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Walnut Creek City Council challengers shine light on police reform, social justice issues

Several Walnut Creek City Council candidate challengers in the Nov. 3 election were either motivated to run because of policing and social justice issues, or support significant movement on those issues.

That most of the challengers differed with the three incumbents running, to varying degrees, was clearly evident during a forum last week sponsored by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce.

So too was that, on many civic issues in this suburban destination city — the economic health of downtown in the age of Covid-19, homelessness, downtown parking, building heights — there was a high level of agreement.

The four-year terms of three of five council seats are up this year, and all three of those incumbents — Justin Wedel, Loella Haskew and Kevin Wilk — seek new terms.

They face five challengers, a larger-than-usual field. One of them, Cindy Darling, is a one-time Walnut Creek planning commissioner.

Another, Michael Samson, said two events of the past 16 months — the June 2019 killing of Miles Hall by Walnut Creek police officers, and police response to protests in late May and early June — brought him into the race.

Samson said:

“It’s the central premise of my campaign.”

He added that he was disappointed with the council’s response to the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests. He said all three incumbents should be voted out.

The related forum question about police defunding also highlighted the challengers’ differences with the incumbents. Along with Samson, Kurtis Reese, Hailey Ayres and Lauren Talbert also called for significant reallocation of police funding to help pay for social services including mental health responders.

Talbert said:

“Police are not mental health professionals, and so they shouldn’t be made to do a job they weren’t trained for.”

Only Wedel and Wilk specifically denounced police defunding, but said they favor more transparency in police operations. They and Haskew said, though, they support spending more to improve mental health services; Wilk specifically said that money would be in addition to, and not instead of, police funding.

Sworn officers, Wilk said, are still needed on many, if not most mental health-related calls.

Haskew said the city is working on taking part in a countywide non-police mental health response team, something all eight hopefuls support.

She said:

“I’m very proud that I’m the person that led that charge.”

The candidates have highly varied stances on Proposition 15, which would tax businesses to help pay for education, and on Measure X, Contra Costa County’s proposed half-cent sales tax to pay mostly for health care and other social services.

Reese was the only one to support both; Wedel supports neither, and the others support either one or the other. Ayres had no opinion on Prop. 15, and doesn’t support Measure X.

The eight more or less came together on downtown parking — the city should continue to charge for it, and should do a better job of guiding shoppers to open spaces. Wedel and others said the fact the city has parking problems shows people want to come downtown to shop, eat and enjoy the arts.

Darling said:

“We need to make people understand the concept of ‘park once and walk.'”

The candidates also largely agreed on building heights, an at-times controversial issue in the city and limited by a 1985 voter initiative to 69 feet, which voters would have to change — tall buildings often help prevent sprawl, and should be considered downtown on a case-by-case basis, candidates said. Another area of agreement was on the prospect of a retail cannabis dispensary in Walnut Creek. City ordinance now prohibits a dispensary but candidates said they either already support a change in the ordinance or believe it should be considered.

The candidates were all asked what they would do if a $1 million grant landed in their lap. Ayres and Talbert said they would use it toward relocating homeless residents off the streets; Haskew said she would give it to the city’s Project Rebound program to help downtown businesses survive the Covid-19 pandemic; Reese would invest in a youth public engagement program; the others said they would use the money to improve mental health response or treatment efforts.

The candidates had varied responses when asked about their proudest public achievements. Reese, Ayres and Talbert said the forum itself was high on their lists. Reese added that he was happy his kids were seeing him on the screen, stepping out of his comfort zone.

Reese said:

“This moment makes me proud.”

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