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Candidate Q & A – Garrett Keating

Posted by Len Gilbert on January 26, 2010

Below are Garrett Keating’s answers to the candidate questions.

You can also read responses by Julie Watters, Jeff Wieler, and John Chiang.

  1. Undergrounding

    1. Explain your position on city-supported undergrounding districts.

      It is established city policy that General Funds not be used to pay for undergrounding. Piedmont does facilitate private undergrounding through the management of project bidding and oversight of construction by city staff. I support both policies but clearly we need to revisit the management/oversight service the city provides to these undergrounding projects. In providing this service to the districts, the city should not assume any responsibility for cost over runs, bond payments or legal liability for these private projects. Recent management of the Piedmont Hills Undergrounding District has identified deficiencies in the contracts and oversight of these projects that can expose the city to liability and those deficiencies need to be corrected. Regarding cost over runs, there needs to be a mechanism to prevent the city from having to use public funds to complete a private project. The most efficient way to do this would be to factor an appropriate contingency into the property assessments for the project. Unused contingency would be returned to the property owners. As to the city’s liability, stronger language releasing the city from liability is needed in its agreements with the private undergrounding districts.

    2. Given the recent problems with the Piedmont Hills and the Sea View undergrounding districts, should the city require a yes-vote that is a higher percentage than a simple majority? Why or why not? If yes, what is a high enough threshold to ensure fairness for all the residents in a proposed district?

      First, I think many residents are not clear on the city undergrounding policy and need some background. In Piedmont, the private undergrounding of neighborhood utilities starts when 70% of the properties of a proposed district sign a petition to obtain cost estimates and conduct a neighborhood vote. Once the vote is taken, assuming a majority of the district votes in favor, City Council has the discretion to accept that vote and have the assessments liened against the properties. Council’s decision binds all the properties in a district to pay the assessment, which can range from $25,000 to $50,000 per household. In Piedmont, district votes historically achieved majorities of over 70% but recent votes have fallen below 60%. Local governments have the authority to set specific vote thresholds for what is an acceptable level of majority support. For example, Tiburon, Sausalito and Berkeley have required at least a 60% majority vote for districts to be approved. In Piedmont, each district is approved by Council on a case-by-case basis and that has lead to different approval standards and problematic Council voting—at times, council members have been recused from voting, resulting in a deadlocked council or a reduced 3-vote body. City Council should adopt a 60% majority vote standard to improve neighborhood support for these districts and reduce the contentious debates that have arisen about undergrounding.

    3. If you believe the city should support future undergrounding districts, what measures will you take to ensure the homeowners in the district pay the entire project cost and that the city is not liable for overruns?

      The city should not take on any risk in these private undergrounding projects and the simplest answer is to factor a contingency into the private assessments that covers the potential for cost overruns. This has been the contractual approach to undergrounding in Piedmont—geotechnical and soils testing apparently have never been conducted for undergrounding but instead a “rock clause” and large contingency were included in previous contracts to cover potential over runs – and previous undergrounding projects came in at or under budget with this approach. With Piedmont Hills, the contingency was not nearly sufficient and the city found itself in a position where it incurred charges but could not collect additional funds from the district in time. Assessments prepared in advance of the neighborhood vote have to present a range of the potential cost to the property owner thereby giving the city authority to apply additional liens to the properties in the district if the project goes over budget.

  2. City Council Oversight of Staff

    1. How closely should the council oversee the city staff?

      Oversight of staff is the responsibility of the City Administrator and the performance of city managers should be considered in his annual evaluation. City Council recently adopted a performance-based compensation system that links salary raises for the city managers to performance. At its annual budget session, Council adopts goals and objectives for the City Administrator and it can charge him or her to do a better job of staff oversight if Council perceives a problem. These annual goals and the performance criteria are determined each year at the June budget session and should be put on a meeting agenda for public comment.

    2. Recently city staff has made costly errors in the Havens Schoolmate placement and the PHUD cost overruns. Should there be dollar limits on the amounts that the public works director or city administrator can approve with higher amounts requiring council approval?

      It is the job of City staff to manage projects and see that projects adhere to the budget and specifications. Unforeseen circumstances come with any project and staff should have discretion to spend funds to sustain an ongoing project to avoid costly delays. That discretion is limited by the overall project budget and staff cannot take actions that would jeopardize a project so spending limits are appropriate to ensure cost control and council oversight.

      In addition to spending controls, better communication between staff and Council is needed and Havens SM and PHUD offer examples of this. The underground gas line at the Havens SM site was known to the construction manager who claims PG&E informed him the gas line was inactive but was later told the line was active. The verification of that information was not the responsibility of city staff but it should have been confirmed earlier in the siting process. PHUD is just the opposite—the potential for bed rock to influence the cost and completion date of this project was accounted for in the contracts and so its discovery in July should have alerted staff to potential cost overruns and delays and the need to notify Council. Both projects show the need to inform City Council about significant changes to projects as soon as possible so Council can direct what actions for staff to take. In particular, with PHUD, staff continued work on the project without the available funds to complete it. Dollar limits may have prevented this but staff should have informed City Council of its negotiations with the contractor and the overruns as they occurred.

    3. Do you support posting Agendas and staff reports dealing with extraordinary items ahead of the legally mandated time frames in order to ensure that all residents and interested parties have the opportunity to participate in hearings? The legal requirement is 72 hours advance notice. How much time should the community have to review, investigate and digest the material before it is asked to comment on it?

      Meeting agendas are determined by the city administrator and mayor, often well in advance of the 72 hour requirement and draft agendas certainly should be posted with more advance notice to the public. At the end of each Council meeting, staff could at least provide comment on what the likely agenda items will be at the next meeting. Staff should be given the 72 hour deadline to complete reports but if they are detailed or controversial, I always have supported holding over items to the next meeting to obtain public comment and staff should be expected to account for such comment periods. That did not occur with the PHUD matter and a special meeting was required to allow sufficient public notice and comment. Publishing meeting agendas earlier would likely increase public comment and thereby provide Council with more direction. Staff should avoid scheduling hearings at Council or Commissions during the holidays and school vacation weeks.

