Candidates for City Council Discuss Their Priorities for Orinda

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By SALLY HOGARTY

 

Editor

The five members of Orinda’s City Council are elected volunteers who set policy, give direction to City Staff and make budget decisions. Besides attending twice-monthly council meetings, each council member serves on several committees. They also interact with the various levels of government between the city and the state on issues such as transportation, housing and traffic. This November, five candidates (including two incumbents) will vie for three available seats: Mayor Amy Worth and Eve Phillips (incumbents); Dennis Fay, Nick Kosla and Kathleen Jenkins.

They were asked the following questions:

1) The future of Orinda’s downtown has residents divided into several groups: no change; minimal change;

and significant reconfiguration. Given the ULI and Main Street studies and the soon to be completed

Downtown Streetscape recommendations, how would you reconcile these diverse views and still retain Orinda’s

“village character?”

2) With a small revenue base, Orinda’s budget has little wiggle room. The Miner Road Bridge (with significant reimbursements from the Federal Government still outstanding), put a severe strain on the budget. How would you propose to keep the city’s finances strong and possibly increase revenue?

3) The City of Orinda recently launched a pilot residential parking permit program on Brookwood Road.

What other suggestions do you have for solving the growing problem of parking in downtown Orinda?

4) How would you rank, in order of importance, three areas of need in Orinda?

5) What leadership/management skills/experience do you possess that will make you an effective City Councilmember?

Amy Worth

Future of Downtown

After Orinda’s incorporation, discussions began about the downtown revitalization resulting in the “Heart of Orinda.”  It included building a gym and a city hall where the library is now located. City Manager Bill Lindsay called me (I was a member of the Friends of the Orinda Library Board) with the idea of instead building a new library and putting City Hall at the old library site.  We immediately embraced the idea and the Friends raised $5 million in private funds to build both the library, auditorium and plaza. Simultaneously, I co-chaired the OUSD school bond campaign which raised money to re-open Wagner Ranch School, enabling the City and the school district to enter into an historic joint-use agreement to build the Wagner Ranch Community gym, thus freeing the downtown for the library and plaza.  The library provided a much-needed public investment catalyst to further downtown revitalization plans.
Orinda Way was wide, sidewalks were narrow and presented significant barriers to safe automobile and bicycle access as well as pedestrian enjoyment of the downtown.  While we built the library, we applied for a Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant to renovate the streetscape. Former Mayor Laura Abrams and I enlisted the help of Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher and successfully secured a $420,000 grant to complete the Orinda Way improvements we have today.
We are now engaged in a community discussion about the streetscape in the Crossroads and Village areas of the downtown.  As this is Orinda’s “Living Room,” it is essential that a wide range and number of Orindans engage in this process to express what they would like to see in the downtown.  I believe that a robust community engagement process will result in the best outcome with the widest community support. Many possibilities could come out of this process, including local-serving housing, enhanced retail and restaurants.  The City Council must be open to discussing and implementing the ideas that come out of the streetscape planning process. We have the makings of a local-serving, unique downtown, and now is the time to make sure it can serve Orinda’s needs into the future.

City’s Finances

Protecting Orinda’s financial security is one of my highest priorities. As one of the smaller cities in Contra Costa County, Orinda’s budget is very limited.  With high expectations for City services, it is imperative that we keep a close watch on budget expenditures and do everything that we can to keep expenses down.  With the strategic two-year budget cycle, we are able to monitor expenditures and match expenses with our City’s priorities. Orinda has no unfunded pension liabilities, so we are able to focus revenue on current services.  Through an open and public budget process and documents, residents are able to understand easily where Orinda spends its tax dollars. On the revenue side, voters have approved local dedicated taxes to repair and maintain the local roads and drains and to provide the building maintenance and open hours at the Orinda library.  Annually, we update user fees to accurately reflect the costs of services provided, and I have worked to actively seek outside grants for road paving, bridge seismic repairs, parks improvement and public safety and will continue to do so.

