Thank you Mayor.
Tonight represents for me the end of 14 years of service to the City of Fremont....for now.
At the time, this 14-year journey felt like a jagged series of twists and turns and dead ends. In 2005, the late former Mayor Bob Wasserman appointed me to an advisory commission that worked with our Environmental Services Division where I had the great privilege of working with Kathy Cote and Ken Pianin.
Not until 2006 did Mayor Wasserman appoint me to the Planning Commission in the year Fremont celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. With two subsequent reappointments, I served ten years on the Planning Commission.
My appointment could not have been better timed. My first five years on the Commission coincided with the City updating our General Plan. The General Plan is our local constitution that provides the framework for managing and planning development. And a complete overhaul and update of our General Plan happens only once in a generation.
State law mandates that our General Plan include certain elements or chapters such as land use, housing or circulation. In those first five years, I remember study sessions focused on our updates to each general plan element. These study sessions complemented the concerted public outreach by the City with stakeholders and our community.
We listened to our residents and their input led us to add elements not required by State law, including a section entitled Community Character. Community Character recognizes that the bedrock of Fremont is our neighborhoods and our historic districts.
General Plan 2035 was adopted on December 13, 2011 by the City Council. But not before I led a quiet revolt on Planning Commission before its adoption to revise the mission statement of our new General Plan that emerged at the end of the process. Our General Plan mission statement calls for us to be “strategically urban”.
As a kid who grew up in Fremont as a bedroom community, I knew my neighbors and I did not want to become urban, strategic or otherwise. I ruffled the feathers of staff when I persuaded my fellow Planning Commissioners on a 7-0 vote to approve my alternate mission statement that emphasized preserving our suburban identity as a buffer against encroaching urbanization. And it was one of the few times I tried to lobby Councilmembers to see it my way. However, our unanimous recommendation fell on deaf ears at the Council.
Strategically urban it was in our General Plan 2035. And perhaps more quickly than any of us imagined or wanted, strategically urban Fremont is now becoming.
During my next five years on the Planning Commission, we implemented our new General Plan 2035 and recommended approval of conforming zoning. As resistant as I was to our city becoming strategically urban, I began to fully understand that State law already mandated that our General Plan move inexorably in this direction. For example, State law requires our regions and cities to adopt Sustainable Community Strategies. This State mandate requires more rooftops near transit as the most sustainable form of living to counter the existential threat we face from climate change. And this State mandate found expression in another element we chose to add to our General Plan: Sustainability. Sustainability became the overarching theme of our General Plan and permeates each element of our Plan.
When Planning staff recommends approval of projects that come before us, they do so because the projects are consistent with, supported and even impelled by our General Plan and Zoning. Our planning staff as professionals render their best, unbiased objective views when informing as policy makers in the exercise of our independent judgment in coming to a decision.
Sadly, many in the public neither knows nor appreciates the independent role our City staff performs. Some of our residents instead believe that staff, Planning Commissions or Councils are simply biased towards development merely to fill our City’s coffers with new revenue, or worse, we are lining our own pockets. In my experience concerning the City, that is not true. And in my own case, that is categorically not true.
The question for me on Planning Commission or Council has never been whether we are saying yes or no to developers; instead, the question for us is whether, in exercising our independent judgment, a project recommended by staff fits within our General Plan, Zoning and satisfies environmental review under CEQA. If we decide to deny a project, however well-intentioned and responsive to the heartfelt concerns of our residents, our decision must be based on something more than a desire to stop or slow development. If we disagree with a staff recommendation for project approval, then the burden shifts to us to articulate defensible and lawful findings anchored in our General Plan, Zoning or CEQA to justify our rejection of a project. For example, State law prohibits cities to deny projects based on impacts on student enrollment in our schools. If we were to deny a project explicitly on that basis alone, and we were sued, our decision would be overturned in court.
Before voting, I would always listen carefully to my neighbors who sometimes spoke in favor (but more often against) a project. After this election, some of the most heartwarming comments have come from current and former residents who appeared before me on the Planning Commission or City Council who appreciated how carefully I listened to them when they spoke.
At all times I have been independent and exercised my independent judgment. If a project conformed to the General Plan and Zoning, I would express my independence by adding conditions to project approvals, many times over either staff or applicant objection. I have also voted no to residential and mixed use developments and retail.
While on the Planning Commission, I was proud of being the lone vote on either the Commission or Council to oppose Dick’s Sporting Goods moving into Pacific Commons. We were expressly asked to approve a condition to allow more gun sales in our community by Dick’s - a condition I could not support. I was gratified years later to see Dick’s make the corporate decision to ban gun sales from all of its stores after the Parkland high school mass shooting.
