We are four furlongs into the race to fill three open seats on the Novato City Council. Has anyone moved ahead? Has there been a breakaway by some from the peloton of eight candidates? The answer is yes and yes. (Full Disclosure: I have contributed to Pam Drew’s war chest)
All candidates are in favor of fiscal sustainability (not necessarily a balanced budget), infrastructure improvements, maintaining safety and a good quality of life (by supporting the police force), some types of affordable housing, bringing the “right” (green biotech) companies with high paying jobs into Novato, etc.
It is interesting to point out which topics candidates choose not to discuss. These issues are considered divisive, and every vote counts. There are differences. Some candidates tout their endorsements, but these typically bring a lot of ideological baggage and suspicion of back room deals necessary to get those endorsements.
Pam Drew is clearly part of the breakaway from the peloton. The key elements of her candidacy were clearly set forth in her opening statement at the League of Women Voters Forum. She is a candidate offering “change” in how City government operates that is distinctly different from that of incumbent candidates Lucan and MacLeamy. Pam would support Measure C, the ¼% sales tax increase, only if the present Measure F ½% sales tax funds are accounted for, bringing more transparency to City government.
Drew’s hot button issues are the unnecessarily complex staff reports on important issues and a community perceived lack of transparency under City Manager Michael Frank, whose dark pool “ let them eat cake” persona was repugnant to many who bothered to pay attention to our civic issues. Mr. Frank has some fans, such as MacLeamy and Lucan, both card-carrying rubber stampers of Frank’s requests – aka the KLAM Bakers (Kelleher, Lucan, Athas, MacLeamy).
Candidate Barry Buckley thinks Mr. Frank “has done a great job”. An odd comment for a businessman who knows Mr. Frank designed and built a structural deficit of $2.4 million for next year. One plus for Buckley is that he lets you know where he stands. He has some different and somewhat puzzling suggestions such as having a civilian militia to supplement the police force in case of disasters and storing emergency supplies on Ammo Hill in Hamilton. These are not necessarily bad ideas, but are they of compelling interest during a political campaign?
Candidate Steve Jordan offers well considered and measured responses to controversial issues. He is the second “change” candidate, along with Drew, who is concerned that non-organized citizen input to the Council and Staff is being ignored and not given the degree of consideration it should in Council deliberations. Instead, citizen input gets lost amid the noise of special interest groups and City Staff preferences.
Candidate Gary Butler goes to great efforts not to offend anyone as he avoids stands on controversial issues, such as low-income high-density affordable housing. The affable Butler is able to use the Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum approach as his wife, being another Butler, has her signage up as a candidate running for Trustee of the Novato District School Board.
Butler has the advantage of being the one-choice bullet-vote candidate endorsed by the special interest group, the Novato Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is working hard to get Butler elected so that they can continue their present dominant influence on the City Council via the KLAM Bakers. The Chamber maintains that their best interest is the best interest for Novato too.
It is unsettling that a special interest group, such as the Chamber, who receives City tax funds to run the Novato visitors Center, feels it is appropriate for it to try and dominate City politics. Because of this City funding, the Chamber should remain at arm’s length from City politics for as long as it has an on-going contract involving the expenditure of City tax funds.
Incumbent Eric Lucan has to run on his record and the financial straits the City finds itself in today. Lucan rightly points out the divergent trend between expenses and revenues in the City budget, which is causing the present structural deficit, and he has voted against the budget for that reason. However, a true fiscally responsible Council member would not have voted to increase the previous spending that drives this deficit today. It’s one thing to vote against something after it has occurred. It’s another thing to make the difficult decisions to prevent it from happening in the first place. A prime example of this lack of fiscal restraint is Lucan’s voting for an unneeded oversized regional transit bus terminal, and $100,000 for a vague study for an unfunded downtown SMART station.
Incumbent Jeanne MacLeamy is wearing the same horse collar as Eric Lucan i.e. what you have today is due to what they have done over the past four years. There are some positive accomplishments, such as the much improved City web site. However, the KLAM Bakers refuse to live within the limitations that a balanced budget requires. Both MacLeamy and Lucan approve of the controversial City Manager Michael Frank’s off-putting style of administration, particularly when he disagrees with citizens’ views. Their past support of Frank’s employment contract renewal and salary increase means they endorse and support his questionable methods.
Today, Novato is not in good financial shape. The KLAM Bakers count on increased revenues through increased taxes. MacLeamy’s comment regarding the affordable housing issue “we are not going to be able to build our way out of this, more mass transit will help” is revealing. It is also an acknowledgement that she believes that mass transit, and it’s accompanying high-density development possibilities, are not a minus for Novato. Most high- density developers feel the same way.