      Do you favor posting project plans, schedules, and drawings of all city projects on the city website at least 10 days prior to work beginning? If not, why not?

      Yes when feasible. I have worked closely with neighborhoods in the installation of a playground and other civic improvements and such a policy would have assisted the public process and proper completion of the projects.

    4. What criteria and methodology does the City Council use to assess the performance of the City Administrator? Do you think that the criteria and methodology are adequate? If not, what changes to the process would you recommend?

      Regarding methodology, the current Council adopted a performance-based compensation system for the management staff which is a vast improvement over the simple salary survey used previously. The system provides uniform measures of performance Council uses to evaluate the City Administrator and which we discuss in closed session. I think this has been an effective way to assess his performance. A major part of this process is the setting of annual goals for the administrator and management staff and that is not given enough attention by City Council in my opinion. Staff has ongoing services to maintain and this is a large part of staff’s responsibilities however Council needs set goals for staff to meet needs expressed by the community. I would make this a standing agenda item for Council to address publicly prior to adoption of the budget in June.

    5. The stability of Piedmont’s government has both beneficial and detrimental aspects please describe these and identify if, or when, a change in personnel in some area of city administration might be beneficial?

      Because of its size, Piedmont has a small city staff that requires good coordination of effort to both provide city services and address new initiatives taken on by the city. This structure has benefited from the long-term service of our departments managers with most having 20+ years of service. It will be important to transition our management team in a way that captures this experience as managers retire. Council needs to align our management change-over with the long-term planning concepts for the city (sport fields, Civic Center, information technology) so that the experience of existing mangers can be transferred to new staff.

  3. Parks

    1. What is your position on the proposed development of Blair Park? Would your position change if the Blair project were scaled back slightly and moved across the Moraga Avenue to the corporation yard? Have you considered moving the corporation yard, possibly even to Oakland, so that that large piece of relatively flat land could be used to expand the existing field at Coaches Field?

      The Blair Park proposal has been brought forward by a group of residents who want to assist the city in developing additional field space, a goal I agree with. As designed, the plan requires extensive infrastructure to accommodate fields at Blair Park, which is the undeveloped piece of city property bordering Moraga Avenue across from Coaches Field. The Blair Park proposal is part of a larger project proposed for Moraga Canyon which includes the installation of artificial turf and field lighting at Coaches Field. The EIR currently being conducted for the Moraga Canyon project will provide valuable information on the impacts of this proposal on traffic on Moraga Avenue and on the neighborhoods around the canyon. The canyon has some potential for field expansion and we need to carefully evaluate that through an EIR process and our commissions before we can proceed with any project.

      Once the EIR is completed, I support evaluating all options available for meeting the field space needs of the city. There are several field options for the city to consider. A city-sponsored commission previously recommended moving the Corporation Yard across to Blair Park and developing more field capacity in its place. Local colleges are soliciting proposals for the development of leased fields on their campuses. Neighboring communities have created a Joint Powers Agreement to develop the new fields on Route 80 at Gilman Avenue and are seeking new partners. Oakland-based soccer clubs have expressed interest in developing new fields and the potential for new fields in these communities needs to be considered. I certainly would consider relocation of the Corp Yard to a site in Oakland but need to know more about the costs and logistics. In addition to examining the feasibility of these different options, cost estimates and benefits of these field options need to be determined.

      Our goal should be to find the most cost-effective field option that provides the greatest increase in field space. I am the parent of three children playing sports and I know first-hand the limited practice time and travel burden our current field capacity places on families. The city’s current fiscal position cannot support the building a field at this time so the city should take the time now to review all options and engage the community in this decision.

    2. Davies Tennis Stadium

      I would direct staff to inquire about the purchase of Davies Stadium. The feasibility of converting this to useable field space would also need to be determined—I don’t think we need more tennis capacity. The City should contact the Oakland Recreation Department, the Oakland soccer clubs (Rockridge and Montclair) and Skyline Lacrosse Club to see if a coordinated effort of these groups could identify property in Oakland that can be used collectively. We do that now in Piedmont with several of these clubs.

    3. Do you believe that the City has investigated all possible options for new sports facilities in or near Piedmont?

      I think staff has started on this in that discussions were held with Merritt College and Mountain view Cemetery but more investigation of these and other options is needed. What field space we can build in Piedmont most likely won’t be regulation-size for our oldest players so it would be advisable to have some access to regulations-size fields as we do now in Alameda.

    4. Do you think that the current economic climate might present Piedmont with an opportunity to investigate or review options for sports facilities located nearby in Oakland, Emeryville or Alameda?

      Yes. The City should contact the Recreation Departments of these neighboring communities to see if joint projects are a possibility.

    5. In general, do you favor artificial or natural turf for play field surfaces? Why?

      In general I support natural turf but in Piedmont, it depends on the location. Low spots like Linda Beach and Witter could not support grass due to ground saturation but I think Coaches Field, equipped with better drainage, could and it would give our children more play surface options. And I think a grass field at Coaches is better for the environment in that area of Piedmont—the grass field provides habitat to of wildlife that is valued by the neighborhoods around Coaches.

      I reviewed the Calendar Report prepared for the installation of artificial turf at Coaches and it found no difference in the safety of the two surfaces. The major benefit of artificial turf is the increased playing time and we do need that in Piedmont. As we investigate new field options in the coming years it may be possible to find more of a balance between artificial and natural turf in Piedmont.

  4. Traffic and Transportation

    1. Traffic calming is important to Piedmont’s residential and school-oriented lifestyle. Linda Avenue, Oakland Avenue, Grand Avenue, and Moraga Avenue all have large volumes of traffic, frequently driving faster than posted limits. Efforts at traffic calming have been proposed, but only the Linda Avenue cross walk has been implemented. What is your position on reducing the speed of traffic and improving pedestrian safety?

      The traffic analysis for the General Plan predicts an increase in traffic volume on many of Piedmont’s connector streets—Linda, Moraga, Grand and Oakland Avenues—due mainly to increased commuter traffic. And the 2008 speed survey found increases on many of these same streets compared to 5 years ago. This increased speed was the reason for the new crosswalk on Linda Avenue that I and others initiated and we should look at improving pedestrian safety on other streets where speeds have increased as well. I support efforts to reduce speeding and improve pedestrian safety and hope to do so as a coordinated effort to improve bike access to and reduce cars in the Civic Center.

