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Los Altos Hills City Council race: Five candidates for three seats

Current Los Altos Hills City Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan is termed-out in November, and Mayor Michelle Wu and Councilman Roger Spreen both declined to run for re-election, leaving five candidates vying for three available seats on the five-member council in the Nov. 3 election. None of the five has served on the council before.

By and large, the candidates cited the town’s controversial contract renewal for GreenWaste Recovery garbage services as a past council faux pas, wildfire as a current concern and proposed state legislative bills meant to ease the affordable housing crisis as a potential future threat to the town’s lauded semi-rural character.

Below are Q&A-style interviews with each candidate, conducted by phone. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

To learn more about the candidates, view a video of Thursday’s candidates forum below.

Stanley Q. Mok

Stanley Q. Mok, a businessman, has lived in Los Altos Hills since 1996. He is one of six people who founded Bullis Charter School, which opened in 2004. Mok is in the midst of serving his 14th year on the Los Altos Hills Finance and Investment Committee.
For more information on Mok’s campaign, visit StanforLAHCouncil.com.

Stan Mok
Mok

Why are you running for city council?
I was asked by at least half a dozen people. They wanted somebody that had knowledge of finance to be running for the council so as things go by in the future, we will continue to be in a good financial position. If you didn’t have any idea of what’s going on in your finances, it’s really difficult to make a judgment unless you depend on somebody else. If you depend on somebody else, then the quality of the person or the organization that you’re depending on for the information may not be 100%, so it’s better to have somebody who has had the experience – extensive, in-depth experience – with finances, for the city over a long period of time.

What strengths would you bring to the council?
The depth and the breadth of knowledge in the area of finance. Also, the ability to review a problem or situation to formulate a process and a procedure to, if it’s a problem, rectify the problem. If we’re dealing with contracts, for example, there’s a process and procedure to that. I would have all the contracts that our city has. I would review the time frame of the contracts, the conditions of the contracts, when the contracts come up, when we should go out for bidding on new contracts, put it in a spreadsheet and make sure that that calendar is adhered to religiously so that we don’t miss our deadlines or so that we know what we’re bidding for, we know who the alternative bidders are, and it has the proper pricing for contracts.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Los Altos Hills, and how would you address it?
The general area of protecting our rural environment. There are a number of laws that are being proposed by the state that may change the rural character of our neighborhood. If we don’t mitigate the effects of state-imposed mandates, that is, for affordable housing, these rule changes alone could effectively wipe out our zoning laws. And that applies to all cities – not (just) Los Altos Hills.

Can you describe one important decision you feel the council got wrong in the past four-year cycle?
Our GreenWaste contract for our garbage services is way more expensive than it used to be for far less services, and it forces our residents to do things that they haven’t done before and at a far higher cost. We had a long lead time; these are 15-year contracts that are written and adhered to for a long period of time. I don’t know how we would get out of it. I’m going to do some research on that. But we ended up with a rate that’s higher than the highest versus other comparable towns, and I am not happy with that at all.

If elected, what would you like to accomplish during your four-year tenure?
I would like the city to be in a better financial condition than what it is now, even though we are in a good financial condition. I would like to have some of the infrastructure of the town improved so that we have better internet access. In the 21st century, for one of the most affluent towns in the nation, a place where you can’t get internet access, that’s ludicrous. The telephone coverage that we have for our cellphones could be improved slightly. The undergrounding of utilities will eliminate the exposed, high-voltage wires that we currently have that are subject to spark and then can cause fires. They’re subject to earthquakes, they’re subject to rain, wind.

What headline related to Los Altos Hills would you most like to see in print in 2024, the end of this four-year term?
“Los Altos Hills is the best place on the face of the earth to live.”

Raj Reddy

Raj Reddy, an associate member of the Los Altos Hills Environmental Initiatives Committee, has lived in Los Altos Hills for 33 years. He is a retired executive who worked in the energy and utility industries for three decades.
For more information on Reddy’s campaign, visit ReddyforCouncil.org.

