Four years ago, Menlo Park City Council members Peter Ohtaki and Kirsten Keith received the most votes citywide compared with their competitors. Last month, under an entirely new district-based voting system, they lost their respective district races by wide margins to two people who volunteer on city commissions, Betsy Nash and Drew Combs.
How and why did Ohtaki and Keith lose their council seats, and what does this mean for the city of Menlo Park?
In District 2, which includes the Willows, Flood Triangle, Lorelei Manor and Suburban Park neighborhoods, Drew Combs won 62.3 percent of the vote, defeating Kirsten Keith, who won 37.7 percent.
Keith won just one precinct, which includes the VA health care center, with 15 votes to Combs' 10. Of the other precincts, she came closest to winning in the one including Suburban Park, the households of the looping area of Hedge Road to Greenwood Drive off of Bay Road, which she lost with 190 votes to Combs' 195.
Combs won by particularly wide margins in the precincts of the Willows neighborhood nearest to Willow Road. He won 511 votes to Keith's 314 in Precinct 4009, which covers roughly the western half of the Willows, and won by 200 votes in Precinct 4008, which covers the eastern side of the neighborhood, as far south as Menalto Avenue.
In both of those precincts measures have been taken in the past year to address major traffic-related problems.
When a shift in the construction project involving the Willow Road/U.S. 101 overpass caused so much traffic residents could barely access their driveways, residents circulated petitions and pushed the council for immediate action. Although the city fast-tracked the process to install measures that have effectively curbed cut-through traffic, some say that it wasn't responsive enough. Later, residents of the western Willows succeeded in attaining approval for some traffic-calming measures to be installed on their streets, after what some said was a too slow and laborious process.
Combs told The Almanac that he wasn't sure there was one particular issue that influenced how people voted.
"Certainly lots of people talked about concerns surrounding traffic and issues of growth," he said. "But even with the traffic concerns, it wasn't as though people were expressing support for me based on the idea that I was going to solve these issues."
A stronger sentiment he observed, he said, was concern that the council hadn't been responsive enough when it came to understanding "the real quality-of-life impacts that traffic and some of these related issues were having on people's lives."
Brian Gilmer, a Willows resident who was a vocal Combs supporter, said he thinks traffic is the number one problem for most Willows residents.
"I think people want to mitigate the impact of growth," he said. "We have been growing like a boom town for years. You look at Menlo Park now and compare it to what it was when I was a kid, or even 10 years ago, and it's significantly different. It's different from what people who own houses (in the city) bought into. ... People are starting to look and say, hey, the growth has been good, but it's brought a lot of problems."
"We've been overrun by traffic," said Planning Commissioner Katherine Strehl, a Willows resident and Combs supporter, noting that she believes some people were frustrated by the city's slow pace in addressing the problems and putting measures in place to deter cut-through traffic.
"I think Kirsten did a lot of stuff while she was on the council, and I commend her for her service," Strehl added.
One of the biggest sources of growth in Menlo Park is Facebook, and Combs works there. He said that the topic came up in nearly every conversation he had with residents.
Keith consistently pointed out during the campaign that that because Combs works for Facebook, he would have to recuse himself from not just voting on Facebook's proposed "Willow Village" (the city's largest-ever development) but on other city matters in which the company is involved, or projects it holds property near.
The critique, Combs said, is valid. He said he still believes he could be a good representative of the council for the district.
Gilmer said that in his judgment, a recusal by Combs functions almost like a no vote. With one fewer council member, Facebook will have to work harder to win over the remaining council members by proposing something that is good for the community, he argued.
According to Stu Soffer, a former planning commissioner, Almanac blogger and Combs supporter, people didn't vote Keith out because she had approved Facebook developments.
"This isn't an anti-Facebook vote," he said. "This is a change in direction on the council ... and (being) more unafraid to hit a no button when necessary."
There were also issues of governance and transparency. Combs said on the campaign trail that he believes the council should have a "sunshine" calendar policy, in which council members publicly report a full list (with some exceptions) of whom they meet and speak with each week. He also said that he would not accept travel funded by third parties; Keith has been criticized for accepting free travel to China from third parties in the past.
Councilman Ray Mueller had brought up the concept of the "sunshine" calendar to the previous council, when Keith was mayor, but support by his colleagues to agendize the matter for further discussion was limited due to other matters on the city council's agenda.
"I certainly did not get in this race 100 percent knowing by any stretch that this was going to be the result (that) the desire for some change would be fairly resounding," Combs said. "The results speak to the fact that sometimes when ... people want to see new faces and ideas, and they want to see change, ... no amount of funding or endorsements are able to overcome that."
Keith could not be reached for comment by press time.
Katie Behroozi, complete streets commissioner, was one of Keith's endorsers and praised her for her attendance at and engagement during commission meetings, her ability to make compromises, and her support of initiatives to increase housing and promote bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Keith found common ground on city matters with council members that, on matters of national politics, she may not have much in common, Behroozi said. That's not a bad thing, but something that may have alienated people on the far ends of the city's political spectrum, she suggested.