Staff in another instance recommended that the Planning Commission approve a conditional use permit for the Haze Smoke Shop on Grimmer Boulevard that would sell drug paraphernalia. I took the matter off the consent calendar and led a unanimous Planning Commission to overturn staff recommendation and deny the permit as it was too close to two of our high schools. The smoke shop applicant appealed to the City Council. While the Council approved the smoke shop, the smoke shop owner eventually was forced to shut down because the store was caught selling drug paraphernalia to under-age minors.
I also stood with our Sikh community - and all faith communities - in opposing a staff-initiated condition of approval to add cameras onto the sacred grounds of the Gudwara. This in my view infringed upon religious liberty and I led the Planning Commission in disapproving this condition. And I vigorously opposed staff recommendations on both the Commission and Council to ban the legal use of medicinal - and now recreational - marijuana.
I want to commend planners past and present whom I have had the privilege of working with including Jeff Schwob, Kristie Wheeler, Clifford Nguyen, Jessica Van Borck, Barbara Meerjens, David Wage, Joel Pullen, Terry Wong and Steve Kowalski. Two more City planners I would like to highlight: our Community Development Director Dan Schoenholz and Wayne Morris, both of whose careers at the City of Fremont have overlapped with my own. Dan spearheaded our General Plan update and wrote a coffee table book that summarized our general plan. Dan, you are a terrific writer and your very quiet manner belies your thorough understanding of land use as a City planner. Wayne for many years was our Secretary on the Planning Commission had an ability to translate arcane zoning in a way that was understandable to the public and to me. Applicants also shared with me how impressed they were with him in understanding their practical concerns and trying to do work-arounds that balanced their interests while protecting the City’s interests in ensuring quality development.
In 2012, we adopted a Climate Action Plan for the City and as a Planning Commissioner I had a role in suggesting improvements to the Plan when recommending approval. Soon thereafter we hired Rachel DiFranco as our Sustainability Coordinator. She is a really a rock star and our paths would cross in my work on Council as the alternate City Council representative to StopWaste and the East Bay Community Energy Board.
In 2012, Mayor Morrison appointed me as a Fremont representative to an Oversight Board composed of representatives from various local public agencies for winding down Fremont’s redevelopment agency. I was honored to be elected this board’s chair, and it provided me a fascinating window into redevelopment financing. Because we had done redevelopment right in Fremont without any accounting gimmicks, we were one of the first former rdas to wind down in the State without any debt being carried by our City.
There I first had direct contact with our finance department and its careful conservative approach to protecting our bottom line. I was enormously impressed with now retired former Finance Director Harriet Commons. And that tradition of excellence has continued with our current Finance Director David Persselin. Our public does not fully appreciate how well our finances are managed with annual general fund budgets now topping $200 million per year.
And during my tenure on the Oversight Board, I had the joy of working more closely with our City Attorney Harvey Levine. Harvey, you have run a great shop and I greatly admire your ability and thorough grounding in municipal law. You have recruited and supervised a succession of talented staff attorneys who advised the Planning Commission, the Oversight Board and the City Council, including Prasanna Rasiah, Joan Borger, Debra Margolis and now Erik Ramakrishnan. While you have always been the City Attorney, during the on boarding and briefings, and phone conversations since then, you have become a friend.
I want to commend Brian Stott and Karena Shackleford for managing our collective bargaining negotiations with the highest degree of competency. I found our former City Manager Fred Diaz to sometimes be gruff in public but he was a hell of a manager in giving autonomy to the department heads, and in making excellent hires. I look forward to your service Mr. Danaj as our new City Manager. I was pleased to see you last Wednesday at the Family Resource Center and Thursday at the Menorah Lighting Ceremony supporting the many civic and nonprofit organizations which flourish in Fremont. I admire the great work of our Economic Development Directors Kelly Kline and now Christina Briggs and their staff including Kim Marshall. Also kudos to our Suzannes: Suzanne Wolf and Suzanne Shenfill. And to our City Clerk Susan Guathier and Merry Monlux and the supportive assistance of Patrice Jamison.
I want to thank Councilmember Vinnie Bacon for nominating me to the City Council and for Mayor Mei in seconding the nomination. I want to thank Councilmember Jones for voting to appoint me and for Councilmember Jones and Vice Mayor Salwan for endorsing me in this election cycle.
I want to thank former Mayor Gus Morrison, former Mayor Bill Harrison and former Vice Mayors Anu Natarajan and Sue Chan for providing me with the benefit of their experience and guidance on the full array of issues we face as a City Council.
