PLEASANTON//SPECIAL COUNCIL ELECTION | In terms of suburbia, Pleasanton is not unlike any other quiet bedroom community. Low-key and insular, the Tri Valley city also represents one of the few flecks of red-hued conservatism in Alameda County. A majority of its city council is already Republican and another may be on the way.
The vote-by-mail-only election, which began this week, is the first in Pleasanton history and features a ballot with two Republicans, one fervent Tea Party candidate and a single Democrat to fill the seat vacated by Jerry Thorne, who became mayor last November. However, instead of the current council appointing a new member for the remainder of the seat's 18-month term, as nearby Dublin used last February to name Rep. Eric Swalwell’s replacement to its city council, Pleasanton will hand the decision to voter, along with a $250,000 price tag.
Three of the quartet of candidates, all conservatives, agreed with the city’s position on the single issue ballot and its costs. “Once somebody is sitting here, it’s tough to unseat them,” said Kathy Narum, a current planning commissioner in Pleasanton. Narum added, Pleasanton is saving $100,000 with the vote-by-mail option, rather than opening polling stations across the city. Voting started this week through May 7.
“We absolutely have to respect the will of the voters,” said David Miller, a Tea Party adherent who earlier this year sought a leadership position in the California Republican Party. “The amount of money we’re spending on this election is a small price to pay to make sure your voice gets heard.” David Hamilton, a newcomer to politics, agreed and hoped the voting method will entice higher turnout.
Olivia Sanwong, the lone Democrat in the race and endorsed by the Alameda County Democratic Party, said the vote-by-mail ballot allows her an opportunity to run she may not have had through an appointment process. However, she questioned the election’s cost and unintended consequence of a city council at less-than-full strength for the past five months. "We're spending $250,000 of the city’s money for a year-and-a-half position and I think we might want to consider what that cost-benefit analysis.” She believes Dublin’s appointment of Abe Gupta to their council worked well.
Aside from the machinations of how a new council member is chosen in Pleasanton, the winner will likely confront a host of land-use and local control issues likely to define the end of an era of rapid expansion in Pleasanton over the past three decades.
How a high-density housing element is applied to Pleasanton, along with transportation and reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) made up a vast majority of the 90-minute candidates forum this week.
“It’s our last specific plan in Pleasanton and it’s our last opportunity to make sure we get this right,” said Miller of land in East Pleasanton potentially used for new housing. “I’m really concerned people might want to use this as a high-density housing dumping ground.” Miller says residents, instead, want new housing projects spread across the city. “I don’t want to create an East Pleasanton that is different from West Pleasanton.” Hamilton agreed, saying, “It’s going to affect our roads, the feel of the town and its going to affect everybody who lives in that area.”
Narum, who is co-chair of the East Pleasanton Specific Plan Task Force looking at expansion in the area, told voters the area would create a unique development without impacting the existing neighborhood. However, Narum has also taken some criticism for taking campaign contributions from numerous real estate developers. She said Tuesday night that developers only make up a quarter of her campaign donations with the bulk coming from Pleasanton residents.
When it comes to adding affordable housing to Pleasanton, Miller and Hamilton staked distinct conservative views. “Pleasanton is quickly losing control of our local planning, if we haven’t already, said Miller. “They will continue forcing this high-density housing on us until Pleasanton is urbanized and we need to stop that.” Hamilton added more housing and more people will further overcrowd the city’s high-performing schools while Narum said three of the nine areas rezoned for high-density housing have already approved. She insists any new developments come with plans for architecture that jibes with the current aesthetic in Pleasanton along with open space for children.
Conversely, Sanwong says the housing element is an opportunity for Pleasanton to provide teachers, , public safety workers and retail employees, for instance, at Stoneridge Mall, with a place to live closer to their jobs. Her first preference, though, is to develop housing around existing transportation hubs. “I see this as a huge opportunity for us to not only to provide something I know our business community wants, but also to created a unique and integrated community.”
Although the existence of CEQA has been a significant bulwark against overdevelopment and protecting the state’s environment and endangered species, it also has a reputation for being a weapon used to stymie projects through the courts and red tape. All four candidates said they support a letter from the city council to the state supporting an overhaul of CEQA.
Narum says CEQA has not been reviewed since being enacted four decades ago and a typical project before the planning commission features a large stack of documents, a majority, of which, pertain to CEQA issues. “At times, it is used and has the potential to be used as a way to hold up projects and that is not appropriate,” added Narum.
Sanwong recounted a controversy surrounding the Stoneridge Drive extension project a few years back involving the endangered San Joaquin Spearscale plant which slowed the construction process until a new habitat was found in Livermore at a cost of $900,000 to the city. “Yet at the same time,” Sanwong said. “I do want to point out that I firmly believe environmental concerns are important.”
While training for Marines at Dublin’s Camp Parks, Hamilton said he was handed a map to avoid driving over the habitat of the endangered burrowing owl. “It doesn’t make any sense,” said Hamilton. “We can’t stop things because we’re worried about the burrowing owl hole that we may drive over.”
Miller, a land-use activist, however, said he favors reforming CEQA to remove restrictions on homeowners making improvements on their investment and small business owner seeking to expand their operations, but he doubled back to raise concerns of high-density housing plans for East Pleasanton. “If they’re going to pack that many people into an area,” he said, “then CEQA should be followed.”