Three candidates are running for two open seats on the Menlo Park City Council in the Nov. 8 election: incumbents Ray Mueller and Catherine Carlton, and challenger Cecilia Taylor.
While Ms. Taylor has less experience in city government than the two incumbents, she resides in the city's Belle Haven neighborhood, and the council has had no member from Belle Haven, a less affluent area of the city, since Billy Ray White served on the council three decades ago. Carolyn Clarke was the most recent Belle Haven resident to vie for a council seat when she ran in 2012.
Ray Mueller. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
Cecilia Taylor. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
Catherine Carlton. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
"One of the big challenges we have right now is the rising tide of the economy. ... It's not rising for everybody. We have people who are being left behind. So the question is, how do you go ahead and build in proper systems to make sure that everyone's taken care of?"
Looking within and beyond the boundaries of Menlo Park to solve problems is what Ray Mueller says he plans to do if he is re-elected in November.
He was first elected to the council in 2012, and since then has engaged in projects and initiatives, big and small.
On the smaller side he's pursued kid-friendly projects. He supported work by architect Sam Sinnott and Menlo-Atherton Little League board member Marc Bryman to draw up expansion plans for the Burgess Park snack stand to resemble the city's former Foster's Freeze soft-serve parlor. He pushed for a children's carousel and entertainment venue to be considered as elements in studies for a theoretical downtown parking structure. He also promoted the "Menlo Park Loves Kids" campaign that encouraged city businesses to agree to do things such as learn local kids' names or offer internships to youth.
Mr. Mueller has also worked on a larger scale. As a councilman, he has worked with the San Mateo County Jobs Housing Task Force, in addition to representing the city on the board of the Facebook Community Fund, which helps distribute Facebook funds to local nonprofits, and on the South Bayside Waste Management Authority JPA. He is also the assigned liaison for the city's environmental quality, library, and transportation commissions.
He says his approach is to think of Menlo Park as one piece of a regional puzzle, where jurisdictional boundaries matter less than common-sense solutions to shared problems.
"We have systems in place that are 50-year-old ways of thinking about cities," he said.
The city should work more with its neighbors, he said. Agreements between cities could be signed that would enable revenues to be shared, infrastructure funded, economic growth spurred, and housing built rather than have cities pushing others away in pursuit of economic growth. He supports projects such as connecting U.S. 101 to Bayfront Expressway, and revenue-sharing agreements.
"One of the things I pride myself on as a City Council member is being innovative and trying to think outside the box," he said.
An idea he has pursued on the council is to develop a joint powers authority (JPA) that could create a funding source for cities to help support the Ravenswood City School District, which has a $282 million shortfall in the funding it needs to make safety improvements and modernize its facilities beyond what it can fund with bond measures. Belle Haven School and others in the eastern part of the city are in the Ravenswood district.
The JPA that Mr. Mueller has proposed would gather representatives from Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Mateo County and the Ravenswood school district. So far, Mr. Mueller and Ms. Carlton are the council representatives on a subcommittee to look into the possibility of establishing such a group.
"Menlo Park is a very interesting city because on one corner of the city, we have billionaires, and on others, we have those who are underserved," he said. "It's a perfect Petri dish to create really effective policy."
"It's obvious that there are pieces missing on the council, and I believe that (one of them) is a voice like mine."
It was a personal misfortune that brought Cecilia Taylor back to Menlo Park a little over a year ago. She and her husband had been on vacation when they were told a fire had damaged the San Bruno home they rented. The pair returned to Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood and began renting from Ms. Taylor's mother. Her family has been in Menlo Park for three generations.
Ms. Taylor, a middle school math teacher at a private academy in Redwood City, became frustrated at the state of her neighborhood. Schools in the Ravenswood City School District are still underperforming; the narrow arteries to and from the neighborhood are choked with traffic for hours each day; and the city has no representation on its City Council from Belle Haven, even as it considers and approves major developments on its eastern side.
So Ms. Taylor got involved, and began attending lots of city meetings, including meetings of the General Plan Advisory Committee, ConnectMenlo, the Planning Commission, the Housing Commission and the City Council.
Ms. Taylor's campaign slogan is: "Menlo Park, Many Neighborhoods, One City." As the slogan suggests, one of her primary goals will be to improve communication and increase civic engagement across the city, especially in her neighborhood, so that Belle Haven will no longer be what she calls "the lonely triangle."
Some of her ideas are to improve pedestrian safety, such as installing better traffic controls at Newbridge Street and Willow Road, where she says she sees pedestrians in danger under the current stoplight configuration. She wants to work with the county's Safe Journeys to School program to pursue safe bike and pedestrian routes citywide to all Menlo Park schools. She would support some form of mandatory tenant-landlord agreements, and a possible cap on major rent increases over a certain period of time.
A big concern is the poor educational outcomes of Menlo Park children who go to schools in the Ravenswood City School District. In addition to supporting Mr. Mueller's educational equity joint powers authority proposal, she would support eastern Menlo Park schools forming a new district or being absorbed into the Menlo Park City School District.
