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Op-Ed: By All Accounts, Candidate Forum a Success

Rather than taking inquiries from the media, six people campaigning for seats on the Novato City Council hear directly from their constituents at Novato Community Alliance event.

Editor's note: Pam Drew is chair of the Novato Community Alliance, which hosted a Novato City Council candidate forum Monday at . She shares her notes in this story.

Monday night's Novato Community Alliance Council Candidates Night was a thoroughly enjoyable example of Novatoans getting together to listen to one another.  This was not just business people or police officers, this was business people, police officers, firemen, teachers, contractors, clerks, homemakers, retired people and anybody else who lives in Novato who wanted to get their questions answered.

Brent Ainsworth, the moderator, did an admirable job of phrasing and sequencing those questions for the public. He could have gone on for another half hour with audience questions but we began to lose our audience after an hour and a half, so we packed it in. The $5 suggested donation caused us to almost break even, so NCA came out OK and the community benefited.

Brent's calm smooth delivery contributed greatly to the civility of the evening. There was applause and laughter and no one was ruled out of order.  The only noticeable deficit was that candidate Manny Fernandez, for reasons only known to himself, chose not to participate and, by extension, distanced his constituency. 

Anyone without the $5 suggested donation was just as welcome as anyone who paid. People who had fiercely opposed one another as one neighborhood was pitted against another regarding affordable housing sites listened and chatted afterward. The crowd of 60 or more Novatoans was a big part of the story.

The other part, of course, was the candidates. Jerome Ghigliotti, despite his previous track record of offending social convention, came up with some witty one-liners that entertained and caused one to think. Near the end of the low-income housing site selection process, a large property was hastily substituted as sort of a fall-back position without much vetting. 

In response to the question from the moderator "…. Would you build 60-100 units of affordable housing on the property at Black John Road?," Ghigliotti drew a hearty laugh from the crowd saying "Buy the lot next to Nancy Pelosi's and build." That spoke a central truth that what makes sense in the abstract to those penning housing law often cannot be executed without major pain for the individual homeowner's particular circumstances.

The incumbents, Madeline Kellner and Jeanne MacLeamy, showed their expertise from having served on the council to great advantage. There is no substitute for experience unless, of course, your prior terms' actions have turned out to be deeply unpopular.

Kellner, currently serving as mayor, came out soundly for continuing the policies of the past four years into the next four years. She stands for a balanced budget, strong infrastructure (building the downtown offices and saving rent) and partnering with others. Recall that she was voted in as mayor and displaced Carol Dillon-Knutson last year when Dillon-Knutson was mayor pro-tem. Kellner allowed no spontaneous audience response of any kind during sometimes emotionally charged council meetings. She described her own running of meetings as fair and respectful.

Kellner said she sees Novato as “suburban” and says the affordable housing world agrees. Although the previous housing cycle caused no stir, Kellner said we were “not prepared” for the 2007-2014 housing element cycle. She noted that San Rafael had worked with each neighborhood in advance and that it is nearing an approved housing element. She pointed out that Novato has worked with Assemblyman Jared Huffman, and the state department of Housing and Community Development is considering some of Huffman's suggestions.

MacLeamy came out for a safe and vibrant town, well-managed fiscal responsibilities, and a land-use balance of housing and development.  She voted against joining the Marin Energy Authority and clearly stated her reasons why. She says, as well, that we cannot develop our way out of a structural deficit. She would try improving city technology to pick up savings and also build city offices downtown to save rent. 

MacLeamy said she believes affordable housing should be scattered, not clustered, and that the state mandates for low-income housing are discriminatory because the housing is necessarily concentrated.  She left the door open for densities above 20 units per acre for senior housing, with an emphasis on good design.  She said that formerly every time we had a new development, neighbors near the development site came out against it. She said we've learned to work more co-operatively and now need to work collaboratively. 

MacLeamy favors SMART and will stick with the North Novato Station should the rail system construct a second station in Novato in addition to Hamilton. She said the Atherton location makes sense because of nearness to jobs and because the alternate location, at the east end of Grant Avenue downtown, does not have room for parking.

