Candidates unified messaging along incumbent and challenger lines on issues of affordable housing, traffic, the City’s budget and pedestrian safety during a pair of political forums.
The League of Women Voters of San Jose/Santa Clara and Greenbelt Alliance held two candidate forums Monday via Zoom. The forums allowed the two candidates from District 1 and District 4 to answer questions submitted in advance from the public.
The questions were essentially identical in each forum, and answers from District 1 incumbent Kathy Watanabe and District 4 incumbent Teresa O’Neill mirrored each other as did the answers from District 1 challenger Harbir Bhatia and District 4 challenger Kevin Park.
Although the incumbents and challengers in both forums agreed on several issues, they also diverged on several key points.
Both Watanabe and Bhatia agreed that District 1 needs better representation. With California Great America, the Convention Center and Levi’s Stadium, it is where many Santa Clarans go for their entertainment.
Similarly, Park and O’Neill seemed to also agree that District 4 needs to take better advantage of some of its recreational amenities, such as Central Park, libraries and the recreational center. O’Neill said that the City needs to return Central Park to the City’s “crowning jewel.” Park said many residents don’t realize the depth of some of the parcels in District 4.
“Because we treat each of these parcels the same, we miss a lot of opportunities,” Park said.
While all four candidates agreed that police and fire services and infrastructure are paramount, candidates for both districts retreated into their respective camps when asked about generating revenue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both incumbents pointed to City Place and Related developments as well as Measure E — an upcoming ballot initiative to increase the transient occupancy tax rate (TOT), which all candidates support — as a bright spot to allow essential services to continue. Meanwhile, both challengers derided what they called “frivolous” lawsuits, such as the one in which the City is embroiled with the 49ers or appealing the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) case.
Bhatia said the City shouldn’t rely on the TOT increase.
“That is not going to solve all our problems. We have to think about the assets we have,” Bhatia said.
Making better use of the stadium instead of combating the 49ers and getting the Visitor’s Bureau operational again would go a long way, she said. Park echoed this sentiment, saying the ongoing strife between the 49ers and the City is “not a good look.”
Both challengers said Council needs to ditch its litigious attitude.
“If we had better relationships with our neighbors, and didn’t have this ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ attitude, we would spend less money,” Bhatia said.
For once, Park said, the Council should follow through on what it claims to want. He provided examples, saying the Council claims to want tourism but eliminated the Visitor’s Bureau, claims to want businesses to thrive but picked a fight with the Chamber of Commerce and claims to support term limits but his opponent is running for a third term.
Watanabe pushed back on this characterization, saying that the City is “not involved in lawsuits.”
Part of the problem with the City’s financial stability, Bhatia said, is that its salaries are too large a percent of the budget — around 75 percent.
Watanabe called Bhatia’s assessment “reckless,” saying that salaries account for roughly $260 million of a $1 billion budget. The City is “well-managed” and “pays accordingly,” she added.
However, Bhatia’s assessment is more accurate, considering salaries come out of the general fund, not the operating budget, which is about $1 billion, roughly half of which is the City’s electric utility. Salaries account for nearly 75 percent of the City’s general fund expenditures, not its total operating budget.
Regarding the question of improving the City’s jobs-to-housing ratio, all the candidates agreed that putting more housing near transit centers, so residents can “live, work and play” in the same place was essential.
That topic tied into two other questions regarding the role of accessory dwelling units and traffic.
Having specific plans, such as those for Freedom Circle, Patrick Henry, Tasman East and El Camino, O’Neill said, is a good start to adding density to the City. She said she favors higher density in main thoroughfares while Park said the City needs to consider how to add density throughout the City, including in traditionally residential areas.
On a similar note, Bhatia said the City should phase in higher density in certain areas and be better about communicating when such policies will get underway as well as having an end date in mind for other measures that improve density.
When asked about transparency, again both incumbents said the City does a good job on that front; O’Neill pointed to the calendaring and lobbying ordinances, which she supported. All candidates agreed that making the most of social media is a must.
Both challengers again pointed to the City’s lawsuits and availability of information on them as a weak spot. Whether it is on this issue, increasing affordable housing requirements or increasing pedestrian safety, Park said the City needs to strive to exceed the bare minimum.
Watanabe again pointed to issues she has spearheaded during her time on Council: mitigating noise near the stadium, cracking down on racing and the influx of parking in residential areas, extending the library hours and getting an additional public bathroom in the park.
However, Bhatia countered, saying that she is not suggesting that Watanabe is not a good neighbor, but that the Council needs a “person who can do policy making” and “analyze complex issues.”
The next series of forums — for Districts 5 and 6 — will be held Monday, Oct. 5 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information or to register and submit questions for the forum, visit lwvsjsc.org