She's open to new ideas, she said, and has already added a stack of city documents to her reading list.
As a renter and a Belle Haven resident, she said, she represents a different perspective that's currently missing from the council. For instance, she said, the city has been remiss in not tracking how many people have already been evicted or priced out of the community.
"There are just certain things that the city didn't do because their perspective isn't there. My perspective is there," she said.
The changes the council members make on the eastern side of the city do not affect them directly, she said. "They get to make the decision but they put it over here, so they don't actually see what's happening. They have to call someone and ask or drive by. I hear it. I see it every day."
Since there are two open seats, she said, "there's still space for one of the two incumbents (who are running for re-election). And there's space for me too."
"I would like to be elected one more time to finish a lot of the things that we started."
On the City Council, the sludgy pace of city bureaucracy can be frustrating, said incumbent Catherine "Cat" Carlton. Projects she'd like to see done are invariably more complicated than they seem, she said, and her first term hasn't been long enough to see some of the projects she's worked on through to fruition.
She cited a lesson learned from her childhood. She had complained about something and her mother, a teacher who raised two children alone, told her: "There will always be people more poor than you, and there will always be people richer than you, so get over it. If you see a need, it's your responsibility to step up and do something about it."
While serving as mayor in 2015, she followed this advice, stepping in as president of the Las Lomitas Education Foundation, which had a leadership vacuum at the time, she said. In the 2015-16 school year, the foundation raised $2.45 million. She also serves as the council's liaison to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, and Parks & Recreation and Planning commissions.
If re-elected, she said, she wants to launch a program that would open college savings accounts for some Menlo Park kindergartners, such as those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. She told the Almanac that she has already had $100,000 promised by local businesses and foundations committed to supporting the program.
She said she's talking to banks about the possibility. Studies indicate that students who have college savings accounts are more likely to graduate from high school, regardless of the amount saved in the account, she said.
On development projects along El Camino Real, she said, "I think that people in Menlo Park are ready to see something developed that is appropriate." She recently served on the council's subcommittee to negotiate the development agreement for the Greenheart project, which will have 14 units designated for rental by low-income tenants and six for moderate-income tenants. She supported construction of sidewalks along Santa Cruz Avenue, from roughly Hillview Middle School to downtown, and outdoor dining areas downtown.
Downtown revitalization, she said, "is on the right trajectory."
On the topic of displacement, she says she is waiting to receive recommendations from city staff based on research into "best practices" with regard to tenant protection, but does support six-month or 90-day leases instead of month-to-month policies.
Ms. Carlton's initiatives during her first term in office have focused on children and the environment. For kids, she promoted an anti-bullying public awareness campaign in schools, supported the city's "safe routes to school" initiatives, and led an international exchange program between Bizen, Japan, and Menlo Park for middle school students.
On environmental matters, she supports bike-friendly initiatives such as green paint on bike lanes and added bike racks downtown. She pushed the city to ban neonicotinoids, a form of pesticide linked to honey bee die-offs, in city parks, and worked with local jeweler Ceci Wong to sell necklaces to raise money to plant trees in the city. Ms. Carlton also supports water conservation measures, like safely encouraging more greywater use.
"I'm kind of a greenie," she said.
Occupation: Business Development Director at Mandarin Matrix, an online learning company.
Experience: Member, Menlo Park City Council (since 2012); past president, Las Lomitas Education Foundation; former member, Parks and Recreation Commission; former vice president, Sharon Heights Homeowners Association; founding board member, Peninsula Clean Energy and Menlo Park Sister City Committee; board member, Council of Cities, Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired; member, City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County and League of Cities.
Education: B.A., Tulane University, public communications; MBA, Cass Business School, London.
Campaign contributions received: $18,879 as of Sept. 24
Occupation: vice president, One Concern, an artificial intelligence company.
Experience: Member, Menlo Park City Council (since 2012); board member, LifeMoves (formerly InnVision Shelter Network); former chief of staff, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian; past chair, Menlo Park Transportation Commission; past board member, Las Lomitas Education Foundation; past development team member, Ravenswood Education Foundation; past organizer, Santa Cruz Avenue Neighborhood Association; past pro bono attorney, San Mateo County Domestic Violence Collaborative; past co-host, Healthy Communities Forums.
Education: B.S., bio-resource sciences, U.C. Berkeley; J.D., civil litigation concentration, U.C. Hastings College of the Law
Campaign contributions received: $12,098 as of Sept. 24
Occupation: Math instructor /community advocate
Experience: Member, Ad hoc Advisory Board for San Mateo County Housing Authority, 2000-2012; trainee, Bay Area leadership conference by PICO California, a faith-based community organizing network pursuing racial and economic justice; volunteer, East Palo Alto Teen Home; tutor, homeless shelter; co-host, community meetings on affordable housing; participant, ConnectMenlo, General Plan Advisory Committee, City Council, Planning Commission meetings; attendee, local workshop on understanding environmental impact reports.
Education: B.A., mathematics, San Francisco State University; Early Childhood Education Certificate, Canada College.
Campaign contributions received: $1,304 as of Sept. 24