Downtown Parking

Parking in our downtown continues to be a challenge as we work to accommodate residents, businesses, neighborhoods and visitors to our community. We are working to develop ways to increase available parking for the downtown which could include parking enforcement, using excess capacity in surrounding parking lots, working with BART to identify satellite parking with shuttles, and expanding the residential permit program.  We are also working to identify ways to increase parking for Orinda residents who use BART.

Important Areas of Need

Three high priorities for Orinda are to ensure its financial security by focusing budget priorities and expenditures, and by securing additional revenue; to complete the infrastructure repair and maintenance of our roads and drains; and to complete the downtown street scape planning process which will result in the economic revitalization of our iconic Orinda downtown.

Qualifications

I am honored to serve as a member of the City Council and community volunteer.  I have gained extensive experience in the leadership of the City. Orinda has been able to provide the excellent services that the residents want, with the limited funds available.  As a regional leader, I advocate for Orinda’s interests and I have worked hard to protect Orinda’s local land use control. I believe in the public decision-making process which involves carefully listening to the public, considering all aspects of an issue and making the best decision to benefit the Orinda community.  Orinda is a community of volunteers of all ages, and I encourage and support them in their efforts on behalf of the community. I explore new ideas, but I also understand and hold dearly Orinda’s deep traditions and values. I listen, I’m open and I’m dedicated to serving the Orinda community.

Dennis Fay

Future of Downtown

I hear all the time that Orindans wish they had more in-town shopping, dining and entertainment. I envision a revitalized downtown with stores and services you need and enjoy, no vacant buildings and idle lots, and all this set off in a spruced-up, inviting streetscape. This can be done without sacrificing the beauty of our setting and the small-town character we all value.  We do not need high rises to accomplish a revitalization of downtown. Realistically, any changes will only come when property owners are ready, and we should be prepared to respond. A vision for downtown, thoroughly vetted with Orindans, is also critical.
We can also take some short term actions.  I’d seek façade grants from regional, state or federal sources, work to encourage small businesses tailored to community needs, and promote businesses that attract activity — such as the Orinda Theatre. Supporting and encouraging the Orinda Theatre is particularly important for many reasons. It brings cultural activities to the City such as the film festival and cabaret nights. Those activities create customers for local businesses. The theater is an icon that, because of its location, promotes Orinda. It is my theater of choice.

City’s Finances

In a small city such as Orinda, natural disasters can be a big budget problem.  Having been a member of the Citizens Infrastructure Oversight Commission for some time, I have observed the difficulty of managing the City budget.  In addition, for almost 20 years, I was the executive director of an Alameda County transportation agency and struggled with balancing budgets year after year. I learned a few things from these experiences:
Fiscal prudence is critical – don’t commit money you don’t have.  
It is important to be continually looking for ways to provide the same service at a lower cost.  The old ways of doing business should be reevaluated, especially in light of new technology.
Reassess priorities periodically, so that your budget is focused on critical needs.
Build and maintain reserves for emergencies and unanticipated events.
I learned during my career that increasing revenues is also important to your mission. An example directly applicable to Orinda is the new revenue streams secured over the last few years to repair our roads – bond funding and a sales tax.  No amount of reassessing priorities would have provided the revenue needed in the last few years to get our roads well maintained. Diversifying the base of a community’s funding is also important – much like diversifying your investments. The road funding program is again an example.  Bonds provide a fixed stream of funding while the sales tax moves with the
economy.

Downtown Parking

There are two parking problems in downtown Orinda: (1) parking for residents that live in or near downtown and (2) parking for customers and employees in downtown.  These two problems have different solutions that can be in conflict. A balance will need to be found.
The City’s pilot residential parking permit program is attempting to address parking problems for residents that live in or near downtown.  Depending on the outcome of the pilot, this program could be expanded.
The Orinda Chamber of Commerce has identified three parking issues: space in the Theatre Square underground structure; parking for employees; and BART parking.  The Chamber has made progress at the Theatre Square parking garage – 60 spaces have been freed up by limiting the number of BART parkers, easing the parking problem in downtown.  Employee parking issues might be addressed by monthly permits for employees to park on adjacent streets, provided there is not a negative impact on residents. BART needs to look at creative ways, through technology and old-fashioned techniques such as valet parking, to add parking at the station.  In the not too distant future, shared autonomous vehicles may also play a role in reducing BART parking demand.

