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El Cerrito Democratic Club hears from 3 of 4 council candidates at Sept. 12 forum (revised Sept. 15)

With incumbent councilwoman Gina Brusatori stranded in Chicago in the wake of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, the El Cerrito Democratic Club held a forum Sept. 12 featuring the three other candidates – Mark Friedman, who is also an incumbent, Tony Wise and Letitia Moore.

Brusatori had traveled to Chicago and planned to fly back Tuesday but was unable to do so after commercial aircraft were grounded.

The meeting opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks and a statement that carrying on with our democratic traditions honors those victims.

But after the forum, when Friedman and Moore received the club’s endorsement but Brusatori fell two votes short of the required 60 percent, some club members questioned the leadership’s decision to go ahead with the forum.

There are three seats open on the council. Friedman, Moore and Brusatori are all Democrats. Under club bylaws, Wise cannot be endorsed because he is not a Democrat.

The club ended by voting to include information on all three candidates in literature related to the campaign with an explanation of Brusatori’s absence and the count on the endorsement vote.

With 31 people voting (each able to vote for up to 3 people), 19 votes were needed to meet the club’s 60 percent cut off for endorsement. Moore received 26 votes, Friedman 25, and Brusatori 17. Two people voted that the club make no endorsement.

It was noted that Brusatori had the option of having someone stand in for her at the forum. But her husband, Britt Johnson, said it would have been inappropriate for anyone else to speak for Brusatori, particularly given the wide variety of questions submitted that evening by the audience.

SUMMARY OF CANDIDATES’ COMMENTS

Moore stressed her background as an environmental attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, her experience with local government, and her integrity and problem solving skills, at times concurring with the comments of Friedman.

Wise noted that he was born in the Bay Area, grew up in El Cerrito, is raising a family and owns a business here. He returned frequently to stressing the importance of attracting and supporting business in El Cerrito so that the city can afford services and improvements.

Friedman stressed the issues of education, transportation and housing and said the city should be creative in finding ways to finance improvements. He said El Cerrito should strive to develop a character that is unique. He also noted accomplishments of the current council and said he and Brusatori should be judged on their records.

OPENING STATEMENTS

Moore: Moore said representatives on the council should be honest and reliable, accountable and professional. As an EPA attorney, Moore said, she “has a reputation for being tough but fair.” Moore said she has 12 years of experience with local, state and federal government as well as working with small and large companies in connection with that experience.

“I will always act in the best interest of El Cerrito and stand accountable for the decisions I make.”

Wise: Wise noted he was born in the Bay Area and grew up and attended school in El Cerrito. He lives here, is raising his two children here, owns a home, business and commercial property in El Cerrito.

“I want El Cerrito to have a strong economic base.” Development, he said, will bring in revenue so that El Cerrito can keep its quality of life.

Friedman: Friedman said he has been caught up in the energy and excitement of politics since seeing Adlai Stevenson on a whistle stop as a child. He was later involved in civil rights and Vietnam war protest efforts and has in more recent years turned his political energies to local efforts. Recent events, he said, bring home how important it is that we consider how we spend every moment of our lives.

He said there should not be so much conflict in a community such as El Cerrito and we should strive to find our commonality.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHAT COUNCIL AND REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY SHOULD DO TO ENCOURAGE AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Wise: Wise said the agency should be utilized to maximize community development and bring more development to El Cerrito. He said state law sets affordable housing requirements and those should be met. If the city goes beyond that requirement for individual developers, he said, it would be detrimental to attracting developers.

Friedman: Friedman said housing and transportation are important issues to him. He said people are being forced to live farther and farther from the core employment areas. He said we should do more to foster projects that include a mix of uses. There is space to add housing at the Plaza, he said, as well as in the Del Norte area of town. He said it is important for El Cerrito to have a diversity of people – racially and economically -- and that this type of issue must be addressed in conjunction with other agencies in the region.

Moore: Moore said there is a housing crisis. She said some people have misconceptions about affordable and low-income housing such as that it will attract “the wrong type of people.” But, she noted, “Affordable housing in the Bay Area isn’t cheap.” There are people who are college educated and work full time who sometimes cannot find a place they can afford to live. While there shouldn’t be apartment buildings all along San Pablo Avenue, she said, there should be some. Small businesses, she noted, need customers.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHAT STEPS, IF ANY, THE COUNCIL AND REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY SHOULD TAKE TO ENCOURAGE COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND IF SO WHAT TYPE OF COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT

Friedman: Friedman said when he first ran he said there was a need for an economic development effort. A board is now in place, and the city is in the process of hiring an economic development manager. The city needs to direct its efforts toward sustainable development, urban oriented development. We should look for a mix of uses – office, commercial and housing -- so that we are not so dependant on cars. El Cerrito has a shortage of retail. The Plaza is finally opening new stores in stages. We should prevent new retail from taking so long in the future. The city, he said, should work aggressively with businesses in our area that want to expand, rather than bringing in more “big box” projects. The city should work with the Economic Development Board and business to come up with a creative vision. You can drive along and see stores like Walgreens through several Bay Area communities. “To me, we’d have no charm if we looked like the rest of the Bay Area.”

