The Blair Park Election?

Next Tuesday's election in Piedmont could be a referendum on the city council's approval of a controversial sports field.

Popular prejudice to the contrary, not everything is sunny in Piedmont. Crime is up, money is tight, and beside that, the city has been fractured by the permitting of a controversial new soccer field along busy Moraga Avenue. Mistrust is rampant, with opponents criticizing not only their wealthy neighbors who agreed to privately finance the $6.5 million project on Piedmont’s last remaining parcel of open space, but also city leaders who ushered the project through to approval in early December. Two lawsuits — one threatened and one filed — were the result, plus a divided populace. And the project hasn’t even broken ground yet.

What an environment into which to drop a contested city council race, with one incumbent and two challengers vying for two spots — especially considering the central role the existing council played in the Blair Park proceedings. The five-member council first riled project opponents by issuing a preliminary approval last March after the Piedmont Planning Comission voted unanimously against it. Then at its December 6 meeting, despite hearing a chorus of complaints long into the night, including from Oakland Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, the council issued its final rubber stamp. With city council hopefuls now representing both sides, the race has evolved into a sort of referendum on the city’s performance.

Municipal finance woes, while not on par with those of Oakland, are no less prominent on the minds of Piedmonters these days. Revenues have recovered to pre-recession levels, but the city does have a major expenditures problem — related, in a familiar refrain, to skyrocketing employee pension costs.

Pensions and fringe benefits represent a full 25 percent of the city’s annual expenditures, said Finance Director Mark Bichsel, who described the burden as “pretty high and unsustainable.” Last September, an ad hoc Municipal Tax Review Committee issued a ninety-page report advising various courses of action, including a sewer tax costing homeowners several hundred dollars per year for the next decade; it will also appear on Tuesday’s ballot.

As crime goes, Oakland may still be a world away, but last year was not easy on Piedmont. According to city statistics comparing the first nine months of 2010 to those of 2011, burglaries more than doubled and motor vehicle thefts rose modestly, while other thefts increased slightly.

With all this in mind, three city council candidates have hopes of setting their city straight.

Incumbent Margaret Fujioka formerly served as an Oakland deputy city attorney for eighteen years; in 2008 she decided to run for city council in Piedmont, where she has lived for nearly as long. Her first win came in another contested race, with three candidates competing for two openings. This time around, she has a lot more leverage, including the endorsements of her four fellow councilmembers: Jeff Wieler, Garrett Keating, Vice Mayor John Chiang, and Mayor Dean Barbieri. She has also been supported by five of six existing planning commissioners.

The Planning Commission endorsement, and that of Councilman Keating, shows that the race is indeed about more than just Blair Park. Keating was the only councilmember who repeatedly challenged — and, in official votes, opposed — the project’s approval. Likewise with the planning commissioners: All advised against the proposal, but Fujioka and three of her colleagues favored it anyway.

When asked if she thought city leaders could’ve bridged the gap better between the two camps, Fujioka responded diplomatically. “I think yes, probably there could’ve been things that could’ve been done better,” she said. Yet she declined to cite any specific examples.

That’s one question that challenger Tim Rood won’t shy away from. By openly criticizing various aspects of the city’s handling of the project — alleging an inadequately transparent public process, a failure to fully consider alternate design proposals, and poor handling of financial- and risk-management issues — Rood, a ten-year resident of Piedmont who works as an urban planner, has positioned himself to win the anti-Blair Park vote.

He also takes umbrage with the standing city council’s apparent disregard for the findings of the planning commission, for which Fujioka served as council liaison. “I feel it’s very important for elected bodies to carefully consider the recommendations of their boards and commissions,” he said. “I feel like that didn’t happen.”

While Friends of Moraga Canyon, the citizen’s group that filed a lawsuit early last month, alleging an inadequate environmental impact report, is unable to issue endorsements due to its nonprofit status, it did circulate an email in response to members’ questions on how to vote. The message contained a reprinted interview with the Piedmonter newspaper in which Rood further criticized the city’s handling of the park proposal. Like Fujioka, he too has been endorsed by Keating.

Fellow challenger Bob McBain comes from an entirely different place. The 22-year resident, who left a career in banking a decade ago and found himself a new one volunteering around Piedmont, doesn’t have a bad word to say about how the city has handled Blair Park. In fact, he voted for the project as a member of the Piedmont Recreation Commission. He said in an interview that he found the public process behind the approval to be more than sufficient, and he declined to speculate on what the council might’ve done differently, even considering the discord its decisions wrought around town. “I think you do the best you can, and it’s never going to please everybody,” he said.

McBain has also served on the Piedmont Educational Foundation, the Piedmont Parents’ Club, and, last year, the Municipal Tax Review Committee. “I think that kind of background in Piedmont is important,” he said. “I’ve done it for a long time and I have a good working knowledge of the city and the schools and the community and how that all fits together.”

His experience has translated to a rich web of connections; he has received endorsements from eight former mayors as well as current (and outgoing) Mayor Barbieri. And if his position on Blair Park was ever in doubt, he has also been endorsed by the project’s power brokers at Piedmont Recreational Facilities Organization, the 25-member board behind one of the most divisive and complex construction proposals in Piedmont history.

A Rood loss could be read as Piedmonters’ ultimate endorsement of the city’s handling of Blair Park. But if Rood is elected along with either Fujioka or McBain, he’ll join Keating as a voice for critics on the council as the project moves along. With completion a few years off, the design still under review, a lawsuit pending, and the City of Oakland threatening a suit of its own, maybe the planned soccer field’s greatest challenges still lie ahead. Perhaps the same can be said for Piedmont itself.


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