Midpeninsula Post

Meet the 2022 Mountain View City Council candidates

Downtown Mountain View in October 2022. (Naina Srivastava)

Five candidates are competing for three spots on the Mountain View City Council: newcomers Justin Cohen and Li Zhang and incumbents Alison Hicks, Ellen Kamei and Lucas Ramirez. This council will be tasked with, among other things, finalizing and implementing the city’s housing element, which will determine how Mountain View is developed over the next eight years; downtown precise plan, a framework for downtown development; and parks and recreation plan.

The Post spoke with all five candidates about their experience and policy positions, focusing on housing, environmental sustainability, livability and community participation.

Candidates are ordered by alphabetical order of last name.

(Courtesy Justin Cohen)

JUSTIN COHEN

Cohen, a 24-year-old Tesla engineer, is running a campaign centered around direct democracy. Cohen grew up in a New York City suburb and only moved to Mountain View in the summer of 2021. He’s also only ever viewed one council meeting via YouTube livestream. However, Cohen said he believes that his lack of political experience and status as a new resident gives him a fresh perspective.

Cohen’s approach is also somewhat unusual: He plans to post council items to an app — which he will make — prior to meetings, then vote according to residents’ responses. For residents who don’t speak English, Cohen said he’ll provide translations. 

“I don’t think it can be that complicated,” Cohen said of being a council member in an interview with the Mountain View Voice. “I’m not voicing what I believe, I’m just doing what this poll system tells me to do.”

That doesn’t mean that Cohen doesn’t have his own political beliefs, though.

When asked about the city’s oversized vehicle parking ban in an interview with the Mountain View Voice, Cohen said “it’s kinda gross” how there are “RVs everywhere” and recommended that the city help residents living in RVs to “figure out a new place to live.” He suggested a “happy medium” for housing: creating a low cost, lower unit solution, though he did not offer specifics.

Cohen did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment. He does not have a website.

(Courtesy Alison Hicks)

ALISON HICKS

Hicks currently serves as vice mayor and is a retired city planner. She received her master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley with a focus on housing and project development.

Environmental Sustainability

Hicks is chair of the council’s Sustainability Committee. Under Hicks’s leadership, the committee has gone from meeting once every other year to multiple times each year. 

“I think the good news in this arena is that there are ambitious yet practical steps that we can take to combat the climate crisis,” Hicks said. “And a good number of them can be taken at the city level. So this is really something that we have to make a priority.”

As chair, Hicks said she promotes electrification, planting trees for carbon sequestration and increasing the availability of plant based foods.

“Ideally, what you want is that you order a plant based option and maybe your friend orders the chicken and they’re like ‘Ooh, yours is better,’” Hicks said. “You want those plant based options to be exciting. And so I think we can just step that up a little bit.”

Housing

Hicks is on the Notice of Funding Availability Committee — the council housing committee — which reviews funding for affordable housing developments. 

“I’ve worked for an affordable housing developer in the past that did everything from transitional housing for homeless people [and] affordable rental housing all the way up to affordable ownership housing for lower income people,” she said. “So I have a lot of opinions and experience regarding how to do that.”

Hicks promotes live-work housing, which would allow store owners to live alongside their businesses.

“You kind of get a picture of the way people lived in say the 1920s, kind of pre-car, when there were a lot of people living above … whatever small business they had downtown,” Hicks said. “That’s something that I think is coming back in a lot of places and that we could put on some of our streets.”

Hicks said that in Mountain View, the issue isn’t space, it’s the price of the land. In order to create more housing, Hicks said the city must have adequate funding streams. The Bay Area Housing Finance Authority is in the planning stages of a large regional housing bond, which Hicks said will help the city buy more land and create housing. 

“In the short term, I think we’re going to use the sites we already own and then hopefully apply some of that subsidy money from the regional bond,” Hicks said.

Livability & Community Participation

One of Hicks’s top priorities is ensuring livability, which she defines as making sure the city has enough school sites and parks, implementing tree lined streets and creating better bike paths, though she did not specify what those would look like.

