Three vie for two seats on East Palo Alto City Council
Second-time candidate Doug Fort is taking on incumbents Ruben Abrica and David Woods
Two years ago, nine candidates vied for three seats on the East Palo Alto City Council in the November election. Since then, the recession and other challenges have left the city of 33,900 in a state of limbo.
The council race this year is quieter than in 2008, with just three candidates contending for two open slots.
Two are incumbents, current Mayor David Woods and Ruben Abrica. The other is second-time candidate Doug Fort, who placed fourth in 2008.
Issues the new council will confront include personnel and financial challenges, with some bright spots.
Alvin James, the city's at-times embattled city manager, retired earlier this year. A recent search for a new city manager has fizzled, sending the council back to the drawing board, one official said.
Police Chief Ron Davis, who has been well-respected in the community, made his career aspirations known this year by interviewing (and being selected as a finalist) for the police-chief posts in Seattle and New Orleans.
The city continues to struggle financially, having seen home values and property taxes plummet along with those of many other California cities due to the Great Recession.
But there are, and have been, bright spots. After three decades without a full-service supermarket, Mi Pueblo opened a 35,000-square-foot store in November 2009. A drawn-out legal war over the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance with the city's largest landlord, Page Mill Properties, has finally come to a close following Page Mill's financial implosion and subsequent acquisition by Wells Fargo.
And officials, ever hopeful for an economic boon, continue to work at turning a former industrial area in the northeastern corner of the city into a revitalized business district.
The five-member council also includes current Vice Mayor Carlos Romero and Laura Ramirez, both of whom were newly elected in 2008, and longtime councilman A. Peter Evans.
Fort is best known as the founder of the anti-violence organization "For Youth By Youth." Currently studying for a law degree from the Silicon Valley Law School, he holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Fort feels strongly that the city should reform its system of governance by adding more commissions to allow more residents to participate in municipal decision-making.
"We have very intelligent people in the city, but they don't have a place to engage," Fort said.
He favors launching commissions that could address public safety, finance, immigration and environmental protection. (The city currently has boards or committees for planning, rent stabilization, senior, youth and transportation.)
The reform would prevent City Council meetings from running so long and inefficiently, in part by curtailing the need for the council to conduct so many study sessions, Fort said. Plus, the council listens repeatedly to residents who feel they aren't getting answers to their concerns at any other level.
"There's nothing like your community talking to you — but first to the commissions," said Fort, who said he watches council meetings on TV rather than regularly attending.
Though Fort compliments Chief Davis on "doing an excellent job," he also calls Davis "an island."
"We are a police state," Fort said. "I see (police) strategies put out there that criminalize children of color.
"The 'overcharging' is what I have problems with," he said, referring to charges being escalated — drug dealers charged with gang activity when they're not gang members, for example. (Fort, for the record, said he sold drugs at one point.)
Fort briefly served on the Ravenswood Business District advisory board but dropped out when his daughter was born prematurely. He was also on the community board that interviewed candidates for city manager.
He is enthusiastic about the redevelopment district and favors hiring a city manager with depth of experience in that area.
"Bringing in jobs, shops — all these things. We need to go in that direction. We need that expertise to help us," he said.
David Woods was first elected to the council in 2002 and has served as mayor three times.
He believes the strongest reason for voters to re-elect him is "momentum."
"We've made good strides in the last six years. We can keep the ball rolling," he said. "At this juncture, experience is very important. ... We have relationships with (federal and other) agencies that have been able to get funding."
It takes time to learn the issues, and there are two members (Romero and Ramirez) who have served just two years, he said.
"One more new person will stall things," he said.
One of Woods' concerns is the city's fiscal health.
"We still lag behind per capita in tax," he said. "The biggest challenge in next couple of years is the property-tax revenues. Our property values have plummeted."
Some properties have been reassessed at half of what they were previously, and 40 percent of the city's general fund is derived from property taxes.
Wood's doesn't favor new taxes. He said he does want to start collecting fees that are currently waived for seniors and nonprofit organizations. He'd also like to recoup costs for services the city is providing for free or at almost no charge — such as police overtime expenses for staffing parades.
"We're not doing a good job of collecting what's on the books now. It's run on emotions," he said.
He compliments former City Manager James for keeping the city going "in the right direction" but said he wants to see several departments in the city restructured.
He defends how City Council meetings are run, despite some tumultuous exchanges.
"The end product is good. How we get there is just a little rough."
Abrica considers himself something of an elder statesman of East Palo Alto, having served on the council when the city first incorporated in the 1980s and currently since 2004.
He said he is most proud of the planning that he and other council members have accomplished.
"As a result of some good planning over the last few years we were able to balance our budget, didn't lay anyone off, gave small cost-of-living adjustments and maintained a small reserve," he said in an interview with the Weekly.
The council also created a capital improvement plan, and with federal stimulus funds streets are being repaired for the first time.
"We're starting to see the results of that," he said.
Ravenswood Business District planning is underway, and he takes credit as mayor in 2006 for starting conversations in the community about the large redevelopment project. He appointed a joint committee and a community group of advisers to gather input on what residents and business owners would like to see in that area of town. This time next year, he expects the city will have developed what's known as a specific plan for the district.
He agrees with Fort's idea to add more commissions but opposes adding them this year, given that each commission requires staff time. People aren't clamoring to serve on the existing boards anyway, he said.
In regards to the Police Department, Abrica praises the recent decision to commission a $40,000 study of violence with Measure C funds in order to develop a comprehensive plan for what the city can do to reduce crime.
Demographic-based race relations are improving, Abrica said. The city is now nearly 60 percent Latino, and Abrica believes the transition of political power from the former African-American council majority to a Latino majority has been "successful."
"We've gotten into some fights, but ultimately you have to fight it out in public, and that's how we've done it," he said. "So I'd say we're in good shape."
Weekly Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.