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October 21, 2008

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Lorne

Thanks Fiona -- My understanding is that they are going "live" with Granicus on 11/3.

Lorne

Sep 18, 2008

A meeting of the minds on mayor's menu


By Bil Paul / Daily News columnist

If there is a disconnect between some city council members and their communities, at least one council member is doing something about it. Since January, Belmont council member and Mayor Warren Lieberman has been holding monthly "lunches with the mayor" with up to eight residents and businesspeople at local restaurants. And the face time seems to be a success, even if it doesn't involve mass communications.

I was intrigued by the idea, so I signed up for the September lunch which took place a week ago at The Vans restaurant (even though I'm a San Mateo resident). The lunches aren't on the city's tab, so everyone is expected to kick in their share.

Besides the mayor, City Manager Jack Crist attends (he has the job of taking notes). At last week's meeting, current City Treasurer John Violet and former Treasurer Howard Mason also attended. Three residents joined them: James Stray, a bioscientist; Joan Singer, who works in education; and Ms. Hang Holoyda. After some banter about topics of the day (such as Sarah Palin) and introductions, the conversation cut to the chase, and some local concerns were put on the table along with the food.

Holoyda wondered why many neighborhoods in Belmont have no sidewalks. Violet said that early on, when the neighborhoods were being planned, the idea was to preserve rural charm. Now, apparently, many of the streets are so narrow and up against homes and landscaping that there's not enough room to add sidewalks. Still, Crist said he was interested in "the walkability of Belmont," which would have to involve sidewalks.

Holoyda also observed that too many people park on the street, and the group talked about residents using their garages for everything but car storage.

Stray said he's glad he moved from Berkeley to Belmont, especially because of the parks. As for an existing park near his home, he said too many teens hang out there, which makes him a bit uncomfortable.

Loring DeMartini, owner of the restaurant, dropped by to talk about the relationship between Belmont's off-and-on-again Chamber of Commerce and the city. Relations between the two have not always been rosy and the Chamber is now re-exerting itself with a new president.

I got in my two bits by asking about the Harbor Industrial Area adjoining Belmont, which the city would like to annex. I suggested that the mayor meet with businessmen from that district in similar lunches to air their concerns and encourage them to approve an annexation. Lieberman said he and other city representatives were meeting with folks in that area to try to work something out, although it sounded like annexation was not about to happen any time soon.

Those from the city government side (Lieberman, Crist, Violet and Mason) were just as interested in passing on what was important to them. Lieberman emphasized that like most nearby cities, Belmont has an aging infrastructure (sewers, roads and so on) that will need increasing levels of upkeep or replacement. He's gratified that Belmont's citizens seem more thoughtful now, and there's more flexibility among his fellow city council members. For example, the city seems poised to approve a four-story building along El Camino Real, higher than the norm in town. Also, he was pleasantly surprised that Belmont youth sports groups volunteered to pay a $40-per-player fee to help maintain city playing fields.

Violet noted that Belmont's school-age population, which had dropped a precipitous 50 percent over past decades (resulting in the closure of schools), has now rebounded to 75 percent of its former peak.

In talking with Lieberman and Crist after the lunch, they disclosed they've learned that the lunches work best around a square or round table rather than a long, rectangular one, because more participants feel part of the conversation.

In most cities, mayors and city managers privately meet with individuals or groups on single issues only, so these wide-ranging meetings, for which public invitations are issued, are something unusual.

Crist estimates that 60 to 70 percent of attendees are local business members (partly because the Chamber of Commerce has promoted the get-togethers), so our lunch wasn't typical. Crist said that other meetings have talked, for example, about a perceived need for more police and the needs of youth sports. Also, he's noted " ... a broad interest in what the city does."

Mayor Lieberman seconded that thought by saying that some attendees had really basic questions about how city government works, especially the city council. He also remembers discussions about hiking trails (especially around Water Dog Lake), traffic on Ralston Avenue, and parking and bicycling around Carlmont High School. He said that no special interest groups have packed a particular luncheon to do some single-issue lobbying.

Beyond the lunches, Lieberman has suggested to the rest of the city council that Belmont citizens viewing city council meetings live on TV or via webcast be allowed to phone or e-mail in comments during the public comment period. Council member Coralin Feierbach is reportedly against the idea because of the possibility of inflammatory language being used, people posing as someone else and other dangers. Lieberman suggests just giving it a try. Carried to an extreme, Belmont voters could even provide input by voting their opinions on issues via the methods used by "American Idol" on TV.

Since Lieberman completes his stint as mayor this December, citizens have only two more chances to attend one of these lunches with him, unless the next mayor continues the practice, which sounds like a good idea. The October lunch will be at the Mossant Cafe, 1400 El Camino Real in Belmont at noon on Oct. 16. There are still some open spots, so if interested, contact Joni Stallings in the Belmont city manager's office at 595-7408 or via jonis@belmont.gov.

Bil Paul's column appears Thursdays in the Daily News. Reach him at natural_born_writer@yahoo.com.

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