“We’re definitely going to be growing over the next decade or so,” she said. “And I want to make sure that Mountain View is still a place that feels like home.”

One way Hicks wants to ensure this is through the new parks and recreation plan. Hicks said the council has received suggestions from residents who want everything from more tennis and pickleball courts to off-leash dog parks.

“There’s a lot of conflicting needs and we’ll have to sort those out and think what goes where,” she said.

Hicks is also a proponent of the downtown precise plan, which has made three blocks of downtown Mountain View along Castro Street car free, and said she looks forward to transforming the area into a better public space.

“It’s very popular right now, but I think there’s a lot more we can do with it to make it an even better public space, you know, put in more green space and benches and clean it up and little bit and ask the public what they want from that space,” Hicks said.

To learn more about Hicks, visit her website here.

(Courtesy Ellen Kamei)

ELLEN KAMEI

Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Kamei has served in various roles for the city for over 10 years, most notably as mayor in 2021. She previously served on the Environmental Planning Commission for six years, before being elected to City Council, where she’s served for the past four years. She also serves as chair of the council’s Youth Services Committee. 

“I think it’s really important to have the perspective of seeing our community change firsthand,” she said. “We’re talking about a lot of issues relating to climate change [and] housing and I’m really invested in trying to see some of the projects I worked on in my first four years through.”

Kamei said that many issues the council prioritized had to go on pause due to COVID-19 and that she’s excited to continue pre-pandemic projects.

“I love our community and I want to make sure that it’s a great place to live, grow up, come back to, [and] retire,” Kamei said. “And part of that is hopefully being on council.”

Environmental Sustainability

Kamei said the council is exploring a bike and pedestrian master plan so that city transportation is less “car-centric.” 

“Part of that is having bike lanes that feel safe and sidewalks that feel open,” she said. “So that’s something that is coming back to council that I’m passionate about.”

In 2019, the council adopted Sustainability Action Plan 4, which included recommendations from over 100 community members. As a part of that, the council created an Office of Sustainability and team to tackle “resiliency projects and plans,” everything from addressing sea level rise to planting more trees. Kamei said she wants to continue implementing the plan.

While she was mayor, Kamei signed the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, commiting the city to create sustainable habitats for monarch butterflies and educate residents on how they can make a difference. To do this, the council worked with Google on a grant to create native habitat zones for monarch butterflies and encourage pollination.

“We’re going to be around for a while,” Kamei said. “We need to be thinking about what we’re doing to make sure that our planet, our community, can sustain the changes that are happening.”

Housing

During the pandemic, the city’s eviction moratorium protected residents from eviction, and the council created a rent relief program. But Kamei said that keeping residents housed remains a concern even after the pandemic.

“The most important part that I’m thinking about is how do we make sure people are housed and how do we make sure we’re giving them options for that housing?” Kamei said.

She said the council has been working to make a “suite of options” available for residents, from interim housing to affordable housing and safe parking lots. Kamei pointed to the newly passed mobile home park rent control, which acts in addition to existing city rent control to make residents feel “stably housed.”

Mountain View has one of the largest safe parking programs in all of Santa Clara County and over 100 parking spaces for those who are living in recreational vehicles or oversized vehicles.

“Over the years I’ve been on council, we realized these vehicles are people’s homes,” Kamei said. “They actually need access to parks and forests for what are called accessory vehicles.”

She said that realization prompted the council to make changes to its program and allow residents to park any vehicle that they need in order to live their daily lives.

“Whether you are housed or unhoused, you’re a resident, you’re my resident and I represent you,” Kamei said. And when it comes to housing, what I feel really lucky about is that I live in Mountain View, because people care.”

Livability & Community Participation

Kamei said she got a lot of feedback from residents who appreciated new city services like movie nights in the park during the pandemic and wants to ensure the continuation of these activities and programs.

