If there’s one thing the six candidates for San Carlos City Council agree on, it’s the goal of helping the city thrive while retaining the small-town feel and charm that keep them calling it home.
How exactly to find that balance is a little more open to debate but the individuals vying for three spots on the City Council each believe they are the right person for the job.
The incumbent candidates are Mayor Bob Grassilli, 65, Councilman Matt Grocott, 54, and appointed Councilwoman Karen Clapper, 61. Hoping to knock one from their seat are former planning commissioner Michael Corral, 51, former councilwoman Inge Tiegel Doherty, 49, and 35-year-old Cameron Johnson, chair of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Commission. Each, minus Corral who is not participating in the endorsement process, took the time to share with the Daily Journal a little bit about what they bring to the table and how they see the future of the city.
Clapper, who joined the council to finish out the former mayor’s term, said she hadn’t planned on seeking the regular seat in the Nov. 5 election but changed her mind at the encouragement of others and thinks the community will benefit by the continuity. Grocott, who has been elected twice before, always runs with an issue at the forefront and this time he is pushing the idea of switching retirement benefits from the existing defined benefit system to a contribution plan. Johnson, who has two very young children and works at Netflix, said the council needs the perspective he can bring of young families, technology expertise and economic know-how. Grassilli said after years of difficult budgets and finance decisions, he’d now “like to be around for some of the positive stuff.” Tiegel Doherty, who left the council in 2007 after two terms because she couldn’t commit to a third as a single mom with three sons, is ready to return and provide more strategic planning.
“Serving my community is really part of my DNA,” Tiegel Doherty said.
Regardless of who wins in November, that person will be faced with a long-standing and controversial development pending council approval — the Transit Village. The proposal for mixed-use four-story buildings around the existing train station has led to hours of contentious city meetings and mediation with the neighboring east side neighbors and developers.
Of all the candidates, Grocott is the most specific in his opinion of the eight-building project.
“I can’t imagine putting that in place there,” Grocott said, calling the heights and location near the railroad “troublesome.”
However, he feels the city process has played out as it is supposed to although he said there could have been more outreach to the east side by developer Legacy Partners.
The project will undoubtedly impact the character of the city and staff needs to work with residents more closely at the beginning of any project of that magnitude, Tiegel Doherty said. She compared the process to that of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation which is building a medical campus after several years of debate followed by the stalled economy. All of the meetings and challenges resulted in a much better project, she said.
Clapper is “very excited” for the project, particularly the office space and public plaza, and said her prior Planning Commission experience leaves her very familiar with the proposal. A lot of misinformation has been spread about the plan and the process could have been clearer, she said. However, not every east side resident opposes the project and some residents will never be happy no matter what is proposed, she said.
Johnson is in the middle, supporting the Transit Village in theory but feeling that city staff has been complicit in letting the developer push the envelope in terms of what’s allowed.
“I think there’s a project in there that everybody can support,” he said.
The concept of transit-oriented development “just makes sense from an economic standpoint,” Grassilli said, but added that height is a concern and the current City Council wants the developer to provide below-market rate units rather than pay in-lieu fees.
The candidates all support the city’s current shared and contracted service agreements for police and fire although Grocott said the benefit of local control has to be weighed.
“You have to be very cautious because while you save money you can lose identity,” Grocott said.
Clapper also suggested caution in moving forward to avoid becoming top heavy and Cameron’s worry is that as more cities join the Sheriff’s Office the city of San Carlos is no longer its number one client.
Tiegel Doherty said she is a longtime proponent of consolidation and supports even more, particularly in public safety.
“It just makes sense to see how we can further regionalization,” she said.
Grassilli, who like Grocott was on the council when it approved the contracts, said shared services is definitely the way to go but ruled out fully being a contract city. He disagrees that a city loses identity as much as one might think and that regional services make sense for smaller-sized cities that can’t afford public safety on their own.
Another issue the winning candidates will wrestle with is the city’s pension obligations which, like as in most cities, have reached staggering numbers.
Clapper is comfortable with the city’s steps so far to rein in the costs and said it is difficult for one small city to change direction when it belongs to a monolithic retirement system like that of the state. She’d like to see a solid court case come forward that will identify the city’s contractual obligations.
Grocott disagrees, saying that San Carlos is the right city for pension reform and compared it to the city’s then-novel outsourcing of public safety.
“We’ve led the way on other issues,” he said.
Johnson also wants to look at a possible change although he concedes not being “as aggressive as Matt.”
Grassilli, a self-professed free marketer most of the time, suggests pushing retirement from 50 up to 60 or beyond and Tiegel Doherty said cities must work with unions and their colleagues on the state level.
Smack dab in the middle of the campaign, the city of San Carlos also found itself in the limelight when it declared a state of emergency because Pacific Gas and Electric would not immediately shut down a gas pipeline which an engineer had identified as potentially dangerous. Within days, PG&E acquiesced and city leaders are now working with it and the California Public Utilities Commission to verify safety.
The city’s underground infrastructure is something Grassilli said he raised concerns about even before the recent scare.
Grocott is satisfied with the utility’s response but is concerned about other major pipelines in San Carlos. Both Johnson and Clapper are less pleased with PG&E, noting foot dragging and a lack of transparency.
“There’s been a lack of cooperation with us,” Clapper said, adding that PG&E’s request to lift a court injunction “just doesn’t show good faith.”
Like Grocott, Tiegel Doherty thinks the process is moving in a positive way but called PG&E’s initial response “disappointing” because it reacted to a court injunction rather than proactively responding to San Carlos’ concerns.
The candidates weren’t just opinionated about issues coming down the pike but also what they would change if they could. Johnson would like to evaluate changes in land use in the industrial area, calling it the best opportunity to raise more revenue and reimagining the district which is currently switching from old warehouses to gyms and wineries.
Clapper would do away with the 10-cent fee on disposable bags imposed as part of the city’s ban but said the council’s hands were tied because it followed the county’s ordinance template to avoid needing its own environmental review. Grocott took aim at the business license fee, using his own experience in being hit with it by other cities as an example of how the cost is simply passed on to clients. Business owners didn’t vote to impose the fee which Grocott likened to “illegal taxation without representation.” Moderation of the city’s ever-increasing garbage rates are Grassilli’s suggested change. Tiegel Doherty would review the fee structure for green building, saying the way to encourage new behaviors is by making them more affordable.
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