Solving Ralston Avenue’s traffic woes, what to do to attract more commerce to downtown and moving past some recent controversial decisions by the Belmont City Council are some of the most pressing concerns the six candidates in the race for three open council seats expressed in a recent sitdown with the Daily Journal.
The candidates are incumbent Planning Commissioner Gladwyn d’Souza, incumbent Vice Mayor Warren Lieberman, Planning Commissioner Kristin Mercer, Eric Reed, who is a former planning commissioner, attorney Charles Stone and real estate broker Michael Verdone.
Lieberman is seeking his third term on the council and Reed narrowly lost a bid for the council two years ago, being edged out by current Mayor Christine Wozniak. The other candidates are seeking elected office for the first time.
The candidates were given the same questions to answer in 50 words or fewer to help the Daily Journal determine endorsements. Answers are arranged alphabetically by the candidate’s last name.
Should the city invest more resources in solving traffic conditions on Ralston Avenue? In your opinion, what is the best way to solve the problem?
Gladwyn d’Souza: Yes, we should work with the Transit Authority and C/CAG to use regional funds for Ralston. Ralston is our main arterial. And we need to use existing resources to enforce speed limits. In the long run, planning and design done right would save money, because enforcement would be engineered.
Warren Lieberman: Traffic planners have previously been hired to provide us with a plan for improving mobility on Ralston, including bicycling and walkability. They have identified a range of efforts to improve conditions, some of which can be easily implemented.
Kristin Mercer: For starters, employ low-cost solutions. Enforce speed limits, narrow traffic lanes to make wider bike lanes and to buffer sidewalks, and restripe crosswalks. Schools are major contributors: work with all schools to develop transit plans, stagger bell times, employ carpool apps/websites, develop a pay-in school shuttle-bus, improve sidewalks and trails on safe-routes-to-school and organize walking school-buses.
Eric Reed:At a recent community event where the Ralston Corridor Study data was released, I was impressed with the innovative suggestions that came from the engaged audience. Yes, the city should work to address traffic issues on Ralston and the best way to do that is by working with the community.
Charles Stone:Yes, but there is no single “cure-all” approach for the problems plaguing Ralston. Success involves balancing traffic and bicycle access to find workable solutions that don’t compromise the safety of pedestrians; particularly children walking to school. I’ll engage the community, determine priorities and build consensus around workable options like better crossings, smart signals and well-marked bike routes.
Michael Verdone: Yes. While the city has been proactive in the Ralston corridor study and has allowed for public input, improving the poor lighting conditions, pedestrian right of way, bike paths and traffic congestions during peak hours is crucial and only the beginning to alleviating traffic.
What is most pressing issue facing Belmont right now?
Gladwyn d’Souza: Manage the budget to keep police and fire service. Belmont, like most cities in California, is at a crossroads of unfunded mandates overrunning the ability to provide services. The problem is much worse with the schools. Belmont needs to also account for Sacramento stealing money from the local level to pay for its extravagant ideas.
Warren Lieberman:We have several important issues including finalizing a plan to improve the sports complex, including the identification of funding sources; identifying revenue sources to improve our infrastructure, especially roads; and following up on the recommendations of the city’s economic consultants for creating a revitalized downtown.
Kristin Mercer:During the recession, the city balanced the budget by prioritizing essential services. Now we need to improve our infrastructure and facilities. Essential needs are estimated at $140 million, but our “wish list” is double that. We need to engage the community in a pragmatic dialogue about priorities; given the price tag of each item, where should funds go first?
Eric Reed: Belmont’s El Camino Real corridor is not generating the kind of income it could for the city; the vacant storefronts and empty lots are stark reminders of this fact. The city needs a viable, proactive economic development strategy that brings businesses and their customers into Belmont to increase the city’s tax base.
Charles Stone: Belmont’s biggest challenge is a council that’s been an obstacle to improvement. We need strong leaders who can define priorities and give clear direction to staff; leaders with vision who will engage stakeholders and build bridges between disparate viewpoints to get to successful outcomes. I am one of those leaders.
Michael Verdone: Belmont’s long neglected infrastructure that only gets more costly as time progresses. We must generate a sufficient sales tax base by being more business friendly in order to relieve the financial burdens that will eventually be placed on our residents.
Did you agree with the City Council’s decision to not allow a private middle school to occupy the zoned office use on Davis Drive and why?
Gladwyn d’Souza: Yes. Education is fantastic, I would love to have another new school in Belmont. But the fact is this is an elite private academy that was not ready to adapt to Belmont’s needs for police, fire, library, public schools, etc. ... City services are hurting financially. Everybody needs to pay their fair share.
Warren Lieberman: I did not agree with the council’s decision to not allow a private middle school to occupy the zoned office use on Davis Drive. Many reasons provided by three councilmembers on why they changed their minds seemed arbitrary and without substance. No discussion of potential problems such as traffic or the potential financial benefits was allowed so a thoughtful decision could be made.
Kristin Mercer: We need a master plan to revision the use of Davis Drive, and I support the inclusion of schools in the plan. However, CSUS did not offer adequate protections for the city, which would have no tax-lien recourse as it would have with a tax-paying owner. The 2 percent annual increase would not keep pace with inflation.
