Tiburon Town Council: Three incumbents look to defend seats in four-way race
The four-way race for three seats on the Tiburon Town Council features three incumbents and a challenger from the Parks, Open Spaces and Trails Commission.
Mayor Jon Welner, Vice Mayor Jack Ryan, Councilmember Alice Fredericks and parks Commissioner Isaac Nikfar will face off on the Nov. 8 ballot. Their priorities in seeking office range from helping the town manage state housing mandates and increasing communication between Town Hall and residents to continuing ongoing diversity-and-inclusion efforts and addressing climate change.
Fredericks cites housing, inclusion as goals for sixth term
Fredericks, 82, is seeking an unprecedented sixth term on the council. She first won election in 2001 and most recently ran uncontested in November 2018.
She was born in New York and grew up in Hawaii. She met her husband, Neal Benowitz, a well-known researcher on nicotine impacts at the University of California at San Francisco, when they were both postdoctoral researchers, she in behavioral medicine.
The couple raised their three children in Mill Valley and moved as empty nesters to the Old Tiburon neighborhood in 1997.
Before joining the Town Council, Fredericks served on the town’s Parks, Open Space and Trails Commission and Planning Commission.
She has served three stints as mayor and is the council’s current representative on the board of the Transportation Authority of Marin and the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers. She also serves on the council’s sustainability committee.
Fredericks said she is a strong supporter of Measure M, a $335 annual parcel tax proposed to voters in Belvedere and Tiburon south of Trestle Glen Boulevard that would be used to help the county purchase and preserve the 110-acre Martha Co. property on the Tiburon Ridge.
Among her priorities for office, she said, are meeting the challenge of state-mandated housing requirements and ensuring the town continues to deliver services for everyone even if housing density were to increase. She also pledged to continue to support diversity and inclusion efforts; all five councilmembers serve on the town’s 10-member Diversity Inclusion Task Force, which aims to address issues of bias within the community.
Nikfar touts volunteer experience in bid for council
Nikfar, 43, is a 10-year Tiburon resident who lives in the Del Mar neighborhood with his wife, Jessica, and three children, all of whom attend the Reed Union School District.
He grew up in Santa Clara and earned his bachelor’s in business from San Francisco State University, where he was vice president of the university’s chapter of the American Marketing Association. He later earned a portfolio-management certificate from Stanford University and an executive business certificate from Duke University. He works in sales at Google.
He has served on the parks commission since 2017; his current term runs through February 2026.
He has also coached soccer, baseball and softball for his kids’ teams and has been a leader for Tiburon Cub Scouts Pack 48.
If elected to the council, Nikfar said he would focus on addressing what he pointed to as the top three challenges facing the town: increased traffic, pressure from the state about housing and revitalizing downtown, including “bringing back family-friendly events.”
He also expressed his support for preserving the Martha Co. property as open space and combating climate change.
Nikfar pointed to his dedication to the town and community through his volunteer and civic service.
If he is elected, he said, constituents will be “getting someone who likes rolling up their sleeves and makes things better around here.”
Ryan says increased communication should be a focus
Ryan, 54, is a native of Framingham, Mass., who earned his bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a retired derivatives trading manager.
He and his wife, Sara Klein, moved to Tiburon in 2010 and reside in the Hawthorne Terrace neighborhood. They have two daughters, who attend Redwood High and Del Mar Middle schools.
Ryan was elected to the council in March 2020 in a three-way race for an interim seat to replace longtime Councilmember Jim Fraser, who resigned for personal reasons.
Before serving on the council, Ryan worked for about a year as the paid part-time coordinator of the Yellow Bus Challenge, the traffic-reduction, safety and subsidy program. He’s also volunteered as a coach for his kids’ lacrosse, volleyball and softball teams over the years.
Ryan said the goals he had for the town were “reprioritized” when the pandemic hit just weeks after he was elected, before he even had a chance to attend his first council meeting.
If re-elected to a four-year term, he said, his top goal would be to enhance communication between the town and residents.
“The citizens need to be more engaged, and that comes first from the town doing more outreach,” he said.
He noted it’s “incumbent on us to find a way to get out to the public, be more effusive in how we communicate and when we communicate,” he said.
Ryan also cited meeting state-mandated housing goals and ensuring federal pandemic relief funds get spent the way citizens want as priorities.