Moore: Ditto to Friedman’s comments. Adding to that, Moore said that we already have a lot of people passing through town on BART, buses, etc. If we take time to do transit villages, she said, we could “take advantage of what is both a curse and a blessing.” As someone who commutes to San Francisco, she said she knows it is priceless to be able do do your shopping on the way to and from work. El Cerrito is a wonderful place, she said, but a lot of people don’t know about it. In fact, she said, a lot of people who live here don’t know about a lot of the stores we have such as the button store, Down Home Music, and a new bead store. “We need to better advertise El Cerrito.”

Wise: Agreed with Moore’s comments that a lot of El Cerrito residents aren’t utilizing the business that are here. There are also other stores such as department stores that El Cerrito residents would like to have. Because El Cerrito doesn’t have the variety of stores, many El Cerrito shoppers go to places like Corte Madera and Walnut Creek to shop. “I’d like those dollars to stay in El Cerrito. A lot of work needs to be done on the process for approval – Planning Commission, Design Review Board, the permitting process. Wise noted the example of a business owner who wanted to put up a new façade – the process he had to go through was “not friendly.” Developers need to be given specific ideas of what the city wants. The Mill and Lumber developer, he said, had “no idea what the city wanted” (because city documents weren’t detailed enough.)

RESPONSE TO QUESTION OF WHAT INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS SHOULD BE ADDRESSED AND IN WHAT ORDER OF PRIORITY

Moore: We can’t address infrastructure needs – street repairs, city hall replacement, creek improvements -- without money. “The nature of local government in California is you need sales tax.” Buildings that house employees – such as child care centers and the community center, must be a priority. You can keep people off play structures if you have to, slow down on the road, but “where we have people we need to make sure those buildings are safe.” We need to address buildings of all who serve the city – police, fire, etc.

Wise: Public safety, other city buildings are important. He’s seen a lot of road work in town and believes road repair is on the way. Parks are important. But one of the biggest concerns when we get the money together is public safety and city hall. For economic development of the city, presentation is important. When a developer is planning to spend millions of dollars in town, he needs to see that the city is also willing to spend money.

Friedman: He is concerned about both the physical and social infrastructure of the city. “Since Proposition 13 we have not made a proper investment in either of those infrastructures.” We need to work on play fields with the school district, provide recreation for young people and all residents, improve the Ohlone Greenway, address needs of the environment and greenery. We need creative use of resources and going to the voters very carefully, for a specific need, where they can see the connection to what they are going to get. Because the city has been very conservative in spending it has a good reserve so the city can start work on a civic complex without going to the voters.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ABOUT HOW CITY CAN GET MORE INPUT FROM A CROSS SECTION OF THE COMMUNITY

Wise: This issue has been dealt with by the Economic Development Board, which he serves on. We need to use modern technology better. For example, the city is already in the first phase of upgrading the city’s web site. A second phase is planned that could include online chat rooms to provide a sort of online town hall meeting. They could be interactive with guest speakers. The type of Saturday morning meetings Larry Damon has been offering as mayor could be done online with a variety of elected and appointed city officials. Residents who normally wouldn’t come to city hall meetings could get involved, and perhaps some would then come to meetings too.

Friedman: The best way to get more people involved is to treat everyone who does participate with respect. That experience should be as fun and positive as possible. We’ve had some pretty acrimonious times in the past. People think: “Why would I every want to subject myself to that again?” We should make the effort to leave people feeling that their effort was worthwhile and meaningful.

Moore: She agreed that technology is a good thing and so is treating people with respect. “But I think the key is making it easy for people to participate.” There are still many people who don’t spend a lot of time online. Elected representatives need to make government as accessible as possible. Rather than having all meetings at the same place and at night, there could be meetings held at a variety of different times and at different locations. Perhaps meetings could be held on Saturday mornings sometimes, and could be brief and efficient. People could be encouraged to write letters and drop boxes could be set up in city offices. People could offer comments and ask questions of officials. It’s important that they get a prompt response.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION OF WHETER TO VOTE TO SUSPEND OR REDUCE THE UTILITIES USER TAX DURING THE ENERGY CRISIS

Moore: I don’t know. My inclination is no. But I don’t know anything about the tax. I don’t think I would suspend it, reduce it maybe. The energy crisis may be solved other ways.

Friedman: We should examine it to see who is suffering. Perhaps we could provide some relief for people on fixed incomes who are suffering but not a blanket change until we know more. Revenue is up from the tax but the city also has greater costs because of it, so there is a trade off. But if people are suffering and we can afford to reduce it we should do so.

