Q&A with City Council Candidate Conna McCarthy

McCarthy is one of four candidates vying for two seats on the City Council. This is her first time running for public office.

What is your age and how long have you lived in Piedmont?

I am 62 and have lived in Piedmont 30 years.

What do you do for work, either in or out of your home?

In 1996, my husband and I established a law firm in San Francisco. When another partner joined we moved our practice to 540 Pacific Ave in the Jackson Square neighborhood of San Francisco, bordered by Chinatown and North Beach. Although I became increasingly involved in volunteer activities, I remain active as an attorney.

Have you worked or volunteered in the Piedmont community (or elsewhere) previously? If so, in what capacity(ies)?

In 1987-88 I learned community organizing from Marshall Ganz, a former UFW leader. He was as inspirational as he was instructional. We led a project to register 1 million new voters in California from traditionally underrepresented communities. It was exhausting work 7 days a week 14-hour days.

While I loved grass roots organizing, the hours and commitment wasn’t in sync with raising a family. Settling in Piedmont, my volunteer efforts focused on our City and PUSD.

  • I chaired the 2019 CIP and continued in 2020 reviewing resident proposals and ongoing long-term projects. City Council appointed me to Recreation Commission in 2017; I am Vice Chair.
  • Since 2015, I’ve served on Piedmont Sports Hall of Fame board.
  • In 2012, I joined Mayor Chiang leading Measure Y.
  • I’ve served on the BAFP (city budget advisory) Committee reviewing 5-year financial projections, funding and expenditures. 
  • I volunteered on PUSD Parcel Tax campaigns, co-chaired the 2006 Seismic Safety Bond Program, served with PEF 2007-11.
  • I was PMS Parent Club President, on BPO, PHS Parent Club and the Wellness Center Support Committee. I served PHS Boosters 2008-14, PHS/PMS “Every 15 Minutes” 2011, chaired the Tri-School fundraiser, started Meet the Masters art program, and led PEP.
What inspires you to run for office?

I grew up in a family passionate about public service. My father held elected office in California for 30 years. He believed participation through government service provides a unique opportunity to positively impact the lives of others. He founded the McCarthy Center for Public Service at USF to prepare ethical leaders.

He encouraged my siblings, me, and his 11 grandchildren to find ways to serve others. The need to make ourselves useful is fundamental in each of us.

So, for me, the question isn’t why run, but why run now? The world changed in 2016.

Trusted institutions no longer function in predictable ways. Conspiracy theories abound. Name calling became commonplace. If there was ever a time to make oneself useful, this is the time. While I may not be equipped to tackle the larger problems of bigger cities, I can be helpful to Piedmont.

I am enabled by lessons learned from my father about ethical leadership, by my decades of volunteer experiences, and by Piedmont relationships nurtured over the past 30 years.

I am prepared to join other civic-minded folks at the dais as a decision-maker, embracing what makes Piedmont special, prepared to steward Piedmont into the future.

What are your qualifications to be on the City Council? Any special skills or experience the voters should know about?
  • My 25 years of volunteer service provides a foundation for understanding Piedmont’s values, needs and the expectations of its residents.
  • As an attorney I have analytical judgment. I gather facts, weigh those facts and draw conclusions.
  • I understand from a lifetime of hands-on involvement in partisan politics the importance of affording citizens an opportunity to participate, that citizen involvement in decision-making builds trust, and, most importantly, that compromise is vital.
What do you see as the most challenging issues currently facing the city?
  • Public Safety is consistently identified as a primary concern. We must continue to maintain high level police and fire services and, during the current pandemic, we must be vigilant to protect our vulnerable residents.
  • We must continue to exercise fiscal responsibility to maintain high quality services including well-tended parks and good recreation programs.
  • Infrastructure: We must address aging infrastructure. Years of deferred maintenance and coping with outdated facilities is untenable in light of the changing needs of our residents. It is time for important community conversations challenging us to define our vision of Piedmont for present and future generations, and to determine how we will act upon that shared vision.
  • Failure of Measure UU will require conversations about next steps.
  • How to deal with new mandates requiring affordable housing.
  • Enact consensus driven policies for sustainability and energy conservation
  • Vigilance over Piedmont’s commitment to racial equity and justice
What do you see as strengths of the Piedmont community?