Raj Reddy
Reddy

Why are you running for city council?
I’m very passionate about our town. I love our town. I want to maintain our rural environment and enhance our community infrastructure. This is the primary reason I’m running for city council.

What strengths would you bring to the council?
I’ve lived here 33 years, and I understand the town’s functions, the workings of the city council, the workings of the planning commission and all the town committees we have. I’ve participated in one for many years, and I’m involved with other town committees also. And I’ve attended numerous planning commissions, city council meetings and am very knowledgeable how the various departments in the town function.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Los Altos Hills, and how would you address it?
The way I look at what’s going on in town is the townwide underground utility wires and safety and reliability is one of my very, very serious concerns of our town, especially with what we’ve been witnessing the last couple of weeks, the fires we’ve been having. I’m not saying these fires are caused by electrical wires – there are more, different reasons – but in the past, we have specifically had fires because of the PG&E electrical wires, because they were not being maintained and, obviously, they were not underground. So that is my priority for the town. I have a lot of experience with it, and I’ve done a lot of the research into what are the potential funding opportunities.

Can you describe one important decision you feel the council got wrong in the past four-year cycle?
We have a pretty wide disagreement with the contract with GreenWaste garbage company, for one thing. My general understanding is they have a fixed payment for all town residents whether they use the facilities or they don’t use the facilities. One of the things I think would be more appropriate would be working with GreenWaste to keep affordable garbage collection with a range of pay-as-you-go service; if somebody is using extra bins for recycle, extra bins for garbage, then you pay whatever the extra amount you need to pay. But, at the same token, the town residents have to pay a fixed fee with using two cans for recycle, one for garbage and one for some other use, so it’s not fair. Some of the residents may not be using all these bins that they are paying for. And also, we do have a large population of retired citizens, residents here, on a fixed-income basis, and it’s going to be difficult for them to pay pretty high monthly or quarterly payments for the garbage
collection.

If elected, what would you like to accomplish during your four-year tenure?
My priority is townwide underground utility wires and safety and reliability. One of the things we mentioned earlier is the GreenWaste. Another thing I’m very concerned about is apparently we have a lot of bills coming up in legislation to force increased residential density in the town of Los Altos Hills. I’m totally against that. I will passionately work toward defeating these bills and protect the rural environment and natural beauty of Los Altos Hills. And also working with PG&E. They are very slack in how they trim their trees. They have the wires going through trees, and they’re not maintaining them. It could be a huge hazard. And when we have any winds or any storms, we get total blackouts for the area. And that’s going on and on more frequently, so I think definitely we should be coordinating to get PG&E to maintain these services on a regular basis.

What headline related to Los Altos Hills would you most like to see in print in 2024, the end of this four-year term?
“Los Altos Hills undergrounds utilities townwide.”

Lisa Schmidt

Lisa Schmidt moved to Los Altos Hills in 1992. She is a business owner who founded a software company with her husband that uses PG&E smart-meter data to analyze home energy use. She’s a past volunteer with the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

For more information on Schmidt’s campaign, visit LisaSchmidt.org.

Lisa Schmidt
Schmidt

Why are you running for city council?
I’ve come down to two inspirations. One is we just love living here. And the other one is, there actually is a great deal of pain going on in the country right now. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed, and my way of participating and addressing those issues is to step up and help our town continue to run well and maybe expand out in our ability to be a good citizen of the country. I really want to work with other residents and people in the town. What do they think is important and what do we need to do as a community to make ourselves more resilient, more inclusive and better stewards of the environment and help with reducing climate impacts?