Leslie Peterson-Schwarze, a 12-year former school board member, opened with two stories: on the one hand we have the same infrastructure needs of any other town in the middle of a recession and on the other hand we risk losing our small-town character by giving in to state mandates and other pressures.

She believes the main question for the people of Novato is “Are you awake or asleep?” with regard to recent changes. She believes we are suburban; we are metropolitan only in that we reside in a county next to a big city. We are the furthest Marin municipality from San Francisco and have always been a bedroom community, so we need to make that argument to the state re our low-income housing densities, she said.

Peterson-Schwarze said we have been doing a good job on affordable housing. The state should collaborate with us. She believes we should support the local merchants on Grant Avenue before moving on to something new like the development of the North Redwood Boulevard Corridor between Grant Avenue and San Marin Drive. She says police and fire protection are what people want but management is being spared cuts.  She says “hire local, don't outsource.”

Eleanor Sluis is in favor of Novato growing like flowers rather than becoming packed like a can of sardines. She is definitely against high-density housing and is pulling for a new team and a new direction of taking care of the people of Novato.  Sluis was one of the three candidates who appeared to have read the recent Marin County Implementation Plan (set up to root out discrimination in housing) and to be willing to comment on it.  She says we don't have the jobs to bring in more people despite the need for more diversity, as dictated by the plan. 

She also termed SMART a “folly.” She pointed out that many people in Novato have to have their cars and trucks for carrying equipment for work.  For instance contractors often cannot use SMART.  Sluis said she is in favor of MEA, saying that the children coming up need solar and wind energy, renewables.

Eric Lucan distinguished himself as an excellent speaker. He emphasized his business background and mentioned improving Novato's image. He believes Novato is definitely “suburban” and would try to help lower the default housing density from 30 to 20 units per acre.  Although Lucan did not weigh in during the housing element site selection process, he attended several meetings and said he would go forward with the council's plan to allow development of the property at Black John Road.

Lucan said he supports public transit and the Atherton site as a possible second station spot, and he would have voted against joining MEA.

Maybe a candidates night sponsored by the neighborhood organizations could become a tradition in Novato.

Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 22, 2011 at 03:27 AM
Ms. Drew was an amiable hostess, and Mr. Ainsworth was a masterful master of ceremonies. I only wish that the issue of crime in Novato was among the questions asked.
kathy October 22, 2011 at 04:03 PM
Thanks for posting the summary of the meeting for those of us who could not attend. I wonder why nothing was mentioned of the illegal immigration issues here in Novato. I understand infrastructure, housing and energy are important topics, but the main reason we are considering leaving Novato is the gang influence from San Rafael and our "sanctuary city" status. Perhaps those issues can be addressed and discussed?
Roger October 22, 2011 at 04:07 PM
MacLeamy is wrong about more SMART parking being availabe at the tentative San Marin station than east end of Grant. The San Marin station has one of the smallest parking lots along the whole SMART track. The merchants on Grant should have more sway on the Council than Fireman's Fund, who can have shuttles for their employees. Trains are meant to stop in dense town centers. That is the point. Do we want downtown Novato to grow or die? The Black John housing site also has a big gas pipeline through the middle of it. Is that where we really want 80 units of dense extremely low-income housing? The head of the Planning Commission says "yes", but shame on Jay.
Bob Ratto October 22, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Roger SMART has many well documented problems, as I am sure you are aware, so I wouldn't count in happening any time soon. Downtown parking is only going to get worse with the proposed new City Hall building, development of 999, Theater, Chipotle. Better solution time: buy the IJ building, consolidate all city properties (like PW), sell off excess, use funds to build a parking garage on top of Pini lot. If Black John (which is a really bad site) has a gas pipeline running underneath it, then that is a non-starter isn't it? (Just think of the potential liability)
Sylvia Barry October 22, 2011 at 05:10 PM
I agree with Roger on this. The Smart Train station should be, as originally planned, close to downtown, where people will then browse downtown things or pick up a couple things on the way home. Current location was added after the Commons at Mt. Burdell project was put on the board and neighbors raised concerns about the traffic. FFIC should have shuttle at peak time to pick up their employees. Pini Hardware is on a prime location in the middle of downtown, we should concentrate on enticing shops that will stay late and restaurants there. Parking should not be there but should be on a side street behind shops and restaurants. As somebody said, Downtown Novato is not that big, and actually supposedly there was a study proved that from the parking lot of Costco to the back of Costco might be further than that. People can walk a couple blocks to shops and restaurants. Walking promotes physical fitness and allows us to to say Hi to neighbors while walking downtown :-)
Edwin Drake October 22, 2011 at 05:32 PM
SMART station should go downtown, and long-range planning should include form-based codes and zoning that pushes development up towards and beyond Trader Joe's, with parking and walkways that allow easy pedestrian access along a north-south spine in the area from Grant going north. Chamber of Commerce must have NO say in this, they are short-sighted and selling Novato down the river, turning us into every other ugly, small town in America. Plus, run bus shuttle service under freeway at Railroad Ave undercrossing, which allows for quick access to Hospital, offices, Vintage Oaks, and new Hanna development. Going under the 101 to allow connection between Old Town and Vintage Oaks would do much enliven downtown area. Under NO circumstances allow North Redwood to become glorified strip mall with large parking lots, a la Vintage Oaks or Hamilton Safeway or De Long Safeway shopping center (forget the name.) Novato needs more shuttles buzzing around town, not these lumbering 40+ passenger buses on long routes.
Baxter October 22, 2011 at 05:54 PM
I spoke with PG&E and City of Novato. The gas leak is still occurring close to San Marin Dr. and Redwood Blvd. (just a few feet from condos on Escallonia Dr.) There is an old (pre-1970) main interstate gas pipeline that runs through the middle of the Black John site proposed for very dense housing. The pipeline is located exactly where David Wallace showed by slide presentation to City Council on 6/21 where AH would be built. On 9/13/11, I asked City Council to prioritize the 2nd Tier Agenda item regarding coordinating a meeting with PG&E, City staff and neighbors for open discussion of the location and condition of this main gas transmission pipeline. The City rejected my request with a 3-2 vote. PG&E is at this present time trying to find out the exact condition of the main gas line since it most likely has never been pressure tested and there is a leak going on just south of this main pipe line. By the way, same main gas pipeline runs right under the proposed "Atherton" train station. No wonder the City doesn't want to touch this with a ten foot pole, let alone discuss it with the public. The Black John property is zoned for "Business/Professional". The State of Calif. won't allow schools, hospitals, nursing/assisted living (and in most States, apt. buildings) built within the vicinity of main gas transmission pipes. Dense housng should be no acception. The City can throw the "Senior Housing" idea out the window cause that can't happen at this site. The City is dreaming.
Edwin Drake October 22, 2011 at 06:02 PM