Welner stresses desire to listen to constituents
Welner, 55, is an environmental and land-use lawyer and partner in the firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo.
Born in Israel, he grew up in St. Louis and is a graduate of Stanford University. He and his wife, Pamela, moved to Tiburon’s Belveron East neighborhood nearly 20 years ago. Their younger two children are students at San Francisco University High School, while their eldest is working on her doctorate at Purdue University.
A former member of the Tiburon Design Review Board and Planning Commission, Welner was appointed to an interim seat on the council in January 2018. He ran uncontested for election to a four-year term in November of that year. He currently serves at the town’s mayor and is also a member of the board’s budget and technology committees.
Welner said among his top priorities for a second term in office would be ensuring the acquisition of the Martha property and swath of waterfront Richardson Bay Sanitary District land near McKegney Green that the town hopes to add to its shoreline parks network. The town in 2021 announced a tentative deal to purchase the four parcels — 0.88 acres of former settlement ponds — for $600,000. The purchase is contingent on the town’s ability to clean up and close the ponds, with the approval of regulatory agencies such as the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.
He also wants to ensure downtown Tiburon remains charming and vibrant, he said, and would support an in-depth study to help address traffic issues. Additionally, Welner said he wants to promote community celebrations and events and ensure the town maintains healthy cash reserves and a balanced budget.
His strengths as a councilmember, he said, are his “empathy and the desire and willingness to listen to residents.”
“I have seen many elected officials are very capable but lack that interest in what their residents think and believe,” he said. “That empathy is the most important attribute of an elected official.”
Candidates weigh in on housing challenges
State housing mandates require Tiburon to plan for 639 new units in the 2023-2031 housing cycle, a significant increase from the 78 required in the current eight-year cycle. While the town is not required to build the housing, it must identify potential sites and rezone to allow development.
Tiburon’s plan heavily relies on sites downtown, though it attempts to limit any new buildings in the area to three stories. The town submitted a draft of its plan to the state last month and is waiting on feedback.
The state mandates have drawn ire from both residents and town officials, who have lamented the amount of housing required and the impacts it could have on traffic, town character and more.
All of the candidates decried the loss of local control in the housing mandates, with Ryan calling the requirement “unfair” and noting that full development “could be a seismic change to the character of the town.”
“It could dramatically change the infrastructure and services that we need to provide, including dealing with an already-overburdened traffic corridor,” he said.
In hindsight, Ryan said, he wished the town had been more aggressive in its accessory-dwelling unit projections to help meet the housing numbers, a strategy being pursued by Belvedere.
He noted the town is considering all options. “We’re not dismissive of any potential avenues for fighting against what we think is unfair,” he said.
Fredericks said she believes the town has a responsibility to provide affordable housing, but it also has a responsibility to maintain its current level of municipal and business services.
“I think the only answer for this is a return to local land-use control so our community can have the opportunity to come to a consensus or not on what providing reasonable housing looks like,” she said, adding that she would support a state ballot initiative to restore community input and local control of land-use decisions.
While Welner said he’s generally supportive of additional housing in Tiburon, he thinks the state requirements are “shocking and excessive.”
He noted that Tiburon has no choice but to submit a plan that meets the state’s requirements, noting there are penalties for failing to do so.
“At the same time, we need to be looking at all of our options — including legislation and litigation — to reduce this unfair and outrageous requirement,” he said.
Nikfar said the loss of local control “absolutely concerns me” and should concern everyone in Tiburon.
He said the Town Council has to take a more active role in fighting that.
“What we’ve got to do as a town and Town Council is we have to have a dialogue with the folks in the state and have to come to reasonable terms about what we can and can’t do,” he said.
Addressing issues of diversity, policing
Tiburon over the past few years has pledged to tackle issues of race and bias and create a more inclusive community for all its residents. The effort stemmed in part from a 2020 confrontation between three Tiburon Peninsula police officers and the Black owners of Yema clothing store downtown, Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash, who were talking inside the store with a friend after restocking late one night.
The incident was captured on cellphone and police body cameras that show the officers noting late-night activity in downtown Tiburon is unusual and repeatedly telling Khalif he was required to provide proof of his identity and store ownership before they would leave, which was false, and Khalif repeatedly declining. After several minutes of at-times heated discussion, the officers left only after a neighbor who overheard the commotion shouted out that Khalif was the owner.
