Orinda City Council Virtual Debate Hosted by The Orinda Association

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Sponsored by The Orinda Association and the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley, the Oct. 8 forum features (top row) OA Board Member and hostess Cindy Powell, League moderator Ann Flynn, (bottom row) candidates Inga Miller, Latika Malkani and Darlene Gee.

    A proposed sales tax increase, wildfire prevention and racism were among the topics that three candidates for Orinda City Council weighed in on last week in a virtual debate.
    Mayor Darlene Gee along with City Council Member Inga Miller and challenger Latika Malkani are competing for two seats on the council.
    The upcoming four-year term would be the second time Gee was elected to office – she initially was appointed to the council in July 2015 to fill a vacancy before running. Miller has served since 2016.
    The Oct. 8 forum, shown via Zoom, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley and The Orinda Association, a nonprofit that helps to maintain the city’s quality of life.
    Dominating much of the discussion was Measure R, a proposed doubling of the current ½-cent sales tax that is estimated to drum up $2.4 million annually.
    The measure also would extend the length of the tax from 10 years to 20.
    Although the City Council only would decide how to spend the revenue after receiving advice from an oversight committee and the general public, it has targeted several priorities. These include clearing the community of vegetation that fuels wildfires, preparing for natural disasters and other emergencies, and maintaining public roads.
    All three candidates supported the tax for the same reasons – it would supplement the limited amount of money the city has to spend on fire prevention and readying itself for emergencies by ensuring evacuation routes are in good shape, among other tasks.
    Malkani, a 16-year resident, said she wants to use most of the revenue for this purpose as did Gee, who’s lived in Orinda for 31 years.
    The City needs to ensure its roads can handle an evacuation, added Miller, who moved to Orinda in 1980.
    “We certainly have work ahead of us,” she said.
    Exactly which roads would benefit from Measure R remains to be seen, though.
    Orinda has nearly 30 miles of private roads that, because they are not within gated communities, are used by the public at large.
    Residents on those streets pay to have private contractors maintain them, whether through homeowners’ association fees or some other means. Many of them want the city to take over the cost of upkeep. Others, however, who live on public thoroughfares, oppose the idea.
    The friction extends to storm water drainage as well, with some property owners taking the city to task over allegations the runoff from public streets is going into their private drainage systems.
    Given the hefty price tag of a conversion, Gee said making every private road the city’s responsibility should be put to a citywide vote.
    And that’s why Miller isn’t a fan of the notion, saying transferring all private roads to the care of local government would require “tremendous public investment – a very, very large number.”
    She said she would prefer considering the handoff on a case-by-case basis, singling out those private roads that might satisfy the legal requirement of providing a public benefit.
    Malkani called the situation a “hot mess,” but one Orinda no longer can ignore. She suggested the city include private roads in its next survey to get a realistic estimate of repair and maintenance costs so future discussions of the problem would be based on facts, not speculative amounts.
    She also proposed revising Resolution 59-18, an update the city made in 2018 to a policy describing the criteria residents on private roads must meet to alter the status of those streets.
    The rules are now so stringent that it’s all but impossible for a private road to become public.
    Malkani noted Gee voted against the resolution but Miller was a proponent.
    Candidates were asked why the city isn’t going after a tax dedicated for a specific purpose instead of Measure R, which cannot be earmarked for particular reasons.
    After all, the moderator noted, 86% of residents named fire prevention as their primary concern, even before thousands of wildfires erupted around the state this summer.
    The city conducted the January survey to get a sense of whether voters would renew the existing ½-cent sales tax or vote for a larger one over a longer period of time.
    Gee explained a general sales tax is easier to obtain because it only requires a simple majority vote to pass; a parcel tax, by contrast, needs a two-thirds approval to succeed.
    In addition, it’s thought Measure R would generate more revenue than a parcel tax would, she said.
    As to why they’re backing a new sales tax in the middle of a recession and pandemic, candidates said it’s too risky to wait until the current one expires in two years.
    If a proposed sales tax on the Nov. 2022 ballot were to fail, the city, by law, would have to wait another two years – this time without any additional money coming in – before it could try again.
    Candidates were less enthusiastic about Measure X, a countywide ½-cent sales tax designed to shore up the county hospital and neighborhood health centers as well as fund fire services and help for needy families such as early childhood

education.
    Acknowledging Orinda is “quite a bit different from the county at large,” Gee echoed Malkani’s comments when she voiced reservations about the measure because sales taxes are harder on lower-income households.
    Miller, on the other hand, said she backs the proposed sales tax.
    Candidates were asked whether the city would pay to ensure uninterrupted operation of the Chipper Program, a brush-clearing service Moraga-Orinda Fire District suspended in mid-June for nearly four months to focus on eliminating fire hazards around residents’ homes.
    Malkani said she wasn’t privy to why councilmembers did not subsidize the program but noted the cost would have been minimal. If MOFD doesn’t provide continuous service next summer, the city should pick up the slack, she said.
    Miller emphasized the city and fire district are two separate agencies and said Orinda needs to be conservative given its small amount of unrestricted funds. Still, she suggested it might be able to help the fire district if Measure R passes.
    The prospect of the city pitching in didn’t, however, sit well with Gee.
    “Quite frankly, I believe [MOFD] let go of their responsibilities to help with fire prevention,” she said, adding the fire district has more money than the city to keep the service going.
    “Our reserves are critical,” Gee said.
    Without them, she said, the city wouldn’t have been able to fix the Miner Road sinkhole, which closed the thoroughfare in both directions and ruptured two sewer lines following heavy rains in January 2017.
    Candidates also offered their thoughts on how to bring more stores and denser housing – apartments, condominiums or townhomes – to Orinda’s downtown to increase the city’s taxable income, instead of placing an additional burden on residents.
    Currently, there are only a few dozen housing units for seniors near the business hub, and the city’s zoning laws allow for such limited residential construction that developers typically don’t find projects cost-effective.
    Nonetheless, Gee thinks churches could be part of the solution if they were to allow the city to build on a portion of their parking lots, a number of which are very large.
    Another long-term possibility might be using some of the acreage dedicated for parking at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station in town, she said.
    Miller, who serves on a City Council sub-committee tasked with devising a plan to revitalize the downtown by allowing higher-density residential construction, also wants a greater diversity of housing in the area so people could live in smaller units near stores and restaurants.
    “[They] want to downsize and be close to resources,” she said.
    Asked how the city could incorporate inclusivity into its hiring practices and police training, Miller said she didn’t have a ready answer, but added she’s been saddened by neighbors who have told her about racism they’ve experienced. “It’s important … for everyone to feel welcome,” she said.
    “A community is happier when everyone feels respected,” said Malkani.
    The city has started teaching employees about implicit bias – attitudes and behavior people adopt unconsciously – which is something she had suggested last year, Malkani added.
    Police are receiving additional training from the sheriff’s office, said Gee, who noted city employees are actually a more racially diverse group than the city overall.
    “We want everyone in Orinda to feel part of the community,” she said.
    The one-hour debate will be rebroadcast on CCTV Channel 26 at times have yet to be announced as well as on The Orinda Association and City of Orinda websites.

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