I won’t use the time tonight to name the many wonderful people who served on my campaign committee, or those who walked precincts or organized fundraisers for me. But I will say I was proud of the assembly of talented and engaged community residents who joined our campaign - and who shared my can-do positive vision for Fremont.
We had a low voter turnout in District 3 with only about a third of registered voters voting in the Council race. There was one thing those who did not vote for me got right about me: I am not angry about Fremont. Not only am I not angry about Fremont, I couldn’t fake being angry, nor would I ever try.
I have had the wonderful perspective gained over the past 14 years for seeing up close the professionalism and dedication of our entire City staff some of whom I have already named, but also including our first responders, former Police Chief Lucero and current Police Chief Petersen, Captains Sean Washington and Fred Bobbit, Lieutenant Matt Snelson, Yanneth Contrada, Monica Leon, Geneve Bosques, our POA, including, Jeremy and Michael, and our former Fire Chief LaTendresse and current Fire Chief Jacobson, Greg Biddle, Anthony Herrera, Kyle Slater and Local 1689.
Sadly, many of our longtime residents in Fremont are not happy with the pace of development or growth. As a recent study commissioned by the City indicated, they are also the most likely to be distrustful of our local government.
In conversing with them, I would try to channel the enthusiasm of our wonderful Public Works Director Hans Larsen and talk about the funnel effect and Vision Zero and how we are combating out-of-town traffic. Most residents were unmoved. Short of turning back the clock 25 or more years, for them, I was offering solutions to problems they did not want in the first place.
Where I have felt rooted in Fremont, in many ways, many of my voting neighbors in District 3 now feel stuck in place. The Fremont we remembered was taken away from us. While I understood we are on a State-mandated path to more housing, and no matter how sympathetic I was in having shared and understood and listened attentively to their concerns, whatever I had to say on the matter was not a curative for their deep-seated anger or frustration.
Though I am not angry about Fremont, I am angered by the failure of our region to accomplish what we have done so well in Fremont - balancing jobs with housing. One egregious example of regional failure: Cupertino approved a new Apple campus creating 12,000 jobs but only approved 27 residential units last year. Those high tech six-figure salaried employees at the new Apple campus will crowd our streets in driving to and from work and will further accelerate gentrification of our communities, pushing out our teachers, our blue collar workers and our most economically vulnerable.
I am angry that Sacramento is responding with a one-size-fits-all approach that will override our carefully calibrated General Plan, and erode local control without regard to our community character.
I am also angered during the last election by the unfiltered racism and corrosive negative campaigning that dominated WeChat, Nextdoor and other social media.
And I despair at the demise of any local print media to provide an important role in holding us all accountable for what we say or do - whether we are already serving in public office or seeking to do so.
In my two years on Council, I am proud of the referrals I initiated and the support of Council I received. Among them, restricting McMansions in curbing second story construction. Adding a representative from Fremont Unified to our Sustainability Commission to forge greater collaboration with our largest public employer in achieving our GhG reduction goals under our Climate Action Plan. And most recently having the building of the Cloverleaf Family Bowl considered by HARB and soon by Council to determine whether it is eligible to be added to our Fremont Historic Register as a City landmark.
I am also proud of participating with my Council colleagues in making the transition from electing our councilmembers at large to Districts as seamless as possible. And so I can always say that I have had the privilege of being on the last City Council in Fremont’s history to have a Mayor and only 4 Councilmembers.
I won’t presume to advise my soon-to-be former colleagues who all at one time have been elected at large citywide. But for those who are being sworn in as Councilmembers tonight, I have the following advice for you. First, though you were elected in Districts, remember to serve the City as a whole. You will learn in your on boarding that we have unmet needs well beyond our limited resources for our infrastructure and for our first responders. Listen carefully to our department heads and the City Manager before approving our annual budgets, and our biannual Capital Improvement Program. Always do what is best for Fremont. Second, make a concerted effort to reach out and represent all of your constituents even those who supported other candidates.
So now, looking back at these 14 years with the benefit of hindsight, what at the time seemed like a rugged and uncertain path full of detours and false starts, now looks like a straight line where the timing at the end of my ten years on the Planning Commission coincided perfectly with an opportunity to apply for a City Council vacancy. When I was appointed last year to the City Council, it was the equivalent in poker of hitting an inside flush on the river.
Fremont is my hometown. I will always be a cheerleader for all things Fremont. I will continue to find ways to serve our community. And yes with a nod to our Districts, “my” District 3 has the emergence of our Downtown on the Rise, City Hall, the Town Fair, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, the Shinn House, many great restaurants, and the home of the Fremont Street Eats and Festival of the Arts. Even though I will no longer have the honor of serving as your Councilmember, for me, District 3 remains the place to be!