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Tiburon council hopefuls discuss key issues at candidate forum

Tiburon Town Council candidates Stefanie Cho (left) and Isaac Nikfar (right) listen to a question from League of Women Voters of Marin moderator Laurie Nardone during a July 27 forum at Town Hall co-hosted by the league and The Ark. (Elliot Karlan / For The Ark)

Housing, policing, open-space preservation and climate change were among the issues in the spotlight at a July 27 Tiburon Town Council candidate forum hosted by The Ark and moderated by the League of Women Voters of Marin.

Stefanie Cho and Isaac Nikfar are vying for the Town Council seat vacated in January by Noah Griffin, who resigned for personal reasons. The winner of the Aug. 29 special election will serve on the five-person board for the remainder of Griffin’s term, which ends in November 2024. They would then be eligible to run for a full four-year term.

Nikfar, 44, works in sales for Google and is a member of the town’s Parks, Open Space and Trails Commission who has lived in Tiburon for more than a decade with his wife, Jessica, and their three children. He’s mounting his second attempt at a Town Council seat after an unsuccessful bid to unseat one of three incumbents — Jack Ryan, Alice Fredericks and Jon Welner — last November.

To a packed audience at Town Hall and livestream viewers on Facebook, Nikfar said his top three priorities if elected would be continuing the work the Town Council has done to meet state-mandated housing goals; preserving open space and improving parks by enhancing pedestrian safety; and improving quality of life in the town by bringing back family-friendly events and engaging with Caltrans to reduce traffic.

Cho, 59, moved with her husband to Tiburon from Los Angeles in 2020 and has two grown children from a previous marriage. She previously owned a boutique tax-preparation firm.

She said her top three priorities as a councilmember would include “appropriately” meeting housing goals, maintaining open space and promoting disaster-preparedness efforts, making note of those who are aging and giving them accommodations to safely be at home and evacuate if necessary.

Candidates weigh in on housing challenges

Both candidates weighed in on Tiburon’s efforts to meet state housing mandates and one particularly controversial potential site for housing on Paradise Drive.

Tiburon must identify and accommodate sites for at least 639 new units over the next eight years. In May, the town adopted a plan for 692 units, most of them concentrated downtown. The plan also identifies a 9.6-acre property at 4576 Paradise Drive that the town says could realistically be developed with 93 units; however, neighbors have been vocal in opposing development there, citing safety, traffic and environmental concerns.

While the housing plan is now local law, the town is still awaiting formal state approval. Its review of Tiburon’s third draft was due July 28 but wasn’t available at The Ark’s press time.

In the meantime, the Town Council last month approved rezoning and new objective design standards for downtown but held off on rezoning the Paradise Drive site in a nod to neighbor objections. The town has said it will try to find homeowners interested in developing second units, a strategy it hopes would allow it to drop the Paradise Drive property from its site list while still meeting state mandates.

Cho pointed out that just because the site might be zoned for 93 units, not all of those have to be built. She stressed that objective development and design standards need to be implemented for the property.

Nikfar said he was unsure the site could realistically accommodate 93 units, pointing out the lot is “incredibly” steep and noting that when it was first incorporated, staff said just four units were realistic.

He called accessory dwelling units a critical component in addressing growth in Tiburon, though he pointed out that zoning or allowing for the units doesn’t mean they’ll get built.

He said it’s going to be “incredibly difficult in this town” to have sustainable growth with services attached for any high-density housing in places like downtown or off Paradise Drive.

“I think we need to make sure that it’s spread out consistently, and that we’re keeping an eye on sustainable growth for Tiburon and making sure that we’re not … parking massive numbers of units in one of the open spaces that we’ve got in town,” Nikfar said.

Cho said the state’s rejections of the town’s housing plan so far doesn’t mean the town has to start from square one, giving it the avenue it needs to pursue adding more accessory dwelling units to meet the mandates and persuade state officials that the option is the next appropriate step.

Cho said she was willing to pursue litigation in order to appeal housing requirements from the state, though it’s unclear how successful those efforts might be.

“I’m not saying I’m running out of the gate hoping to sue everybody,” Cho said. “I just believe we have a lot of options, and we should be willing to look at litigation as a final, last, best effort to regain control at a local level.”

Oversight board, policing among focuses for town

Both candidates backed the Police Department’s plans to form a Citizens Advisory Panel, which is slated to hold its first meeting this summer, with members providing quarterly feedback on public safety, policing strategies and policies while working to raise public awareness. Members will also have an advisory role in the officer hiring and promotion process, but it will have no decision-making authority and report directly to Police Chief Michelle Jean as panel chair.

The bulk of panelists will be a member each from the Town Council; the Diversity Inclusion Task Force; a member of the education community; a member of a social-services or nonprofit organization related to child protection, mental health or drug-and-alcohol services, or a faith-based organization or ethnic-relations advisory group; and one to two members of the business community.

The idea has been in the works for more than a year; however, the panel’s structure, its public activities and its limits on both member and broader public participation have raised questions among watchdogs and experts about its coming role in serious examination of accountability and reform versus serving as an image-boosting arm of the department.

Cho said the advisory committee can work in conjunction with other town bodies, such as the Diversity Inclusion Task Force, to formalize the best plans and be on the same page. This includes giving advice when necessary and appropriate, she said, adding that a higher standard of behavior among law enforcement is necessary.

“And I think that further discourse is needed if there is pushback from any particular agency,” Cho said. “And that necessary conversation is just an ongoing part of local government.”

Nikfar said he believes progress is being made by the Police Department in addressing some of the issues that will be tackled by the advisory committee. There is a case to be made for oversight, he said, adding that oversight does not automatically get in the way of the department’s ability to keep the public safe.

