Candidates for seats on the San Ramon City Council up for grabs in this November's election came together recently for a public forum aimed at amplifying their platforms and providing insight to voters as they decide who to cast ballots for in the near future.
Incumbent Councilmember Mark Armstrong is seeking to defend his seat -- and to be elected for the first time, following his appointment to the District 2 position in the wake of then-councilman Dave Hudson's election as mayor in 2020 -- against challenger Sarah Lashanlo, who was also a candidate to be Hudson's replacement in the appointment process in early 2021.
Parks Commissioner Heidi Kenniston-Lee and Dublin San Ramon Services District Director Marisol Rubio are competing in a wide-open race for the District 4 seat, with sitting Councilmember Sabina Zafar opting to run for mayor instead of election to that seat.
The Sept. 22 forum was moderated by DanvilleSanRamon publisher Gina Channell Wilcox and editor Jeremy Walsh.
The Nov. 8 ballot marks the first district-based election for the San Ramon City Council Districts 2 and 4, with the shift from at-large elections having been implemented in 2019.
District 2 race
Having been appointed to the council in January 2021, Armstrong is the first on the legislative body to represent residents at the District 2 level rather than at-large.
"I've been out there for two years now as part of this district process, to the point that I was appointed to be the District 2 representative," Armstrong said. "So I've been able to get out there, I know what our residents want and that's one of the benefits of what the district-based process is all about."
Despite the shift to district-based voting, Armstrong emphasized that council members are also tasked with representing the city as a whole, and making decisions with both perspectives in mind.
"I'm going to take a look at the impacts to the city versus the impacts to the district and part of what I'm going to look at is how to make a decision that is the greatest good for the greatest number of people and minimize any adverse impacts before making any of those decisions," Armstrong said.
Lashanlo, a California High School alumna and chemical engineer who serves on the city's Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee, said she would seek to bring a fresh perspective to the position, and that she had already begun to get a sense of voters' priorities during her campaign.
"I've been having conversations with voters throughout this campaign and in the community's own words, here is what I've been hearing," Lashanlo said in her opening statement. "We need to act on climate. Stop signs need to be at school dropoff zones. Police must remain funded and supported."
Other concerns included transit, improvements to the Iron Horse Regional Trail, affordable housing and overly impacted resources including schools, retail and streets, according to Lashanlo.
"What I've gathered from these concerns is that we need to embrace the future with a bold and pragmatic vision while strengthening San Ramon's existing safety, efficiency, and charm," Lashanlo said.
Later in the night's discussion, Armstrong said he believed in and supported the city's existing vision for the future and plans to accommodate growth, and would continue to work toward those goals if elected.
"I wholeheartedly agree with the way the city is approaching the future of growth in San Ramon," Armstrong said. "We need to do it in a way that protects our existing neighborhoods, protects our open space, and the idea that we're going to build out primarily in the core of the city area."
Armstrong pointed to the city's updated walking district in the downtown core area, along with a bicycle master plan.
"We have a new improved walking district in the area. We've got a bicycle master plan that will tie into this as well," he continued " And not only does it bring housing there but it also brings retail."
Nonetheless, he noted that affordable housing remains a concern for residents, particularly young people seeking to live on their own amid high prices and low inventory throughout the Bay Area and in the historically affluent San Ramon Valley, as well as low-income seniors.
"I think our plan accommodates that and I think it's the right thing to do," Armstrong said. "I'm a little concerned about the retail and housing balance we have, but right now the city's taking steps to review that and address that as needed."
Armstrong also said he supported the existing relationship between the council and the police department, and the city police department's practices and relationship with the community.
"As I talk to residents, they love our police force," Armstrong said. "Certainly there's crime that concerns our residents, but they understand the job that police has to do and that they're doing it well. They do a good job of getting out there and engaging with the public and I think that's really important."
"One of the most important things we can do on city council is make sure we have budgeted to make sure we've got a police force that is well-resourced, well-equipped, well-trained, well-staffed to do the job that we expect them to do," Armstrong said.
Lashanlo also voiced support for the city's police department, calling it an example of what policing can be, but said she was looking for ways to strengthen relations between police and the community.
"Having police officers that are a part of, and reflective of our community is a really good place to start," Lashanlo said. "The San Ramon Police Department has opportunities for the public to interface with them during coffee shops and at the City Center, and I think this is a fantastic step towards building that relationship or bridge with the police department."