Piedmont’s greatest strength is its people.

  • We are a multi-generational community of neighbors. We nurture and build relationships and every relationship becomes an important part of our foundation.
  • Volunteerism: We have a wealth of talent and a willingness to use that talent to benefit the entire community.  Our volunteerism strengthens our commitment to our community and to each other.
  • A commitment to education:  We consistently support investment in education through our financial giving and hands-on volunteering inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Traditions: Our 4th of July Parade, Harvest Festival, Turkey Trot, Friday night Football Family Nights, Bunny Blast, Learn to Swim classes, PCA Art Shows, Oktoberfest, Scouting for Food are important traditions that contribute to our sense of belonging and reinforce our connectedness to each other.
What will be your top priority if elected?

My priorities are determined by the needs of residents.

While serving on the Recreation Commission and on the Capital Improvement Projects review committee, I attended presentations, community conversations and studied the infrastructure needs of our town. Years of deferred maintenance and coping with outdated facilities is untenable in light of the changing needs of our residents. It is time for important community conversations challenging us to define our vision of Piedmont for present and future generations, and to determine how we will act upon that shared vision.

Do you see yourself being especially involved in any particular city issue or program, whether or not it’s your top priority?

As incoming Mayor, Teddy Gray King will make the decisions when placing City Council members as liaisons to other committees or commissions. I am willing and comfortable diving in where needed. That said, I would be coming from service as a Recreation Commissioner so I have several years digesting issues involving recreation services.

Talk about any leadership roles you’ve held and what you learned from them.

Working as a community organizer, I learned the importance of meeting people ‘where they are’, the physical and emotional space they are in, listening before talking.

I learned that building relationships is important to achievement of present tasks and those relationships will be important in the future because paths do cross again. I learned the discipline of message. I learned not to get hijacked emotionally when you are publicly challenged or criticized. I learned never to burn bridges.

And while I have had opportunities to practice these learned skills, I continue to struggle to perfect them.

I understand from a lifetime of hands-on involvement in partisan politics the importance of affording citizens an opportunity to participate, that citizen involvement in decision-making builds trust, and, most importantly, that compromise is vital.

Share an example of your decision-making style.

I am an attorney so I tend to be analytical. I want all the information in front of me. I want to consult experts and I want to listen to all available points of view. I research and read whatever I can find about an issue. I seek advice from people who I know to have insight or experience.

I want all voices to be heard and will work to create opportunities for participation.  

I practice self-examination and consciously work to let go of potential biases. I start with a fundamental belief that we agree on more things than we disagree so I look to where there is consensus and move forward from there.

What project have you worked on that you are especially proud of?

After two independent structural engineering reports identified school buildings that would likely pose life safety risks in the event of a major earthquake on the nearby Hayward fault, I co-chaired the 2006 Seismic Safety Campaign securing a $56M general obligation bond to upgrade Piedmont schools for current and future generations. By Piedmont standards, it was a tough campaign. At the time there was one local news source. Every week we were hit with front page headlines challenging: 1.) experts who concluded structures posed life safety risks, 2.) the School District’s decision placing the bond on the ballot, and 3.) the integrity of the campaign message. Now, almost 15 years later, our upgraded schools, especially Havens school, are the jewels of our community.

City Council members must navigate a wide range of community opinions and demands. How will you handle those pressures?

I have spent the last three years preparing myself to be an effective decision-maker. When you hold yourself out to run for elected office, you open yourself up to criticism.

We can learn a lot from having uncomfortable conversations. It is important to listen to the voices that disagree with you. The job requires that you do the work to understand the needs and demands of stakeholders.