Important Areas of Need

Fiscal Health – I am committed to a fiscally responsible and sustainable underpinning for the City of Orinda’s annual budget.  Nothing can move forward without this.
Public Safety – Crime and fire prevention are a high priority for me.  I plan to focus on crime prevention, such as deterrence using camera surveillance and other techniques.  I think it is also important to encourage our fire district’s efforts at fire prevention, including using technology.
Completing the Repair of our Roads – Roads are much like a home needing regular maintenance to avoid costly, disruptive repairs.  Considerable has been accomplished in the last several years, but there is still work to do.
While these are three key priorities, there are many more that must simultaneously be worked on – revitalizing downtown, enhancing our parks, etc.  City governance requires balancing many priorities at one time.

Qualifications

I served for nearly 20 years as the executive director of what is now called the Alameda County Transportation Commission, which is governed by a board of locally elected officials.  At the point of my retirement, I was responsible for a roughly $90 million annual budget and an almost $600 million program of transportation projects. Management skills are crucial to successful outcomes in such a situation.  Schedules and budgets must be set, monitored and adjusted for unforeseen circumstances. The right people must be selected and encouraged. I have worked with elected officials and community groups with diverse and opposing opinions, negotiating successful outcomes through a collaborative approach.  Much can be accomplished when people truly listen to each other. My time on Orinda’s Citizens Infrastructure Oversight Commission gives me familiarity with our City structure. My engineering education at MIT gives me a keen sense of how to use technology.

Eve Phillips

Future of Downtown

That grouping does not fit with my experience of speaking with Orindans about our downtown.  I have yet to meet anyone who wants no change; few folks find the Phairs building, empty for two decades, an asset to our community.  The differences I have found come in what kind of change people want. Do they want some new retail and perhaps offices to meet the shopping, dining and services needs of existing Orindans so they don’t have to drive to Lafayette or beyond? Do they want to maintain parking and height limitations to keep the current character? Or are they looking to drive more residential options, and consider our current parking and height requirements outdated?
 Those are the major differences I have seen, and the community and Council has not yet found a path forward.  To attempt some progress, we are now trying to take smaller steps that have the backing of much of the community.  The goals of the Streetscape efforts are to identify these smaller changes that have broad support.
 In addition, we need to make sure the community is involved in the discussion.  We have one developer actively trying to bring a new retail/office building to Orinda across from the Community Center – which would be the first new commercial development in decades! I supported this developer’s recent application, but unfortunately – much like the past several attempts to renovate the Phairs building – the application was rejected by the Council.  If the community wants change, I hope they will make their viewpoints
clear.

City’s Finances

We need to continue to fund our reserves to make sure we have a cushion for exceptional events.  This funding must take priority over less critical projects, as the core purpose of the City is to provide key services, including police services, to the City.  More generally, the City must continue its tradition of conservative financial management. While the City is in the fortunate position of having a defined-contribution plan for the majority of its City employees, and thus not face the major pension issues of many other municipalities, since we contract our police officers from the County, we must pay the costs of a defined benefit plan bundled into that contract.  Police costs have continued to rise, and we should expect they will continue to do so, and thus we must watch our other revenue and expenses carefully.

