A seemingly typical topic on the Foster City Council’s agenda last week sparked a contentious discussion and familiar concerns about civility in that city’s discourse. 

The council on Monday, Oct. 7, discussed whether to form what’s called a subregion for the next Regional Housing Needs Allocation cycle, which spans 2023 to 2031. Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA, quantifies the housing needs of an individual city during an eight-year period and cities are required to approve that many units in that time. As part of that process, cities have the opportunity to form a subregion, which would allow them to trade required housing units if they so choose.

During the meeting, tensions flared over what was being discussed and when, along with concerns about the city’s information transference from its council’s representative on the City/County Association of Governments, or C/CAG, the regional board that discusses such collaboration between jurisdictions.

In the current cycle, San Mateo County has taken some 400 units off the hands of cities and the city of San Mateo has taken on an additional 70 units from its neighbors, for example, said C/CAG Executive Director Sandy Wong. She added that in those cases the jurisdiction that took on the units didn’t get anything in return.

“If they have capacity and plan to build that many more units, why not?” she said. 

A subregion has existed in San Mateo County for the past two RHNA cycles, but on Thursday, C/CAG voted almost unanimously against forming one for the upcoming cycle, with just Burlingame dissenting. The staff recommendation that was approved is described as “enhanced collaboration in lieu of a subregion” — a new structure that allows cities to pool resources and streamline much of the administrative behind-the-scenes work, Wong said.

As a result of that vote, cities will no longer be able to trade housing requirement numbers, though Wong said recent changes in state law, including much higher RHNA requirements, essentially make trading impossible moving forward anyway. 

C/CAG discussed a potential subregion at two other meetings going back to July before a vote was cast on Thursday. Wong said cities were encouraged to discuss the matter with their own councils and some did, including San Mateo, Burlingame and Millbrae. 

Foster City Councilwoman Richa Awasthi said she requested the subregion matter be added to the council’s agenda after discovering other cities, but not her own, were discussing it.   

“This topic was only added to the agenda after I suggested it and staff had no plans to agendize it,” she said. “Housing is a critical topic for Foster City and it should’ve been brought to the council much sooner and there should’ve been an open dialogue about it.” 

Awasthi felt Mayor Sam Hindi, who is the city’s C/CAG representative, is the one who should’ve started that dialogue. During the Monday meeting, Awasthi and Vice Mayor Herb Perez both suggested Hindi did not sufficiently inform them and the community about the ongoing subregion discussion. 

“He should seek input from the community and the council before weighing in at C/CAG,” Awasthi said. “It was definitely a red flag.” 

Hindi did not want to talk about the disagreement after the meeting, but during it said Awasthi misunderstands the role of a C/CAG representative.

“It seems like you have a lack of understanding how you perform your role on a regional body,” Hindi said to Awasthi. “A [C/CAG representative] is not to bring the details of every item every step of the way for the council to discuss. You are required to bring it before the council before a decision is made on behalf of the city.

“You put a lot of mumbo jumbo in there that San Mateo discussed it. San Mateo can discuss what it wants,” he continued. “There was no vote taken [at C/CAG] and this issue is being discussed with all of you to decide on it moving forward. … Just because you feel you’re right on one thing we’re all wrong.”

Awasthi described Hindi’s comments as “personal” and Perez said they were “borderline insulting.”

Tensions proceeded to grow and at one point Perez called for a recess, which Hindi denied. Perez appealed the decision to the entire council and a vote was taken, which failed. So the discussion continued. The council ended up voting to have “enhanced collaboration in lieu of a subregion” with Perez abstaining since he felt he didn’t have enough information to cast a vote.

After the meeting, Awasthi said she continued to feel disrespected during the discussion. 

“What I heard was extremely condescending, demeaning and belittling,” she said.

The combative discussion is by no means the first to take place behind Foster City’s dais. Last month, Awasthi and Perez called for a censure hearing on Councilman Sanjay Gehani for violating the Brown Act and a group of residents are attempting to recall Perez because of what they describe as his uncivil treatment of others. 

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