As part of strengthening the relationship between police and the broader community, Lashanlo said she would support civilian oversight of the department if residents felt that would help.
"I think that if civilian oversight can make the community feel safer in the presence of police, then it's something we should definitely pursue and consider and discuss," Lashanlo said.
District 4 race
Despite all candidates emphasizing the importance of continuing to consider the voices of the entire city amid the shift to district-based elections, Rubio and Kenniston-Lee sought to highlight their understanding of the issues facing District 4 voters in particular.
"A good city councilmember who represents their district, they know their district," Kenniston-Lee said. " I know for example that fire safety, given that we have high fire risk areas, is important to District 4. I know that dog parks have been discussed because during COVID a lot of folks got dogs. I know that it's in a GAB area, so geologic hazards are really important, so I will bring that perspective to the City Council meetings and I will advocate when necessary."
Like Armstrong, Kenniston-Lee pointed to a cost-benefit analysis that would be behind her decisions if elected to the council, and efforts to balance district interests with city interests
"We're representing not only our districts but our city as a whole," Kenniston-Lee said. "So what we need to do is evaluate what are the costs and benefits. Is it more detrimental to make a decision that maybe a few folks in District 4 might like, or do we need to look at the bigger picture and ask what's better for San Ramon as a whole?"
Rubio pointed to her background and expertise in various positions as sources of insight into the needs of voters citywide.
"I actually have had meetings that discuss all of the water services that come through San Ramon, so I have that insight not only in my elected position, but also as an executive committee member for the San Francisco Bay ... Sierra Club chapter," Rubio said.
She also pointed to her experience with the San Francisco Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and as an educator.
"I've also been a bilingual science teacher and I understand the challenges of what teachers actually have to do, not from the outside but from the inside," Rubio said. "I've also been leading on issues both locally and statewide on diversity equity and inclusion, and I think that is something San Ramon can very much benefit from."
Rubio added that she would seek to present new ideas and a future-facing perspective to the council if elected.
"When we think about the issues in San Ramon we really have to have a diversified portfolio," Rubio said. "It can't just be one thing or the other. It has to be a very diverse portfolio that will help bring fresh ideas not from yesterday, but looking forward to the future, and that's what I have to offer."
Kenniston-Lee and Rubio also presented their opinions on the future of housing in the city, with Kenniston-Lee applauding current plans to build out the city's downtown core along with a walking district, bicycle master plan, and other goals aimed at increasing housing while reducing traffic.
"I agree with focusing housing in the downtown core," Kenniston-Lee said. "I agree with getting our housing next to transit. I agree with getting our housing close to jobs because that way we're taking cars off the road and it ... positively impacts our climate."
"So I feel like one of the things that I want to make sure we're careful of doing -- I think we're doing a good job -- is that we follow good architecture, diverse distribution of different housing types, so that we don't have have those eyesore ...that these communities sometimes experience," she continued.
For her part, Rubio said that new housing should be built near freeways including that side of the new downtown core to reduce traffic and encourage growth outside of the geographic center of the city, and that the environmental and economic benefits of higher-density and mixed-use projects should be considered.
"In order to make good use of infill land, and make sure to really try to pursue mixed use purposes, because for many reasons that is not only environmentally friendly, it gets people walking instead of getting in their cars to get to key businesses, but it also is going to drive up sales," Rubio said. "People will more likely go to a Starbucks or a Peet's Coffee if it's next door than having to get in a car and get there."
"'High-density housing in any capacity actually is much better for our environment also in terms of water supply," she continued. "It is a lot less demanding on our end to be able to meet those goals and demands. And again, close to transportation, it's very important making sure people can easily get to and from their home is a great way to get people off the freeways and liberate ... some of the traffic."
Although Kenniston-Lee said she would advocate for measures to reduce traffic congestion and promote sustainable development, she said the first step would be to better leverage existing and upcoming measures oriented towards these goals.
"We need to use our city communication vehicles and promote those programs so that we increase our safety level," Kenniston-Lee said. "I feel like there are a lot of existing programs in the city that we can leverage to continue to promote bike safety, but I think it's going to require a lot of communication, and continuing to make it a priority for San Ramon."
Other topics of the night's discussion included water usage and conservation and traffic safety. The four candidates are poised to continue their campaigns for the two council seats through Nov. 8.
Full video of the virtual forum is available here.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Marisol Rubio's stated position on development in the new downtown core.