City Council Candidates Share Their Priorities and Concerns for Orinda

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Mayoral Candidates Darlene Gee, Latika Malkani and Inga Miller

    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, three candidates (including two incumbents) will vie for two available seats: incumbent Darlene Gee, Latika Malkani and incumbent Inga Miller.
   
    They were asked the following questions:
    1. What’s your “vision” of Orinda five years from now? Are we a bedroom community with retail to support or are we more? Do we have a particular identity?
    2. Specifically, what would you do to attract and retain retail business?
    3. Covid-19 has created a budget deficit and forced the City of Orinda to do business differently. How will you address these issues and still provide adequate services to residents? Are there any silver lining opportunities?
    4. How would you rank in order of importance, three areas of greatest need in Orinda moving forward?
    5. What leadership/management skills/experience do you possess that will make you an effective City Councilmember?

(Terry Riggins, Photographer)
Darlene Gee

Darlene Gee

Vision of Orinda in Five Years
    My vision for Orinda is that we remain the pleasant family-friendly community that our residents enjoy and value, but with enhanced downtown amenities. Years of city surveys have shown that over 95% of our residents rate their life in Orinda as excellent. Given that we are essentially a fully built-out community with limited land opportunities, my vision is that we work to make what is already good even better – but focused on Orinda. I certainly love the thought of our surrounding Lamorinda neighbors wanting to dine and relax in beautiful spaces in Orinda just as most of us do on occasion in Lafayette; but I don’t envision Orinda as a destination.
    I do want our city efforts to include everything possible to restore and incorporate the creek into our improvements. With the right redevelopment and restoration, the creek could be a wonderful asset and very special amenity in our downtown space.
    I also want Orinda to be a welcoming and safe place for everyone who lives and visits here. Our community diversity is growing, and we want to celebrate that and benefit from the wealth of experiences that we connect within our neighbors and friends. The city proclaimed in September 2019 our jurisdictional commitment to diversity and as we work on our physical amenities, I want to see us work on improving our social environment where needed. The city can take direct actions to ensure that our police services follow the best practices and that our city staff interactions with residents are professional and respectful. We can also further extend our partnerships with our two school districts, our Chamber of Commerce and our neighboring communities to take positive and actionable steps to form meaningful social collaborations.
    I am proud that in my term as mayor this year, the city has taken multiple key steps to ensure that our police department is implementing best practices and has transparent and regular oversight that is available to the community. I am also pleased that the city has initiated a dialogue with OUSD with the goal of building a more direct partnership on the key issues of diversity and inclusion.
    Orinda has been a wonderful place to raise my family, to make lasting friendships and to enjoy the best of a small town in an urban region. I want the same for many generations to come that choose to call Orinda home.

Attract and Retain Retail Business
    The most important step is completing Orinda’s Downtown Precise Plan in 2021, including an economics component that will allow the council, the community and most importantly the property owners and developers to understand what can be constructed within an updated framework. The city doesn’t initiate development, it provides guidelines and processes that allow the private sector to propose new projects for approval. The city’s plan will define objective design parameters and possible incentives that can motivate the private sector to create new spaces. Property owners may even look at aggregating downtown parcels to optimize new projects. Existing Orinda businesses will undoubtably have opportunities to stay and even grow with downtown improvements.
    Additionally, the city should take a more proactive communication approach with both the downtown property owners and the chamber. Hiring a specialty consultant that works to offer expertise that can entice private sector interest may speed results. Restaurants and specialty food may be a better initial draw than goods retail that has online competition. Some addition of downtown housing will add more customers, enhancing both downtown vibrancy and profitability. And when the city adds Project Connect streetscape elements as downtown infrastructure, we need to prioritize walkability for retail enhancement.

Covid-19 and Budget Deficit
    Covid-19’s biggest impact to Orinda’s revenue has been the required hiatus of our parks and recreation programs. While sales tax has also been lower, property taxes, our largest revenue component, has remained stable. Unfortunately, the inability to conduct recreation classes and sports has resulted in the need to reduce 10% of the city staff. City services for police, public works, planning, finance and our city manager/city clerk have all remained at nearly full force and we have continued to maintain all needed city functions.
    The return of our parks and recreation department is largely dependent on public health orders and our ability to begin group and indoor activities again. Fortunately, our programs have enjoyed solid past success and the new Art and Garden Center at Wilder had only been open about a year when restrictions were implemented. Opportunities for activities at this beautiful new multi-use facility have significant growth potential. I am confident that the return to more normal activities will bring back this aspect of our city revenue relatively quickly.
    Challenges always bring opportunities and I believe there are silver linings from our pandemic experiences. Our parks and recreation staff are getting the chance to re-assess our offerings and develop new options. Our management team has found ways to be effective even in a remote environment – work processes that can be capitalized upon even when they fully return to City Hall. We have also found several new ways to work share between departments that can increase our longer-term efficiency.

