In one of the first political candidate's forums of the local election season, candidates for Fremont mayor, City Council and School Board took center stage Friday evening in the theater at Mission San Jose High School.
The event drew an audience of more than 125 people who came to hear the candidate’s thoughts on local issues and development. Audience members also had a chance to submit questions directly to the candidates.
Kicking off the forum were four candidates hoping to fill the Fremont mayor’s chair after interim mayor Gus Morrison finishes out the term of the late mayor Bob Wasserman. Three of the hopefuls are already well-known names in Fremont City politics: City Councilman Bill Harrison, Vice Mayor Anu Natarajan, and former City Councilman Steve Cho. The fourth is a newcomer, 18-year-old Aziz Akbari, who is a sophomore studying mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California.
Each candidate touched on a swirl of hot-button issues in Fremont, including its perceived image of not being a business-friendly city, the proliferation high-density housing, pension reform, city finances, police and fire services, and development in the Kimber Park neighborhood.
While acknowledging he doesn’t have a lot of political experience, Akbari, insisted that he has a good background in business, especially start-ups. The 2011 Washington High School graduate said he got his first taste of business by starting his own eBay business as a young teenager.
As for Fremont’s lackluster business environment, Akbari said it’s simply a matter of marketing. Fremont has a great location, plenty of vacant office property, and a skilled workforce, but business executives don’t know that.
“I talk to a lot of CEOs and ask why they didn’t choose Fremont (for their companies),” Akbari told the crowd. “Fremont never crossed their minds. Fremont has everything they are looking for, but we need to market our city.”
Even though the mayor’s job in Fremont has traditionally been a part-time position, the city has never had a long-distance mayor. How would Akbari do the job while he’s attending classes at USC?
“My first priority would be mayor of Fremont. I’d take a hiatus down there,” Akbari said, adding that if he had time he would transfer his credits to a college near Fremont to continue his studies.
Steve Cho was elected to the City Council for the first time in 2000. He was re-elected in 2004 and left in 2008 because of term limits. This time around, if elected as mayor, Cho’s goal is to attract new business to Fremont, but still have balanced growth.
Responding to a question about rezoning areas of some neighborhoods from medium to high-density housing, Cho said each case needs to be examined carefully because more residents flooding into an area could negatively impact schools and local infrastructure. “We need to provide housing, but there’s a limit to what we can do,” he said.
Bill Harrison grew up in Fremont and has served on the city council since 2006. Like Akbari and Cho, Harrison hopes to attract more business to Fremont if he’s elected mayor. The businesses, Harrison said, would bring jobs to the city as well. When asked about pension reform, Harrison said Fremont is in better shape than many other cities in the state thanks to its employees who “stepped up to the plate during the last negotiations.”
Anu Natarajan was appointed to the council in 2004 to fill an unfinished term and began her first elected term two years later. She was re-elected in 2010 and now is vice mayor.
She acknowledged during the forum that because of bureaucracy Fremont has had some difficulty attracting – and keeping – businesses. “We have heard loud and clear that we really need to focus on keeping businesses here,” she said, adding that there are some issues to be fixed and the city will help people through the process of opening a business in the city.
A fifth candidate for mayor, Linda Susoev, did not appear at the forum.
City council candidates at the forum included Vinnie Bacon, John Dutra, Rick Jones, and Dr. Rakesh Sharma. Incumbent Sue Chan did not attend because she is on a business trip to Washington, D.C. Reading a candidate statement for her was her husband Steve.
Responding to a question about new housing being built near overcrowded schools, Bacon said he would not vote to approve any new residential development until the schools can accommodate the growth.
Dutra said his vision for Fremont includes bringing new businesses to the city and encouraging existing businesses to invest in the city. He also hopes to push ahead with the city’s downtown plan which includes a mix of residential, office and retail to and to make the area a destination point for out-of-town visitors.
When asked about housing issues, Jones acknowledged there is a demand for high-density housing, but warned that city staffing levels could be strained. “We can’t service what we sell,” he said.
Sharma also was asked about development in the city. He agreed with Bacon that no new housing should be built near overcrowded schools. He also warned that with most of the city built out, developers are turning to infill lots in established areas. “We must be careful what we allow in infills,” he said.
A sixth council candidate, Mark Wadley, did not appear at the forum.
School board candidates included Desire Campbell, Ann Crosbie, Reshma Karipineni, Lily Mei, Hiu Ng, and Yang Shao.
When asked about home school options for children, Campbell responded that “it’s a personal decision for families,” but that she supports it for families who want to do it. She added, however, that it’s important that children who are home schooled to develop social skills, too.
When asked about state funding propositions for schools, Crosbie championed Proposition 38 which would increase state income taxes for most Californians which would put about $10 billion a year in extra revenue into state coffers, with most of it earmarked for public school districts.
Among Karipineni’s top objectives are making sure that the school district is making the best use of the funds that it has and not dipping into its budget reserve to make ends meet. In addition, students must be given the opportunity to reach their individual potentials.
For Mei, securing and maintaining a consistent revenue stream is important in order to maintain quality programs and instruction in schools. Another objective to strive for is to improve achievement levels of all schools and to ensure effective board governance.
On the question of school funding Ng said that the board should think “out of the box” and come up with initiatives to raise funds for schools. “With no money from Sacramento, go back to the people and tell them we need money from you” he said, adding that there must be a dialogue between the school board and the community. “We must get the trust of the people.”
Shao responded to a question about whether students should be able to opt-in or opt-out of sex education programs. He said the opt-out program is not well-implemented because the paperwork sometimes doesn’t get processed quickly enough. Instead he supports an opt-in program because parent’s signatures are required and “it’s good to include involvement of the parents.”
The forum was jointly sponsored by the Mission Possible Parent Faculty Association at Mission San Jose High School, Gomes Elementary Parent Teacher Association, Chadbourne Elementary Faculty and Family Association, and Mission Valley Elementary Parent Teacher Association.
Election Day is Nov. 6.