San Ramon mayoral and council candidates met Monday evening to debate issues and push for why they should represent San Ramon in city government at DanvilleSanRamon.com’s candidate forum.
The opening volley at the forum featured incumbent Mayor Bill Clarkson, who is seeking to achieve his fourth and final term as the city’s top official, and the lone challenger, political newcomer and engineer Sanat Sethy.
After the mayoral candidates had their showing, all four residents vying for a position on the City Council took turns trading jabs and advocating their positions. Incumbent Councilman Dave Hudson and challengers Aparna Madireddi, Sridhar Verose and Sabina Zafar met in front of a crowd of approximately 200 people to debate the finer points of city governance.
Two council seats are up for election, and at least one is guaranteed to change hands with Councilman Harry Sachs opting not to seek re-election.
In addition to issuing opening and closing statements, candidates answered a series of questions from forum moderators Gina Channell, president and publisher of DanvilleSanRamon.com, and its editor Jeremy Walsh.
The forum was held at the Bishop Ranch Roundhouse and co-sponsored by the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce and DanvilleSanRamon.com. The San Ramon branch of the American Association of University Women was an event partner.
Reflecting the diverse population of the city itself, a wide variety of opinions were expressed at the forum. While candidates tended to agree on the same problems facing the city and region, they often brought different perspectives and solutions on how to address these issues.
Housing development and growth
Since 2000, San Ramon has nearly doubled in size, resulting in a boom in construction that candidates agreed threatened the city’s culture, image and quality of life.
“We are building too much too soon,” said Madireddi, a small business owner whose community volunteer experience includes serving on the city's Open Space Advisory Committee and the San Ramon Valley Council of PTAs Executive Board. “We cannot move forward with this growth Ponzi scheme mindset of build more and get more property taxes. That is an illusion of wealth. The more we build the poorer we get that is the reality. We cannot stay an affluent zip code for too long if we do not have a plan B.”
Zafar, a self-described advocate for open space preservation, echoed Madireddi’s sentiment and stressed the need for the city to slow down its housing development. Zafar, who is a tech executive, former member of the city’s Transportation Advisory Committee and 2016 council candidate, stated that the city needs to invest in what it already has instead of building something new.
Verose, a San Ramon Parks and Community Services Commission member, took a middle of the road view and stated that the city needed to focus on improving its infrastructure before it could increase the city’s housing needs.
Agreeing with his opponents, Hudson, who has served on the council for 21 years, said the city doesn’t need to focus on adding more housing.
“We need to control our growth,” said Sethy, who also stressed the importance of protecting the city’s natural landscape from overactive housing developments, mentioning in particular the need to protect San Ramon’s golf courses.
Clarkson, who before his seven years as mayor served on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District school board, stated that under his administration San Ramon has done a pretty good job in managing its growth.
“During my tenure on city we have only improved 157 net new homes in San Ramon and of those, 95 are for senior housing,” Clarkson said. “There is a perception...that this council and mayor have approved a vast number of new housing. This is simply not true. Protecting our neighborhoods has remained my strongest priority.”
Another issue brought about from San Ramon’s growth is the increase of traffic congestion throughout the city, a problem each candidate cited as a priority.
Zafar suggested the most prudent choice for the city was to improve current infrastructure instead of continuing to build up the city.
“(My) 10-year vision is we cannot continue to build more roads, we cannot continue to expand our streets -- we need to think smart, we need to employ technology,” Zafar said, adding that partnering with current infrastructure offered by County Connection buses could improve public transit.
Verose said he believes the city is headed in the right direction in its dealings with traffic congestion and will continue to support programs such as the expansion of Bollinger Canyon and Crow Canyon roads. Taking aim at the traffic congestion created during school commute times, Verose also stated his desire to expand and support the city’s TRAFFIX program in order to provide relief for school neighborhoods.
When asked about Proposition 6, the gas tax repeal initiative, all council candidates sans Hudson opposed the passage of the initiative. Hudson expressed concern over how the money was distributed, saying that “it doesn’t make sense,” and at this point he remained undecided.
“The weight of the world rests on Proposition 6,” Madireddi said prior to Hudson’s remarks. “I’ve always said think of (infrastructure) as the circulation system within your body. If that is weak, the skeletal system will crumble.”
Mayoral candidate Sethy offered some ideas for reducing traffic congestion within the city, such as converting some lights to stop signs, increasing the number of bike lanes and roundabouts, and installing electronic signs to keep commuters informed of when there is an accident or traffic delay.