The fallout from the incident, which Khalif and Awash have asserted was racially motivated, prompted Tiburon and Belvedere to host a joint virtual community meeting that was attended by more than 400 residents.
Tiburon subsequently formed a 10-member Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to develop recommendations for addressing those issues within town government, the police force and the greater community. All councilmembers sit on that task force.
The town also initiated an investigation into the incident, thought the results of that effort were sealed after the officers involved, one of whom resigned from the department shortly after the incident, declined to sign off on its release.
Khalif and Awash filed separate $2-million administrative claims against Tiburon and Belvedere; Tiburon settled earlier this year for $150,000, reform concessions and a seat on a yet-to-be-formed citizen advisory panel.
Fredericks said everyone in Tiburon has a responsibility to address social, economic and racial barriers.
“We need to identify those issues one by one, identify how to unravel system problems and act on that,” she said.
Nikfar said that being able to coexist with people who look different or who come from different places is important.
He said he’s been impressed with the efforts of the Diversity Inclusion Task Force and the Police Department.
“Welcoming people of different backgrounds to our community is very important,” he said. “What can I do? Meet people in the community, hear how they’re experiencing Tiburon and make everyone feel like a welcome member of the community.”
Welner said the town has made “great strides” over the past two years or so and called the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force “an important force for positive change.”
Among the task force’s accomplishments, he said, are championing the addition of a diversity element in the town’s general plan, which guides its future growth and development, and launching a series of public events to celebrate diversity, including an annual Juneteenth celebration and an inaugural celebration of Diwali to be held this month. It is also working with a consultant to evaluate the town’s hiring and retention practices.
Ryan also noted that the task force has been focused on “nothing but removing barriers” and noted the state housing mandates include requirements to plan for low-income units.
He also pointed to what he said are strides made by the Police Department, including additional anti-bias training and the early adoption of a state requirement to track racial and other data for police stops.
He also said the department communicates “much more effusively than it used to” and that, based on what residents have told him over the past two years, “the broad majority of people in the town appreciate that direction of the Police Department and how the officers serve the community.”
When hired in April 2021, Chief Ryan Monaghan pledged to align the department’s policies and practices with the most progressive in the nation and has made frequent calls to renew the department’s commitment to community policing, with initiatives that include having officers walk the beat downtown to get to know residents and merchants, working on an app that makes it easy to access local business information, handing out business cards to allow for anonymous feedback through a third-party website and stepping up direct communication through social-media platforms.
However, there have been no changes or proposals in oversight or enforcement like those made elsewhere, such as independent oversight auditors or committees, the use of unarmed social workers for noncriminal calls or limiting the use of pretextual stops and property seizures.
In fact, the percentage of Tiburon police detentions of people of color has increased considerably, up from about 30 percent of all detentions in 2021 to nearly 46 percent in the first half of 2022.
Since Jan. 1, Black people are 19 times more likely to be detained by Tiburon police than whites, versus 11 times in 2021; and Hispanic people are 3.2 times more likely to be detained, versus 1.7 times in 2021, according to an Ark analysis of public data.
In the meantime, Monaghan sought and won approval from the Town Council to expand the police force further amid historically low crime.
The candidates weighed in on whether they believe the Diversity Inclusion Task Force and the Town Council have done enough to push the department on issues of meaningful reform.
Fredericks said the department had hired a public-safety consulting group to get an objective view of the department and noted that report would come back to the council first and then be circulated to the task force.
She also cited Monaghan’s pledge to create an advisory body that “gives the community another opportunity to engage in discussion about Police Department practice.”
However, that body would not be an oversight committee, which Monaghan described as having the potential to be “adversarial.”
Fredericks said she backs his decision not to hire an unarmed social worker.
“A small town like ours usually doesn’t have a dedicated social worker on the staff but relies on access to sharing services with another group, such as the county, although that hasn’t been readily available to us,” she said.
Typical staffing in small towns is evolving, as the practice is relatively new and growing. Monaghan, who pledged to explore a shared-service model when he was hired in April 2021, has not responded to requests for comment on whether he ever did so. He has, however, said local data doesn’t support the need for such a worker on staff, but he declined to provide the data he examined. According to public data, Tiburon gets about 10,000 service calls per year and has less than 100 total violent and property crimes.