Three Areas of Greatest Need
    The first area of great need in Orinda is on-going rehabilitation of our infrastructure facilities and improved community vegetation management. This terrible year of fires has reinforced to all of us that “it could happen here.” Wildfire prevention, emergency preparation, and well-maintained roads and drains are vital to Orinda’s safety and well-being. Passing Measure R in November is critical to garnering enough funding to keep making significant progress in fuel mitigation and road and drain repairs.
    Our second need is to finish our Downtown Precise Plan that lays the foundation for the future heart of our city. Our downtown has languished behind nearly all our surrounding neighbor communities in creating the amenities and options that most of our residents’ desire. Leaving us with fewer lifestyle choices close to home and less revenue that is critical for city services. We can create the framework for desirable improvements without sacrificing our enjoyable small-town atmosphere.
    Third is our need to hire a new city manager by January 2021, given Steve Salomon’s retirement. The city manager’s experience and leadership ability is the most impactful component of our city organization. Finding the right leadership fit for Orinda will be our greatest catalyst for continued success.

Qualifications
    I am currently Orinda’s Mayor and have served on the council since July 2015. Prior to joining the council, I served four years on the Citizen’s Infrastructure Oversight Commission. My nine years of city service has given me significant understanding of the issues and processes associated with every city department and function. My detailed knowledge of the city’s finances, capital programs, challenges and opportunities provide an excellent background to help the city move forward from the Covid-19 impacts.
    Additionally, I’m a senior vice-president of a major transportation consulting firm where I have had executive management responsibility for operations of over 150 people engaged in delivering multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects. I am a licensed civil engineer with an MBA from UC Berkeley that has held top leadership positions in multiple Bay Area professional organizations, including the Bay Area Council.
    I have worked with our city staff, our residents, state and county representatives, the leadership of Moraga and Lafayette, MOFD, and the leaders of all of Orinda’s key community organizations on numerous topics. In building these relationships, I have worked to be responsive, open and collaborative and will continue to build on what I have learned to work for all Orinda’s residents.

(Nicole Sidlauskas, Photographer)
Latika Malkani

Latika Malkani

Vision of Orinda in Five Years
    Orinda is a special place because of its environment, economy and its community. In 2025, I envision Orinda having protected, preserved and improved on its strengths in all three areas.
    To maintain its beautiful environment and ideal climate, we must work year-round to ensure that our community is prepared for wildfires by helping residents implement wildfire mitigation plans and collaborating with our fire district to better prepare us for the next emergency. And our economic development must enhance the beauty that we all love. I know many Orinda residents join me in their excitement to see our downtown transform into a walkable, connected, lively area. We must move forward with smart, sustainable growth that builds on Orinda’s existing splendor to create bustling community spaces, retail and housing.
    We all want to live in the Town Where Everyone Knows Your Name. Our special community will remain special if we foster inclusion and resist division. When all residents feel respected, accepted and valued, our community is more cohesive and is happier. Thus, the council should support efforts that value diversity and inclusion.
    These days, a lot of politicians talk about inclusion, but what have your elected leaders done to act on these values in the last five years? In recent years, current city leadership has either rejected or taken no action to implement low-cost, practical, resident suggestions, including: (1) an Orinda “City Day” focused on celebrating diversity, (2) a proclamation that “All Are Welcome Here” with resident-provided signs visibly posted on city windows, (3) an implicit bias training for staff and councilmembers and (4) a resident review committee to oversee and review police practices that includes all stakeholders (concerned residents, the police chief, the police unions, and others). It’s not enough to talk the talk. We must walk the walk. Our community will be more vibrant and better connected if we listen to our residents’ call to celebrate our diversity and welcome even more.
    There are innovative ways to foster an inclusive culture while also promoting other city values, such as educating our children, supporting local business and creating more vibrant downtown spaces. Imagine if the city partnered with local businesses and restaurants to host an annual speaker or art series showcasing presenters from diverse backgrounds? Orinda values education, so let’s partner with OUSD and AUHSD to co-host community events that supplement recent curriculum changes. The possibilities are exciting and endless.