“People want to be able to have somewhere where they can go with their families, where you can go after school, where you can get out of the heat,” Kamei said.

Kamei said events like concerts in the plaza and outdoor movie nights, in conjunction with annual events like the Holiday Tree Lighting gather hundreds, if not thousands of residents together, and allow residents to have a high quality of life.

“I thought that [having events] was helpful for residents, and then they could see their neighbors, and they could meet new people or have that sense of community that I think is what people were really missing,” Kamei said.

Another aspect of quality of life, Kamei said, is the city’s public safety response. For example, she cited how during the pandemic, the fire department assisted with COVID-19 vaccinations for people who couldn’t leave their houses.

“I think in a lot of ways these services, these departments that we have, help make Mountain View really special,” Kamei said. “We can provide these activities and programs that people know and love, but we can also in emergency instances, be there and still be able to make sure that people are protected and safe.”

To learn more about Kamei, visit her website here.

(Courtesy Lucas Ramirez)

LUCAS RAMIREZ

Ramirez is the city’s current mayor. He’s served the city, his hometown, for about a decade, first serving on the human relations commission, then the environmental planning commission and now the city council. Ramirez concurrently works as a policy and legislative analyst for San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jiminez. 

“The council, in 2019, created an ambitious work plan as part of a two year goal setting cycle,” Ramirez said. “And in practice, we were not able to fully implement that work plan because of the pandemic.”

Environmental Sustainability

Ramirez said the council has already made a “substantial investment in sustainability,” in serving as a founding partner for the Silicon Valley Clean Energy Authority.

“The city is participating in the 100% renewable option for municipal power, which is great, so municipal services are powered by 100% renewable sources and the rest of the city is at least carbon free,” he said. 

The next step is transitioning from natural gas infrastructure to electric infrastructure, Ramirez said. 

“Personally, I think if we’re serious about meeting our very aggressive climate change goals and our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, we’re going to have to explore something like an end of life ordinance,” Ramirez said.

An end of life ordinance would require that natural gas infrastructure and appliances are replaced with electric infrastructure and appliances after they reach “the end of their useful lives,” according to Ramirez.

“We’re going to have to be very thoughtful about how we work with property owners to make that possible, and in my opinion, that will mean that the city will have to provide financial assistance or some kind of program that will make sure that property owners don’t get too hard financially by that transition,” Ramirez said.

Housing

Ramirez said the housing element is “of great importance” to him. The housing element will be approved late this year or early next year depending on state feedback.

“That’s the beginning of a long eight year process to affirmatively further fair housing and increase the amount of affordable housing and implement programs to make it easier for people to get housing that they need,” Ramirez said.

In the long term, Ramirez said also he wants to start updating the 2030 general plan and modernize the city charter — the organizing legal document for a charter city — which he said has not been comprehensively updated or reviewed for “quite some time.”

“And we might want to start looking at what are some improvements that can help us achieve our community’s goals a little bit more efficiently,” Ramirez said.

Livability & Community Participation

Ramirez said he thinks that one of the council’s most important accomplishments in ensuring accessibility has been increased investment in cultural engagement programs, which provide translations for non-English speaking residents.

“We want to make sure that our communities that don’t speak English are able to meaningfully participate and also understand what resources may be available to them,” Ramirez said.

He also pointed to the Chamber of Commerce Leadership Mountain View program and the creation of similar programs conducted in Spanish and Chinese.

“These programs have lasting benefit because the folks who graduate I think feel empowered to engage with the city and have a better sense of how the city operates,” he said. “And they can turn back to the community and say hey, here are opportunities for you to make your voice heard, to participate in the public policy making process.”

Along with that, Ramirez said, comes a need for more accessible noticing: informing residents of nearby commercial developments. 

“You read them and you think ‘What does this mean?” Ramirez said. “This is not in an easy to understand, accessible format.”

As an example, he cited the postcard for the R3 zoning district update, which he said is mostly “technobabble,” and difficult for people who don’t have a background in urban planning to understand.

