City council works toward common goals, with candidates promising to preserve city culture

October 16, 2018 — by Allison Hartley and Manasi Garg

The city council attempts to preserve Saratoga's natural beauty.

At 7 p.m. sharp on Oct. 3, mayor Mary-Lynne Bernald pounded her gavel, welcoming the scattered audience and the other members of Saratoga’s city council — vice mayor Manny Cappello and councilmembers Rishi Kumar, Howard Miller and Emily Lo — to the meeting on the Civic Theatre’s stage.  

They proceeded to discuss the city’s current issues, such as tobacco and e-cigarette regulations, tightening rules on the sale of tobacco products to minors and banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products exempting menthol.

Still, while Saratoga residents generally understand the importance of city council, they may not be aware of all the council’s responsibilities.

Bernald said the council has a vast array of duties that fluctuate on a daily and weekly basis. While the council makes larger policy decisions, the council-appointed city manager James Lindsay is more in charge of the daily operation of the city.

“We, as the council, are the overseers,” Miller said. “We set the big picture direction of where the city should go. We’re like board directors — we set policies and directions for the city, and the city manager would be the CEO.”

Dictating the city’s policies requires informed and rational decisions rather than emotional ones, said Lo, who has also served as mayor in the past.

“For the City Council to be effective and make the right policy decision, diligently doing homework and fact finding are crucial,” she said.


Election cycle

Driving through Saratoga this fall, many people have become accustomed to the familiar brightly colored lawn signs endorsing various candidates for the upcoming elections on Nov. 6. Five candidates — incumbents Bernald and Kumar, and newcomers Anjali Kausar, Corinne Vita and Yan Zhao — are running for three seats open for re-election.  

In 2016, two seats up for election, so each voter could vote for up to two candidates. According to the Santa Clara Registrar of Voters, Saratoga citizens cast 22,272 votes for councilmembers. out of 30,767 residents, including around 8000 non-voting minors.

Candidate Corinne Vita said that about 50 percent of residents vote through mail in ballots, which were sent out Oct. 8, and the remaining voters go to polling centers set up at various locations around the community such as churches, schools and private homes.

While there may not be many divisive issues surrounding the city council elections, candidates make pitches to voters about what makes them most qualified to serve.

Some candidates have centered their campaigns around decreasing crime rates, others around traffic and road safety and still others around keeping water and utility rates low for citizens.

Resident Thomas Cobourn, who has lived in Saratoga for 13 years, said that many Saratogans vote for people they are familiar with, reflecting Saratoga’s small-town nature.

They’re all intelligent and successful in what they do, and they all have done a lot of community work, volunteering either on city commissions or on kids’ activities and leagues,” he said of the candidates. “Either you’ve met them or they’re your friend, so you know their character very well.”

Based on who they support for candidates, dozens of Saratoga residents have shown monetary support for candidates through donations ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

According to campaign disclosure forms, by Sept. 22, Kumar’s ending cash balance was $30,567, Zhao had $19,348, Kausar had $9690, and Bernald had $14,630. Vita’s form said she received around a thousand dollars, and will spend/receive less than $2,000.

Candidates spend this money on a multitude of campaigning strategies, yet the most visible form of campaigning is through lawn signs. Kumar’s red, white and blue lawn signs are a visible element of his campaign, but he also advertises on Facebook to residents.

Some residents have even passed out campaign fliers at the Homecoming football game on Sept. 21. Others voiced support for their choice in neighborhood block gatherings, with candidates sometimes showing up to the surprise of the rest of the neighborhood. This self-promotion during block get-togethers has been a subject of debate in recent posts on the Nextdoor app, a social networking service that connects neighborhoods.

“If you are a sucker for political monologue, why should the whole neighborhood suffer?” Nextdoor app user Lakhinder Walia said, arguing that neighborhood block parties should not be politicized.

Regardless of whether they attend these block parties, candidates’ top priority seems to be getting to know citizens; many candidates said that they enjoy simply making their way through Saratoga.

“I spend a lot of time walking in Saratoga neighborhoods, going door to door to engage people,” Zhao said.

However, it is important that voters stay informed and are cautious about blindly believing campaign promises.

It’s very common to say ‘I promise I will balance the city budget,’ and that sounds good, but it turns out that it's not possible to be a city if you ever have an imbalanced budget,” Miller said. “[Candidates] make promises that have to do nothing with improving the city.”


City council responsibilities

Although the impact of the council is not always obvious, they lead important programs for the city. A major program they helped launch in 2016 was Neighborhood Safety Watch (NSW), which organizes neighborhoods to discuss and practice safety methods to prevent crime. NSW was spearheaded by Kumar. Kumar has said it resulted in a 47 percent decrease in burglaries from 2016 to 2017.

Another important role city council plays is managing the city’s finances. According to Miller, the council is fiscally conservative relative to many other cities in Silicon Valley, where the “fad” is expanding local government buildings.

“There’s no reason for me to have a nicer chair and a nicer seat for meetings I have twice a month,” Miller said. “We want to spend citizens’ money in the most efficient way possible.”

Because of this financial efficiency, the city council has experienced a budget surplus. Saratoga is also one of the few cities in California to keep up with monthly pension payments to retired government employees and do so at an “accelerated rate,” according to Miller.

The council also refinanced bonds for the Saratoga library, which relies on voter loans, or bonds, to fund large projects, such as the reconstruction completed in 2003, however, the bonds are repaid by property owners through their property tax.

By refinancing these bonds, the council swapped higher interest rates on the loans in favor of lower ones, resulting in the Saratoga property owners paying less money over time. Miller said that this saved the community $200 million.

Lo said one of the city council’s main priorities is to enhance community. For example, Lo said, the council seeks to promote downtown as a “destination of wine and dine” and to facilitate the permit process for businesses in Saratoga.

The council does this by holding multiple events and programs throughout the year such as the Lunar New Year Celebration, the Fourth of July Celebration and the Hakone Matsuri festival. It also supports the Public Arts program, which gives residents a chance to paint art on utility boxes around Saratoga. One utility box across the street from Saratoga High depicts a puppy and a kitten.

Such decisions are discussed in meetings, which are open to the public. Typical meetings range from two to five hours and occur during the first and third Wednesday of each month, excluding summer and holiday recesses.

Generally, the council is unified in its decisions. Both Bernald and Miller say they can’t remember a time the council hasn’t passed a bill with less than a 4-1 vote majority and is often unanimous.

“My main goal as a councilmember is to make sure that this group of five council members work collectively for the good of our citizens,” said Miller. “I was not elected to beat everyone up and get my way; I was elected to figure out the best things for our city.”

At the end of the day, despite their differences, all the members and candidates say they share a central goal: preserving Saratoga’s small-town character, natural beauty and relative peace and safety compared to the rest of Silicon Valley.

“When you’re 30 years old and come back to this city, you will be amazed when you see hills that are green and homes that are not packed on top of each other and when you breathe air that is fresh,” Miller said. “And if we’re a little slow in catching up with rest of valley, in a way, it’s good, because we’re preserving our charm.”