    2. Despite having received a report that Oakland Avenue is dangerous, the city has undertaken no action to implement traffic calming or otherwise improve pedestrian safety on that street. Would you make pedestrian safety on city streets a priority during the next term and how would you do that?

      When Council rejected the traffic island proposal for Oakland Avenue, it did implement a crossing guard at El Cerrito Avenue and that has improved safety on Oakland Avenue during the school day. With the imminent opening of the new Havens School, the City should study the new traffic patterns that develop and revisit traffic solutions for Oakland Avenue. My amendment to the General Plan changing Oakland Avenue pedestrian safety from a 5-year priority to a 2-year priority will ensure that the next Council addresses this problem. With two children going to school in the Civic Center, I frequently cross El Cerrito Avenue, on foot and by car, and there is a sight-line problem at that intersection that the city could address immediately with very little funds. And a single traffic island at the Fairview/Latham/Jerome intersection might also reduce speeds on that stretch of Oakland Avenue. These are two low-cost options the city can undertake but the city does need to examine the entire street and design a comprehensive traffic solution.

    3. What is your position on bicycle lanes connecting our current bike lane (on Grand between Cambridge and Rose) to the Grand Avenue bike lanes being developed around Lake Merritt?

      I cross this bike lane every day and it is highly used by commuters and recreational cyclers so extending it makes sense. I would need to see how it could be designed—many residents and businesses on that section of Grand rely on the street parking so that would have to be preserved.

    4. What can Piedmont do to further encourage public transit, car pooling, walking, and biking for local activities?

      Piedmont can take fairly simple steps to reduce automobile use and many are spelled out in the General Plan and draft Climate Action Plan. Access to public transit in Piedmont is very good and better coordination among users of public transit and the casual car pool could increase its use. The city could facilitate this by developing more car pool zones in town. Simple infrastructure can increase biking and walking—more bike lanes and locking stations, more “wheel-friendly” walkways for bikes and strollers, and incentives at the school district to reduce automobile use. I have been requesting that city staff send representation to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plans Working Group which will be updating Alameda County’s Countywide Pedestrian and Bicycle Plans over the next year and a half.

  5. Safety and Security

    1. Piedmont is generally safe. What do you see as the major public safety issue facing residents? How do you propose city council address those issues (if any)?

      I see burglary and robbery as the two major public safety issues. The incidence of these crimes is low but they have slowly increased in my four years on City Council and present the greatest risk of physical harm to our residents. Burglaries actually declined in the 4th quarter of 2009 and this coincided with direction from Council to the Police Department to take steps to increase public awareness of crime prevention tips. More diligent outreach from the Police Department to residents to implement these prevention tips and to set up neighborhood Crime Watch groups is needed. I would like to see increased patrols in those neighborhoods where robberies have occurred.

    2. Should the Piedmont Police be regularly present in high traffic areas during morning and afternoon commute hours to enforce speed and cell phone driving laws? Many of our major streets are used by Oakland residents as commute through-ways and those drivers may not be aware of our lower speed limits or that there are school children crossing Oakland, Grand, and Linda Avenues.

      Yes, the Police Department should target specific high-traffic areas for increased patrol during school commute hours.

Note: Garrett was unavailable earlier; his responses came to me after the other candidate responses were submitted and Julie and Jeff’s had been published.

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City Council Candidate Q & A – John Chiang

Posted by Len Gilbert on January 25, 2010

Next up in our series of questions and answers is John Chiang, an incumbent. John’s answers below didn’t include the original questions, but you can reference them here.

John Chiang
City Council Candidate Questions

  1. Undergrounding

    1. I support private undergrounding utility districts, depending on the facts and circumstances for the particular district being formed, but they need to be restructured in the future so that the homeowners in the private undergrounding utility district cover all costs, including any cost overruns, and the City is not financially liable. The recent $1 million cost overrun has got to be one of the worst nightmares that the City Council had to face in many years. There was no right answer and the City Council had to choose the least costly alternative. The Council voted unanimously to complete the project to mitigate the damages and protect the City’s claim against the engineers whom the City relied upon. There will be a post-mortem review to be conducted by the Audit Committee of the City Council. Needless to say, I do not envision any private undergrounding utility districts being formed in the near future or for years until the process is restructured so that the City is not financially liable.
    2. I support the current minimum 70% threshold for determining if City Staff will spend time on a proposed private undergrounding utility district. As for the final approval, legally, if there is not a majority protest, the City Council has the latitude to approve the formation of the district. There is no bright-line test or legally required percentage to support the formation. Obviously, the higher the percentage of support the better, and it makes it an easier decision for the City Council. It all depends on the facts and circumstances, which is probably why there is not a mandated or stated minimum percentage requirement for approval. Again, as stated in the above response, any future private undergrounding utility district formation will be structured so that the City is not financially liable and that all costs are to be borne by the homeowners in the district.
    3. As noted above, the entire process needs to be restructured, including whether the City continues to facilitate the construction, and if so, the contracts and assessments to the homeowners needs to be adjustable so that the City is not liable for any cost overruns. I have some ideas, but again, the Audit Committee will seek advice and have recommendations that will be presented.
  2. City Council Staff Oversight