Attract and Retain Retail Business
    Even before the impacts of Covid-19, Orinda has struggled to attract and retain quality retail. Most developers and planners will tell you that the key to retail development is housing with sufficient density that supports the spacing of desired stores. So if Orinda wants to lure more desirable dining, shopping and entertainment, we need to revitalize the entire downtown, with a comprehensive plan that promotes mixed-use development that balances retail and other commercial use with limited housing appropriate to our downtown landscape and city charm. The Downtown Precise Plan’s vision of updating objective design criteria for mixed-use and residential land uses, is a step in the right direction. I would continue to support these efforts, responsibly but promptly, as we embark on long-term revitalization.
    More immediately, I’d like the city to do more to support existing retail to weather the devastating impacts of Covid-19. We’ve already seen some local small businesses shut their doors, and if we don’t act soon, more will follow. Orinda should consider measures that other cities have adopted to weather this storm, including creating more outdoor dining spaces and providing minimal small business advisor services.

Covid-19 and Budget Deficit
    Over the past year, the city has cut several staff that provides public services. One staff reduction occurred in April 2019, long before Covid-19, but appears to remain unfilled, leaving the city down one facilities maintenance staff in 2020, before Covid-19 changed our world. Then, in June and July of this past year, the city cut an additional 3.5 FTE staff, including public works and facilities maintenance personnel. With these cuts, city services have decreased, and the lack of staff impacts the city’s ability to maximize wildfire mitigation, to maintain city properties, and to provide recreation, park and community services. At the last City Council meeting (Sept. 1), the salary ranges of two senior staff were substantially increased. While I support rewarding staff with competitive salaries, I would first prioritize the return of services.
    The “silver lining” to tighter purse strings is the opportunity and motivation we have to examine the city’s budget and service provision. From a budgeting perspective, what are Orinda’s key funding priorities for the next five years? We contract out our policing services, spending far more than Moraga – does this continue to make sense? What additional funds can we seek from state and public district partners to support revitalization efforts? Finally, can we implement creative solutions to improve services without adding costs? Some immediate ideas include engaging community volunteers to establish more PSPS charging and cooling centers, more public education around wildfire preparedness and establishing a city presence on social media.

Three Areas of Greatest Need
    Wildfire management and protections is critical. As we continue to support infrastructure improvements, we must also prioritize wildfire preparedness. Our beautiful environment and homes are the city’s most valuable asset and we must do everything we can to be prepared. That means not only working with our local fire protection experts on preventive actions within Orinda that will keep us safe, but pressing state and federal leaders for broader solutions. The devastating fires and environmental harm we have seen in the last month alone is a wake up call for Orinda.
    Revitalizing the downtown and attracting more retail development is also essential. We can do better than what we currently have and doing so will raise revenue that will help fund all of our priorities and goals.
    Celebration of diversity and inclusion is priceless. When San Francisco and the Bay Area emerged from World War II as one of the most welcoming and inclusive communities in the world, the impact was stunning. The area grew to become the world leader in technology and innovations, its commerce, arts and culture blossomed and it became one of the most visited and sought out places on Earth. Inclusion is dynamic and uplifting.

Qualifications
    As a mother of three raised in Orinda, a practicing lawyer and a delegate to the State Democratic Party, I spend my days engaged in rigorous legal analysis, interaction with persons and entities across the commercial spectrum, conflict resolution and negotiation, and I interact with elected leaders on the most effective policies to serve our constituencies.
    I ran for this position based on feedback I received from many community members that they want their City Council representatives to listen and really hear their concerns and bring fresh ideas to our community. Listening and hearing is job one as a mother and as a lawyer. But job two is taking what you hear and finding effective solutions. That is what I strive to do every single day.
    I have held numerous leadership positions in my professional life and as a member of this community. I’ve spent years advocating for justice, recently serving on the board of the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood affiliate, with an annual budget many times that of Orinda. Like many of you, I have also spent countless hours volunteering at home – supporting our schools, youth sports, scouting, local arts and charitable organizations.
    For more information, please see www.latika4orinda.com.