Eleanor Sluis is a perennial self-described civic activist candidate and advocate for the voices of Novato’s 28 neighborhoods. She is against additional sports fields in Novato, preferring numerous small parks for family and children. She pushes back against increased high-density urbanization of Novato. She recently made a cogent remark that part of the funding for the unneeded Regional Transit Facility could be used to build a downtown SMART station. A more realistically sized local bus station could still be funded with the remaining funds. She is not fan of SMART.
Candidate Josh Fryday is an enigma. Many are trying to figure out what he does, and why so much (two-thirds) of his reported campaign funds come from outside the district. His campaign mantra is that he brings CEO experience to Novato, however brief that experience as a CEO may be. He presents himself as the CEO of an “organization focused on clean energy and a sustainable economy”. Actually, he is CEO of a Super PAC (political action committee) funded by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who is the Democrat’s equivalent to the Koch Brothers.
Super PAC’s have universally received withering condemnation from national electoral watchdog organizations who maintain that uncontrolled spending on elections by special interests is not conducive to good government. Voters lose faith in the concept of “fair” elections when they perceive outside money is successful in “buying” an election result. Why bother to vote when the result is up for sale?
Fryday is one of Steyer’s political operatives in Steyer’s NextGen Climate Super PAC whose modus operandi is to deliberately influence key elections by injecting large sums of outside money into one single candidate’s campaign fund who shares the Super PAC’s view of how to take action on climate change. NextGen Climate is a national political committee (PAC), according to Steyer’s own posting on YouTube, and Fryday is the CEO of that committee. NextGen Climate’s business is buying political influence, (not so) pure and simple.
This could easily explain why Fryday, who admits he has only ever attended one Novato City Council meeting, feels he can get elected. His candidacy is not about Novato. Rather, it is more about the ability of the State, County and local Democrat political machines to deliver a City Council position, making themselves worthy of future campaign fund donations by Steyer’s Super PAC. For NextGen Climate it’s just another “break-out session” on how elections can be bought.
It is alarming that a national Super PAC has inserted itself into Novato’s local politics. A Super PAC’s support distorts local elections with outside monetary and non-monetary support for a single candidate, be it hard cash or access to free staff campaign consultants. It tilts the important concept of a level playing field for all candidates.
Josh Fryday seems to be a personable guy. However, his acceptance and use of massive out-of-district campaign donations removes the “local” out of our local election. It diminishes and tarnishes Fryday, who apparently feels out-of-district funds are necessary to get himself elected.
History reveals that Novato was the scene of the first battle of the Mexican-American War at the Battle of Olompali between members of the Bear Flag Revolt skirmishers and General Jose Castro’s Presidio of Monterey forces. Hopefully, Novato still retains some of that independence when it comes to local elections.
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The Northwest Quadrangle that is essentially Old Novato had another nail driven in its coffin by the Planning Commission when the Commission OK’d the removal of the R10-4.5 designation and also the policy that “Those single-family homes which are in sound condition should not be removed for apartment constructio
Now, it is open season for medium (10 -20 multi-family) development on the few remaining single family homes that constitute Novato’s architectural heritage as a historic small Marin community. Novato’s architectural soul has been sold to medium density crazed city planners in cahoots with the Community Development Department and regional mass transit planners.
The revised policy adopted by the Planning Commission will be incorporated into the current update of the City’s General Plan. As said before, Old Novato is toast.
The persuasion parade followed the same route used in two previous charade charrettes seeking but not heeding community input. Opticos Design, the City’s hired gun planning consultants, threw up scary “massing models” of what could happen with new development, conveniently assuming that the Design Review Board and the Planning Commission en masse dropped dead. Never would happen, but useful to intimidate. It didn’t work on the Planning Commission, but it set the tone for subsequent discussion.
Next was a declaration by the planning consultant that there was a “missing” middle range of housing types, apparently a newly fabricated requirement. Of course, “missing” really was code for pressure to create a new requirement for medium density multi-family housing, a new planning hammer residing in every Marin social engineering planner’s toolbox. Some would call the so called “missing middle” density requirement a middle finger to single family neighborhoods.
Much discussion centered on the consultant’s favorite “Form-Based Zoning” that is a design technique used to put in place an architecturally compatible building façade while disguising the 10 to 20 units behind that façade. It is a technique used to stuff more people into a given space without giving the outward impression they are there. But they are there, and there are consequences, some of which negatively impact existing quality of life.
Unfortunately, people do tend to move around, and therein lies the rub. Residents drive, need services such as garbage, police, places to park, play, etc. Little attention is given to these knock-on considerations and the increased social services costs associated with medium and high density housing. Families with children have insufficient space to play and so end up disturbing other residents. Parks are demanded with concomitant expensive City staffing and maintenance. The community as a whole must pay for this, with the primary beneficiaries being the medium and high density multi-family units and apartment dwellers. Again, more taxes have to be paid with no significant benefits to the community at large.