Ramirez said the council also has plans for dramatically improving bicycle safety, which will begin once the state resurfacing program starts next year. He pointed to the “poor” pavement condition on El Camino as one instance where resurfacing is necessary.

“El Camino is an important corridor to Mountain View,” Ramirez said. “ I think once those are connected, we’ll see a much safer and friendlier environment to people who are traveling not in a passenger vehicle.”

To learn more about Ramirez, visit his website here.

(Courtesy Li Zhang)

LI ZHANG

Zhang is a 20-year resident and senior finance manager at Tesla. She graduated from the City of Mountain View’s first Chinese Civic Leadership Academy — which prepares individuals to serve on advisory bodies and committees — in June. Zhang said the program was integral in teaching her how the city runs and how democracy works in the U.S.

“I just didn’t know you could actually be involved as a regular citizen before,” Zhang said. “I thought it was a paid job, to be honest. And then I realized ‘Wow all these council positions are actually volunteer positions.’”

Although she doesn’t have experience serving on city council, Zhang said she believes her success in her career and skills are transferrable. She said that while she may not have detailed knowledge, being on city council isn’t an advisory position — it’s making informed judgments.

“I believe that I can make my best impact on synthesizing all ideas, make the most innovative and programmatic solutions and work collaboratively with all stakeholders with the collective intelligence,” Zhang said.

Environmental Sustainability

Zhang currently works at the electric vehicle company Tesla, and said she has “a track record of protecting the environment.”

“Before Tesla opened its factory in Shanghai in 2019, I helped to petition to Elon regarding to preserving the wildlife side close to the Shanghai factory,” Zhang said.

After graduating from the Chinese Civic Leadership Academy, Zhang said she interviewed for a position on the Environmental Planning Commission. But she quickly changed course to running for city council.

“I changed the course due to the urgency of needing to be involved in changing the future council direction on housing development,” Zhang said. “The former EPC chair thought this would be a better choice for what’s going on at this moment in the city council.”

Housing

Zhang is a strong proponent of building infrastructure to go with creating new housing. She suggested a deep dive into city service levels to ensure that the city can sustain the projected housing population growth.

The housing element currently includes the rezoning of shopping centers to allow for housing. Zhang is against this and said she believes the businesses in shopping centers should be prioritized, though she did not address any specific proposals.

“We do not need to do this right now,” Zhang said. “We should be incentivizing businesses in shopping centers to stay in business, not to redevelop and diminish retail.”

Zhang has a Ph.D. in computer simulation and said she wants the city to use 3D simulation to improve city planning.

“I would like the city to maintain its excellent financial position,” Zhang said. “It’s triple-A credit rating, diversified revenue streams, strong reserves and wise investments. I would like to identify additional funding sources to increase affordable housing units and partner with others to increase homeownership opportunities.”

Livability & Community Participation

One of Zhang’s biggest concerns is quality of life. She said that in order to maintain a high quality of life, the city must build infrastructure along with housing and population growth.

“I would like to provide ample park space in our neighborhoods, focusing on areas that are park deficient and create biodiversity throughout the city to support wildlife,” Zhang said.

Zhang said her background in finance gives her a unique perspective to bring to the table when it comes to economic development.

“The city has been fortunate enough to experience a financial boom in the last six, seven years,” Zhang said. “Even during the pandemic, the city had a surplus in large part due to the city’s longtime prudent financial practice.”

Zhang said she wants to shift some of the council’s focus from housing to economic development. She cited how 70% of downtown businesses are doing worse than they were pre-pandemic and there is a 15% vacancy rate of business spaces, according to a Sept. 9 economic development report, and stressed the importance of helping small businesses. To understand the challenges that business owners face, Zhang suggested increasing outreach.

“Housing is important and we’ve been focused heavily on that, but as a result, some other important components of the city, like economic development have been neglected,” Zhang said. “We cannot afford to sit on our financial laurels.”

To learn more about Zhang, visit her website here.

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