Candidates running for the mayoral seat in Pleasanton met with The Independent this week to share their background, views and long-term goals.
From policing and clean water to development and COVID-19’s impact on the region, Karla Brown, Monith Ilavarasan and Jerry Pentin discussed their perspectives and planned actions, as listed in last-name alphabetical order below.
While Brown served on the city council for two terms since first elected in 2012 as a top vote-getter, her involvement with local politics goes back to the years beforehand, when a PG&E power line was expected to come through her neighborhood. She worked with her local homeowner association to fund and win a lawsuit to stop the line. Later, she fought a housing project that was supposed to place 51 large homes on a southern ridgeline.
“They were literally going to cut off the top of a ridge to build massive houses,” Brown said, further noting she was part of the effort to put Measure PP (permanent ridgeline protection) on the ballot, which the voters passed. “My passion has been to represent residents. I didn’t feel that the council at that time (in 2010) was accessible to me, and I was frustrated that they didn’t seem to represent what the residents were wanting.”
Should she win the mayoral seat this November, Brown’s central focus areas will include steady growth in compliance with state housing mandates. Due to this stance, she said she takes pride in her clean-money campaign, which accepts zero developer dollars. She would like to see an emphasis on developing affordable housing in regions best suited for high-density housing. She noted those to be areas near transit or “walkable communities,” but she doesn’t favor transitioning single-family-zoned housing into duplexes — noting Pleasanton needs smaller, not taller, housing.
“We’re trying to reduce impacts, and we wouldn’t want multi-story housing on the fringe of the city, making people cut through the city,” Brown said, adding that she’s interested in looking at development for the Stoneridge Mall area. “We’re going to start looking at sites throughout Pleasanton and form a ranking system. We don’t want sprawl … We need to continue to build lower income housing, since the price to live here has continued to rise.”
Brown further noted housing on the east side of Pleasanton could be considered for development.
“But I would want to know what our regional housing needs allocations are going to be,” she said. “However, I do not want to interfere with businesses and jobs that are operating in the area. Local jobs are extremely important to our workers and our employees.”
Brown stated she’s passionate about supporting small businesses. She’s also focused on public health and safety, securing clean water — a point of concern since one of the city’s wells was deemed contaminated with Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and closed in recent years — and preserving the historic downtown.
“The Downtown Specific Plan allowed for rising ceiling and building heights, increased density and a zoning change on two key business lots sites allowing them to convert businesses into high-story housing,” she said, expressing opposition to those elements of the plan.
Brown said her conversations with residents, coupled with a 2018 survey, led her to determine a key issue for them was balancing development with infrastructure, such as freeways, schools and public transportation.
“We need to complete widening Highway 84 to reduce the burden of traffic on the region,” she said. “I supported BART to Livermore; Livermore had been promised BART from the beginning, and I was disappointed that it didn’t go all the way. So Valley Link will be replacing that option.
“To imagine Valley Link going deep into San Joaquin Valley is exciting, but we need to work with San Joaquin County, and they need to fund their portion ... it’s been an important battle that’s being fought for residents to decrease traffic impact and bring people to work.”
In terms of addressing challenges that COVID-19 has brought upon the city, Brown pointed out that small businesses are the backbone of Pleasanton. She noted the city approved three-year loans to help stabilize those businesses and holds Weekends on Main to allow for outdoor dining and shopping. She said she hopes those small business loans further help individuals suffering from unemployment. As of press time, Brown was also planning to participate in the Sept. 22 city council meeting with the Pleasanton Unified School District to better understand how the council could support education.
Alongside the national conversation of policing, Brown stated that while Pleasanton’s officers are trained on crisis intervention and de-escalation, she believed they’re being asked to address situations they weren’t trained for. She fully supports keeping all officers currently on staff while adding mental health experts to the city’s budget. She further noted groups like the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team could help aid the homeless and youth going through a crisis.
“If we have mental health experts in touch with residents earlier, then we can prevent future catastrophic events,” she said.
As her 2016-2020 councilmember term comes to a close this year, Brown shared that while her challenges were sometimes found in being the lone dissenting vote on the council, she was proud of her effort to bring the voice of the residents to the city.
