On Oct. 11, the Palo Alto Weekly will host a live public forum on Zoom with the seven candidates running for East Palo Alto City Council. The event will take place at 7 p.m. and will explore the candidates' positions on topics, including affordable housing, development, infrastructure, policing and other issues that are important to the community. To register for the forum, go to PaloAltoOnline.com/epacc.
The Weekly is also seeking questions from the community that they would like for us to ask the candidates. To fill out the online questionnaire, go to surveymonkey.com/r/Campaign2022.
Two seats are up for grabs: current council member Regina Wallace-Jones is vacating her seat; incumbent Ruben Abrica, whose term expires at the end of this year, is running again. The council hopefuls include the incumbent mayor; a minister and coach; a former teacher; two self-employed business owners; a data scientist; and a candidate who described herself as a product of the public school system.
In this forum preview, the candidates touch on the reasons they hope to win a majority of votes. This Q&A is part 1 of 2; the second half will be posted on Monday.
Who are the candidates?
Ruben Abrica, 73, is currently East Palo Alto's mayor and the sole incumbent in the race. He was born and raised in Mexico, where he attended a vocational night school, and came to California as a teenage immigrant when he was almost 14.
A 43- year resident of East Palo Alto, Abrica received his masters degree in education at Stanford University in the Linguistic and Cultural Pluralism Program.
"Growing up in the countryside no one in my family had the opportunity to attend school beyond first and second grade, so I have always valued and continue to advocate for education for all, children, youth and adults," he said.
Jeffrey Austin, 61, has lived in East Palo Alto since 1960, the year he was born. He attended the Ravenswood City School District as a child, going to Ravenswood High School the last two years of its existence. He studied business administration and social justice.
He is a Christian and has been a member of St. Mark AME Zion church for the last six years. He has five daughters, two sons and two granddaughters.
Martha Barragan, 44, has lived in East Palo Alto since about age 1. She was born in Fresno and briefly lived in San Jose and Redwood City before her family settled in East Palo Alto. She credits her parents and their church with modeling service to the community through the volunteer work they did in the children's ministry.
Barragan attended the Ravenswood City School District K-8 and Menlo Atherton High School. After high school, she received a bachelor's degree in liberal studies and Latin American studies and a teaching credential at the College of Notre Dame, now known as Notre Dame de Namur.
She worked for the Ravenswood City School District as an elementary school teacher for 15 years, including at elementary schools Willow Oaks, Costano and Green Oaks Academy.
Mark Dinan, 49, has been an East Palo Alto resident since 2009. He is originally from Wisconsin and moved to the Bay Area in 1997. He met his Peruvian wife, Fabiola Puerta, in Brazil. Their son, Mateo, 12, attends La Entrada Middle School through the Tinsley Program. Dinan has lived in Brazil, Mexico and England and speaks Spanish and Portuguese. He graduated from Marquette University in 1995 with a degree in history. He works as a technical recruiter and has his own business, Dinan & Associates. He serves on the East Palo Alto Public Works and Transportation Commission.
Webster Lincoln, 35, is a third-generation East Palo Alto resident and homeowner and has lived in the community for nearly 30 years. His grandparents moved to East Palo Alto in the 1960s, but he comes from a military family and they moved frequently when he was a child. He comes from a family with a long history of working in the community, he said.
A San Jose State University graduate, he studied psychology, chemistry and biological science in graduate school and also took advanced coursework at Harvard Medical School. His biotechnology career began at Stanford Research Institute, and he currently works as a data scientist for Genentech. He serves on the East Palo Alto Sanitary District Rate Advisory Committee and contributes to and supports local nonprofit organizations. His wife, a Colombian immigrant, works as a caregiver at a senior assisted-living facility in Palo Alto.
Q Smith, who declined to state her age, has been a life-long East Palo Alto resident, she said.
"I am close to my family, church family and community. I am a product of the California Department of Education public school system," she said.
Gail Wilkerson, 60, has been a lifelong resident of East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park. She was raised in the church and attended St. John Missionary Baptist Church. She attended Menlo Atherton High School, San Mateo Jr. College and "just about every college on the Peninsula," she said. She owned and operated a real estate brokerage in East Palo Alto and tax-preparation service. She has worked for H&R Block and Intuit, she said.
Wilkerson has a bachelor of science degree in paralegal studies from Purdue University. She was appointed to the East Palo Alto Rent Stabilization Board and is currently on the Senior Advisory Board. She was chosen to be on the East Palo Alto Sanitary District Rate Advisory Committee and is also a Rotarian, she said.
Wilkerson, then Gail Dixon, was convicted in 1995 of 14 counts of felony aiding and abetting preparation of false tax returns for overstated itemized deductions for four taxpayers through her tax preparation business. She was sentenced to 27 months incarceration. Under California law she remains eligible to run for public office.
Q: What has prompted you to run for city council?
ABRICA: Currently and in the near future East Palo Alto is facing a second major wave of economic development. I am running to continue my involvement in making sure that strong community benefits and jobs for local residents accompany any economic development that takes place and that people have strong protections against displacement.
AUSTIN: I have been prompted to run for city council by various members of our community. Having worked with the Senior Advisory Committee for the past six years, I felt it was a natural progression to go to the next level of service within our city. My heart is to serve the people.
BARRAGAN: After leaving the Ravenswood City School District I had the desire to continue serving my community. I had thought about running as a board member for the school district, but my plans slightly changed when I became a mom. I strongly believe that family is one of the most important and valuable things in this life.