    1. We need to review and establish the appropriate governance between City Management and the City Council. The City Administrator is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the City and the Council needs to review existing protocols and determine what if any policies or procedures should be changed or established. There is a balance and the Council should not be in the business of micro-managing the Staff. There should be some level of reasonable oversight and appropriate and timely communication between both parties. Projects in general have been running well for the past 20 years or so, and it’s unfortunate that we have experienced in 2009 what some might say was the “perfect storm”. The key is that we need to learn from this fiasco and implement appropriate governance and procedures so that there is not a reoccurrence.
    2. I believe that there should be some dollar threshold levels for any change orders for major projects, but there has to be an appropriate balance. All major projects receive City Council approval before any dollars are appropriated for any given project.
    3. More time for extraordinary items for the public to digest, including the City Council, is very desirable and helpful, but it’s not always possible, depending on the urgency of the matter and circumstances. Also, it’s not good practice for the staff to bring up issues prematurely without having all the current facts and figures. Again, it depends on the time sensitivity of the matter. Special City Council sessions are always an alternative for time sensitive and critical matters.
    4. Major projects are publicly noticed today. To the extent that major project details are presented to City Council for their approval before any appropriation, it’s already posted today on the City’s website.
    5. Performance reviews, and related criteria, of City Staff are personnel matters, and thus are confidential and not publicly disclosed. The goals of the City Administrator and each of his department heads are discussed during the budget planning process, but can change during the course of the year. The Council has implemented over a year ago a performance based management compensation plan for the City Administrator and his management team members, which includes specific individual goals and group or team goals.
    6. Regarding the issue of when changes to personnel are appropriate, again, this involves personnel matters and policies, which are confidential. In general, the negative range of outcomes for any manager’s performance could include a reprimand to termination, depending on the facts and circumstances.
  3. Parks

    1. Regarding Blair Park, there is in process an EIR and the Council and community are waiting for the outcome, report and future discussions on the findings. There is no question that there is the need for additional sports field space for our youth, especially with the change in the availability of the Alameda sports fields within 2 years. The evaluation of moving the corporation yard over to the Blair Park space was evaluated over 20 years ago. The end result was the decision to build Coaches Field, as it exists today. We can certainly look at this and other alternatives again.I value public/private partnerships and it’s how a number of great projects have been developed in town. Developing Blair Park is one option for additional sports field space that has been brought forth and is another example of a potential public/private project.
    2. There have been some preliminary discussions by some private citizens and I would support looking into the viability of purchasing the Davies Stadium, but it will realistically have to be a longer term option given the state of the current economy. On the flip side, it could be an opportunity for Piedmont, given the City of Oakland’s rising deficit.
    3. The city has evaluated some alternatives (e.g., Merritt College, the Mountain View Cemetery, etc.) and can look at other feasible alternatives or options. There is no one ideal or perfect solution. I am open to looking at other possible options.
    4. Yes, the current economic climate may present Piedmont with other alternatives or options as to sports field space, but it will take time and financial resources to identify and investigate the options.
    5. There are pros and cons with both artificial and natural turf. I would have to look at or get professional opinions as to the safety of artificial turf before making a final decision. Assuming that it can be demonstrated that artificial turf is safe and the total cost (including installation and maintenance) is less in the long run, I would favor artificial turf since you can get more field space time.
  4. Traffic and Transportation

    1. Pedestrian safety is very important, and especially involving our school children. There are a wide range of traffic calming options and alternatives. With the appropriate studies, I am supportive of speed reductions, especially near schools. I would start with the least evasive and cost effective alternatives. Enforcement is also important.
    2. I agree that there are pedestrian safety issues on Oakland Avenue, especially with excessive speeds. I would be supportive of revisiting the issue and putting it on the agenda for discussion. The last time this issue was discussed was several years ago and there was not Council agreement as to the best solution. We can also look at whether there are new traffic calming solutions available today that are cost effective and not intrusive. I recall that there were concerns with the solutions last time, including comments by some Council Members and the public’s concern that Oakland Avenue would look like or turn into a slalom ski run.
    3. Regarding connecting the existing bike lanes on Grand Avenue to the ones around Lake Merritt; that would be a great idea, which would require consensus and agreement with the City of Oakland and residents, in addition to the availability of funding. One possible funding source would be the Alameda County CMA which has as a focus the increased availability of bike lanes and congestion management relief. The bike lanes on Grand between Cambridge and Rose were one of the supporting arguments in support of the traffic signal that was funded by the Alameda County CMA and installed on Grand Avenue in that area. The last time a somewhat similar proposal for expansive bike lanes to and around Lake Merritt was discussed (I believe on Lakeshore Avenue), I recall that there were many opposition comments from Oakland residents as to the impact it may have on traffic plus safety issues. With the improvements around Lake Merritt today, maybe it’s time to test the waters again.
    4. As to further encouraging public transit, walking, biking – there were similar recommendations by the Environmental Task Force. We have an efficient casual car pool option available today. We need to further educate the members of our community. If there can be a reasonable and convenient public transportation alternative to connect our residents with BART, that might be another option to explore.
  5. Safety and Security

    1. The most recent Police Report for the calendar year 2009 showed that our crime statistics have increased over the prior year. Much of the increase appears to be “crimes of opportunity”. We need to continue and further educate our community of the importance of locking or securing our residences, being careful of our surroundings, not leaving valuables in our cars in plain sight, and other safety precautions. Crime Reports and Safety Precautions are posted on the City’s website and more can always be done. Our Police and Fire departments are more than willing to present safety precautions at neighborhood meetings.
    2. Yes, Piedmont Police should be regularly present in high traffic areas during commute and, including school drop off and pick up hours in the impacted areas of our city, to enforce speed limits and cell phone driving laws. Also, the parking of unmanned police cars is an additional effective deterrent that is utilized today.

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City Council Candidate Q & A – Jeff Wieler

Posted by Len Gilbert on January 24, 2010

The next set of answers come from Jeff Wieler. Jeff is a former council member who is running again. Jeff didn’t answer the very last question, but since he sent it to me at 1:00am, I think we can let that one slide. Jeff’s answers are in bold. (Note: I updated this post on Jan 25th to fix some typographical errors I introduced while converting to HTML format.)

