Led by Margaret Abe-Koga, Ronit Bryant and Jac Siegel won convincing victories Nov. 2 and all three will serve a second four-year term on the City Council. Of the three challengers, Google engineer Dan Waylonis came up with the most votes, but fell far short of the margin necessary to unseat an incumbent.
And Measure T, which will update the city's long-standing phone tax, also passed handily despite criticism from some residents that the city may have violated campaign laws in materials it sent out to promote the measure.
Given their strong showing, it appears that residents are satisfied with the current stewardship at City Hall and did not buy into charges that current contracts with city workers are too costly and need to be rolled back. The incumbents strongly disagreed, and say that the city already extracts more contributions from employees for retirement and medical care than many other bargaining units on the Peninsula.
Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see a counterpoint to the council's performance over the last year put up by Waylonis, Greg David and Aaron Jabbari. There is no question that in the years ahead, the city will need to apply considerable downward pressure to employees' salary, pension and health benefits. We predict that council members who take large contributions from municipal employee unions will think twice about doing so. How can council members who vote on employee compensation benefits behind closed doors avoid at least the appearance of a conflict of interest?
The escalating cost of employee compensation is a fact of life in cities up and down the Peninsula, where local governments are talking about contracting out some services to escape expensive personnel contracts. Some cities are beginning to understand just how difficult it will be to continue to meet their obligations to pay employees' pensions if the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) continues to suffer from poor returns on its investments and the economy does not turn around.
On Nov. 2, Menlo Park voters passed a measure to roll back the retirement age from 55 to 60 and reduce benefits for all incoming employees except those in the public safety division. The unions say they will challenge the result, but Measure L's passage sends a message that at least some voters are fed up with what are viewed as overly generous health and retirement benefits.
In this election, the challengers were hampered by their lack of experience in any part of city government. This is an important qualification and one that voters certainly notice. Every sitting council member started out serving on a city board or commission before running for the council. It makes sense for aspiring office-holders to gain insight into the operation of the city at a lower level before seeking a council seat.
Serving on the City Council, which oversees a budget of some $70 million a year, is hard work. Many members put in nearly 40 hours a week just to keep up. It is a real commitment to represent the city and help guide it through today's challenging economic environment. And at least in this election, only those with experience need apply.