Belle Haven, North Fair Oaks and East Palo Alto: Empowering disadvantaged communities in San Mateo County

The people of three disadvantaged communities in San Mateo County could shape their futures more effectively by using available tools to make government more accountable to them, according to a new report commissioned by Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Right now, the report notes, the elected officials of Menlo Park, Redwood City, and San Mateo County have little reason to prioritize the needs of the communities of Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks when making decisions on crucial issues such as transportation, immigration, and, especially, housing.

The third community in the report, East Palo Alto, is in a better position to determine its fate because it is already a city. But even there, residents could seek changes in the structure of their city government to make their officials more responsive.

To the extent the communities make the changes recommended in the report, perhaps they can make more progress against problems they have long endured when compared with their far more prosperous neighbors: a disproportionate share of public health and safety issues, unemployment, and economic displacement.

Titled “Toward Empowerment: Community Representation and Governance in San Mateo County,” the report followed a nine-month period of study and contains a number of specific recommendations under state law that the communities might consider. The study and report were conducted and written for SVCF by Brightline Defense Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that uses its legal and public policy skills to promote sustainability in underserved communities.

Here is a summary of the report and its recommendations:

Empowering Belle Haven

Belle Haven is a neighborhood of almost 6,000 people within the City of Menlo Park, in the eastern area near Facebook’s sprawling headquarters. Its small size dilutes its influence on City Council decisions due to the City’s at-large elections, where city council members represent the interests of the entire city, and not specific districts. Under the current system, the city’s voters elect council members “at large” rather than by district, so Belle Haven’s voice remains small.

However, there is a broad trend in the state to switch to district elections. The report notes with approval that the City of Menlo Park seems to be moving toward district elections, which would presumably increase the community’s sway over city decisions by potentially having a councilmember elected to specifically represent Belle Haven. Ideally, the report notes, Menlo Park will place Belle Haven in its own political district. With more specific representation, Belle Haven residents could gain a seat at the table as the city and Facebook work out the social media giant’s planned expansion and its impacts on housing and transportation infrastructure.

Empowering North Fair Oaks

North Fair Oaks, population 14,687, is an unincorporated pocket of Redwood City. In local matters, it’s directly represented only by a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, District 4 County Supervisor Warren Slocum. North Fair Oaks does have a voice in the form of an advisory body, the North Fair Oaks Community Council, that can make recommendations to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, but it lacks the authority to determine policies on its own.
Brightline’s report notes that North Fair Oaks has the option of applying for incorporation as a city on its own or potentially being annexed by Redwood City and placed into its own city council district. Incorporation could give the community a larger say on housing and transportation issues but would require a substantial amount of community organizing and support, as in East Palo Alto, for such a governance change.

Empowering East Palo Alto

Unlike Belle Haven and North Fair Oaks, East Palo Alto has its own distinct voice as a municipality. After 20 years of work, East Palo Alto residents successfully voted to incorporate as a city in 1983.

As a city, East Palo Alto has a direct vote on key regional policy boards such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, unlike the other two communities in the report. Incorporation has also enabled the city to set its own housing policies, such as rent control, that other cities and the county as whole have not adopted.

But East Palo Alto, population 28,000-plus, has the option of going even further, the report says. It could choose to adopt a “strong mayoral” system, in which city voters would elect the mayor and make him or her not only the city’s most powerful elected official, but also the city executive. Under the “weak mayoral” system that most California cities follow, the mayor is chosen by the city council from among its members. As a strong-mayor city, East Palo Alto could implement policies in a more timely manner, as the mayor’s office would have policy-making powers. Additionally, voter accountability could benefit, as residents focus on a single office. However, this transition to a “strong mayoral” system requires an expensive and time-consuming process in switching to a “charter” city rather than a “general law” city under state law. In order to be successful, the report concludes, any change in governance structure should be matched by the community’s demand and drive toward change.

Read the full report.