Observation: It's time for WikiCity -- City of Novato is cutting staff to make budget, and then saying not enough workforce to complete studies, plans, etc. Yet, Novato is filled with people VERY qualified in many subjects. (Witness this thread.) Why not harness the brainpower of local residents? Clearly there are residents who understand financing, gas transmission line regulation, have organizational abilities, and other talents. City Council needs to ADAPT to future and allow for much more resident involvement, above and beyond rubber-stamp 'commissions'. Start a process earlier, allow for more input, allow for residents to submit proposals and legislation. It's time to decentralize.
Sylvia Barry October 22, 2011 at 06:53 PM
Edwin - City did hold several meetings with groups of citizens to brainstorm North Redwood Corridor, but that's before the AH issue came up. So, the concept is definitely there. Although I do think those groups were more looking at citizen's vision on how that area should be instead of technical issues such as transmission lines, regulations, gas line, etc.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 22, 2011 at 07:41 PM
I suggested a "crime" question, but the Novato Alliance was primarily interested in housing issues. The debate is being re-broadcast on Novato Public Access television. See the programming for times and dates.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 22, 2011 at 07:48 PM
Isn't that what I said? Invest in marketing Grant Avenue before investing in the North Redwood Corridor.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 22, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Personally, I believe that a SMART station at the east end of Grant would promote Grant Avenue business. But so far the Grant Avenue businesses that voiced an opinion object to that plan. Remember me? I am the guy who is opposed to forcing anything down the peoples' throats. I would love for Grant Avenue merchants to voice approval of a Grant Avenue SMART stop, but not until then. www.ElectJerome.com. The only candidate web site with a printed, published Platform. Everyone else just magically predicts a "better Novato", without a published plan.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 22, 2011 at 07:59 PM
The only reason that there IS a Second Tier is that the incumbents abrogated their responsibility to set the agenda to the city manager, Michael Frank. Elected representative should never have abrogated their responsibility. As to Mr. Frank, look at my Platform. I have a "new" place for him.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 22, 2011 at 08:02 PM
One of my year long rants is that the incumbent city council abrogates all of its decision making to Oakland consulting firms. First, the council should be the decision makers. Second, I am certain that we have local consultants. Remember, all of your neighbors are mailing in their absentee ballots. Tell them about the Novato Patch threads before the vote in the dark.
Edwin Drake October 23, 2011 at 02:35 AM
SCB - I've taken part in many, many of those charettes and they are nothing but a dog and pony show. It's an exercise in "feel good," and is looked at that way by those in the trade. The "facilitator" leads with a limited framework, and reins in anyone who thinks outside the box. Ask yourself this: How many times have you found citizen input to truly make it's way into a city decision? Witness the AH Ad Hoc.
Sylvia Barry October 23, 2011 at 07:13 AM
ED - You asked - In my case, I have to say that the citizens' input made a difference in the council's decision on the AH issue. You have to be there.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr October 26, 2011 at 09:31 PM
I have been accused of being a "racist", in this column, I wrote a Letter to the Editor of Novato Patch clarifying my position on race, and the editor declined to print it. The editor wrote: "We'd like our site to be the forum for civil discussion and productive changes of ideas." Out of respect for the First Amendment rights of Freedom of Press, I am not going to try to sneak that letter into comments, However, I have to reiterate the recent court argument of Michael Richards that only Caucasians can be called "racists". Racist acts and words by non-Caucasians are immune. Why?
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) October 27, 2011 at 02:26 AM
The video from Novato Public Access TV has been added to this story.
Roger October 29, 2011 at 10:14 PM
Sylvia, did citizen input really make a difference in the Conuncil's decision on AH? The last-minute Black John site addition didn't give those neighbors much of a chance to rally opposition like other neighbors on other sites. Why now does the Council say Hanna Ranch is too remote for AH while the Black John site is yet just as remote and has a gas transmission line. Leslie raised this Black John point in the Oct 17 debate.
Sylvia Barry October 30, 2011 at 12:07 AM
Roger - I am not saying the solutions are perfect, nor that everybody like all the sites. But to answer your question, I do think citizens’ input made a difference. If not, there would be no working group nor special public/council meetings to discuss AH issues. The original sites proposed in 2010 would have been sent forward and there would be no discussions about 20 units per site or talking to ABAG/State. etc. Or, the eight sites as proposed by the working group, which included Wood Hollow site, would have been sent forward. I believe Black John site was a trade off from the owner for the Wood Hollow site. Listening to the council deliberating, including watching the owner promising Senior Housing, I think the council believed that’s a much better alternative than the Wood Hollow site. Council members have since said the gas transmission line will have to be looked into. Having said what I saw as happened; I, also, do not like Black John site and I also think Hannah Ranch should be considered, including mixed use - you can go back to my previous comments. No, it’s not perfect, but I just want to let you know why I think citizens’ input made a difference. Beyond that, we will have to meet and discuss.

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