At the Mill Valley Chamber’s City Council Candidates Forum Thursday morning, Mill Valley Planning Commissioner Urban Carmel said those words in explaining his decades-long local volunteerism, from youth soccer to the incredible revival of the Mill Valley Library Foundation.
But Carmel also seemed to get to the heart of why each of the six candidates were running for four open seats on the council, why the Chamber organized the event, why WrapManager/Assembly founder Gabe Burczyk hosted the event at his gorgeous space at 319 Miller Ave., why Bank of Marin sponsored it and why more than 35 local business leaders showed up to hear what they had to say.
The business-focused event kicked off with Chamber Co-Director Paula Reynolds noting the gravity of the 2020 election, which is the first time there have been four open seats on the council since the 1970s, a moment that follows the departure of City Manager Jim McCann after 10 years in the role.
“The Chamber does not historically endorse candidates – we’ll work with the team that wins – but it’s critical that we hear from the candidates on the issues that are important to our business community,” Reynolds said.
The discussion began with brief introductions by incumbents Sashi McEntee, current Mayor Jim Wickham (running unopposed for a two-year term in the seat formerly held by Jessica Jackson), Planning Commission Chair Urban Carmel, Emergency Preparedness Commission Chair Tricia Ossa, Emergency Preparedness Commissioner Max Perrey and former Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Kirk Knauer.
Wickham leaned on his incredibly deep ties to the community as a fourth generation resident who was with the Mill Valley Police Dept. for 37 years, including many years of working closely with the business community. “We need to support the downtown community and have a thriving Miller Avenue,” he said.
Knauer pointed to his loss by just 146 votes in the 2015 City Council election, noting his wide-ranging volunteerism in Mill Valley, his 22-year career at the Berlitz Corporation and pro-bono consulting work in recent years. “As a town, we deserve the best in city management,” he said. “Our budget is under significant pressure as our labor obligations continue to go up. I am very focused on emergency preparedness with a hard focus on evacuation, as well as a focus on creating a sustainability committee."
Perrey, a third generation Mill Valley resident who moved back to town after graduation, pointed to his recent work on housing and homelessness for Supervisor Katie Rice at the County of Marin, as well as his current business that builds high end accessory dwelling units, a needed element, he said, in Mill Valley’s housing crunch. “My three platform issue areas are environmental sustainability and tackling climate change/sea level rise, emergency preparedness and economic vitality. “The fabric of the community is the businesses that are in it,” he said.
McEntee, who currently serves as vice mayor and is herself a small business professional, told attendees, “I know exactly where you are coming from.” She pointed to her collaboration with the Chamber on a Zero Waste forum in 2019 to educate food-serving businesses as a proposed ban on plastics grows in popularity. McEntee is on the Downtown Project Advisory Committee, which will help steer a $2 million revamp of downtown sewers, sidewalks and streets. “It’s going to be a balancing act” between the need to upgrade and the fact that it will be disruptive, she said.
Longtime MV resident Ossa said she’d passed when others had suggested she run for Council in the past. But with Jackson’s departure and Councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters running to represent southern Marin on the Marin County Board of Supervisors, the potential dearth of strong women on the council compelled the three-time EPC chair to run. “I am very excited and passionate about this,” she said, pointing to her more than 25 years in both corporate and small local startups, including Guideboat, the former wooden boat and apparel retailer in the Mill Valley Lumber Yard. Ossa said she planned to have Mill Valley’s annual evacuation drill focus on businesses in 2020. “Evacuation doesn’t mean that we all need to get to Hwy. 101 but it means getting out of harm’s way,” she said.
Carmel, who has worked closely with the Chamber to assist the Planning Department in getting feedback from commercial applicants on their experience and suggest a wide range of possible process improvements, brings a 35-year business career with the Union Bank of Switzerland and McKinsey and Co. that brought him to Jakarta, Hong Kong and Europe. Carmel was heavily involved at multiple levels in the MIll Valley Soccer Club for 10 years, and realized a decade ago that the Mill Valley Library was seeing its programming budget dwindle as the MV Library Foundation saw its donor list dry up. Through a mult-faceted campaign, the organization now enjoys a nearly $3 million endowment. Carmel said he’s worked to support the business community, particularly where the commercial and residential areas are adjacent, and those commercials areas need regulations that help them thrive.
Each candidate spoke in support of making sure that commercial applications were expedited to avoid having businesses face lengthy, costly delays. “It frustrates the heck out of me and we’ll do anything we can to improve this process,” Wickham said.
“A big part of this is attitudinal,” Carmel added. “One of the things we need to improve in this town is how we interact with our community. We are not a friendly town to work in. Retail is coming under increasing pressure from the Amazonification of our economy and we need to do whatever we can to support our downtown.”
The candidates all expressed their support for more public art in Mil Valley across an array of mediums, with Perrey noting the important of mapping that public art so that it’s easier for both residents and visitors to find.
Parking, particularly along Miller Avenue, got plenty of much-deserved attention at the forum, as everyone in the room agreed on the challenge presented by the loss of 60 parking spaces from the otherwise fantastic Miller Avenue Streetscape Project, coupled with the fact that Miller has myriad parking user groups, from residents and employees to commuters and customers.
Chamber Member Suzannah Rose noted the lack of affordable housing in town, particularly for those in the service industries that serve as the backbone of the town but can’t afford to live here, exacerbating Mill Valley’s already-heightened traffic and parking issues. Several candidates suggested that creative solutions exist, including junior accessory or dwelling units or “just a room in your house.” “This kind of housing is affordable by design,” Carmel said.
McEntee said "lifecycle housing," that is, the view that people need different types of housing at different stages of life, i.e., "when you're raising a family is the most house you're ever going to need," is the future of housing, and that the community needs to be open to “housing shapes that are more dense but still palatable."
Perrey stressed the importance of collaborating with county agencies and community foundations to both fund and identify opportunities to bring more creative housing to Mill Valley. The candidates found some daylight in their positions on wildfire prevention, particularly around evacuation and vegetation management strategies.
For 90 minutes on a Thursday morning, 319 Miller Ave. was an epicenter of local participation.
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