Ryan pointed out the task force did initiate the hiring of a diversity consultant to evaluate town hiring practices and noted that the two most recent officer hires for the Police Department included a Hispanic woman and a Black man.
The former, Talisa Azevedo, had publicly posted controversial Thin Blue Line/Blue Lives Matter imagery to her Facebook profile at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, removing it when The Ark inquired with the chief after her hire.
Welner called Monaghan a “progressive and energetic chief who is meaningfully engaged in promoting community policing and increasing the diversity of the department.”
“The Town Council recently approved a host of exciting new measures to improve the performance of the Police Department with respect to diversity and inclusion,” he said, referring to the community-policing initiatives, business app, pending advisory panel and early tracking of detention data, which is now required by law.
Nikfar declined to comment on the work of the council and task force on police reform, saying he doesn’t yet have enough familiarity around the issue.
Short-term issues include pickleball, land acquisition
Among the high-interest topics the council will address in the short-term are whether to allow pickleball at Teather Park and what to do with the waterfront land it expects to acquire from the Richardson Bay Sanitary District.
The pickleball issue has been a controversial one. The proposal to add two courts for the popular sport came from Belvedere-Tiburon Recreation, also known as The Ranch, which manages organized sports at local recreation facilities. Executive Director Jessica Hotchkiss said she had received a lot of requests to offer it at more courts; The Ranch already has pickleball at the Lagoon Road courts in Belvedere.
However, the Town Council in August rejected a proposed three-month trial to allow pickleball at the Beach Road courts, opting instead to undertake a comprehensive study of existing local pickleball facilities along with the sport’s noise impacts and possible mitigation measures. The decision came amid split input from residents, with some supporting increased opportunities to play and others decrying the noise the sport produces.
Pickleball is played on a half a tennis court with hard paddles and a plastic ball like a wiffle ball. Fans call it a good sport for all ages, but opponents complain it’s too noisy for residential areas.
Nikfar is a member of the Parks commission that recommended the pickleball trial to the council. He said if he were on the council and asked to make a decision, he’d “walk over to the tennis courts with a pickleball racket and a pickleball and see how loud it is for myself.” He said he would also “talk to the folks in the affected area and see what’s going on.”
“If there is a large noise issue for the residents that are close, it’s something you have to bear in mind, but there’s a large and growing contingent of people who want access to recreation facilities like pickleball,” he said.
Fredericks is serving on the council subcommittee that is looking at ways to minimize the impact of the sport on neighborhoods, which she said is the paramount goal. Some early considerations include possibly requiring acoustic mitigations at the courts or by choice of locations and times of play.
While Ryan said the sport “does benefit a very large number of people who want to play,” he noted. “The negative impact on a number of neighbors’ quality of life is enough that we have to be conscientious about how and where we allow it.”
“I do support family-friendly, pro-social activities,” he said. “I think it’s important to allow people who want to play to play somewhere.”
Welner said the council will discuss the recommendations of its subcommittee when they’re ready and needs to continue listening to residents on the issue.
“We need to find a way to meet the needs of the folks who play pickleball and the folks who don’t want to hear it,” he said. “I think there’s a way to do it, but it will require some compromises and some thoughtful planning.”
Candidates also weighed in on potential uses for the sanitary-district settlement ponds if the purchase goes through. In addition to preservation as open space, ideas have included a recreation center, community pool and volleyball courts.
Nikfar said he wasn’t opposed to the idea of a pool, noting there aren’t a lot of community pools in Southern Marin. He said the town could look at the proposal through the lens of equity and inclusion, because the pool would be open to everyone. He said parking could be an issue and it would be a little bit of a hike to that location, but he also said that the site was “very accessible” and that people could bicycle there.
Fredericks said it was important to figure out what options are “most beneficial, least impactful and most feasible.”
“At the present time, parking and access seem to be the top constraints on what’s viable,” she said.
Ryan said he would prefer a recreational use for the site.
“My guess is it’s not best place for a recreation center or pool, but I haven’t studied the site sufficiently to know what it can or can’t accommodate,” he said.
Welner said he’d like to see the property “restored as beautiful open space for all residents of Tiburon.”
“I am open to other ideas, but they would need to be carefully vetted with residents first and would need to be consistent with the master plan for Tiburon parks and open space that is being developed by (the parks commission) and the council,” he said.
Candidates address budget priorities, climate change
Each candidate identified the budget priorities they would champion over the next four years on the council.