Wise: If the city has the capacity to assist seniors, the disabled and people on fixed incomes that’s fine. I don’t know what avenues there are for that. I’d have to look into it.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHETHER THE COUNCIL SHOULD TAKE THE TIME TO REACH CONSENSUS ON ISSUES OR MAKE DECISIONS RIGHT AWAY

Friedman: Both

Wise: There isn’t a blanket answer. Some issues need to be discussed and looked into

Moore: Council members should talk over issues but that doesn’t mean they should hold up a decision until they reach consensus

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON HOW THE CITY CAN BUILD A TOWN CENTER, PRESERVE THE ENVIRONMENT

Wise: The Redevelopment Agency has a lot of options on the town center. The environment is always a concern in El Cerrito but it’s a balancing act and I think El Cerrito does a good job with that.

Moore: That’s what smart growth is about, not overtaxing the environment, putting development in old neighborhoods, putting it along the corridor, and of a size that serves the community. You don’t want to pull people in from too far or you overtax the roads.

Friedman: We should put the town center where public transit is, so you can get there by walking, riding a bike, taking BART. We’ve been trying to develop a shuttle service to take people to BART. We want to develop a unique charm for El Cerrito.

FRIEDMAN WAS ASKED TO EXPLAIN EARLIER COMMENT ON CREATIVE USE OF RESOURCES

We should leverage existing funds, put part of the city’s reserve toward an improved library, senior center, etc. and borrow the rest. We could work with the school district to improve play fields. Creek restoration has been done with some city support but a lot of the money comes from grants.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON POSITION ON THE MILL AND LUMBER PROJECT

Moore: I voted for it. It is an ideal use of the space. Some people were concerned that we were using up commercial land for residential. That didn’t bother me because it is a very large parcel. With the former use the front doors were on San Pablo Avenue and the parts of the business closer to residential were not that taxing on the residential area. There were concerns that there wasn’t enough retail but there is retail along San Pablo Avenue and along the side. I don’t think we need more retail than that at this point. The area in question is close to residences, and I don’t think stores would have wanted to come into that location because it isn’t that visible and probably wouldn’t have been successful.

Wise: We spent a lot of time on this on the Economic Development Board. I was very much for it, although I have some concerns. The entire process is flawed. We don’t have area specific plans so the developer doesn’t know what the city wants. The three bodies involved in reviewing the project were not cohesive so it got tossed back and forth. If we have an area specific plan in place developers will know what the city wants. We need to avoid terms like “majority” that leave up too much to debate.

Friedman: By the time the Mill and Lumber project came to the City Council it had been through scrutiny of the Planning Commission and Design Review Board and public review and it was better. I was able to enthusiastically vote for it. I’d like to make an opportunity for others to live here. It is mixed use, which is an idea we should be looking for. It’s not perfect but none are.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHAT CITY SHOULD DO TO PROVIDE MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEENS

Friedman: We should develop play fields for use by teenagers, child and adults. He would like to see a teen center. We should work closely with schools. It comes down to resources, and the city and school district are both strapped for money. Teenagers should be involved in developing the plans, not many are involved now.

Moore: Teenagers need things to do like drama, bicycling, art, music, etc. They should get involved in the fabric of our society. A teen center would be good but we can’t be tied to a building. Teens can get involved in youth groups through a variety of groups like churches and the NAACP. They need a voice.

Wise: He respects the quality of life in the city and used the parks himself as a kid. We should make improvements but “it all comes back to having the revenue to do so. We need to concentrate on the economic development of El Cerrito so we can have all these wonderful things.”

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHETHER THERE IS SUPPORT FOR A SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR EL CERRITO SEPARATE FROM THE WEST CONTRA COSTA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

Wise: I’ve heard mentioned, don’t know where the support is. It’s something I would definitely look into, the negative aspects and the positive aspects.

Friedman: Separate district is absolutely not the solution. It would mean more money on administration, rather than teachers’ salaries, facilities and the materials students need. We have some terrific school board members. The solution is to make sure we have opportunities for all children. It is not to separate El Cerrito out so that we have a whiter and more affluent school district.

Moore: I think it is a bad idea. If there is money for a separate school district why don’t we put that money into the existing school district and make it better? Abandoning the current school district is not a solution.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ABOUT POSSIBILITY OF DISBANDING “DESIGN COMMISSION”

Moore: This could mean the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission.
No, this is the process, statewide, for a project to go through Planning Commission first. If you don’t like the decision it can be appealed to the City Council. It is not a problem when someone appeals to the City Council. That’s the process. Having guidelines up front is good but there always need to be human input.

