The three candidates in the race for mayor of San Ramon this November came together for a public forum on Thursday to discuss their platforms and weigh in on issues at the top of voters' minds ahead of the upcoming election.
Incumbent Mayor Dave Hudson was joined by first-term Councilmember Sabina Zafar and Library Advisory Committee member Dinesh Govindarao to discuss a range of topics including housing, traffic, and public safety.
Hudson defeated the same two opponents – and three other candidates – in the 2020 mayor's race, with Zafar coming in second and Govindarao coming in third, to earn his first full term in the head chair.
Thursday evening's forum was moderated by DanvilleSanRamon publisher Gina Channell Wilcox and editor Jeremy Walsh via live webinar, with the livestream and videorecording made available for free public viewing in partnership with the San Ramon Chamber of Commerce.
With Hudson having served on the San Ramon City Council for 25 years, including an earlier year as mayor in 2001 before it became a directly elected office, the two challengers sought to leverage their positions as relatively fresh faces eager to represent a rapidly changing city.
"I've experienced San Ramon at all levels, from attending San Ramon schools to raising children here to helping my parents age in place at home," Govindarao, a local physician and San Ramon native, said in his opening statement. "I believe I'm the only candidate who can best empathize with and understand the entire spectrum and fabric of our diverse community."
Govindarao also emphasized a correlation between his orientation toward serving the community as a medical doctor for 25 years and his extensive volunteer service locally, including as a supporter of youth sports.
"I'm not a career politician and I have no desire to climb the political ladder," Govindarao said. "My goal is simple, to serve our great city, and I would be honored to earn your vote."
For his part, Hudson sought to highlight the pragmatic benefits of having experienced council members involved in regional government, beyond the name recognition that comes with incumbents.
"There is something important that residents need to know before they go to the ballot box," Hudson said in his opening statement. "There are 97 elected council members in Contra Costa Count all vying for two seats on regional committees like the air district and the Bay Area Council of Governors."
Hudson pointed to his position on both of these two bodies, and other regional governing bodies currently and throughout his 25-year tenure.
"It takes a decade or more on your City Council to win these selections in an open vote of the 19 mayors of Contra Costa," Hudson continued. "I've been on these committees for over a dozen years since that first selection."
Zafar sought to highlight the work she's already done as a council member in her first term to bring fresh perspectives to local government.
"I am committed to providing the level of service that the residents of San Ramon have come to expect, and that keep our property values high, our neighborhoods safe and our schools excellent. But it's going to require fresh ideas with experience, and planning for the next 10 years and not looking back at the last 40," Zafar said.
Zafar, who is ending her four-year term on the council and opted to run for mayor instead of reelection to a regular council seat, pointed to her perspective as a technology executive and recent work on the council as existing qualities she would leverage for a future-oriented approach to the mayor's role if elected.
"In the four years I've made a big impact on changing the status quo in San Ramon," Zafar said. "I'm working to make San Ramon a hub for technology and the jobs it will generate. We are developing a plan to address the shrinking tax base, to reinvest in our aging shopping centers and increase retail sales, and city government has never been more inclusive or open."
One major topic of Thursday's forum, as well as for the council in its day-to-day operations, is the state's affordable housing crisis and associated legislation resulting in the requirement for officials to accommodate up to 5,000 or more new housing units, a majority of which must be available to low- or very-low-income households.
Hudson said that the pressure being placed on San Ramon was the result of what he and other local officials saw as problems in the methodology behind the distribution of the Bay Area's Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers.
"Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco are the problem in a nutshell," Hudson said. "They should have double the numbers they have, but because they don't, then the 440,000-plus houses we have to build in the Bay Area go to other places. We were one of those other places.
Nonetheless, he noted that it was important to meet the state's requirements, and that local officials were working hard to do so.
"This cycle is going to be extremely difficult to make, but you don't want to be at the bottom when the review starts in two years," Hudson said. "We have to show progress. We're doing that."
Despite the difficult statewide housing situation, all three candidates said they believed San Ramon was on the right track, with the choice to focus on economical, transit-oriented housing in the city's budding downtown core while preserving large houses and open spaces in other areas.
"Building in the core, or our downtown, is really the best option for San Ramon," Zafar said, referring to the redevelopment of Bishop Ranch and associated CityWalk Master Plan vision for the heart of the city.
