With downtown’s revitalization continuing and construction booming, Redwood City voters next month are faced with six council candidates with varied ideas of how best to help the city thrive in the face of concerns over development, affordable housing and finances.
Incumbents Jeff Gee, 53, and John Seybert, 48, are hoping to hold on to their seats, former councilwoman Diane Howard, 63, is trying to regain her former position, Planning Commissioner Ernie Schmidt, 46, is looking to switch over to the elected city body and activist James Lee Han, 33, and bail bonds business owner Corrin Rankin, 39, are campaigning to join city government for the first time.
Councilman Jeff Ira is being termed out, meaning that at least one of the three open seats will be filled by a non-incumbent.
The last few years have seen Redwood City’s downtown become a destination and the budget balanced without dipping into reserves but several of the candidates say now is not the time to rest on its laurels.
The city has “a toehold on greatness,” said Seybert who along with Gee joined the City Council in 2009 as Howard exited. “We’re at a point where the momentum will continue or stall.”
Howard, a resident since 1981, said she’s ready to bring her experience and leadership back to the council now, particularly as the shift moves from renovating downtown to keeping the effort going.
Han, who has called Redwood City home for all but five college years, is focused on ensuring that momentum can be shared widely and not just those who can afford pricey housing.
“I want to make sure as we grow we don’t leave anyone behind,” Han said.
Han’s priorities include responsible development which he said includes having developers give back to the city though fees and benefits. His preference, he said, are creative alternatives and inclusive development that can keep Redwood City “a little more working class.”
Unlike the other candidates, Rankin said she is also motivated by a desire to get residents in their 30s and 40s who have historically abdicated involvement in city government to get involved. She’s very vocal about public safety and said she is ready to fight legislatively when necessary for Redwood City.
One of the big issues coming down the road is the continued taking by the state of extra property taxes, Gee said.
For Redwood City, that will mean the loss of $4 million to $5 million.
The worry over finances underscored nearly all the candidates’ self-professed best ideas. For Seybert, it is living within the city’s means although he admitted that might sound “boring.” Howard would like to hold a series of town hall meetings outside a traditional City Council meeting to discuss the community benefits project, a plan to help the city capitalize on development by receiving things like playing fields or affordable housing units.
Gee also looks to the budget, putting liabilities on a balance sheet and considering selling services to other cities. For Redwood City, Gee is also “ready to explore everything” in city contracting beyond its current agreements like the shared fire department with San Carlos.
Howard and Rankin both agree future consolidation probably means working with San Mateo County, especially as the city is the county seat and jurisdictional lines are already blurred.
Han isn’t so sure about expansion. Some consolidation makes perfect sense because cities on the Peninsula bleed into each other but residents like their own police and fire departments and giving up local control shouldn’t advance much further, he said.
Han would put affordable housing back on the agenda and Schmidt is thinking about the next generation of Redwood City residents. He suggested created a Youth City Council to give the council a direct link to the younger set.
Another major financial challenge for Redwood City — all cities actually — are ballooning pension and benefit liabilities.
Redwood City enacted a two-tier pension system before the state followed suit, Seybert said.
Gee said the city needs to look at total compensation rather than only salaries when negotiating or weighing changes.
“We have to look at everything together, not just one piece of it,” he said.
The city is on the right path but conversations over pensions and health care obligations need to happen, particularly in light of the pending health care reform charges, Rankin said.
Nearly all the candidates said the city needs to continue working proactively with its labor groups to evaluate benefits packages but Han believes developers can also be mandated to contribute and the city find other moneymakers.
Schmidt also prefers creative revenue enhancement.
“I don’t think cutting should always be the number one answer,” he said.
Like the others, Han complimented how far downtown has come but said residents don’t see that reflected in city services.
The downtown precise plan, the blueprint of city development, also drew a mixed bag of opinion by the candidates but all agreed it is time for a revisit as new housing and with it — parking needs — come.
Seybert and Gee said the city didn’t think big enough the first time around.
“We simply didn’t see this kind of success coming,” Seybert said.
Howard is glad the plan was challenged in court over its historic inventory because she had had similar concerns and said another pass at it should revisit allowable heights and study traffic problems. She called the effort “managing of success, phase two.”
Parking also troubled Rankin, using her own downtown office front as an example of how the downtown plan created some challenges for existing tenants. In her case, Rankin said she was required to do remodeling and move her entrance away from the front.
Just as the candidates have disparate views, each agreed the Redwood City community is also filled with differences of opinion — often over development concerns, like the now-defunct Cargill Saltworks site, the placement of the new county jail and the Finger Avenue subdivision which a Superior Court judge just sent back to the city drawing board.
The reason, Schmidt said, is “passion” and the city’s role is to find balance and bring the sides to the table.
“Sometimes residents get the perspective we are against them,” Schmidt said, adding that his role on the council would be finding and promoting commonality.
Seybert said that passion also raised its head with Measure Q, the referendum over planned towers now known as Marina Shores, and the planned development of Pete’s Harbor. The benefit is an airing of views and eventually the best outcome for the city, he said.
“I think this wrestling is a good tension,” he said.
A common element through all these recent controversies is water, Gee said.
From recycled water programs to Pete’s Harbor, the connection is the community’s strong opinions about what happens to and on its water which is why a group like the Inner Harbor Task Force is so important, he said.
Another reason for these community battles is fear of change, Rankin said.
Residents are used to the way things look, she said, so without city or developer outreach, they push back.
“When you don’t know, you’re quick to fight it,” she said.
But while the candidates are largely happy with the city they call home, is there any tax, fee or ordinance they would change if given the chance?
For Schmidt, Ranking and Howard, the answer is no although Howard has high praise for the city’s business utility tax.
Seybert would do away with the state takeaways and Han would halt jail expansion. Gee looks a little closer to home, suggesting the lowering of park fees to help promote quality of life.
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