“I brought voices that had never participated in council meetings before and didn’t realize they could influence local politics,” she said.
Ilavarasan grew up in Pleasanton and returned after graduating from college with a passion to focus on two key areas for the city: affordable housing and policing. He also took pride in his campaign funding sources, noting they are all small-dollar, and he encourages donors to give half to firefighters battling the state’s historic flames.
“Not only do we have a housing-jobs imbalance, but we have a massive imbalance for lower paying jobs,” he said, noting for every 15 workers earning low wages, there is only one available home. “It forces people to commute long distances, which causes environmental issues, because we don’t have a good public infrastructure connecting people.”
Ilavarasan, who graduated from Amador Valley High School in 2010, noted the issue is especially important to those who grew up in the area and found themselves pushed out. The matter of housing, he said, also blends into the conversation on vulnerable populations, such as those experiencing homelessness or mental health crises, or senior residents. He proposed that the city implement policies that protect those on fixed incomes, whose equity is tied to their home and may fear increased taxation.
“Homelessness is a housing issue in the Tri-Valley,” Ilavarasan said. “In addition, the effects of having a homeless population is handling it after the fact; now you have the herculean task of supporting people who have been displaced while finding a spot in this hugely expensive city. We need to attack it at the root and make sure we’re doing a better job of making housing and services available.
“The way I view growth is that it needs to be inclusive of everyone who lives and works in Pleasanton ... Pleasanton has seen a battle between developer-friendly people, while the other side is very opposed to any development. I want to propose an alternative: instead of unmitigated growth or no growth, we focus on our populations that haven’t been served and ensure we don’t become another Palo Alto, but that we establish a city of all income levels.”
On policing, Ilavarasan’s vision was for any additional funding to go toward mental health services.
“During the pandemic, the only department that has received an increase has been the police department,” he said. “We have three open positions for officers even though we have good response times and low crime rates; instead of hiring three new officers, the department should bring in the mental health professionals, so we don’t sacrifice existing officers … We need to redefine policing with a holistic, compassionate approach … We have the opportunity to make Pleasanton a leader in the nation in terms of how we respond to crises.”
While housing and policing would be two areas of focus for Ilavarasan, he also pointed out he would strongly support the school district, as the Pleasanton schools are a draw for the city and of importance to residents.
“A lot of the funding measures passed by the council can impact the schools,” he said. “Municipal bonds oftentimes compete with school board bonds. If you have an election cycle with multiple bonds showing up with no regard for how they’re structured — how they interact with each other — you run into this risk where people have to choose between safe water or hiring more teachers to create smaller class sizes. If you don’t layer it in a cohesive way, you’re forcing people to make choices that lead to bond measures not passing for the schools.”
On responding to COVID-19 as an elected leader, Ilavarasan noted he’s a firm believer in not reopening too soon.
“People are pushing to reopen, but the fundamental thing is we’re no safer now than we were a few months ago,” he said. “What we need to do is ensure we carry out measures to make sure we don’t rush into decisions that put service workers at risk.”
He stated that the city should make it easier for small businesses to obtain the loans that were established during the pandemic, while taking a look at possible rent forgiveness.
“Pleasanton has done a good job supporting renters, but I think we can do more,” Ilavarasan said. “We have an eviction stay, but what that means is you’re just backing up payments and then have to make it all at once. I think we can find a way to do full rent forgiveness in some cases.”
On the Downtown Specific Plan, Ilavarasan saw an opportunity to both preserve historic sections and renovate the area near the civic center and police department to create a green open space for families to recreate.
When asked to describe his challenges, he noted his were more of a perception rather than a reality. He explained that he does in fact have relevant experience. He once campaigned for Sen. Scott Weiner’s opponent in 2016, and has maintained a diverse political involvement throughout high school and college.
“My perceived challenge is a lack of experience in local government,” he said, responding to the expected question from constituents who might ask why he won’t campaign for the council first. “But as long as you have a strong moral compass, a strong vision for what you want the city to look like and a supportive force behind you, you should be able to run for office; this idea that you should spend 10 years in commissions and then 8 years on the city council before you run for mayor is highly prohibitive. It prohibits so many people from getting involved in local government, and that kind of attitude is what has kept Pleasanton politics in particular very conservative over the years.”
