Updated: 5:30 p.m. Friday, added excerpts from candidates forum.
Four candidates for three seats on the Walnut Creek City Council squared off in a debate Friday morning at Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar.
The candidates are:
The candidates forum came at the end of a week that saw the field trimmed by one. On Tuesday, Council member Kish Rajan, who had filed nomination papers for re-election, for the Nov. 6 ballot as he had accepted a job as the first director of the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development. With that job, Rajan said he would not be able to devote the time and attention to the City Council and would end his campaign for re-election.
Friday's forum was sponsored by the WALPAC (Walnut Creek Political Action Committee), affiliated with the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce. It was moderated by Lynne Leach, a former state assemblywoman from Walnut Creek from 1996 to 2002. After the debate, Leach said, WALPAC would make recommendations to the Chamber board, which would decide whether to make endorsements in the race.
Some political philosophies came across in statements about the current direction and future of Walnut Creek.
Haskew, a certified public accountant, took note of Walnut Creek's "amazingly visionary history" with the help of the leadership of citizens contributing hundred of thousands of hours to make the city what it is. "Of course I believe we're going in the right direction," she said, but the city still has challenges to face. "We need good people to take active parts," she said. "We need a strong business community. We need to honor our neighborhoods."
Simmons, a retired lawyer, said the city is headed in the right direction. The electorate "should vote for the most proven, most tested leadership there is," he said. When he was elected to the council in 2008, the years of city elected experience on the council dropped from over 30 to under 20. After the Nov. 6 election, the combined years will be a maximum of 12: "And if you don't re-elect Bob Simmons, it will be eight."
Wedel, a business owner in information technologies, said he believed the city was "finally" headed in the right direction to emerge from the current "financial mess." The council had cut millions of dollars from operating and capital improvement budgets, resulting in a "deteriorating and crumbling infrastructure." He vowed to collaborate with neighborhoods and the business community to "focus not just on the status quo but investing in the future" to maintain the city as "an economic powerhouse."
Grove, a deputy district attorney in Contra Costa County, said Walnut Creek has done some good things in the past and "some things not so good." Without the latter, he said, "we wouldn't be talking about being understaffed and under-resourced and talking about crumbling infrastructure." Grove said he had sent the last 20 years working in government. "If we change course we can have a stronger Walnut Creek and be the economic hub of this county for years to come," he said.
The candidates tackled questions from improving the economic environment to the possibility of a tax increase, downtown violence to downtown parking.
Grove said, "I love Walnut Creek and hate the parking." He said as Broadway Plaza is further developed, there must be corresponding improvements in parking. The city could also have improvement in situations where companies have lots that are used at night and are allowed to put "fake tickets" on cars.
Wedel said, "The parking problem in Walnut Creek is a myth. What we don't do well is point people in the right direction (to parking garages)." He said lower parking garage fees would encourage more parking there and leave more parking spaces on the street.
Haskew noted that she had served on the downtown parking task force. The city needs to "encourage our citizens to be smarter about parking" and take steps to make its streets more walkable.
Simmons said prior councils had developed the downtown system with a "park once and walk" philosophy. He noted that fees from the Neiman Marcus development contributed to adding electronic counters that show how many spaces are available at city garages. He noted the new technology that allows paying by credit card on many parking meters.
The candidates were asked what the city can do to improve the economic environment.
Wedel responded, "Cutting our expenditures and making sure we do not get ourselves into the situation in which we have to raise taxes." The west downtown area and the area around Ygnacio and North Main are prime areas for development, he said, to invest in the community. He urged the city to invest in Shadelands and "finally make it a successful business park." He said the city should try to encourage a full downtown hotel, not just a boutique hotel.
Simmons noted how the council had hired an economic development manager to bring people together and encourage creative solutions. He said the city has worked together with the chamber and the Downtown Business Association. "Our downtown is a billion-dollar economic engine," he said.
Haskew underscored the importance of the arts, the library, "world-class restaurants" and other amenities in downtown. "We have to get the word out," she said. "Let the world know that the restaurants and stores and amenities are here. We want people to come." She favored a hotel — "we want people to stay overnight so they spend more money downtown."
Grove said Shadelands and west downtown were "ripe areas for development." It is important, he said, that government and the City Council should be creating opportunities for private development and not overburdening businesses with regulation.
The candidates were asked about the apparent drop in downtown fights in recent months.
Simmons noted how the nature of fights at closing time of downtown clubs had escalated at the end of last year and beginning of this year. The council imposed a new ordinance, which simplified the process for clubs to have an 11:30 p.m. closing time without having to go through public hearings. The police implemented a unit focusing on downtown, he said, and the city makes sure communication is in place with bar owners.
Wedel said the city needs more officers on the street. The police's downtown unit means focus removed from community policing, he added. "Those officers dedicated to downtown are doing a fantastic job," he said. The new law, he said, means "bar owners have realized they can't get away with it anymore."
Grove said he is a big supporter of law enforcement, having worked in the field for 20 years. As a deputy DA, he has worked with Walnut Creek Police Department on large cases. He agreed with Wedel: "The real answer to that problem was putting more officers in that area at times when it was necessary." He noted that police don't have school resource officers any more, which is "the best use of police officers you can get."
Haskew said, "We all believe in public safety. We all believe in the appropriate number of police officers to do this right." With this particular problem, she said, the police responded to it appropriately. With declining crime statistics in Walnut Creek, she said, "the police have done an extraordinary job. We can honor that by giving them the necessary resources to do this appropriately."
Half-cent sales tax
Candidates were asked about a recommendation in last year's report from the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Fiscal Health to raise the sales tax half a cent to address long-term revenue shortfalls.
Wedel said, "I think we don't need to raise taxes. I think you're already taxed enough."
Grove said the city doesn't need a half-cent sales tax. His experience with government tax increases targeted for various revenue categories "end up being used for other things." The council needs to make sure money is used efficiently and appropriately to give residents the services they need. Government lives in a boom-and-bust cycle: "Every time there's a crisis the government can't come to you to ask for a tax increase."
Haskew noted her service on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Fiscal Health. She learned that the city has done extraordinary things for efficiencies and to recover costs. "It's important for us to pay to rebuild infrastructure," Haskew said.
Simmons thanked Haskew and the citizens who volunteered on the task force. He noted the task force's recommendation that the city consider the sales tax hike only after implementation of other cost reduction and revenue increase measures. "We're going to have to look at it," he said, after determining through a "bottom-up process" if citizens want to continue the city's level of services.