05 Oct Jon Cartu Says: Novato council candidates outline priorities in consequenti…
As Novato grapples with administrative turnover, fiscal difficulties and a growing list of issues from housing to wildfire safety, seven City Council candidates are vying to chart the city’s course.
In the city’s first by-district election on Nov. 5, most of the council candidates — including Jim Petray, Susan Wernick, Melissa Galliani, Marie Hoch and Amy Peele — are newcomers. Voters of downtown and northeastern Novato will choose between two familiar faces: two-term incumbent Eric Lucan and challenger Kevin Morrison, who ran in 2017.
In the northwestern district, the city budget, development and wildfire safety were identified as key areas of interest by the two candidates.
Petray said he is not a politician and that he is not accepting campaign contributions; donors are being directed to give to charity. After “agonizing” over the city’s budgeting process this year, Petray said he thought his experience in finance could help the city.
“My desire is to be an advocate for the taxpayers,” Petray said. “I want to be a fiduciary for their money as well and that means to make sure that all the money that is entitled to the city is collected and all the money that goes out is spent prudently.”
Wernick, who was raised in Mill Valley by parents who served on the City Council, said giving back was a value instilled in her at a young age. In Novato, Wernick began working on the city’s housing issues in 2010. She was appointed to the Planning Commission in 2014.
“Now I think I have the skill set to bring to the council and the background and experience,” Wernick said. “I just think that I’d be a great addition to the council.”
Wernick said Novato must find new revenue sources such as looking at increasing the city’s sales tax rate back from a quarter-cent to a half-cent.
Other options include establishing a waste franchise fee and attracting new businesses by improving the city’s permitting and planning processes.
“We just need to be a welcoming community,” Wernick said. “I’m not saying Novato, but some cities have reputations of not being business-friendly and we don’t want to be that kind of city.”
Tax increases should be a last resort, Petray said.
“The hard solution is really digging into the budget and figuring out ways to become more cost-conscious and more efficient and looking at other revenue sources, which I have some ideas for,” he said.
These ideas include establishing a waste franchise fee and creating a nonprofit supporting organization for the city, similar to what some hospitals have, to raise money for city programs.
To address the city’s unfunded pension liability, which was at $47 million earlier this year, Petray said the city can explore borrowing money at a lower cost to pay it down and grandfathering new employees under a less costly scheme. Wernick said she would consult with whoever the city picks to be its new finance director on how the city could proceed.
Both candidates agreed that Novato needs a stronger focus on attracting developers to use the large, vacant properties in their district, including the Fireman’s Fund property, the 17-acre Novato Unified School District property on San Andreas Drive, the Square shopping center and the Birkenstock distribution center.
To promote business growth, Petray said the city could work collaboratively with the Chamber of Commerce to develop strategies. Both he and Wernick support streamlining the permitting processes. Both candidates are wary of the minimum wage acceleration the council advanced last month, which is set for a final vote this month.
Other issues important to Wernick include exploring creative ways to construct more housing for city workers and residents; maintaining a consistent level of city services; environmental protections and climate change initiatives; effective communication in City Hall and beyond; and fire and flood control.
For Petray, other issues he’d like to address include creation of a fire safety plan and maintenance of the open space of the district.
As for cannabis industry expansion, Petray said he has concerns about the government “getting into the drug business,” but said he would favor limiting expansion to delivery businesses only. Wernick said she supports the Planning Commission recommendations on the rules and said the city should approach retail storefronts in a way that keeps downtown as a family-friendly destination.
The race for the council’s downtown and northeastern seat is arguably the most contentious.
Similar to his council run in 2017, Morrison has not shied away from making public challenges. He is seeking to upend the current city structure and policies through his “Green Novato” initiative under which taxes and fees would be waived for green development and businesses.
Morrison said he was prompted to run after the council adopted the by-district election system. He described the city’s district map as “gerrymandered to favor incumbents” and quashing the voices of minority voters. As for Lucan, Morrison called him “dishonest” and “misleading” about his statements on crime reduction and housing creation and said he has eroded public confidence in the council by being divisive with councilwomen Pam Drew and Pat Eklund.
“A vote for him is a vote for incivility and lack of progress,” Morrison said.
In response, Lucan has avoided aspersions and focused on issues such as continuing the construction of more senior housing; paying down the city’s unfunded pension liability; building partnerships to build wildfire resiliency; and investing in paths and infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations to promote greenhouse gas reductions.
“I have the experience and proven track record of getting things done so I think I’m very well-positioned to continue to address these issues,” Lucan said.
As the city faces forecast deficits in the coming years, Lucan and Morrison have widely different strategies.
Morrison said he would not support any new taxes, but would support eliminating taxes and fees under his “Green Novato” plan, which he said would stimulate business growth. Other initiatives under the plan include building micro-grids to make the city fossil-fuel free by 2029, and a “green showcase” on Grant Avenue that would have an electric trolley and would be accessible by pedestrians and cyclists only.
“I do think what we call now the climate disaster is the biggest issue facing us and I do think that local solutions are important,” he said.
Lucan said the city has built up strong budget reserves under his tenure, but said ongoing revenues will be required to weather an eventual economic downtown. To obtain this money, Lucan says the city will be collecting more transient occupancy taxes from new hotels under development and requesting tax payments from short-term rentals such…