Eric Reed: I was the only planning commissioner to fully support the Crystal Springs project and I did not believe that the city made an optimal decision by turning Crystal Springs away. We should have worked closely with the school to find a win-win solution — one that addressed residents’ valid concerns and enabled CSUS to make Belmont its home.
Charles Stone: No. The project would have provided good revenue ($1 million one-time payment/$250,000 annually) and a world-class, modern and “green” school. I was disappointed a council majority was for it before they were against it. They acted prematurely even though CSUS was willing to continue negotiating. The process and outcome sent a terrible message to businesses interested in Belmont.
Michael Verdone: No, however, I would have not accepted the proposal as presented. There are definitely mitigating factors that could have been considered and negotiated. The CSUS ordeal highlights the inefficiencies and mixed message in working with the city of Belmont for any development project.
What is your vision for the city’s downtown?
Gladwyn d’Souza: Belmont needs to take advantage of its location between San Francisco and San Jose. We need quality jobs in the downtown for both young and older workers. Downtown should be vibrant, a place where people can go to gather, shop and work. The first place to start is with the input of residents of the downtown.
Warren Lieberman: My vision for the city’s downtown is consistent with the community’s input that we create a gathering place with a village feel. The city’s economic consultants have provided us with a plan for accomplishing this.
Kristin Mercer: I see Carmel or Los Altos, not San Mateo. It needs to be consistent with our small-town trademark, appropriately scaled, compact and pedestrian dominated. The vision document I authored has shared parking, wider sidewalks, plazas, pedestrian paseos bisecting blocks and lots of trees. In the two core blocks, the plan allows second-floor retail, rooftop cafes and connecting pedestrian bridges.
Eric Reed: In the future, Belmont’s downtown is a place where those living and working in Belmont can enjoy a walkable, vibrant retail and dining environment. It is a place that meets the needs of residents, university students and employees in nearby businesses.
Charles Stone: Belmont is a small city but we can have big ideas. I envision high quality architectural design that creates a safe, walkable and bike-friendly downtown connected by green paths and gathering places for arts and entertainment; a vibrant marketplace that increases revenues and becomes a destination instead of just a point on a map.
Michael Verdone: Centralize parking downtown to allow for more development in various lots around the area. Move Safeway to the frontage of El Camino and elevate it to allow for centralized parking underneath as in Millbrae. With better utilization of space, we can add additional mixed-use projects to accomplish retail and housing objectives.
What is a decision the City Council has made in last four years that you disagree with and why?
Gladwyn d’Souza: I disagreed with not zoning our parks as parklands. Currently parks zoned as open space or agriculture can be sold especially if there is no parks usage in effect or residents lack the wherewithal to sue over the transfer. Parks shouldn’t be used for other uses except parks in order to reduce the impact on other city infrastructure like roads. The city of San Mateo has such a rule in effect.
Warren Lieberman: I disagreed with the council’s efforts to impose conditions on the use of NDNU’s soccer field even though the council did not have the authority to do so. NDNU told the council that its terms and conditions were unacceptable and sought to work with the council in a cooperative manner, but the council refused to do so. NDNU ultimately rejected the conditions and the relationship between the city and NDNU suffered.
Kristin Mercer: The council’s greatest tool for achieving its goals is the budget, and the ability to allocate funds to align with council priorities. Council lists 41 priorities (which is akin to having no priorities). Yet every year council rubberstamps a budget that is guaranteed not to accomplish those priorities.
Eric Reed: As a planning commissioner, I voted “yes” on the CSUS project, “no” on the heavy-handed tree ordinance and “no” on the restrictive sign ordinance. The council voted down CSUS and approved the tree and sign ordinances. I believe that on those issues, the council missed opportunities to improve our finances and reduce burdens on businesses and residents.
Charles Stone: I disagree with the City Council’s decision to focus time and energy on an overly restrictive tree ordinance and a poorly written sign ordinance while our economic development is anemic and our infrastructure is crumbling. I’m committed to prioritizing growing our tax base by growing our economy rather than by asking residents to pay more.
Michael Verdone: The council’s insular mentality and inability to work with neighboring cities on regional issues of transportation, economic and housing issues is legendary. Our decoupling of Belmont and San Carlos fire departments is a prime example of council’s failure to work with our neighbors to achieve economic benefits.
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Occupation: Engineer/nonprofit director
Education: B.S. in physics, UC Berkeley
How long a resident: 10 years
Family: Married with two children, one still in the high school
Occupation: Currently vice mayor and Belmont councilman; president of Veritec Solutions, a management consulting and software development firm
Education: Ph.D. in operations research from Yale University
How long a resident: 20 years
Family: Married with two children, both in high school
Occupation: Belmont planning commissioner. Former executive at Macy’s
Education: B.A. from San Jose State University; MBA from Sacramento State University
How long a resident: 29 years
Family: Married with two adult children
Occupation: Associate director at Genentech
Education: BA, biology from UC Santa Cruz and MBA, Santa Clara University
Residency: 11 years
Family: Married with two children in elementary school
Occupation: Business owner/attorney
Education: BA in political science from UC San Diego with minors in law and society and psychology; J.D., Santa Clara University
How long a resident: Nine years
Family: Married with two daughters in elementary school
Occupation: Real estate broker/consultant
Education: BA in psychology with business focus from UC San Diego
How long a resident: 13 years