Is Piedmont doing a good job addressing Covid-19? If not, what improvements would you advocate?

Yes. Within days of the shutdown Piedmont started a weekly newsletter to keep residents informed. As infections increased, visible notices were placed reminding people to wear mask and socially distance. Parents created a FB page to share information. Mayor McBain reached put to residents letting them know how the City was responding.

The Rec Dept staff initiated wellness checks on seniors. The Rec Dept created virtual activities and orchestrated a masked distance summer’ Camp Almost Everything’. As PUSD plans shifted the Rec Dept picked up the slack with outdoor learning Pods. All City departments and employees follow Alameda County safety mandates.

What do you think about the proposed bond measure to replace the pool?

A series of 5 studies, (2002-2016) each concluded the same sad fact: The Piedmont Pool, as it currently exists, does not meet the needs of our community. Staff reporting to City Council confirms: pool expenses remain stable but operating costs continue to accelerate due to irreparable wear and tear. 

While Alameda County is now re-opening community pools, our Piedmont pool remains closed.

Public testimony and resident surveys reveal a groundswell of deep attachment to our pool. As a resource for lap swim, recreation swim, swim lessons, therapeutic swim, competitive swim and water polo, there is no dispute that our pool is a valued community asset. Taking advantage of historically low interest rates, Measure UU funds construction of a safe, sustainable, and affordable facility. The June BAFPC analysis indicates a favorable operational recapture rate depending on fee structure. I endorse Measure UU and campaign for its passage.

What do you think about current taxes in Piedmont? Too low, too high, just right?

That is a loaded question. No one likes to pay taxes but studies show people don’t seem to mind paying taxes when they get the benefit of their bargain. Piedmonters have continuously supported school parcel taxes and city parcel taxes. The last city parcel tax passed by the highest margin in Piedmont’s history. Those are good indicators that Piedmont residents are satisfied with the job their local elected officials are doing on their behalf.

How would you deal with improving and maintaining City facilities?

I would give widespread notice for planned public conversations to inform the residents about identified problems with existing infrastructure, proposed upgrades and the associated costs.

As a member of the Capital Improvements Project committee in 2019 we had an opportunity to discuss city facilities. Our 2020 research was cut short by COVID, but we had an introduction to needed infrastructure upgrades. The Budget Advisory and Financial Planning committee did an exceptional analysis of Piedmont’s ability to fund improvements.

At some point in the future, we will have conversations with all stakeholders and figure out what Piedmont residents are willing to support. At this moment, the Pool Bond should take everyone’s attention.

Between the city and the schools there are many shared facilities and programs. What is your perspective on city-school partnerships and collaboration?

I am 100% in favor of city-school partnerships whenever and where-ever it makes sense to partner and the partnership improves the quality of services for Piedmont residents.

What would you do to create more affordable housing available in Piedmont?

We are at the beginnings of conversations trying to understand required mandates and our resulting obligations. I get the sense there is room for negotiation regarding how those mandates take shape. The formulas used to establish mandates for other California cities don’t really work in Piedmont because we are built-out. We may have to consider multiple dwelling units in those small parcels still open but we just don’t know yet. Once we fully understand those mandates, we can begin to figure out how we meet them. Approval of accessory dwelling units has been helpful but as the demand for housing becomes greater, Piedmont is going to have to get creative.

What would you do to promote diversity in Piedmont, including among City staff?

There has been a changeover in staff in recent years that has increased diversity. That did not happen by accident. Our former City Manager, Paul Benoit was purposeful in his recruitment of highly trained leaders who represent diverse backgrounds. We should continue to be aware and purposeful in outreach when filling available positions.

What would you do to improve environmental sustainability in Piedmont?

I think there is overall agreement that Piedmont should do its fair share to help protect the earth’s climate through a unified approach to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

My sense is that a majority of Piedmonters support established Reach goals. There are some continuing concerns about the current reach proposal that should be addressed. I think this is a topic where we can find consensus.