"We've grown into a city that has large houses, we have a city which enjoys our quality of life with our hills and our open spaces, so as we protect those and we build more in the core or the downtown of San Ramon," she added. "We build housing which is smaller which is more sustainable, walkable, bikeable, plus it also creates a product which we have never had available in the past, which is for seniors who want to move to smaller spaces and empty nesters like myself who want to move from bigger spaces to something smaller but still live in San Ramon."
Despite not being on the council or having a vote in recent planning decisions, Govindarao also voiced support for the direction local officials had taken to address the increased needs for housing, despite reservations about the methodology behind the RHNA assignment.
"I do agree with how the planning is put in the core of the city, preserving our neighborhoods, maintaining our open space, but what I have some concerns with is how the methodology was done for this – so that's something we probably should look into. But I do agree with where we're planning to put these homes in the core of the city," Govindarao said.
Zafar and Hudson pointed to plans for the city's downtown core, specifically housing at Bishop Ranch, as an example of the direction other modern cities are seeking to take, amid the increased pressure to address housing and environmental crises.
"This is the kind of planning which other cities are looking at San Ramon because we've done such a good job of building a variety of houses, making it walkable bikeable and integrating our parks into a suburbia which is going to look like a pseudo-urbia, but we still have that small-town feel; we're still going to have that walkability, bikeability," Zafar said.
Another high-profile topic was the future of jobs and economic development in the city, with Chevron having announced earlier this year they would cease most local operations at its corporate headquarters in San Ramon.
Govindarao said that more marketing would be helpful for bolstering struggling small local businesses, and that working with larger corporations to develop small or satellite offices in the area would be his focus if elected.
"I think if we don't make a strong marketing effort, and work with the chamber to bring our local businesses to these types of satellite offices, our sales tax basis is going to continue to deteriorate," Govindarao said.
Hudson said that the city's economic vitality depends on a "buy local" mindset and commitment in the city, and that he was committed to maintaining and bolstering this support for local businesses.
"The problem we're experiencing goes deeper than San Ramon or anything we can do," Hudson said. "This goes to the state and the region and some of us have taken a position, there's a pledge coming out, that we will not lose one more job. We're not going to keep increasing these fees."
Zafar said that she would seek to bolster local businesses and existing shopping centers, with an eye towards an economic development fund for this purpose.
"My goal and my vision is that we reinvest in our existing shopping centers ... perhaps through a fund that we start putting in just like we used to do for our parks, we start an economic development fund, because when you create these spaces, when you build them, people are going to come, because they're looking for experiences," Zafar said.
She added that when it comes to attracting other large corporate employers such as Chevron, it would require acknowledging that the future of work looks very different for large companies, who were already beginning to embrace a work from home option before the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the city was rocked by news of allegations in a pending lawsuit by Uber driver Ali Badr, who was mauled and injured by a police dog controlled by SRPD Officer John Cattolico during a traffic stop in the city initiated by an automatic license plate reader that identified a suspected stolen vehicle.
With the city listed as a plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit currently underway, Hudson and Zafar said they were limited in what they could say, legally. Both, however, expressed regret for the incident, along with support for the city's police department and newly appointed Police Chief Denton Carlson.
Hudson emphasized that the complaint, as well as any others against the police department, was being taken seriously and handled accordingly by the council.
"If there's a complaint about our police, we'll do it the same way we do everything else," Hudson said. "We'll take it seriously and we'll make sure we get it right. That's the way we do things on this council. We always have, and no matter who's there in the future, we always will."
Zafar said that she saw investing in more training for the department would be one way she'd seek to improve police and community relations moving forward.
"Policing has changed significantly in the last few years, and the way we look at community policing, the way we look at building partnerships is the way we need to move forward," Zafar said. "We have a new chief who is very involved and interested in making sure he builds a strong partnership with the community, because when you have a strong partnership with the community, you know what's going on there."
Govindarao echoed disappointment in hearing about the incident, but said that more time and consideration would be needed to determine whether that or other incidents were sufficient reason for additional oversight of the police department.
"If there's an independent agency that feels oversight is necessary, then I think we maybe need to look into that, but I want to make sure we don't jump into something prematurely without getting all the information and all the facts," Govindarao said. "So I think everyone needs to do their due diligence to research to make sure they hear everything about everything, and then to decide what are the best next steps."
"So without that information being fully available to us, it's really hard … at this point to say what we would do from that perspective, but I do again reiterate that we have a top-notch police department in San Ramon," he added.
Other topics of the forum included traffic safety and city finances. The full video is available here.
The three candidates will continue their campaigns ahead of the Nov. 8 election in which one will win the two-year mayoral term.