“But at the same time, I think it’s really important that our voice is heard through the community and that adjustments that are needed can be made,” Nikfar said.

The candidates also weighed in on alternative policing methods. According to Police Department data, officers detained 238 people between January and June of this year, nearly 86% for traffic violations. Of those stopped, 18% were identified as Latino, though Tiburon’s racial makeup is just 6% Latino. About 5.7% of those stopped were Black, with Black people making up just 0.2% of Tiburon’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nikfar stressed the importance of treating everyone with respect, saying residents put their faith in the department as public servants to do right and keep the community safe. But he also acknowledged his own experiences with discrimination based on the color of his skin.

“We’ve got to trust in the law enforcement that we’ve put in charge to make sure that we’re safe,” Nikfar said. “But also, it’s incredibly important that everyone treats each other with respect, and we educate each other … on how to do that.”

Cho said the town needed to support “the best policing that we can.”

“I think — now that we’re fully staffed with a diverse team of officers and support staff — that we need to work with what we have right now because we’re very lucky,” she said.

Both candidates back preservation of open space

Nikfar and Cho shared similar sentiments supporting current efforts to preserve the 110-acre Martha property on the Tiburon ridge as open space.

Landowner the Martha Co. has agreed to sell the property for $42.1 million to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which in turn will sell it to the county for $26.1 million.

The county’s share will come primarily from the proceeds of Measure M, a $335 annual parcel tax levied on residents of Belvedere and Tiburon south of Trestle Glen Boulevard. The Trust for Public Land plans to fundraise to close the gap, and Tiburon pledged a $1-million contribution toward that effort in November.

“I fully support any and everything to keep the Martha property as open space so that it’s beautiful for everyone,” Cho said.

Nikfar mentioned “looking at any and all avenues” to close the fundraising gap, including the town possibly making another contribution. He noted his experience on the parks board as evidence of his passion for maintaining open space in town.

Commitment to combating climate change

Both candidates said fighting climate change should be a priority and spoke about disaster preparedness.

Nikfar cited electrification as one of the major actions Tiburon can take, as well as looking at different recycling programs. The Town Council earlier approved mandatory all-electric construction in new and remodeled homes — as well as electric-vehicle infrastructure at all buildings — a key goal of the town’s Climate Action Plan, which sets a goal of reducing emissions to 50% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Nikfar also said it’s important for the town to prepare for the effects of climate change and natural disasters. He suggested reinvigorating neighborhood efforts to build disaster prep groups.

“I would say if your neighborhood doesn’t have something like that, that maybe that’s something that we as a town should be helping with and helping organize these neighborhoods,” Nikfar said.

Cho acknowledged the dangers of wildfires and sea-level rise in the community, saying that the town needs “to be quite aware of and understand what the eventual result will be possibly by the year 2050, if not sooner.”

One way to prepare for wildfires is by undergrounding overhead cables, Cho said, acknowledging some neighborhoods have initiated their own efforts to do so but others have not.

“It might be an excellent step to protect us,” she said.

Cho also called for a unified disaster-preparedness plan instead of relying on neighborhood associations and homeowner associations, which she called “a piecemeal approach.” The Tiburon Police Department currently has a disaster-prep education program for residents called “Get Ready 94920,” and the town is part of the Belvedere-Tiburon Joint Disaster Advisory Council, which is tasked with advising the Belvedere City and Tiburon Town councils on disaster preparedness on the peninsula.

She also called for an emergency-preparedness handout or magnet with key information she said could be useful in the event of a widespread power outage that hinders internet access and for elderly residents who may not turn to a website immediately for information.

“I think that climate change is going to change our world dramatically,” Cho said. “And we need to be aware, but we need to have basic reasoning in place to keep everyone safe.”

Candidates tout experience, weigh in on term limits

Cho cited her business experience as preparation for the role, as well as her continuous research of town-related issues. She stated anyone with their own business faces similar challenges as the town, “where you have to learn how to listen, you have to learn how to meet people in their frustrations and guide them when necessary.”

“I think that running a town is very similar to running a business, except what’s most important is that all the constituents are very understood and supported and know that their comments are always welcome,” Cho said.

However, Nikfar disagreed.

“Being a business owner and working in technology for well over 20 years, I can tell you that what I didn’t know is that it is nothing like it, and being client focused is nothing like working in government at all,” he said, citing his experience on the parks commission, which involves compromising with different stakeholders, as preparation for the Town Council role.

He did agree with Cho that working in civil service meant having to deal with constituents who might be upset for various reasons.

“I think being accessible is really important, being transparent, being able to communicate with the folks in Tiburon,” Nikfar said.

Both cited the importance of being able to learn from more experienced councilmembers, and neither expressed strong feelings about term limits on the council.

While Belvedere does not have set term limits for its council, members typically abide by a two-term-maximum custom, for a total of eight years on the council.

Tiburon likewise does not impose term limits; Councilmember Alice Fredericks in November won an unprecedented sixth term on the council, where she has served since 2001.

Both said that decision should be left up to voters.

“If someone has the interest and the passion and the love for Tiburon and they want to serve, they should do that,” Cho said.

“I don’t know that it’s necessary to say, ‘I’m going to step down’ in any particular amount of time,” she added. “And I think the voting residents would indicate what’s necessary and appropriate.”

Nikfar said he would “happily” step aside if Tiburon residents only wanted him to stay on the council for a term or two.

“I think there’s an incredible value in sort of learning from those that came before us,” Nikfar said. However, he added, “it’s also important to make sure that the next generation has a path and has an opportunity forward.”

Reach Tiburon reporter Francisco Martinez at 415-944-4634.



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