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.