Ryan said he’d like to see the town spend more money on public engagement, even considering hiring an information officer.
“We seem to be doing the bare minimum at communicating,” he said. As an example, he said, the town could have put up story poles downtown to show the impact of high-density housing being proposed as part of its state-mandated housing plan.
“They would have been inflammatory, but they would have communicated,” he said, adding: “It’s incumbent on us to find ways to elicit more comment and feedback from residents.”
He said also said the council needs to prioritize its capital-improvement program budget and how to use what remains of its $2.17-million share of federal coronavirus-relief funding. The town so far as allocated about $1.1 million toward a number of projects, including a two-year subsidy of a late-night water-taxi program; a broadband strategic plan; to help Belvedere-Tiburon Recreation, the Tiburon Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and local tourism agency Destination Tiburon make up for pandemic-related revenue losses; and for the county’s homeless initiative.
Fredericks said the town needs a “more robust financial planning process.” For instance, she said, the town’s federal pandemic relieve money “could have potential to have long-term financial benefit and impact, but we have no planning process yet to set priorities.”
“I’ve heard lots of ideas I love, but setting priorities is the issue,” she said. “Implementing one great idea, given the limited sources, comes at the expense of another.”
Nikfar said the town’s overall goal is to be fiscally sound and meet its pension funding obligations.
“We’ve got to get Tiburon ready for the next 20 years,” he said. He pointed to addressing climate change and protecting the environment as budget priorities, as well as ensuring Public Works has the funds it needs to keep the town looking nice.
“I would like to see the town invest in our parks,” he said.
Welner said his priorities are maintaining the town’s balanced budget and healthy reserves, as the council has for the past four years.
“We should allocate some additional funds to address key issues, including fixing our traffic problem on Tiburon Boulevard, preserving open space, improving emergency preparedness and addressing sea-level rise,” he said.
All of the candidates said the town should make an effort to get in front of climate change.
Ryan noted the town recently updated its climate-action plan with the goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 — a more aggressive milestone than the state’s 40-percent target.
He also said the town is focusing on disaster preparedness, including hosting a neighborhood walk and an emergency-preparedness fair this weekend.
Fredericks, who helped organize that event, also pointed to the town’s climate action plan, which she noted “will require the switch from gas to electricity to power home appliances in new construction and accelerates the installation of electric-vehicle chargers.”
Accompanying that, she said, “needs to be broader advocacy for increasing the capacity of the electric grid.”
Welner noted the council passed a resolution in 2021 declaring a climate emergency and called the recent action plan update “truly impressive and robust,” noting he believes it will serve as a model for other communities.
He also said he’s particularly proud that the town will for the first time include a sustainability element as part of its general plan, which is in the process of being updated.
“It’s a truly cutting-edge approach that we hope will be emulated by other cities and towns,” he said.
Nikfar said the town should look at ways to make the town and residents less susceptible to climate change, “with electrification, where can we leverage new infrastructure, whether solar panels or new HVAC, setting up common spaces where community can gather if there’s an outage, undergrounding.”
He also said the town needs to work to address the long-term threat of sea-level rise.
Communication with constituents a focus
All four candidates said that if they were elected, they would make themselves available to residents by responding to all emails and phone calls.
Fredericks also said she often meets for coffee with people who reach out to her, while Ryan noted he frequently responds to posts on online neighborhood forum Nextdoor.com with factual information about local initiatives.
Nikfar said that, if elected, he would go to neighborhood association meetings.
To make unbiased decisions as a councilmember, Welner noted it’s important to research an issue thoroughly.
“But the most important thing is to get an understanding of what residents believe and what they would like to do,” he said.
Ryan also stressed the importance of understanding all perspectives on a topic. For instance, he said, the council heard a lot of opinions about the housing plan. And while there wasn’t one particular neighborhood happy with the council’s ultimate decision, “the council was committed to making sure there’s as little negative impact as possible and making sure the public knew that.”
Fredericks said that during her time on the council, she’s made sure to talk to advocates and opponents of proposals.
“I do research on all the issues, both within the town and in a broader context,” she said.
Nikfar said the ability to listen was an important trait for a councilmember.
“Any time you’re doing something that could affect someone’s perceived quality of life, you’ve got to listen,” Nikfar said, adding: “It’s important to make sure we’re listening to each other, treating each other with respect.”
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.