Downtown Parking

Our parking problem, particularly on the Theatre side, is both complex (there are a number of stakeholders – residential neighbors, shoppers, employees, office workers, BART commuters – whose needs must be considered and optimized for) and simple (there aren’t enough parking spaces).  To satisfy this problem, we have to look at both optimizing the current supply for what the community thinks are the highest need uses (like the Brookwood parking program, to protect parking for residents from, in particular, overflow BART commuters) as well as ideas to grow the parking
supply.
Other optimization ideas could include expanding the permit program (and potentially adding one for employees, perhaps on the Village side), expanding the timed parking and enforcement to maintain turnover, and encouraging local businesses with extra parking to open those spots to the public, potentially after typical work hours.  To grow (or at least not shrink) supply, first we must protect what we have with any new development and ensure current parking standards are met. In addition, we should continue to try to drive a dialog with BART about parking at the station, perhaps even discussing a parking structure (within Orinda’s height limits), even though BART has not shown interest in such a discussion to date.

Important Areas of Need

1) Replenish our financial reserves and focus on reimbursement from the sinkhole from the appropriate agencies. 2) While we have made great headway in “fixing” the roads, we have not actually solved the maintenance problem; we still have a gap between required annual funding to maintain our roads and what is actually available.  We need to solve that gap, or we will end up with the same road problem we had before. 3) Bring more retail/dining/services options to our downtown to meet the needs of our current
residents.

Qualifications

Outside of my four years as a councilmember, I have established a career in the technology industry.  Currently, I am a group product manager at Google, leading a team of 20 product professionals and setting product strategy for our broader cross-functional (and cross business units) organization.  Working with individuals and groups across Google to collaboratively set and influence strategy is much like the work on the Council, which requires the ability to find common ground to move forward with individuals who may have very different points of view.  Prior to Google, I led a software startup in the behavioral health space, which required vision, leadership and execution abilities, leading to our work with high profile health organizations such as the U.S. Army. From these experiences and my time thus far on the Council, I believe I can continue to successfully work with my colleagues to help us set policy for Orinda’s future.

Eve Phillips

Future of Downtown

That grouping does not fit with my experience of speaking with Orindans about our downtown.  I have yet to meet anyone who wants no change; few folks find the Phairs building, empty for two decades, an asset to our community.  The differences I have found come in what kind of change people want. Do they want some new retail and perhaps offices to meet the shopping, dining and services needs of existing Orindans so they don’t have to drive to Lafayette or beyond? Do they want to maintain parking and height limitations to keep the current character? Or are they looking to drive more residential options, and consider our current parking and height requirements outdated?
 Those are the major differences I have seen, and the community and Council has not yet found a path forward.  To attempt some progress, we are now trying to take smaller steps that have the backing of much of the community.  The goals of the Streetscape efforts are to identify these smaller changes that have broad support.
 In addition, we need to make sure the community is involved in the discussion.  We have one developer actively trying to bring a new retail/office building to Orinda across from the Community Center – which would be the first new commercial development in decades! I supported this developer’s recent application, but unfortunately – much like the past several attempts to renovate the Phairs building – the application was rejected by the Council.  If the community wants change, I hope they will make their viewpoints
clear.

City’s Finances

We need to continue to fund our reserves to make sure we have a cushion for exceptional events.  This funding must take priority over less critical projects, as the core purpose of the City is to provide key services, including police services, to the City.  More generally, the City must continue its tradition of conservative financial management. While the City is in the fortunate position of having a defined-contribution plan for the majority of its City employees, and thus not face the major pension issues of many other municipalities, since we contract our police officers from the County, we must pay the costs of a defined benefit plan bundled into that contract.  Police costs have continued to rise, and we should expect they will continue to do so, and thus we must watch our other revenue and expenses carefully.

Downtown Parking

Our parking problem, particularly on the Theatre side, is both complex (there are a number of stakeholders – residential neighbors, shoppers, employees, office workers, BART commuters – whose needs must be considered and optimized for) and simple (there aren’t enough parking spaces).  To satisfy this problem, we have to look at both optimizing the current supply for what the community thinks are the highest need uses (like the Brookwood parking program, to protect parking for residents from, in particular, overflow BART commuters) as well as ideas to grow the parking
supply.
Other optimization ideas could include expanding the permit program (and potentially adding one for employees, perhaps on the Village side), expanding the timed parking and enforcement to maintain turnover, and encouraging local businesses with extra parking to open those spots to the public, potentially after typical work hours.  To grow (or at least not shrink) supply, first we must protect what we have with any new development and ensure current parking standards are met. In addition, we should continue to try to drive a dialog with BART about parking at the station, perhaps even discussing a parking structure (within Orinda’s height limits), even though BART has not shown interest in such a discussion to date.