What strengths would you bring to the council?
I really like talking to people. I really like getting to know people. And so I really look forward to sitting down and talking to people about what their concerns are, what their ideas are. And I try to take a very broad and analytical view of what people are saying and try to understand what they’re actually telling me and see if we can work that into the best solution that helps as many people as possible. I’ve always worked for startups except for very rare occasions, so I like getting into all the nitty-gritty and looking at each perspective and making it work together. I really like being hands-on, so I want to understand every piece of it and try to help drive it toward a better solution.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Los Altos Hills, and how would you address it?
I think Los Altos Hills is running along pretty well; I don’t think we’re facing any grave issues inside of the town. There’s always certainly things that need to be watched and monitored. I think it’s pretty universal that our pathways system and the town character needs to be maintained and preserved. I think the important thing for us to think about is as we keep our town running well and protecting the things that we think are important, we need to recognize that we’re part of a bigger community in the Bay Area, and how can we work with other communities to help with some of the problems the entire Bay Area is facing?

Can you describe one important decision you feel the council got wrong in the past four-year cycle?
When the city council turned down the request of the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce for a donation in support of COVID, I think we should have reconsidered that. Maybe the request was more than what Los Altos Hills could contribute or should contribute, but I was disappointed to see we were not willing to help out our fellow community in an incredibly difficult situation.

If elected, what would you like to accomplish during your four-year tenure?
I would like to open up communications between the town and the council so they flow freely. I’d also like to see that we improve our focus on accessory dwelling units. I think we’ve made a great start by putting those in place and supporting ADUs, but how can we make them more available in our town? I think we need to help the greater community in the housing crisis. And then I would like to see us move forward on our climate action plan. I think that’s very, very important, and it affects our environment and our community and how livable and wonderful it will continue to be.

What headline related to Los Altos Hills would you most like to see in print in 2024, the end of this four-year term?
“Los Altos Hills celebrates more community participation.”

Jay Sutaria

Jay Sutaria, a resident of Los Altos Hills for approximately seven years, is an engineer/executive. He has advised town officials on airplane noise and the town hall site utilization. Sutaria is serving his first term as a member of the Los Altos Hills Emergency Communications Committee.

For more information on Sutaria’s campaign, visit JayForLAHCouncil.com.

Jay Sutaria
Sutaria

Why are you running for city council?
I’ve been engaged, and I felt it was particularly important to step up in this time of great uncertainty. With the three of the five council seats open, this is a pivotal moment. Also, I was strongly encouraged to run by both former and current council members. Subsequently, I was also approached by several volunteer committee members, people whose work I have great respect for. Lastly, some recent council actions have made me concerned about how our town government is being run. I feel like our town council is not adequately responsive to resident concerns.

What strengths would you bring to the council?
In my professional career, I’ve built large teams, managed multi-billion-dollar budgets, held leadership roles in companies of all sizes and confronted challenging problems while building consensus, and I believe these assets would be significant benefits to me as a council member. I would also say collegiality is important, but this doesn’t mean going along to get along. I think there are honest, respectful ways to pose critical questions and ensure our residents are heard and addressed.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Los Altos Hills, and how would you address it?
The past few weeks have reminded us of the tremendous risk we face from natural disasters, especially fire. Many roads don’t meet the current county fire department specs, an issue our planning commission has been raising since 2018. Many homes do not have “two ways out,” as fire professionals recommend. Residents are having their insurance canceled. Invasive weeds, dry brush and dead trees present a significant fuel issue. And overhead power lines and utility poles make us even more vulnerable.
We need proactive risk reduction by undergrounding, by making it easier for homeowners to remove dead trees and other fuel and to maintain defensible space and by investing in our roads and pathways to ensure safe evacuation routes.

Can you describe one important decision you feel the council got wrong in the past four-year cycle?
There are multiple issues made by this council with which I disagree. Foremost among those is the renewal of the 15-year, noncompetitive contract with GreenWaste, which resulted in significant increases in costs plus reductions in service. I would say the contract negotiation process was not managed well. The town waited too long to put it out to bid so no other vendors could take over the contract. The council failed to provide adequate oversight of this process, and now residents are stuck paying much more for service than the neighboring towns like Portola Valley and Woodside.