Friedman: No, I don’t think it should be disbanded. Business people always complain that the process can be slow and bureaucratic but I don’t think El Cerrito is any more cumbersome than elsewhere. He has worked with a lot of cities. “There is always a need for citizen input.” You get better projects by involving the citizenship. We could look to speed up as long as we don’t lose the democratic process.

Wise: I believe we can speed up the process, and look into disbanding. The process is too subjective. What one group likes another may not – “one person’s art is another’s garbage.”

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON POSITION ON GUN CONTROL

Friedman: I fully support gun control. U.S. is the only country in industrialized world where it is so easy to get a gun. This is an issue we need to address on a regional basis. If you require a lot of education there will be less accidents. We need to lessen the impact of violence in our society.

Moore: I definitely support gun control. I’m perplexed by anyone who doesn’t. Even hunters and collectors should understand that not everyone knows how to handle a gun. One city can’t decide what to do. It needs to be dealt with on a regional, national and even international level.

Wise: I used to sell firearms in my business but five years ago I voluntarily stopped. There are stringent rules and I met them to a T. His father and grandfather were police officers so he’s had guns in his home since he was born. He supports gun control. Everybody in the NRA supports gun control.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHAT CAN BE DONE TO IMPROVE LIBRARY

Wise: If and when we are able to build a city hall I’d like a museum of El Cerrito.

Moore: The countywide library measure failed, although if it had been just El Cerrito it would have passed. El Cerrito should work in partnership with other jurisdictions to improve the libraries. We should get regional support for the library system.

Friedman: I’m a tremendous user of libraries. There are two parts, physical improvement and staffing to keep in open. A new civic center could include a library. We’re part of a regional system and we need to work to get other communities to show same support we do.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ABOUT BEING MORE SPECIFIC ON AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Moore: Numbers are set by state in terms of what low-income, affordable are. Someone shouldn’t have to spend half of their income on housing.

Friedman: On the Mill and Lumber site we gave first refusal to public employees

Wise: I grew up here and when I turned 18 I moved out. I got married. I couldn’t afford to live here but I didn’t feel it was someone else’s job to make it affordable for me to live here. It was my job to find a place I could afford, and make more money if I wanted to move back. If it’s for seniors and the disabled I’m all for that, but not everybody can afford to live in El Cerrito. I don’t think as a city it’s our job to house everybody in Contra Costa .

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHETHER THEY SUPPORT SMART GROWTH

Friedman: Yes, smart growth is in harmony with the environment, not more urban sprawl that will take green away. You do that with in-fill development like El Cerrito Mill and Lumber. It means pedestrian friendly, so you don’t need to drive everywhere, also transit friendly. Take advantage of BART and AC Transit.

Moore: Agrees with what Mark said and added that these issues are not city specific but are regional and national. Affordable housing is not about having a right to live in El Cerrito. It’s about whether people have a right to a place to live at all. You can’t just ship that to the community next door, because nearby communities’ problems become your problem.

Wise: El Cerrito is on the way to being progressive with area specific design.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHETHER THEY HAD HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT AN EFFORT TO PRESERVE THE MILL AND LUMBER BUILDING AND PRESERVE FOR CITY SERVICES

Wise: He has talked to the contractors. It is mainly a façade, the inside needs a lot of work.

Moore: I don’t know about a movement. I don’t know if it would be a good purchase or not.

Friedman: I’ve heard they would donate the building for a city hall but we could do better than be in an old warehouse.

RESPONSE TO QUESTION ON WHETHER THE CITY’S TREE ORDINANCE SHOULD BE REPEALED

Moore: The process probably needs to be revised. It’s always a good idea to review ordinances to see if conditions have changed, and get community input.

Friedman: There was a situation recently at Canyon Trail with trees that were planted that have gotten taller than planned. It was poor planning and we don’t want to repeat that mistake. Some people think views are more important, some trees. There probably are easier ways to address the issue.

Wise: He shared an example of neighbors who resolved a tree issue without ever going to the Tree Commission. “Trees are important but people have to come first.” Sometimes you have to cut a tree, but we don’t want to clearcut.

CLOSING REMARKS

Moore: A lower voter turnout is expected. It is important we all vote. A lot of voters weren’t here tonight, and she asked those who did attend to encourage their neighbors to vote.

Wise: Investing in El Cerrito’s economic future is essential to quality of life in El Cerrito. Government and politics are new to him but he’s researched and this election is supposed to be nonpartisan. He’s found out it’s not. But the club has the choice to make no endorsement. He considered not coming since the club can’t endorse him but it was an opportunity to speak to residents.

Friedman: He’s glad Tony came because the club’s is the best organized and attended forum we have. He and Gina are on the council so what you see is what you get. The council has had a lot of successes. He has endorsements such as Congressman George Miller, Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, county Supervisor John Gioia. The council has solved some problems, but there are more to solve.

Run dates: 2001-09-13 - 2001-11-06
 


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