Jeff Wieler
City Council Candidate Questions

  1. Undergrounding

    1. Explain your position on city-supported undergrounding districts.
      I have been a supporter of privately-funded undergrounding districts. I have always opposed city support, except of course for the staff time necessary to manage the process.
    2. Given the recent problems with the Piedmont Hills and the Sea View undergrounding districts, should the city require a yes-vote that is a higher percentage than a simple majority? Why or why not?  If yes, what is a high enough threshold to ensure fairness for all the residents in a proposed district?
      State law sets a minimum threshold of a simple majority for approval, and also provides that a Council can reject a district even if it were to have 100% support. Therefore, the City CANNOT legally set a higher threshold. Individual Council members can have a personal threshold, and a majority can even pass a sense of the (current) Council threshold, but any threshold that might be established can be changed at any time by a simple majority vote of the current Council members. In other words, each Council member has to evaluate each district and determine whether approval is in the best interests of the City and the residents of the district.
    3. If you believe the city should support future undergrounding districts, what measures will you take to ensure the homeowners in the district pay the entire project cost and that the city is not liable for overruns?
      It is impossible to have a 100% guarantee that any project won’t go over budget. The best that can be done is to minimize risk. There are obvious steps to minimize risk that could have—and should have—been taken in the Piedmont Hills district that weren’t followed.

      • First and foremost, you don’t go digging below the ground until you know what’s there. I am astonished that there wasn’t a geotech review, sample drilling, or other basic steps.
      • Second, bidding should have been done on either a fixed price or not to exceed basis. Either would have insulated the City from our current $1 million fiasco.
      • Third, a sufficiently high contingency fund should have been built into the district assessment, but wasn’t. I’d rather have too high a contingency and refunds to the district, than too low a contingency and money siphoned from the General Fund.
      • Finally, under the current procedures, proponents of districts front money for engineering, then become creditors as soon as the district is approved. Proponent money should remain at risk until the project is completed. In the case of Piedmont Hills, this would have saved the City $286,000.
  2. City Council Oversight of Staff

    1. How closely should the council oversee the city staff?
      Council needs to set reporting parameters, but we have to remember that we elect a Council to set policy, NOT to run the City! Otherwise, we should elect department heads, building inspectors, etc. Oversight of staff is—and should be—the job of the City Administrator. The Council’s duty is to hire and, when and if necessary, fire the City Administrator.
    2. Recently city staff has made costly errors in the Havens Schoolmate placement and the PHUD cost overruns. Should there be dollar limits on the amounts that the public works director or city administrator can approve with higher amounts requiring council approval?
      The Havens Schoolmate placement problem was indeed costly, but it most definitely was not the fault of City Staff. They did absolutely everything correctly, despite an extremely short timeframe caused by a highly aggressive Havens construction schedule, coupled with a long decision process by the School Board. Staff—at the direction of the Council—started placement of Schoolmates at Linda, after confirming with USA that there were no impediments. The fact that neither USA nor PG&E knew there was a large gas line under where the portables were supposed to be located, isn’t the fault of City Staff. The only way that line was going to be found was by digging.As for Piedmont Hills, the costly error was the failure to do preliminary geotech work before approving the district and signing the contract. It has been stated publicly that the two engineering firms retained by the City failed to recommend a geological survey. Assuming this is correct, then the engineering firms were clearly negligent and the City should have every reasonable expectation that it can recover most—and perhaps all—of the cost overrun.

      We should remember that massive subsurface engineering jobs are highly specialized, and even large cities don’t have the in-house expertise to do this work. Finally, there are very tight limits on amounts that staff—or the City Administrator—can approve without Council approval.

      A few years ago a major storm ripped off part of the City Hall and Fire House roof, and the City Administrator approved—on an emergency basis—$17,000 of repairs.

      Other than emergency situations in which there is literally no time to obtain Council approval (remember, it takes 72 hours of public notice just to call a Council meeting), all capital expenditures or budget cost overruns need to be approved by the Council beforehand.

      The problem with the PHUD cost overruns wasn’t that Staff went over budget, but that staff had mostly spent the budget before advising the Council there wouldn’t be enough money to finish the job. Using rough numbers, the district’s net budget (after rebates from Comcast, AT&T, etc) was $4.3 million. The Council was advised of the problem after about $3.8 million had been spent, so staff had not gone over budget YET.

      Unfortunately, it had become clear that that instead of needing about $500,000 to finish the project, the City would need about $1.5 million more.
      That’s when the $1 million was appropriated in December.

      In other words, Staff wasn’t spending unappropriated money—instead, it hadn’t notified the Council that the monies appropriated weren’t sufficient to finish the job—and that problem was created when the assessment on the district wasn’t sufficient for the actual conditions.

      The question that the Council needs to find answers for is “When did Staff know (and when SHOULD they have known)”? If Staff “blew the whistle” as soon as they knew the project couldn’t be finished within budget, then the problem goes back to the failure to charge the district enough money, and that problem was created by the failure to do adequate geotech work.

    3. Do you support posting Agendas and staff reports dealing with extraordinary items ahead of the legally mandated time frames in order to ensure that all residents and interested parties have the opportunity to participate in hearings? The legal requirement is 72 hours advance notice. How much time should the community have to review, investigate and digest the material before it is asked to comment on it?
      If something extraordinary or controversial is coming up, then the public should be made aware as far in advance as possible. This is both good government AND good politics! And if you review the tapes of the Monday Council meeting, you will see me imploring the Council to delay their decision as long as possible (without risking increased cost because of project abandonment). I was one of the few speakers who suggested postponing a decision, and I was the person who suggested delaying until Saturday. Informed public input—particularly since Piedmont has a highly educated and experienced population—is essential, and it’s quite possible that one of our 10,000 residents just might have an idea that hadn’t occurred to our 5 city council members.
    4. Do you favor posting project plans, schedules, and drawings of all city projects on the city website at least 10 days prior to work beginning? If not, why not?
      I think that plans, tentative schedules, and drawings should be posted as they are developed, and that it’s especially important to do so BEFORE the project is approved. Once the contractor has been hired and when groundbreaking is less than two weeks away, there’s not much that can be done to change things. And I think it makes more sense to have the detailed documents available for inspection at City Hall—you can’t download and print detailed construction documents unless your printer can handle a sheet of paper that’s 36+ inches wide.
    5. What criteria and methodology does the City Council use to assess the performance of the City Administrator?  Do you think that the criteria and methodology are adequate?  If not, what changes to the process would you recommend?
      I don’t know how the current Council evaluates performance. Personnel matters are (appropriately, in my view) handled in closed session. Most residents wouldn’t want their performance reviews at work posted on their employer’s website.
    6. The stability of Piedmont’s government has both beneficial and detrimental aspects, please describe these and identify if, or when, a change in personnel in some area of city administration might be beneficial?
      I moved to Piedmont 20 years ago, when most of the senior staff were fairly new. In those 20 years I’ve seen Piedmont improve steadily, year after year. For example, 20 years ago we didn’t have Coaches Field, the Skate Park, Dracena was a dank, unusable space, Linda Field was a clay and mud disaster, the main park was choked with blackberry, the paths falling apart, etc. Roads had potholes, parks were poorly maintained, etc. Improvements have been steady and consistent since then. I believe City government has become more responsive to citizens in the process. And fiscal prudence and responsibility have never been lacking. In the early 90’s Piedmont’s reserve dropped to less than 2% of expenditures. Today, even after almost two years of unprecedented economic distress AND a completely unexpected, $1 million hit to the General Fund Reserve due to the PHUD fiasco, our reserves exceed 10% of expenditures, and the City’s overall balance sheet is far, far stronger. The City has been exceedingly well run.
      And it will be time for personnel changes when the City is no longer being well run.
  3. Parks