And Ilavarasan’s focus on inclusivity ties directly into his stance on housing.
“We’re at this crux where there’s going to be this push at a federal level to get more housing built,” he said, “and if we could just match that with the will at a local level, we’ll have a beautiful opportunity to make Pleasanton welcoming to everybody.”
A mayoral candidate with city and regional leadership experience, Pentin also explored the importance of affordable housing, while adhering to state mandates for development in job-rich communities such as Pleasanton.
“In the past, I’ve been touted as a pro-development person, but it’s funny because I’m such an open space guy,” he said, noting his involvement with the Altamont Landfill Open Space Advisory Committee. “Do I want to add (housing) units or build moderate homes? No. I think everything in Pleasanton is above moderate. On affordability, the cheapest place is a trailer house for $300,000, and there is no more step-up housing in this town … I think it would be great for our children and grandchildren to be able to come back to this town.”
But he also pointed out a no-growth stance can lead to rough waters for the city, as it once did in 1996 when Pleasanton established a housing cap that later led to a lawsuit.
“If you’re going to be comprehensive and collaborative and comply with the state mandates, then you have to show HCD (Housing Community Development) that you’ve thoroughly vetted the city and figured out that you can or can’t do what the state is asking you to do,” he said. “But if you sit there and say you’re going to ignore potential development on the east side and throw all of the housing at the mall, HCD is going to come back and say we’re not going to certify you; and it’s not fair to the people in Pleasanton. Ask the people on the west side if they want to see 2,000 or 3,000 units go up at the mall.
“We learned the hard way, when we lost the lawsuit and had to pay $5 million; we had to give a million to Urban Habitat, a nonprofit housing organization. We had to literally walk a check over to them for a million bucks — that’s taxpayer money. But what people don’t realize is we also lost the ability to plan our city after we lost that lawsuit. Until we rezoned 70 acres of the city, and updated the previous housing element, and created this particular housing element we’re in now … we couldn’t even approve your fence that you wanted to build in your yard.”
Pentin noted that a no-growth policy comes off to less-affluent communities as entitled, noting Pleasanton couldn’t win a fight against state mandates.
Through his involvement with the League of California Cities, Pentin said he’s communicated with senators and representatives, along with those in the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). One question he said he posed involved COVID-19 and how it would impact the demand and state mandate for housing.
“What if those 63,000 jobs go remote two to three days a week? That will result in a major change in our crossovers,” Pentin said. “Not everyone has the flexibility of remote work, but the reduction will change the impact on the environment. We’re a job-rich, house-poor community. (With COVID-19), will we really need that requirement on the housing if our jobs are going remote? We need the ability for the people to live in the town they were born in. We don’t need 3,500-square-foot homes anymore.”
On policing, Pentin said he completely supported the development of a mental health crisis team, which will come back to the council before the start of the pilot program. With regard to city hall, he saw an issue with the cost of the plan in the midst of the pandemic.
“I don’t know that the city is ready to vote in a $150 to $200 million bond for a new city hall, but I do know we need a new library and a new community center; we overwork the vets hall and the senior center,” he said. “We’re not seeing the fallout from COVID just yet — there are a lot of Band Aids patching things, and we’re going to pull those off and see how bad it is.”
On treating PFAS in Pleasanton’s water supply, Pentin said Well 8 should be a priority to mend, but that addressing the issue at a larger level is also key.
“We have to hold legislators responsible to get corporations to quit using PFAS,” he said, noting that everyday things such as microwave popcorn, Scotch Guard, new carpet and firefighting foam contain the contaminants.
“I know what we’re faced with, and I don’t come in with an agenda,” Pentin continued. “If you come into this council with an agenda and you fill your agenda, I don’t believe that is the kind of leadership we need.”
Pentin is backed by the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce. On campaign contribution dollars, he noted there is a lot of discussion around special interest and developer funds.
“I have not taken any developer funds nor am I seeking any special interest donations,” he said. “In the past few weeks, I received several large contributions, which I chose to return. Most of my contributions have been from friends who I have had a long-standing relationship with and who feel I am the right person for the job.”