It is generally agreed that people who own their homes take better care of their home and are more vested in the condition and lifestyle of their community. It is also agreed that multi-family unit residents tend to be renters. Renters have little long term “skin in the game” relating to housing stock. As a result, less interest is taken in the community. The charrettes graphically proved this to be the case as almost no renters in the community attended either charrette despite expensive publicity efforts by the City staff. Over 80% of residents in the NW Quadrangle are renters. The majority of the attendees were owners of the area’s apartment building and single family homes.
The charrette charade proved to be exactly that. Novato residents’ critical concern was the lack of City code enforcement and its subsequent negative effect on the quality of life and inducing further investment in our town. The Community development department’s response was the old red herring “not enough staff”. What kind of answer is that coming from City staff responding to community concerns? Prioritizing, efficiency, and reallocation of existing resources is not an option? The lack of creative administration is appalling and very disappointing.
The remainder of the residents’ input at the charrettes concerned through-traffic safety issues and cosmetics. The Community Development Department’s response was residents’ would purchase and maintain any trees. The City might assist in digging holes for the trees. Of course, over time the tree roots would destroy any sidewalks and residents are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk.
As always, the minimal City support proffered for any future cosmetic improvements was again attributed to a “lack of money”. It is definitely long past the time to get some innovative replacements for the current senior City staff who remain steadfastly focused on carrying out County plans while ignoring residents’ preferences and advocating for them.
Commissioner Jay Strauss cut through the fog of planning verbiage and simply asked what would happen to existing single family housing if the zoning were changed. Also, why not improve code enforcement in the neighborhood and minimize deliberate decay in single family homes? It would improve the area’s quality of life and provide an incentive for organic development due to the desirable ambience of living among architecturally historic single family homes.
Their response was that “perhaps” Clayton Court area houses could be designated as worth being “saved” but the rest of the Quadrangle was not and should be put up for grabs for profitable development while increasing neighborhood density. In effect, the City staff had already made the decision to increase the Quadrangle’s density to appease outside regional planners.
Other than tiny Clayton Court, the Community Development Department felt the rest of the single family homes weren’t worth preserving. Furthermore, Bob Brown’s Community Development Department already had the implied approval of density increase by City Manager Michael Frank, and default approval by the ever-compliant “KLAM Baker” voting bloc on the City Council. It was a “no brainer”.
Commissioner Susan Wernick raised the issue of parking several times. The response by Opticos Design and Bob Brown was inadequate. This major planning issue was brushed off with the admission that medium density housing resulted in additional street parking – end of story and concern. Ameliorating references were made to mass transit availability that has proven to be a non-starter in a suburban environment.
At this point, the question should be raised as to the propriety of a Principal Transportation Planner for Marin County Department of Public Works being Chair of a City Planning Commission that very easily can find itself at odds with the County planning policy. The potential for conflict of interest is definitely there, and even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided in the name of good government practice. With all due respect to Planning Commission Chair Dan Dawson it places him unnecessarily in an awkward position when local planning issues are discussed which are also issues undergoing parallel discussion at the County level.
Later, a comment was made by Mr. Dawson that insufficient parking should not be a major issue, apparently implying that regional mass transit would compensate. Unfortunately, the failure of the mass transit planners to reconcile “the last mile” issue of suburban travel between home and mass transit stops still renders the concept of suburban mass transit an oxymoron.
It appears that there is a Fifth Column planning network in Marin. Charade charrettes contribute to this impression. Community input to the local planning process apparently is only “filler material” to the grand planning scheme developed by the County as tasked by the State and current Federal policy. All other interests are sacrificed to the god of ever cleaner air. Throw in income redistribution, social justice, cultural diversity, racial quotas, and the demands for “affordable” taxpayer subsidized housing and you have Marin’s future. Who is going to pay for all of this? Look in the mirror.
March 25th approximately 50 people gathered again at the Our Lady of Loretto Parish Hall on Novato Blvd. Whereas meeting #1 was smooth as new asphalt, meeting #2 was more like a gravel road. Again half attending actually live within the Quadrant.
The format was different with more emphasis on housing renewal and build-out options. What could possibly happen under the existing zoning was stressed. The underlying message seemed to be “this is what could happen if the zoning is not changed”. Simultaneously, it was repeatedly emphasized by the presenters that preservation of the historical existing single family home presence was all important.
A lot of time was spent explaining how a certain size lot could accommodate 4 to 10 residences while appearing from the street view that only two residences were actually on the lot.
The more the residents understood the concepts being presented the heretofore subliminal discomfort with the direction of the discussion began to surface. The essence of the discussion centered around how more homes could be put in place while appearing to preserve the remains of the historical single house residential neighborhood.