    1. What is your position on the proposed development of Blair Park? Would your position change if the Blair project were scaled back slightly and moved across the Moraga Avenue to the corporation yard? Have you considered moving the corporation yard, possibly even to Oakland, so that that large piece of relatively flat land could be used to expand the existing field at Coaches Field?
      We should keep in mind that the Blair project is only in the conceptual phase right now, and most architects will tell you that actual projects as built as often as not are vastly different from the initial conceptual design. My position is that even if something ends up being built in Blair Park, we are only at the very beginning of the process.

      • The Environmental Impact Report has to be completed.
      • The conceptual project will almost certainly need revision based on the EIR
      • The revised project will need to be reviewed by the Parks Commission, the Rec Commission, the CIP Commission, and the Planning Commission.
      • The State will need to be involved (Moraga is a State road)
      • The Council will need to hold public meetings and gather opinion from all areas of Piedmont, in addition to the neighbors and the proponents.
      • Finally, whatever—if anything—comes out of this process has to find funding. And Piedmont is not currently in a position to spend millions on a new field or fields, so private fund raising is absolutely essential.
    2. I am conceptually in favor of working to ameliorate the shortage of fields for our children, and Blair Park is an obvious potential location. But there is a long way to go, and a lot to do, before kids are playing soccer in Moraga Canyon! Moving the Corporation Yard was looked at years ago and the cost would be very high. Nor would we want to move it very far into Oakland. n a daily basis, the cost of going back and forth for public works crews could become quite costly (if the yard was 10 minutes away, and five people had to make two trips per day to the yard, the cost would be equivalent to roughly a half-person, plus fuel. And in the event of a serious emergency (earthquake), we will want the equipment as close as possible. Imagine if the Corp yard was on the other side of Highway 13—it might as well be on Mars if the Hayward Fault went.

    3. Tennis club. Should Piedmont approach Oakland about buying this land?
      Why? Do we want to maintain Davies Tennis Stadium? Let Oakland pay for it.
    4. Do you believe that the City has investigated all possible options for new sports facilities in or near Piedmont?
      If there are options as of yet uninvestigated, they should be investigated.
    5. Do you think that the current economic climate might present Piedmont with an opportunity to investigate or review options for sports facilities located nearby in Oakland, Emeryville or Alameda?
      We should investigate all options. However, we have to remember that we have very real budget constraints, and land is very expensive, even today. If land can be found nearby, it is questionable whether we can find the millions of dollars that would be necessary just to buy the dirt, let alone the millions more that would be needed to turn the dirt into fields.
    6. In general, do you favor artificial or natural turf for play field surfaces? Why?
      I absolutely favor artificial turf. It is safer. You get far more use (4-5 times more). It recycles materials that would otherwise go into landfills. It does not use scarce water or need to be sprayed with chemicals. It requires far less maintenance than grass. And contrary to what a few people say, it does not exude toxic gas. I work in a school and we converted from natural grass to FieldTurf, and there is not a parent or child that would go back. I grew up playing on natural grass fields, and Wimbleton will never be played on FieldTurf, but the reality is that artificial surfaces are the only practical alternative today
      .
  4. Traffic and Transportation

    1. Traffic calming is important to Piedmont’s residential and school-oriented lifestyle. Linda Avenue, Oakland Avenue, Grand Avenue, and Moraga Avenue all have large volumes of traffic, frequently driving faster than posted limits. Efforts at traffic calming have been proposed, but only the Linda Avenue cross walk has been implemented. What is your position on reducing the speed of traffic and improving pedestrian safety?
      When I was on the City Council (2002-2006), I also served on the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency board. I spent four years working on the Grand Avenue problem, and succeeded in getting $275,000 in State and Federal money for the traffic lights at Grand and Arroyo. That’s the largest discretionary grant Piedmont has ever received.We need strong enforcement of traffic regulations throughout Piedmont. Obviously all candidates are in favor of slowing traffic and improving pedestrian safety, but it’s only traffic engineers who can tell how to do so!
    2. Despite having received a report that Oakland Avenue is dangerous, the city has undertaken no action to implement traffic calming or otherwise improve pedestrian safety on that street. Would you make pedestrian safety on city streets a priority during the next term and how would you do that? It was a priority when I was on the Council and I would like to see it a priority again. In one of my last votes before leaving the Council, I was part of a 3-2 majority for traffic calming measures on Oakland Avenue. The new Council reversed that vote, and was unable to come up with an alternative.
    3. What is your position on bicycle lanes connecting our current bike lane (on Grand between Cambridge and Rose) to the Grand Avenue bike lanes being developed around Lake Merrit?
      Don’t know much about it, but assuming that it is not particularly costly, and if it is not a problem from the standpoint of cyclist safety (traffic engineer time again!), it seems like a reasonable idea.
    4. What can Piedmont do to further encourage public transit, car pooling, walking, and biking for local activities?AC Transit is the big player on transit. People have to want to car pool, walk, and bike, and I can’t think of much the City can do to encourage that.
  5. Safety and Security

