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In The News

Redwood City candidates talk city’s future

By Michelle Durand, The Daily Journal, 10/1/09

Whether Redwood City’s future holds development, high-speed rail, a balanced budget, a nearby new jail or downtown housing remains unclear.

What is crystal, though, is that the five candidates hoping to fill three seats on the City Council all believe they are the best individuals to help shape that future.

Janet Borgens, Jeff Gee, Jeff Ira, John Seybert and Cherlene Wright are vying for a spot on the council in the November election. Current councilmembers Diane Howard and Jim Hartnett are being termed out, assuring at least two new faces. While only Ira has time on the council — he is running to keep his current seat for a final term — all the candidates have dipped, if not full-on jumped, into the waters of city politics through time on other committees and commissions.

Borgens, Gee and Seybert are each current planning commissioners. Wright is on the Housing and Human Concerns Committee. Borgens has also sat on that committee as well as the Senior Affairs Commission. Gee also served on the city’s Architectural Review Committee and Recycled Water Task Force.

While many echo the concerns and plans of each other, the five contenders sat down with the Daily Journal Tuesday to set themselves apart from one another and explain why they are the best fit to lead Redwood City.

The budget and overall economy are priority issues for each candidate.
The city recently balanced its budget through a mix of cuts, union concessions and novel fixes like cutting one firefighter per truck on all companies. But the state continues to shake up local finances and rising employee costs coupled with the economy continue to keep the city’s bottom line tenuous.

The question, Ira said, is “how do we maintain the quality of life in tough financial times?”

Eighty percent of budgets are salaries and benefits, giving the city only a small area of wiggle room, and residents don’t want to stomach cuts to programs and services. Ira predicts four more years of structural deficit, although Gee countered it is likely closer to five or six years.

The first round of cuts and layoffs have not been “too bad” but it’s a hard haul that requires long-term budget changes rather than temporary stop-gap solutions, he said.

The city needs to decide if it wants to compete with the private sector as an employer or go back to the traditional roots as a place where people can find stable work with good benefits but with pay that is less competitive than the private sector, Gee said.

Borgens believes the city needs to rethink its bottom line, work close with labor groups and find new revenue sources because the traditional money pools are gone.

“We need to give the best service we can for what we can afford,” she said.

The in-house solution by firefighters to prevent browning out a station is a strong example of efficiency and collaboration which should be replicated, Seybert said.

Wright also suggested using city staff rather than consultants for tasks like public outreach and partnering with local colleges for Web work.

“There are some creative ways around non-fixed costs,” she said.

While all the candidates are interested in looking forward, at least one issue hearkens to the past: The Cargill Saltworks site. The fight over the parcel colored last November’s election as groups squared off over development, open space and whether to amend the city charter as a way to facilitate either option. Wright headed up grassroots committee Citizens to Protect Redwood City which argued against a charter amendment rather than a specific stand on development. Ira sat on the council, at times accused by environmental groups as having already made a pro-development decision. And the others were planning commissioners, equally involved in the history leading up to the submission of the 50-50 balanced plan proposed by developer DMB Cargill.

The plan is now being evaluated for adequacy and could return to the council to begin the arduous approval process early next year, when the City Council has been reconfigured.

None of the candidates committed to a position on the site, saying it is impossible without hours of study and unbiased opinions. Besides, they agreed, the final product won’t look like the proposal as it stands now.

“There is no way in the world that will be the plan,” Ira said.

Ira is glad to have something in black and white but said the plan is deficient in buffer zones, playing field space and adequate flood control.

While making a decision, Wright said city officials needs to be extremely careful with the community and remember how highly passion runs on this matter. Like Ira, she said the effort now is not to lob an early opinion but get down to work.

“There hasn’t been a project in the last 10 years that looks like the original submission,” Wright said.

The ball is actually in the city’s court now, Borgens said.

“We drive the engine now to decide what we as a citizen want on that space,” she said.

Lessons learned from prior fights over the now-defunct Marina Shores Village development should be used now, said Ira who chalked up the resulting Measure Q referendum as “by far the biggest mistake” of the City Council. The council “totally misread the community” and ended up dividing it, he said.

“Obviously, we would do everything completely over,” he said.

Similarly, Borgens said she would revisit the shadow study of the downtown precise plan which led to attorney Joe Carcione suing the city. The lawsuit, which claimed the building heights cast too great a shadow on his property, forced a costly redo of the plan.

“We should have paid more attention,” Bordens said. “I would definitely scream and yell.”

Unlike Borgens, Wright was not on a commission or council that signed off on the plan but she also pointed to the shadow study.

“The advice given to the council was a little aggressive,” she said. “We were given legal advice that we won’t lose.”

Wright also noted the eminent domain used for land now housing the downtown theater. While the outcome was fabulous, she said she has personal philosophical problems with using eminent domain with a private, for-profit business.

Seybert and his opponents also said the high-tech parking meters dotting downtown came too soon, leading to confusion and frustration by drivers. One problem, he added, was an omission rather than a decision — an omission of not going after economic development more aggressively and marketing the city soon enough before the economic slide.


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