Although early efforts for public outreach included 5 public meetings and 2 surveys, it became apparent, as greater public attention focused on proposed reach codes, more conversations are required. Due to Covid, the inability to have genuine in person dialogue, with back and forth conversations is hugely problematic.

Our City Council did the right thing delaying a second reading and directing staff to conduct additional public meetings. I will be watching along with everyone else to see if the City Council calendars a vote on the second reading.

What do you think about current recreational opportunities in Piedmont, and do you have other ideas for adding, subtracting or changing programs?

Chelle Putzer had been on the job as the new Recreation Director for less than 3 months when the pandemic upended all recreation programs.

She has led her staff nobly with creativity and the ability to pivot to virtual programs, distanced learning programs, outdoor learning. The existing recreation staff is highly imaginative so I defer to them for innovative programs.

When we learn of resident needs, we want to work to make those needs realized. For example, with the help of a well-organized group of pickleball enthusiasts, our sub-committee on Tennis and Pickleball was able to establish home courts for a previously underserved group of senior athletes.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with voters about your candidacy?

I can share a lesson from my Dad. My dad believed that the purpose of government is to improve the lives of others.

He was a consummate gentleman and showed respect to everyone. When he retired, he wrote thank you notes to the people who supported him in his daily work…the fella who ran the elevator, the garage attendants. My dad was unimpressed with titles. He found heroes in the people who showed up, worked hard, supported their families and contributed. He taught me through his example, that the job of public service is to improve people’s lives and that any sense of accomplishment you get from achieving some victory is shared with everyone who supported you along the way.

Contact McCarthy and learn more by visiting her website at www.connamccarthy.com.

5 thoughts on “Q&A with City Council Candidate Conna McCarthy

  1. Thanks for that Conna. As a council person l always lamented when there were more staff than public at meetings. 72 hours notice leads to that. With the Reach Codes there was more public outreach and process than just about any staff proposal I can recall. And better process – not just 3 minutes at the microphone but multiple workshops where residents could dialogue with staff and consultants on the specifics of the code.

    To clarify, we are taking about reach codes not goals. The GHG reduction goals are in the CAP -80% by 2050 – and we estimate that the reach codes will achieve only 30% of the needed natural gas reduction. So more actions will be needed.

    Appeared to me that the zoom meeting and FAQ really addressed the misinformation that was out there. Four staff members with different expertise participated and addresses every question I heard. Maybe others will weigh in.

    The codes await a second reading so I don’t think legally substantive changes can be made to them. Regarding the code as drafted, can you speak to the specific elements- the threshold, menu options and electrification elements?

    • Thank you again Garrett. There are four candidates running for City Council. As a matter of fairness and equity, let’s look for a better format so all candidates have an opportunity to respond to your questions.

      • I read the other candidate statements on this forum and don’t need to ask them further. But a forum with all candidates present will certainly provide for better comparison.

  2. Thank you for your question Garrett. I participated in the pre-pandemic in-person outreach meetings. Like most Piedmonters, I favor reach goals. I voluntarily adhered to proposed reach codes in a recent ADU application. While I agree there was a great effort to inform residents about the reach proposal, as a former City Council-member you are acutely aware, despite best efforts to draw attention to a specific issue, questions often arise when community members focus in their own time. And, you know from your leadership experience, that community focus often happens as a critical vote nears. Proponents seem to believe opposition arose from misunderstandings. Did the September 3 zoom outreach clear up perceived misunderstandings? Because there is consensus over reach goals, my sense is we can reach consensus re: the reach proposal. I will be watching along with you to see how City Council proceeds.

  3. Conna,

    There’s been an inordinate amount of public outreach and education on the development of the Reach codes. More than any code change I can think of – Chapter 17, ADU, and vegetation management. There’s also been a lot of misinformation. More dialogue is good and now that staff has held a town meeting hopefully Council will agendize a second reading before the election. That way candidates can take a position on the code changes and let voters know where they stand. More dialogue aside, what are your positions on the Reach codes? Be specific please.

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