube page.
Editor's note: Because of technical difficulties, the first seven minutes of the Pleasanton City Council candidates' forum held Monday were not recorded, including District 3 candidate Joel Liu's opening statement. We have added a recorded version of Liu's statement to the YouTube video, as well as improving the audio of the recording.