This subtle emphasis on accommodating unwanted growth moved to the front burner of the discussion. There has been little recent organic growth in Novato. ABAG and the regional transit agencies along with affordable housing special interest groups, developers and consultants are planning to drive more growth and increased housing density.
The question being mooted was is this Northwest Quadrant Neighborhood resident input really a preparation process to inoculate current residents to City Staff promulgated plans to accommodate increased neighborhood housing density in order to meet the dictates of the regional planning agencies who are driving population growth and cultural quotas in Marin? Are the City staff planners acting more as agents of regional planning agencies rather than supporting the expressed preferences of the local residents? Is the local resident input process just a charade?
Of course there will be denials all the way around this is the case. But tie in the neighborhood growth discussion with a nearby proposed huge unneeded bus terminal currently backed by City staff, County planners, and the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the handwriting is on the wall. Its not about the neighborhood. Its about the social engineering planners’ ideal social template worshiped at the regional planning agencies all in the name of ever cleaner air.
The answer is for the neighborhood to push back and hard in the next election this Fall by putting new people on the City Council who will lead rather than meekly follow the City staff’ “no realistic option” attitude while quietly acquiescing to regional planners’ growth and housing targets.
Quadrant residents were repeatedly assured by Community Director Bob Brown that by using the anonymous tip line in the Zoning & Planning Department existing out of code behavior and practices could be remedied quickly and the quality of life within the Quadrant improved. Much to Mr Brown’s embarrassment this turns out not to be true.
A recent instance was when Supervising Code Enforcement Officer Gary Beretta replied by e-mail to a complaining resident “I am unable to meet at any time the rest of the month due to staff shortage”. The quality of this response is indicative of where department managers’ priorities lie. Perhaps change is also due inside City Hall.
Saturday March 14th saw approximately 50 people about half of which actually lived within the area with the rest being city staff, City Council members, urban planners from Opticos Design of Berkeley, and assorted interested Novato community members with a smattering of non-resident landlords.
All in all the event went very well. After a tour of the area the entourage retired to the Village Restaurant on Grant Avenue for a presentation by Dan Parolek, a Principal at Opticos, that covered the existing housing and lifestyle of the Quadrant and potential building options, if done, would be available. After a complimentary pizza lunch to exercise ended around 12:30 PM.
Considering the past chasm of credibility regarding City senior staff’s ulterior planning motives this meeting was free of any sense of the staff “managing” the citizens attending. Community Development Director Bob Brown, the City staff and Optics Design did an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of non-judgmental, sincere attention to those who actually lived within the quadrant.
Especially appreciated was the absence of preachy special interest groups. The silent presence of a majority of the City Council added gravis to the importance of local residents’ input regarding present concerns of the existing quality of life and apprehensions over what urban planners thought would be appropriate ways to accommodate any future growth.
Seasoned City public policy wonks might consider such a successful event as sleeping with the enemy but it worked. One can only hope the next event 7:30 PM on Wednesday the 23rd at the Lady of Loretto Parish Hall is as successful.
As is the case where there exists a significant difference between what the existing residents want and what the regional planning agencies demand, the sharks gliding beneath the calm surface are the not easily understood implications of making any change to the present situation. In the past many residents have come to the conclusion that the present senior City Staff managers act more like agents of the regional planning agencies rather than reflecting the preferences of the City’s residents. Caught in the middle are junior City staff who are caught in the crossfire while doing as directed.
One salient point made frequently by Quad residents was the lack of enforcement of existing City codes. The failure to enforce these codes has had a significant detrimental effect on the community’s ambiance and quality of life. The danger is that existing law abiding residents will grow frustrated and move out of the area making room for residents who are comfortable with a non-compliant lifestyle. The situation becomes a potential downward spiral Novato would do well to avoid at all costs.
Most residents have no idea as to what the Northwest Quadrant is. Below are photo’s to define the area.
One of the more interesting inputs from the community was a mapping exercise noting existing good and bad comments on specific points within the Quadrant.
One existing community housing characteristic is an already a relatively high (for Novato) percentage of the area occupied by multi-family housing much of which is not compliant with existing City building codes.
There were sotto voce comments expressing concern that further increased density and additional low income housing would create the opportunity for a Novato “Canal Area”. According to the US Census Bureau estimates the Downtown area of Novato has the lowest median household income and the highest percentage (32%) of Spanish speakers who do not speak English “very well” within the City limits. Combine the low income factor with out of code apartments that cannot be financially feasibly upgraded to comply with existing code and the likely result is a continual decline in a substantial portion of the area’s housing stock becoming increasingly attractive to even lower median income households.
Interesting was the absence of Latino residents at the meeting. Several explanations were proffered including a lack of interest, being renters not homeowners, having to work on Saturdays, being illegal residents and concern with being so identified, etc. All or none of these may be true but the Latino absence was noticeable especially when compared with the significant Latino presence on Grant Avenue outside the meeting room.