Important Areas of Need

1) Replenish our financial reserves and focus on reimbursement from the sinkhole from the appropriate agencies. 2) While we have made great headway in “fixing” the roads, we have not actually solved the maintenance problem; we still have a gap between required annual funding to maintain our roads and what is actually available.  We need to solve that gap, or we will end up with the same road problem we had before. 3) Bring more retail/dining/services options to our downtown to meet the needs of our current
residents.

Qualifications

 

Outside of my four years as a councilmember, I have established a career in the technology industry.  Currently, I am a group product manager at Google, leading a team of 20 product professionals and setting product strategy for our broader cross-functional (and cross business units) organization.  Working with individuals and groups across Google to collaboratively set and influence strategy is much like the work on the Council, which requires the ability to find common ground to move forward with individuals who may have very different points of view.  Prior to Google, I led a software startup in the behavioral health space, which required vision, leadership and execution abilities, leading to our work with high profile health organizations such as the U.S. Army. From these experiences and my time thus far on the Council, I believe I can continue to successfully work with my colleagues to help us set policy for Orinda’s future.

Nick Kosla

Future of Downtown

There is widespread support in the community for a more vibrant, convenient and revitalized downtown. We need more retail options, vitality and community-gathering spots, including a restored creek. All of these goals are consistent with our current “village
character.”
At the same time, the state is increasingly pressuring cities like Orinda to develop downtown areas around transit. If Orinda does not address the deteriorating state of our downtown soon, the state will do it for us in a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to start a community conversation immediately on ways to improve our commercial properties downtown. The status quo otherwise will lead us to stagnation and risk of state
intervention.

City’s Finances

We need to be fiscally smart with the money we have, to ensure accountability and that dollars are spent wisely. Orinda has an aging system of streets and utilities, which means more potential disasters like what occurred with the Miner Road bridge collapse. Upgrading this infrastructure will take careful planning and money. We’ll need a robust community dialogue and expert opinions on ways to keep Orinda’s roads and utilities in a state of good repair. Notably, an improved retail scene in our downtown will enhance city revenues by keeping Orinda dollars in
Orinda. 

Downtown Parking

The parking problem in downtown is mostly concentrated in the Theatre Square side on the southern half of Orinda. The residential parking permit program is a good start to try different options to address parking woes. We also should increase enforcement of our existing parking policies. Given that some of the parking pressure comes from BART commuters, in the long term, we need to explore ways to expand the parking supply at the BART lot and improve access to BART for neighborhood shuttles and other shared vehicles, as a way to reduce demand for parking there.

Important Areas of Need

A. Public safety – From crime to natural disasters, Orinda needs to be better prepared for emergencies. First and foremost, our community must be safe.
B. Downtown enhancement – Our deteriorating downtown needs a refresh, and a failure to address this problem will result in diminished property values, sales tax revenue, quality of life and ultimately state intervention.
C. Fiscal stability – In many ways, this goes hand in hand with Downtown Enhancement. Orinda is a small city, with relatively low revenues and
expenditures. But a big infrastructure disaster like at Miner Road will hurt our budget. We need better accountability for how we spend our existing dollars and options to create budget predictability.

Qualifications

 

As chair of the Orinda Planning Commission, I was able to run meetings effectively and efficiently ensuring that both applicants and concerned Orindans were treated fairly. Making decisions is not always easy, but to be an effective member of a voting body, it is critical to create consensus whenever possible and make the difficult decisions when necessary for the good of the City. I promise to treat everyone that I interact with at City Council meetings with the utmost respect and dignity, just as I did when I was on the Orinda Planning Commission
and other educational, professional and public boards and commissions that I’ve served on over the last 20+ years.

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