    1. Piedmont is generally safe. What do you see as the major public safety issue facing residents? How do you propose city council address those issues (if any)?We used to have increased patrols around the Grand Avenue area, especially below Grand, and in a few other easy access parts of town. If funding permits, this should be continued. More consideration should be given to community policing (not walking patrols, but police/community involvement). I would particularly like to see police working WITH (not “in” the High School, and with the kids. We need less of an “us/them” attitude between police and older youth.
    2. Should the Piedmont Police be regularly present in high traffic areas during morning and afternoon commute hours to enforce speed and cell phone driving laws? Many of our major streets are used by Oakland residents as commute through-ways and those drivers may not be aware of our lower speed limits or that there are school children crossing Oakland, Grand, and Linda Avenues.
      (No answer was given)

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City Council Candidate Q & A – Julie Watters

Posted by Len Gilbert on January 23, 2010

Last week I sent out a series of questions to the Piedmont city council candidates. All candidates received the same questions and I’m publishing the answers as given, with only a minimum of formatting and editing consistency applied so you get a feel for the candidate’s style as well as their answers, which are in bold below.

I’m starting the series off with Julie Watters.

Julie Watters
City Council Candidate Questions

  1. Undergrounding

    1. Explain your position on city-supported undergrounding districts.
      The City has an official policy of not subsidizing undergrounding districts and should adhere to it. In the case of the Piedmont Hills Undergrounding District, the staff, and perhaps Council, failed to implement this policy for reasons as yet unclear. I believe we need an independent review of the circumstances that led to this problem so we can avoid it happening again. At the very least we should try to discover what the Council knew of the overruns and when they learned of them. We, as citizens, can hold our professional staff accountable only by holding our Council members accountable.
    2. Given the recent problems with the Piedmont Hills and the Sea View undergrounding districts, should the city require a yes-vote that is a higher percentage than a simple majority? Why or why not? If yes, what is a high enough threshold to ensure fairness for all the residents in a proposed district?
      Yes: in the past, the city has required a 60 percent vote and only recently changed to a 50 percent requirement. I believe the city should return to a 60 percent vote requirement. This has worked well in the past and the city has not shown a credible reason for changing the vote requirement.
    3. If you believe the city should support future undergrounding districts, what measures will you take to ensure the homeowners in the district pay the entire project cost and that the city is not liable for overruns?
      The city should conduct an independent audit to determine the cause of the Piedmont Hills District overrun. It should use the results of the audit to determine what policy changes are needed to ensure that taxpayers are never again required to subsidize private districts. The city should have standards for the level of engineering investigation that is needed in order to determine construction costs and ensure that a peer review of the engineers estimate is carried out. In addition, the budget should have a contingency that is adequate to deal with unforeseen circumstances.
  2. City Council Oversight of Staff

    1. How closely should the council oversee the city staff?
      The Council should hold the City Administrator responsible for the actions of staff.
    2. Recently city staff has made costly errors in the Havens Schoolmate placement and the PHUD cost overruns. Should there be dollar limits on the amounts that the public works director or city administrator can approve with higher amounts requiring council approval?
      Most cities have such limits and I believe Piedmont should also. For a city with a budget the size of Piedmont (with a $20 million dollar budget), I would recommend requiring Council approval for items in excess of $25,000
      .
    3. Do you support posting Agendas and staff reports dealing with extraordinary items ahead of the legally mandated time frames in order to ensure that all residents and interested parties have the opportunity to participate in hearings? The legal requirement is 72 hours advance notice. How much time should the community have to review, investigate and digest the material before it is asked to comment on it?
      It would be difficult to have a hard and fast rule requiring posting in excess of the legal limit. However, the Council should set a goal for the City Administrator to review the Council meeting schedule and to the extent possible post extraordinary items at least a week in advance of a Council meeting. If the City Administrator cannot meet that goal, he should publicly explain why it cannot be met.
    4. Do you favor posting project plans, schedules, and drawings of all city projects on the city website at least 10 days prior to work beginning? If not, why not?
      This should be done. City projects are under the control of the City and tasks should be scheduled so there is ample opportunity for community review.
    5. What criteria and methodology does the City Council use to assess the performance of the City Administrator? Do you think that the criteria and methodology are adequate? If not, what changes to the process would you recommend?
      It would be appropriate to review the process in light of the problems recently uncovered. This should be done, however, after the City conducts an independent audit of the events that led us to the overrun.
    6. The stability of Piedmont’s government has both beneficial and detrimental aspects, please describe these and identify if, or when, a change in personnel in some area of city administration might be beneficial?
      As noted earlier, the City Council should hold the City Administrator responsible for the performance of his staff. The Council should establish clear goals for staff performance and hold the management responsible for implementing those goals.
  3. Parks

    1. What is your position on the proposed development of Blair Park? Would your position change if the Blair project were scaled back slightly and moved across the Moraga Avenue to the corporation yard? Have you considered moving the corporation yard, possibly even to Oakland, so that that large piece of relatively flat land could be used to expand the existing field at Coaches Field?

      The Council has been warned by the City Administrator and Municipal Tax Review Committee that new capital projects cannot be undertaken without raising taxes or cutting services. The Blair Park project will require a currently unknown capital investment from the City. I do not believe the City will be in a position to make such an investment for several years. And when it is, the issue of how to finance capital replacement at the pool will be pressing. I believe that an investment in the pool ranks first because the pool is a”fact on the ground” and serves a broader segment of the community than a sports complex. The City, moreover, has committed more than $1.2 million over the last several years to play fields at both Beach and Havens Schools. The city staff has acknowledged that the EIR is costing the city general fund over $200,000 in addition to the private contributions. In addition, the EIR is only adequate for the proposed plan. If the plans change after the EIR is completed, additional funds will have to be spent on an addendum to the EIR or an entirely new EIR. The Blair Park plan should have received review by the Parks and Recreation and the Planning Commission prior to beginning the EIR. I am very concerned about the impact of the sports complex on traffic, safety and the environment. Moving the corporation yard, even to Oakland, may be perfectly reasonable, depending on where land could be found and how convenient it could be to city operations. I would be concerned about expanding the existing field at Coaches Field if it has an adverse impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

    2. Tennis club. Should Piedmont approach Oakland about buying this land?

      The city should first determine for what purpose it would likely use the land. If it were to remain a tennis club, there would be no reason to buy the land. If it were to be another use, the city should determine what that use would be and have a citywide discussion. As noted above, the City Administrator has stated the city cannot take on any new Capital Improvement Projects without cutting services and/or raising taxes. Spending on a tennis club means not spending on other CIP projects, such as pool rehabilitation. The City needs to prioritize how it uses its funds. In addition, any new facilities would require maintenance and operation funds. The city has very limited funds to spend. Therefore it should not take on additional costs without understanding what services would need to be cut or how much the municipal services tax would need to be raised.