If elected, what would you like to accomplish during your four-year tenure?
No. 1 is improve the town’s disaster preparedness, reduce our fire risk, increase resident safety and insurability. We also need to improve our governance. I would say passing a sunshine ordinance to require council ad hoc subcommittees to conform to California’s open-meetings laws. We need to improve community engagement by exceeding the minimum mandated notice requirements, holding more community meetings in town hall, having more frequent communication from the town, both from town hall and committees. We need to maintain and modernize our infrastructure. We need to articulate and put in place a multi-year plan with resident buy-in for undergrounding utilities, improving internet access in our town and make sure we’re planning for the future. Lastly, we need to ensure our town’s continued financial strength. That means re-examining our spending, making sure we’re fully recovering our costs, fully funding all our obligations, including our remaining unfunded pension liability. We need to make sure the town is managing its assets responsibly and providing the services our residents want.

What headline related to Los Altos Hills would you most like to see in print in 2024, the end of this four-year term?
“Los Altos Hills is the best town in America.”

Linda Swan

Linda Swan, a former mechanical engineer, moved to Los Altos Hills 32 years ago. She is a past president of the Los Altos Hills Historical Society, a founder of Bullis Charter School and a current associate member of the town’s History Committee.

For more information on Swan’s campaign, visit LindaForLAHCouncil.com.

Linda Swan
Swan

Why are you running for city council?
With three seats up for election, a group of town residents got together to discuss the traits, including fairness, honesty and transparency, that would be necessary for the council members to possess, and they asked me if I would join and run as a team with Jay Sutaria and Stan Mok. And so I decided I really like both of those people, and I agree with their basic tenets and decided to join them.

What strengths would you bring to the council?
I think my engineering studies contributed to my analytical abilities and my MBA added a business-orientation piece. And over the years, I’ve had a wide range of interests and I love learning new things. I have a pilot’s license and I got a real estate broker’s license to learn more about real estate and investing in it. I ran the San Francisco Marathon thinking that I would never ever be able to run three miles, and yet I was able to.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Los Altos Hills, and how would you address it?
I think protecting the rural character of the town, the pathways and open space and, of course, fire protection, which was recently brought to the forefront of our thinking. I think we dodged the issue from the state where they were talking about massive changing in our zoning. We just don’t have the infrastructure, the roads or sewers or water systems to deal with that kind of density. And we’re hoping the ADUs will provide enough of the much-needed housing that we can do that as our part.

Can you describe one important decision you feel the council got wrong in the past four-year cycle?
Based on the grumbling I’m hearing in town, I would have to say that it was the GreenWaste contract. I know the 15-year contract was awarded with only one bid and it greatly increased the rates. And then there’s also a 9% increase coming down the road. It also decreased the services. They wanted people on narrow, private roads to bring bins down to some neighborhood collection point, and with the steep hills, the terrain, the elderly residents, that was quite a burden. Comparable towns, such as Portola Valley, were discovered to be paying much lower rates than we are. So, I think many of the residents are rightfully upset.

If elected, what would you like to accomplish during your four-year tenure?
I think transparency and honesty are important, as are fiscal responsibility, and with the changes in the work environment with COVID, I think we need to look at the plans for town hall expansion to see if it’s still prudent. The total projected cost of their expense is almost $3 million and right now, it’s looking like a poor investment when we don’t know how many people will be returning to town hall. And then improved fire safety. So, I think we really need to continue with the brush clearing and looking at the width of roads in town that don’t make the current standards and make firefighting and getting fire equipment up here difficult. And I think about the infrastructure. Internet and cell coverage are weak in a lot of the town, and we need to bring that into the 21st century. Lastly, I would say undergrounding utilities is important for fire safety and to reduce power outages, but it’s extremely expensive, so we must establish priorities about where we start. I think starting on that goal, even though it may be many years before we complete it, is important.

What headline related to Los Altos Hills would you most like to see in print in 2024, the end of this four-year term?
“God’s little acre is even better.”

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