What led to Nash's victory in the District 4 race? Several factors, according to some residents who spoke with The Almanac.
County elections data show that Nash won all precincts. Of those, Ohtaki performed best in the precinct that he lives in, near Hillview Middle School, losing to Nash by 30 votes. Shepherd came in third in all precincts but lost by the least number of votes in precinct 3466, which runs just west of St. Raymond's Church to Hillview Middle School.
Nash attributes her win primarily to knocking on doors and talking to residents, including hand-written notes she left at the homes of people she didn't reach. She observed that residents closest to El Camino Real seemed more concerned about traffic, while people closer to downtown, especially apartment dwellers, were more concerned about housing affordability. Her campaign promise to promote housing development on transportation corridors seemed to resonate with the people she spoke with, she added.
Ohtaki had several explanations for why he lost the race, and believes that the biggest factor was people's dissatisfaction with traffic. He joked that while he was campaigning, the top issues voters said they were concerned about were "Traffic, traffic and traffic."
He said that it took time to deliver nuanced explanations about the City Council's efforts to reduce the traffic bottleneck at Ravenswood and El Camino Real and to separate Ravenswood Avenue from the Caltrain line.
"Betsy (Nash) had an effective, simple message: Take back our streets," he said. "That's all she needed to say."
He lost by a particularly wide margin in the Allied Arts neighborhood, which four years ago, contained one of a small handful of precincts that supported Measure M, a voter initiative to curb downtown growth. It's also near the new construction site at Stanford's 500 El Camino Real project, and he said he believes that there are some residual concerns with downtown growth from residents there.
Another factor that may have led to his loss, he added, was that both he and Shepherd campaigned on a platform that focused on careful spending and pension reform.
"Ron and I split what would be the fiscal conservative vote," he said.
He also pointed to a broader anti-incumbent sentiment, evidenced throughout the Midpeninsula with the 2018 losses of Palo Alto council incumbent Cory Wolbach and Mountain View council incumbent Lenny Siegel.
Soffer, the former planning commissioner, said that Ohtaki's loss was due in part to his having served two terms already. "Globally, third terms are a problem," he said. Council members, he said, "really are all out of gas before a third term," he added. "It's really up to the public to enforce (a two-term limit) because the council doesn't enact term limits.
One factor that may have helped Nash is her tie to "Menlo Together," a group that formed earlier this year before the elections. It is nonpartisan, but Nash said she attended several meetings of the group before deciding to run for office.
The group includes city leaders who are involved in various parts of Menlo Park civic life, including Karen Grove from the city's Housing Commission, fellow Complete Streets commissioners Adina Levin and Katie Behroozi, Diane Bailey of Menlo Spark and Jennifer Wolosin of Parents for Safe Routes and representatives of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County.
Grove said that while Nash is considered a "founding member" of the group, she was removed from all email discussions leading up to the candidate forum the group hosted. Wolosin and Behroozi also helped with her campaign. Moving forward, the group is still figuring out if Nash will rejoin as an elected council member.
Remaining council members Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller said they look forward to working with the newly elected members.
Carlton added that she'll miss Ohtaki for his calm, intellectual presence and Keith for her passion. "I really respect the people (who) have been elected," she said, adding that she thinks the change will be "good for the city."
Mueller said that the election results indicate that "within our residential neighborhoods, there are a lot of issues taking place that need to be solved (and) require specific focus."
With a majority of rookie council members, Mueller said, "I think there'll be a time period where we're all taking a fresh look at issues the council had looked at in the past and then (move) forward."
"I don't imagine it'll take a lot of time for them to get up to speed," Carlton said.
"We all had professional relationships on the council prior to (the elections), and I think the council is going to stay collaborative, Mueller said. "I'm looking forward to taking all of the new energy from the new council members and (trying) to do something exciting for the city."
Among Mueller's top priorities when the new council is seated, he said, are to discuss the "sunshine" calendar policy, evaluate the council travel policy and consider a minimum wage ordinance.
Public works projects have to take a backseat for now because the Menlo Park staff needs to become more stable after losing a number of management-level staff members this year, including its city manager, he noted. He also wants the new council to work with the county to ensure that funding from the new half-cent transportation sales tax, Measure W, makes its way into the fund for Dumbarton corridor projects.
Along with newcomers Combs and Nash, Cecilia Taylor took her place at the council dais this week after her overwhelming victory at the polls last month. She will represent District 1, which includes the Belle Haven neighborhood where she grew up.
Editor's Note: Clarification: A previous version of this story indicated there was no support by some council members to agendize a discussion of a council "sunshine calendar" policy. During the council's June 20, 2017 meeting, some council members favored reconsidering agendizing the topic during the council's 2018 goal-setting session, but the matter was not added to the city's work plan at the time.