Updated 9:56 a.m., Oct. 16: Fire safety loomed large Thursday evening during a teleconferenced Los Altos Hills City Council candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Los Altos-Mountain View Area.
With wildfires still blazing across the state and the Los Altos Hills County Fire District’s recent reprieve (see page 1) fresh on residents’ minds, the five contenders vying for outgoing council members Courtenay C. Corrigan’s, Roger Spreen’s and Michelle Wu’s seats all emphasized the importance of local emergency preparedness. All stated fire safety will be among the most pressing issues in town during the next two years.
Business owner Lisa Schmidt said if she is elected, she would assemble a task force that works closely with the fire district to improve communication and to educate residents on hardening their properties.
“I think there’s a lot of working parts to fire readiness and that we’ve got the parts, and we need to weave them together so there’s a more comprehensive plan (and) we understand what people should do,” Schmidt said.
Retired executive Raj Reddy praised the fire district’s dead-tree removal and brush-chipping programs as well as its encouragement of defensible space zones around homes, like those advocated by the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council.
“Because of severe wildfire potential due to vegetation, hazards and private and public plans and vast open space and parks, I support the 30-feet safety zone around the house and (limiting) the volume of vegetation to a minimum,” Reddy said. “I also support a second zone of 100 feet around the house to be maintained as a reduced fuel zone.”
Reddy is a big proponent of improving spotty internet and phone services in town. Serendipitously, his Zoom connection cut out just as he attempted to answer a question about priorities for future capital improvement projects. Upon his virtual return, he capped off a segment in which the candidates all characterized the town’s ongoing undergrounding utilities project as a worthy endeavor to minimize fire risk, boost internet connectivity and even improve aesthetics.
The candidates voiced differing opinions on prioritizing other projects, however. Businessman Stanley Q. Mok, software engineer Jay Sutaria and retired mechanical engineer Linda Swan are running as a candidate slate, and all three questioned the wisdom of proceeding with the town hall expansion.
Swan pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many town staff members to work from home, so the extra space may no longer be needed. (At the Oct. 15 City Council meeting, City Manager Carl Cahill said only one staff member is currently working from home).
Sutaria is perhaps the most vocal opponent of the town hall project – and of a proposal to use a combination of state grant money and town funds for the remodel of a Purissima Park snack shack so that it includes community meeting space.
“We should engage more with our residents before spending public funds on large capital improvements,” he said. “I agree with Stan and Linda in opposing the $3 million town hall expansion, as well as I oppose the $500,000 snack shed rebuild. Both these projects have a high cost and a limited benefit for our residents. Indeed, a 2016 survey of our residents showed more than half oppose building more space to host meetings and recreation programs.”
All five candidates referenced the construction of accessory dwelling units as a potential way for Los Altos Hills to meet state-mandated affordable housing goals, but Mok offered up another solution to maintain the town’s rural atmosphere and low density.
“We have enough housing that is luxury housing in our town,” he said. “What we need is affordable housing, and I can’t see how affordable housing can be produced in our town. I would advocate a system of vouchers where we buy land in some other place, and we develop properties some other place where we can do it affordably.”
The final question of the night sought input from the five participants about what the League should have asked them. Swan answered first: What should voters look for in a candidate? What strengths should they exhibit?
The ability to collaborate, listen and engineer innovative plans, she said.
“You never know what issues are going to be facing us in the future,” Swan said. “As 2020 has shown us, it’s all a surprise what’s going to happen next, so you just need flexibility and creativity.”
To watch a recording of Thursday’s forum – and other local election events hosted by the League of Women Voters Los Altos-Mountain View chapter – visit lwvlamv.org.