Carlyn Obringer said Concord’s north side has plenty of its own issues to talk about, even though one of them — the future of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station in northeastern Concord with 13,000 housing units, a regional park, a college campus and millions of square feet of commercial space — is also a regional concern.

“Our district, District 2, is the most impacted” by this massive project and its planning, said Obringer, who is trying for a second four-year Concord City Council term in November.

Obringer, a community engagement manager with Blue Shield, faces challenges from four other District 2 residents, most of whom explicitly say the current Concord council has done a poor job not only in overseeing the weapons station project and its setbacks, but also with basic city finances, aside from the economic carnage that COVID-19 has brought to Concord and virtually every other city in California.

“I’m very concerned about the current council’s ability to focus on the larger priorities, make sound decisions, while listening to the entire community,” said Paul Wood, a 20-year retail manager who has lived in Concord since 2017.

Hope Johnson, a paralegal who also ran for a Concord council seat in 2016 (and for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2012), said the city’s current Measure Q sales tax hasn’t accomplished most of what it was created to do, and that November’s ballot Measure V to double and extend the tax doesn’t solve the root problems that led to a $45 million budget deficit this year.

“The Concord City Council is not addressing the issues,” said Johnson, who said she would have supported Measure V if it wasn’t doubling the tax, and if it had a sunset date. “They’re sort of kicking the can down the road.”

Dr. Harmesh Kumar, a psychologist who has lived in Concord for 25 years, is making his fifth run at a City Council seat. His motivation, he said, is more intense than ever, as he believes the current council has been generally ineffective, spends too much on police and has handled the weapons station reuse project poorly.

“I’ve seen how stupidly they spent our tax dollars, and don’t deliver,” Kumar said. He, as well as Johnson, favor shifting some police money to deal with homeless services and mental health services. Kumar supports Measure V, but would spend the bulk of that revenue on social services instead of on infrastructure.

Tristan Piper, a sales and marketing director and a Concord resident for more than 30 years, says the city needs to “take a deeper dive” into whether fees and taxes associated with establishing a business in Concord is appropriate. She is opposed to any sort of police defunding.

When asked what the City Council has done right, she said, “I think the small business grants during COVID-19 is a step in the right direction.”

YouTube video
Learn more about the candidates for Concord City Council District 2 in this YouTube video recorded Sept. 23 by Contra Costa Television.

Weighing in on weapons station

All four council challengers, and Obringer, welcomed Lennar’s departure in March, after the developer couldn’t come to agreements with area labor unions on wage-related issues. Obringer said she hopes a new request for proposals for a new master developer will go out in 2021, but acknowledges the project will be delayed over that issue, likely by years, and by the Navy’s declaration this year that more chemical testing is needed on part of the old weapons station site.

Wood said the Naval Weapons Station, to this point, has been a “special-interest-group-led debacle,” and echoed the idea that the call to install Lennar as the reuse project’s master developer early on was the wrong one.

Obringer, who stressed that Lennar’s involvement with the reuse project predated her council tenure, said the city has learned lessons from its experience with Lennar and other events that have made the reuse plan a controversial and sometimes painful episode in Concord’s history. She hopes the city will attract a more local developer adept with both residential and commercial construction.

Beyond the weapons station development, pressing citywide issues, candidates said, include paying for needed infrastructure improvements (mostly streets), helping both the city itself and its businesses recover from the COVID-19-related financial crisis, how to best change police operations to better cope with increasing homeless- and mental health-related calls and providing more affordable housing in the city.

Though the City Council recently approved studying creation of its own homelessness response team and a non-police mental-health response team, Johnson favors, as does Kumar, a more fundamental move of some police department resources to these and other social program uses.

Focus on downtown

Most of Concord’s downtown falls within District 2. Wood, a 20-year retail manager, believes he can put that experience to work on the council helping attract businesses “both large and small” to Concord, and to keep them there. Downtown, he said, needs a better mix of businesses. “Every establishment in Todos SantosPlaza is a restaurant or a bank; where is the retail where families can shop and spend their time?”

Obringer notes the opening of The Veranda in 2017, with its shops, restaurants and entertainment. She also points out that several affordable housing projects, most of them near downtown and the BART station, have been approved by the council in the past two years.

Kumar said he favors the city sponsoring a pool insurance program for small businesses, and supports cutting the red tape that often bogs down those businesses.

As did many California cities, Concord moved from at-large to district elections after Kevin Shenkman, an attorney from Southern California, demanded the city make that change or be sued for violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. That law asserts local at-large voting systems are discriminatory if they “impair the ability of a protected class … to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence the outcome of an election.”

Concord moved to the district system in time for the November 2018 election; this is the first time that residents of District 2 will choose their own district council representative.

The candidates have mixed reviews of the district voting system, with most of them saying it highlights the more hyper-local issues and enables more intimate campaigning, but aggravates differences between areas’ issues and only gives voters a choice for one of five council seats.

Councilman Edi Birsan, who represents District 4 south of Monument Boulevard, is running unopposed in this election. Had Concord’s elections remained at-large, he would be campaigning against candidates from all over the city.

Johnson said she prefers the district approach, believing it tends to attract more and better candidates. Piper said the district system provides better representation than at-large voting. Obringer touted its good points, too.

“It gives an opportunity to connect with every voter more than we have, which is a really good thing,” she said.