Clarkson pointed to efforts he has already overseen in reducing traffic, such as requiring developers at Bishop Ranch to spent $12.3 million to widen roads and accommodate traffic, lobbying for money, and plans to build a pedestrian overpass on Bollinger Canyon.
Community outreach and government transparency
Candidates agreed that government outreach to the community was vitally important, the consensus generally being that the best way to connect with residents and keep them informed is by meeting with them face to face.
Zafar suggested that the city continue to expand its social media efforts and post live streams of council meetings on those accounts, while also reaching out and meeting with residents in person at community events such as farmers markets.
“Our city is well known as one of the best cities to have transparency on any issues,” Verose said, adding that increased educational opportunities on city events and operations can only improve transparency.
Not all of the candidates had good things to say about the city’s outreach efforts, however.
“I've been listening to our neighbors and residents for a few months. What I hear from them, what they want, what they need: when they go to City Council or the mayor my opponent, they are never there, they never listen,” Sethy said of the current government.
Madireddi also critiqued the city’s outreach efforts, criticizing the city's website for having what she saw as a confusing layout. “Transparency is there, you just need to know how to find it,” she said.
Visit Tri-Valley vs Discover San Ramon
Candidates were overall in support of re-enrolling in Visit Tri-Valley. Only Clarkson and Verose voiced support for Discover San Ramon, maintaining that the original reasons for leaving -- lack of attention and funding -- are still relevant today.
“It was one of the smartest things we did,” Clarkson said. “With City Center opening we will really have something to promote here in San Ramon and our dollars will stay here in San Ramon.”
With the imminent opening of City Center at Bishop Ranch, candidates thoroughly discussed how to support small businesses in San Ramon while still attracting major retailers.
Opposing a belief that online sales are having the largest negative effect on local retail sales, Madireddi stated that the city’s suffering is due to San Ramon’s lack of a diversified retail base. “We have more tutoring centers than food places,” she said.
Verose acknowledged that this problem is not unique to San Ramon, but countered that internet sales did have a negative impact on local businesses.
“We are being attacked by online sales left and right,” he said. “I would look at options of working with our state government, to see how we can get those tax dollars that are getting diluted to online sales.”
Other issues discussed at the DanvilleSanRamon.com Mayoral/City Council candidate forum include:
Golf course rezoning: One of the most popular audience questions of the evening concerned the potential rezoning of land reserved for golf courses to allow for new building developments. The consensus among candidates was almost unanimously against any development on this open space land.
“What is a golf course today will be a golf course tomorrow,” Sethy said, a sentiment shared by four other candidates. “We have to protect that.”
The lone voice who did not speak out against the rezoning was Clarkson, who declined to comment on the issue out of a desire to remain fair and unbiased.
“Could you imagine if you were brought before a judge...and the jurists have told you upfront whether or not you are guilty,” Clarkson asked. “We as council members and as candidates have a responsibility to refrain from taking public positions before something is brought to us and we have heard all of the public testimony before we begin to express our views.”
Public safety: Candidates agreed that the San Ramon Police Department deserved all of the support available from the local government, and that while the city is generally safe, there is a rash of crimes such as vehicle break-ins and drug violations that need to be addressed.
“We have to be aware that there are a lot of retirements coming up. You don’t want to wait to have these officers trained when the people that are doing such a great job are gone and not there to train them,” Hudson warned.
Working with SRVUSD: Overcrowding and transfers in San Ramon schools is another issue that candidates promised to address.
“There are multiple ways to solve this problem and we have to be creative about it, we have to think about alternate class schedules, we have to think about spreading (out) the population,” Zafar said, acknowledging that student transfers are not always the most popular, but through closer partnership with the school district the right solution can be found.
City pension liability: Most council candidates agreed that city pensions are underfunded by millions of dollars and alternate sources of revenue are needed in order to keep up with payments. Hudson countered that the problem is not as bad as his opponents made it out to be and the city is in better shape than it was.
Ethnic diversity: The San Ramon citizen-led Inclusionary Committee was discussed by mayoral candidates, who also took the time to acknowledge the city's diverse population.
“It is very important that everybody feels valued, everybody feels included and they feel a part of San Ramon,” Clarkson said. “And we are richer for it.”
“We can connect more communities, more different groups together and we will continue to do that,” Sethy said.
Editor's note: Students from the Charlotte Wood Middle School journalism class recorded the entire forum, and a link will be posted here as soon as possible.