(Kersti Peter, Photographer)
Inga Miller

Inga Miller

Vision of Orinda in Five Years
    Orinda is the modern small town. We cherish our schools, our sports programs and our library. Our volunteer organizations are the glue that keep us moving forward through challenges from school funding to disaster preparedness to beautification. Orinda’s identity is dedication to community.
    As a council member, my job is to be a dedicated listener of our community and make the community’s vision happen. The vision I have heard our community enunciate is that we want to update downtown in a way that cares for the environment while making space for more Orindans and opportunities to shop, dine and gather here in Orinda. The Thursday Night Food Truck gatherings spearheaded by our What’s Up Downtown Orinda leaders in concert with our Planning Director Drummond Buckley shows what we can do when we work together and how much we Orindans value the opportunity to be together.
    We also, during that five years, want to reduce the fuel load that has built up over the past 70 years and shape our gardens into a firesafe landscape that retains aesthetic beauty and trees so important for sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while also removing dead trees, underbrush and other vegetation that poses fire risk. I see our garden clubs serving as a tremendous resource in guiding our understanding of the new plant and tree choices we should be making and look forward to being a part of education campaigns that I believe will lead our gardens to look quite different in five years than they do today.

Attract and Retain Retail Business
    As a member of the Downtown Subcommittee, I am leading efforts on the Downtown Precise Plan, which will revise downtown development standards in order to help guide future development that will attract restaurants and shopping and provide foot traffic to support business. Our present zoning designations are outdated and do not reflect current conditions so they discourage property owners from updating their properties by making doing so difficult and expensive. The Downtown Precise Plan when finished next year should show property owners not only the potential of their property but also the commitment of our community to both approve their projects and to then shop and dine in their businesses. Then, it is, of course, up to all of us to support those businesses.

Covid-19 and Budget Deficit
    This pandemic has been difficult on all of us in Orinda. It has posed unique challenges for our residents, our teachers, our retail workers, and our City of Orinda employees. Social distancing and the need of many of our residents to decline to participate in recreational programs has forced us to reduce our Parks & Recreation department. The corresponding loss of city income and increasing costs related to Covid-19 forced us in June to reduce personnel costs by reducing hours of our Parks and Recreation director, a Recreation supervisor and the Facility and Parks supervisor. We also had to lay off three employees. Because of our swift response to the conditions, however, I am pleased to report that the city has balanced the budget and is in the process of negotiating the return to work of one of these employees. I hope that we are able to offer the other employees their jobs and hours back in the year to come. In Orinda, we pride ourselves on following the fiscal responsibility our community demands of us. This means no council member pet projects or stipend for the job. We all are volunteers. It is part of calling Orinda home.
    Safety and infrastructure needs, downtown revitalization, and inclusivity are our biggest priorities for 2021. Each of these needs is the purview of a different city department so they can be tackled simultaneously.

Three Areas of Greatest Need
    Orindans embrace the need to fortify our community against fire, and I am hopeful voters pass Measure R, so we have resources for fuel management, education and improving our evacuation routes. We need to continue to maintain our newly improved roads and work on the El Toyonal corridor and other evacuation routes to make them safer and to delve deeper into drain work to avoid another infrastructure failure like the Miner Road sinkhole.
    Meanwhile, we need to finish our Downtown Precise Plan so we can refresh downtown and start enjoying it more again. As we finish that work, we should be making incremental progress like implementing outdoor dining areas.
    The Lamorinda Family Walk we participated in during the spring recognized that we have Orindans who feel marginalized by race, and I am committed to removing bias to assure all Orindans are supported and feel this is the community of caring neighbors I have always known it to be.

Qualifications
    As a journalist for nine years and a lawyer for the past 10 years, my best quality for serving on the City Council is my instinct to see the issue from all angles. I am a tenacious question asker and investigate the back story because the whole story is not always evident from the face of a staff report. There are people who are affected by every decision we make, and everyone in Orinda should have my phone number by now and know that I am available to hear all sides of the story. I am available day and night and the public safety power shutoffs last year while I was mayor followed by the terrible shooting tragedy tested my ability to work around the clock, and I was honored to have the community’s trust to represent the city during that time. If reelected, I will bring that same thoughtfulness, dedication and balance to the next four years.

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