Loella Haskew said 2020 has been “a most difficult year” for Bay Area mayors, and that she has gotten affirmation on that point from several of her friends who happen to be former Walnut Creek mayors.

For Haskew, who is seeking her third Walnut Creek City Council term in the Nov. 3 general election, that pain has been largely because of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus on both the city’s economy, and on the arts and cultural scene that also help define the city.

“We’ve worked hard to help businesses, and the city, be more nimble and to survive,” said Haskew, a certified public accountant, specifically noting the formation of a committee to move that work forward. “This is a bad time for red tape.”

Fellow incumbents Justin Wedel and Kevin Wilk also seek re-election in November, to their third and second terms, respectively.

They and five others are running for three open seats. Four of the five challengers are political newcomers, all saying they are motivated, to varying degrees, by the ongoing calls for improved police and mental health responses. Two things happened to mobilize those who want change — one, the July 2019 death of Miles Hall at the hands of local police and subsequent calls for social justice and police “defunding”; and criticism of the police response to the early June protests of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“This is the most active council campaign we’ve seen for a long time,” Wilk said.

Motivated to run for office

Michael Samson, a high school teacher transitioning into personal music teaching, said the city’s “non-response” to the killing of the 23-year-old Hall by police is what drew him into the council election.

“For me, justice for Miles Hall — getting the officers involved in (Hall’s) death off the police force, and starting 24-hour non-police emergency health response — is the number-one thing,” Samson said. Getting someone on the council with progressive values, he said, is another motivation to run.

Hailey Ayres said her own interest in public policy sparked her interest in her first run for elected office. She said her experience as a 2019-20 Contra Costa Civil Grand Jury member will help inform her council run. She said the local economy’s recovery from COVID-19’s effects, and the Miles Hall-related social justice questions, are her top two issues.

Ayres, a construction company office manager, has mixed reviews on the current council’s performance.

“It’s evident there needs to be more engagement with what’s important to the citizens,” she said.

Cindy Darling is the only challenger in this race with city government experience, having served 10 years on the city’s Planning Commission, much of that alongside current Councilman Matt Francois.

Darling, who with her husband operates a business focused on environmental consulting, said she supports city efforts to help businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic. She (along with the incumbents) said local businesses’ success is key to helping the city budget recover from what, in the 2019-20 fiscal year went from a $3 million surplus to a $10 million deficit. She and the incumbents say Project Rebound, which is helping support local merchants, has been a success so far.

Other key issues for Darling include social justice (“We have to learn from the Miles Hall tragedy, and we have to do better,” she said), longstanding traffic and parking issues, especially downtown, and the city’s commitment to fighting the effects of climate change.

While Darling said she will “be able to hit the ground running” if she’s elected, Lauren Talbert admits she may need some help from her council colleagues should she join the council. She, like Ayres, Samson and fellow hopeful Kurtis Reese, has never run for elected office.

Talbert was driven to run by the city’s recent slash of library funding as part of COVID-19-related budget cuts; a clerk with the county library system, Talbert was then laid off from her job.

“I decided to be the change I wanted to see,” said Talbert, a lifelong Walnut Creek resident who later came to see the Miles Hall/social justice issue as her most passionate one. Opening up larger community conversations about other issues, she said, is another priority. And she said that, as a Black woman, she would be a “Black person people could know” in a visible spot like the council.

‘Wheels of government turn slowly’

Incumbents Haskew, Wedel and Wilk all bristle at the notion that the current council has not been moving on social justice issues. They await a long-expected report from the District Attorney’s office on the Hall shooting case, and say they are working on other advances, including a county-led 24/7 non-police mental health response team with area cities and their police departments participating. Getting that team up and running is something all eight candidates support.

“The wheels of government turn slowly, and that’s as frustrating for the council and for me as it is for the public,” said Wedel, who owns an IT consulting company.

Wedel said he will continue to push the city toward “zero-based budgeting” under which all expenses must be justified for each new period, and starts at “zero” for each cycle. He has mostly been a lone voice on the council in this regard, but said the city is moving slowly toward that system. Other council priorities for Wedel include further battling homelessness and finding funding for needed infrastructure upgrades.

Wilk, an internet marketing director, and Haskew both said reviving the businesses will also help bring back the city’s vibrant arts scene, a popular draw largely silenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilk said he also is anxious for the city to get back to work on the city’s Climate Action Plan, and further address issues of homelessness (and housing) and streets and other infrastructure.

Reese, a Los Angeles native, says that he, too, was prompted to run for council by Hall’s death and the subsequent calls for justice. A technology manager at Salesforce and a longtime friend of the Hall family, Reese — also a first-time office seeker — said he has already gotten involved with the justice issue in several ways, including helping create the police Chief’s Advisory Board in Walnut Creek, which led to other opportunities to work with others. He said he believes the best way to do this is to “work within the system.”

He described his relationship with local police officials as sometimes contentious, but generally positive. “I’m hesitant to say things are getting better, but I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Reese said his other council priorities include helping local small businesses, fighting homelessness and traffic congestion and, perhaps most importantly, helping get the city’s budget shored up.

“Otherwise there’s no way we’ll be able to fund all of the things I’m interested in doing,” he said.