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Several challengers in the Nov. 3 Walnut Creek City Council election were motivated to run because of policing and social justice issues, or support significant movement on those issues.
That most of the challengers differed with the three incumbents running, to varying degrees, was clearly evident during a recent forum sponsored by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce.
So too was that, on many civic issues in this suburban destination city — the economic health of downtown in the age of COVID-19, homelessness, downtown parking, building heights — there was a high level of agreement.
The four-year terms of three of five council seats are up this year, and all three of those incumbents — Justin Wedel, Loella Haskew and Kevin Wilk — seek new terms.
They face five challengers, a larger-than-usual field. One of them, Cindy Darling, is a one-time Walnut Creek planning commissioner.
Another, Michael Samson, said two events of the past 16 months — the June 2019 killing of Miles Hall by Walnut Creek police officers, and police response to the protests in late May and early June — brought him into the race.
“It’s the central premise of my campaign,” said Samson, adding that he was disappointed with the council’s response to the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests. He said all three incumbents should be voted out.
Disagreement about police funding
The related forum question about police defunding also highlighted the challengers’ differences with the incumbents. Along with Samson, Kurtis Reese, Hailey Ayres and Lauren Talbert also called for significant reallocation of police funding to help pay for social services including mental health responders.
“Police are not mental health professionals, and so they shouldn’t be made to do a job they weren’t trained for,” Talbert said.
Only Wedel and Wilk specifically denounced police defunding, but said they favor more transparency in police operations. They and Haskew said, though, they support spending more to improve mental health services; Wilk specifically said that money would be in addition to, and not instead of, police funding.
Sworn officers, Wilk said, are still needed on many, if not most, mental health-related calls.
Haskew said the city is working on taking part in a countywide non-police mental health response team, something all eight hopefuls support.
“I’m very proud that I’m the person that led that charge,” she said.
The candidates have highly varied stances on Proposition 15, which would tax businesses to help pay for education, and on Measure X, Contra Costa County’s proposed half-cent sales tax to pay mostly for health care and other social services.
Reese was the only one to support both; Wedel supports neither, and the others support either one or the other (Ayres had no opinion on Prop. 15, and doesn’t support X).
Downtown in focus
The eight more or less came together on downtown parking — the city should continue to charge for it, and should do a better job of guiding shoppers to open spaces. Wedel and others said the fact the city has parking problems shows people want to come downtown to shop, eat and enjoy the arts.
“We need to make people understand the concept of ‘park once and walk,'” Darling said.
The candidates also largely agreed on building heights, an at-times controversial issue in the city and limited by a 1985 voter initiative to 69 feet, which voters would have to change (tall buildings often help prevent sprawl, and should be considered downtown on a case-by-case basis, candidates said); and on the prospect of a retail cannabis dispensary in Walnut Creek, which city ordinance now prohibits (either “yes” or “we should consider it,” they said).
The candidates were all asked what they would do if a $1 million grant landed in their lap. Ayres and Talbert said they would use it toward getting the homeless off the streets; Haskew said she would give it to the city’s Project Rebound program to help downtown businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic; Reese would use it for a public engagement program for young people; the others said they would use it toward mental health response or treatment efforts.
The candidates had varied responses when asked about their proudest public achievements. Reese, Ayres and Talbert said the forum itself was high on their lists; Reese said he was happy his kids were seeing him on the screen, stepping out of his comfort zone.
“This moment makes me proud,” Reese said.