    3. Do you believe that the City has investigated all possible options for new sports facilities in or near Piedmont?

      No I do not.

    4. Do you think that the current economic climate might present Piedmont with an opportunity to investigate or review options for sports facilities located nearby in Oakland, Emeryville or Alameda?
      Yes, I pledge
      that if I am on the Council, Piedmont will look at all viable opportunities for more soccer fields.
    5. In general, do you favor artificial or natural turf for play field surfaces? Why?

      The community involvement, dialogue and process used to determine the appropriate playfield turf and padding material for the Havens fields was a good example of the open process needed. I think the question of artificial v. natural turf has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. There are many issues including: Financial – we must balance initial cost, maintenance costs and replacement costs; Use- what sports will be played on the field, how often will it be used, safety concerns; Environmental – sunlight exposure, sustainability, ground tires vs. organic corn husks, fertilizer, herbicides, etc.; Location – drainage, access, security.

  4. Traffic and Transportation

    1. Traffic calming is important to Piedmont’s residential and school-oriented lifestyle. Linda Avenue, Oakland Avenue, Grand Avenue, and Moraga Avenue all have large volumes of traffic, frequently driving faster than posted limits. Efforts at traffic calming have been proposed, but only the Linda Avenue cross walk has been implemented. What is your position on reducing the speed of traffic and improving pedestrian safety?

      Traffic calming can be a very effective means of slowing traffic and we need to fully investigate how to best utilize available methods. I believe we can improve pedestrian safety throughout the city by working with the schools to address students’ needs and utilizing the new General Plan to address those of adults.

    2. Despite having received a report that Oakland Avenue is dangerous, the city has undertaken no action to implement traffic calming or otherwise improve pedestrian safety on that street. Would you make pedestrian safety on city streets a priority during the next term and how would you do that?
      The Oakland Avenue situation needs to be addressed immediately. At a minimum, there is a need for an established plan that determines the most cost effective way to improve the situation. Grants are often available to improve pedestrian safety, but the city must develop concrete actions to be taken first. The Transportation Element of the new General Plan has an excellent discussion of pedestrian safety and an inventory of pedestrian pathways. We can use this element to develop a “Pedestrian Master Plan,” such as the ones developed in Alameda County and the City of Oakland.
    3. What is your position on bicycle lanes connecting our current bike lane (on Grand between Cambridge and Rose) to the Grand Avenue bike lanes being developed around Lake Merritt?

      This would be an excellent enhancement for bicycle riders in the entire area. The City should work with Oakland and aggressively pursue grant funding. The General Plan Transportation Element has a listing of the numerous grant-funding sources that can be pursued.

    4. What can Piedmont do to further encourage public transit, car pooling, walking, and biking for local activities?
      The Transportation Element of the General Plan has an extremely useful discussion of how we can encourage all of these activities. We need to aggressively pursue these options.
  5. Safety and Security

    1. Piedmont is generally safe. What do you see as the major public safety issue facing residents? How do you propose city council address those issues (if any)?

      Theft, burglary, and traffic and pedestrian accidents are major public safety issues. We are fortunate to have a Police and Fire Department committed to the community and extremely responsive to problems. The Council should address these issues by ensuring that one of the city’s highest spending priorities is support of public safety.

    2. Should the Piedmont Police be regularly present in high traffic areas during morning and afternoon commute hours to enforce speed and cell phone driving laws? Many of our major streets are used by Oakland residents as commute through-ways and those drivers may not be aware of our lower speed limits or that there are school children crossing Oakland, Grand, and Linda Avenues.

      I generally do not favor Council involvement in the day-to-day management of public safety professionals. I am, however, sympathetic to the argument that our police should have greater presence in the busiest areas of the City particularly near our schools at the start and end of the school day. I favor asking our public safety professionals to assess the costs and benefits of such a program.

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What’s Going On?

Posted by Len Gilbert on September 18, 2009

Piedmont City Council: More Blair Park.

Monday, Sept 21st, 7:30pm City Council Chambers, 120 Vista Avenue

Info, email addresses, agenda: http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/citycouncil/

Please join me in supporting the EIR process. The vote is only to continue with the EIR, not to approve Blair Park. I think it’s important to hear the real issues that an EIR will expose, rather than speculation from both sides of the issue.

crosswalk_signPlease also join me in urging the city to put a mid-block cross walk at the tennis courts, connecting Linda Beach Field and the Linda dog run. This area sees very high foot traffic from the dog run, playfield, tennis courts, tot lot and Beach Elementary going back and forth. This should have been done 3 or 4 years ago when both Beach field and the dog run were updated. Now is the time to fix the issue.

Linda Beach field is used by our children for soccer, baseball, lacrosse, tee ball, and softball. Primary groups are 5-9 year olds. There is a tot lot there, plus an elementary school. The block is extremely long and beckons for a med-block crossing. The area at the tennis courts/top of Linda Beach Field is about right to facilitate safer crossings for all facilities. The sightlines are good and the cost would be minimal.

PUSD School Board

Wednesday, September 23rd, City Council Chambers, 120 Vista Avenue

Info and agenda: http://www.piedmont.k12.ca.us/board-of-education/meeting-materials

Measure E: Not much updating

Last update to the site was July 24th (as of this post).

Info: http://www.pusdbond.org/updates

My question from a previous post still isn’t answered. If PG&E made a mistake on the gas line under the Havens Schoolmates building, are they paying for the relocation to the Beach Playground? Accountability and communication seem to be lacking, yet again, in the Measure E process.

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