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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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