I was asked by a few community members if I wanted to run for city council. I gave it some thought and felt that maybe this was the right time. My children are older, I have a supportive husband and my family that supports my decision. I feel that this is a good moment for me to step up and contribute more to the community because I have the comfort of having more support.
DINAN: East Palo Alto deserves so much better: safe streets, well run parks, competent and responsive city staff, police that enforce basic traffic laws, and a city that encourages the building of housing. EPA has not seen a new market-rate apartment building open in over 20 years. I do not see our current leadership adequately responding to meet the challenges of a changing world.
LINCOLN: I want to see our community continue to thrive and grow.
SMITH: My compassion and love for people. I want people to be their best. I love hard and serve people in my life. People need people.
WILKERSON: It was time. I have developed the experience, knowledge, the expertise. I've lived here all my life, and I was just too young and inexperienced prior in handling the other original (founders) fantastic, strong personalities. I am tired of attending council meetings and being dismissed by the council, then having them, three or four months down the road, use my ideas/thoughts as their own, never coming up with bringing our city into a better direction? One councilperson used remarks from my "candidate statement" in the last council meeting. So I decided to come forward and to use my own correct thoughts and experience/expertise and give the citizens of East Palo Alto the proper education of my expertise.
Q: Greatest concerns about the city? What has been done well?
ABRICA: I am a little concerned about tapping too much into reserves but also confident that the next few years of balanced economic development will provide a stronger long-term financial stability to improve services for the community and needed infrastructure.
Our city council has worked well during the pandemic to ensure that services continued with minimal disruption. The city has invested funds and built strong collaborations with the county and health providers to provide accessible and free COVID-19 testing and vaccinations throughout different neighborhoods.
Personnel, financial and outreach resources have been provided to assist renters, homeowners, and small businesses during these hard economic times.
We have managed police services and public safety in a responsible and community-oriented way rather than a confrontational conflictive approach. And overall along with my colleagues on the council, I have made sure that the city government has healthy financial reserves.
The various employee groups and the city have also worked as a team to get through these times and reach collective bargaining agreements. A great accomplishment has been to assemble all the finances to now begin construction of a second pedestrian/bicycle bridge on University Avenue in late fall.
AUSTIN: My greatest concern for our city at this moment would be to re-engage our city staff and get back to work. We have staffing issues that may be hindering the effectiveness of programming as well as other things. Affordable housing of course is a major issue for all of us that reside in the Bay Area, and East Palo Alto is not any different on this one for sure. Another issue that I have witnessed is the lack of representation of our city on various boards and commissions at the regional and the state level. We need to be at more tables. Our city has survived and continues to show her resilience in the face of adversities such as high turnover rates for our city employees as well as our police department. I know firsthand that there are a lot of really great people in our city, and they show their greatness when the times get tough.
BARRAGAN: I believe that our community is going in the right direction. Compared to when I was being brought up here, we hardly had any retail stores nearby. We had to do our grocery shopping in other cities. We didn't have a Boys and Girls Club, YMCA or even a performing arts center. I'm very pleased to see the progression our city has gone through. I believe that even though it's a small city we deserve to have the same amenities as any other city.
DINAN: Staffing: At one point this year we had many open positions at the leadership level on city staff: city manager, police chief, public works director, city clerk, city attorney and many other staff-level open positions. Our police force has inadequate levels of staffing and only 17 of 34 budgeted positions were filled at last check.
Housing: East Palo Alto has not built nearly enough housing in the last decade and displacement is happening at a rapid pace. Saying no to market-rate housing only leads to the displacement of residents living in existing housing stock.
Enforcement: EPA has not enforced the most basic rules around speeding cars, parking, fireworks, and other public safety measures.
Parks: On Labor Day, MLK Park was locked off to the public and completely empty. We need to hire a parks and recreation director and competently manage our parks.
Infrastructure: East Palo Alto Sanitary District is massively overcharging all development projects, and I agree with the LAFCO report: The city of East Palo Alto should absorb the Sanitary District and provide competent and fair service to the city.
What's been done well? The city has gone after grants, which resulted in rebuilding Bay Road, building a bike bridge over 101, and other infrastructure improvements.
LINCOLN: It seems like the council has become more aligned with the developers rather than our residents. I believe we should be working on building relationships with our local districts and utility providers and not giving away local control or our rights to govern ourselves to outside interests who don't have to live with the consequences or impact of the decisions they make.
I'm also concerned about the ability of the existing council to effectively govern our city. Instead of focusing on improving the basic elements of local government, our city has fallen into disarray as the council members have pursued their own personal agendas. The amount of current employee turnover in East Palo Alto would be significantly detrimental to any governing body. There are currently many vacancies in senior level positions including but not limited to the city manager, attorney, clerk, police chief and the public works director. Over the past year, they have either left, been forced to leave or have been paid to quit and the council hasn't been transparent about the abrupt departures.
SMITH: Gentrification, preservation, obtainable affordable housing, producing livable-wage jobs and careers in our community for our residents; also safety, equity, diversity, inclusion. What it has done right: Our city has respected our traditions, diversity and community values. I appreciate the COVID-19 and mental health services.
WILKERSON: The continuing (incompetent) direction of the (seasoned) council people and their "stagnant" behaviors. Their lack of expertise. Gentrifiers noticing this and are further making confusion.
What's been done well? Stalling and kicking the cans down the road. Overkill on improper housing and contributing to traffic.
Check back on Monday for part 2 of this Q&A with the East Palo Alto City Council candidates.