City Council Candidate Q & A: Peter Ohtaki

Get to know the candidate's perspectives before you cast your vote on Nov. 2. Don't have time to get lunch with them? We're here for you.

Tell me about the time you realized you wanted to run for office.

      I've been thinking about this for several months.  To give you a bit of background: I was elected by my colleagues to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors back in 2007 and served on its Finance Committee. Over the years, I've worked with the city in various capacities.   As I got to work with the City Council, I felt there was very strong need for a member of the City Council that has both business and government experience.  There are a couple of aspects to that.

      On the Fire District Board of Directors, each of the three years we've balanced out $31 million, which is approximately same size of the city's budget.  We've worked hard on the committee to balance the budget when property taxes flattened, without compromising services and without raising taxes.  Since 2007, the city has been running a budget deficit.

     The reason why that's important is that the chronic budget deficits are eroding our reserves and also our services, public safety, and infrastructure. We keep delaying some of our infrastructure projects, for example, that I hope would increase our revenue. That's a big mistake. It will erode our ability to provide services without raising taxes.

How would you address this problem?

     I'd look closely at the city's $6.3 million unfunded pension liability and see if there are interests or cost savings that we can address to get that obligation handled.  For example, at the Fire District, we had a similar but larger $13.5 million pension obligation which we've almost entirely paid down by saving $750,000 per year in interest. We have a strong reserve position from prudent managing of the
districts budget over the years.  The issue with Menlo Park is that you have to get your ongoing budget in order, or over time you're going to erode that.

      Secondly,  I think there are opportunities for cost sharing of services and functions with other cities in the surrounding areas.

Would you consider outsourcing police services?

     While it's worth consideration, it's a very big step and there are response time considerations that we'd need to carefully look at.  Indeed, while there may be cost savings, the response time issue might negate the benefit.

Share your thoughts about the Pension Reform ballot measure.

     I'm one of only two candidates that have explicily endorsed and support Measure L.  The number one reason is that the when the City Council raised the pension benefit to 2.7 at age 55, I don't think they realized how expensive that benefit would be over time.

     And CalPERS has lost a big part of their portfolio over the last year and a half.  It will need to raise rates in order to fund these benefit plans.  Over the next couple of years, all cities and districts will have to pay higher rates for these pension plans that they've committed our cities to.  By addressing new employees, since it doesn't apply to current employees, and providing a less generous pension benefit, we're addressing the future issue of these CalPERS issues.

      A second reason is that some of the other candidates have said that they're
not in favor of it, because one of the provisions ties the hands of the City Council. It would makes future increases to go to the voters.  I'm in favor of it, because these increases should be treated like tax inreases. Voters should have the right to vote on things that they'll be paying for eventually.

What are some of the intangible reasons that you're running for City Council?

     I grew up in Menlo Park.  I went to La Entrada middle school and Woodside High School. I think that I have a unique perspective and understanding of our unique balance between small town character, charm, and economic vibrancy.

     Another key reason why I'm running is that I'm tired of looking at these empty properties on El Camino; they reflect poorly on the city. We're talking about budget issues, but these properties aren't generating sales or property taxes, because they're sitting there empty. That doesn't do anybody any good. We need to move forward and focus on attracting businesses to the empty lots.

      Secondly, and in contrast to the El Camino portion, I think residents
want to keep Santa Cruz Avenue the way it is.

So if a Wal Mart wanted to move into one of those empty lots on El Camino, would you embrace that idea?

     I'd be willing to talk to anybody who is interested, but I would want to protect our small town character, which means it depends on the retailer. If it's Wal Mart, that would certainly not be small town. I wouldn't support that. I don't want to just say no outright to large businesses. What I envision is a mixed use area where you'll find retail, commercial, and residential along El Camino. It has to be a balance.

What would be ideal?

    Some good examples I've seen that I consider to have small town charm are Laurel Street in San Carlos and Main Street in Los Altos.  These are downtown areas that don't have multi-level garages.  They have small businesses that attract a lot of diners and shoppers.   At one point, it was furnishings that drove downtown Menlo Park.  I think that with Flegel's that continues to be the case.  Having said all that, Menlo Park is a great location for retail business. We have the ability to attract businesses; we just need to make it a focus.

What's your day job?  

     I'm the Executive Director of the California Resilience Alliance.  It's a non-profit, public, private partnership between businesses and government for disaster response and preparedness.  I get companies from around the state to work with government emergency agencies to plan for the joint response, during a major earthquake or pandemic flu or wildfire.  During the 2007 California wildfires, I helped coordinate large volume donations of bottled water, food supplies form businesses to victims of the wildfires in San Diego.

You got your BA in Economics from Harvard and then came back to the west coast to get your MBA from Stanford.  We talked about how you grew up in Menlo Park, but where were you born?

     I was born in Seattle.  My family moved down here when I was in the 4th grade.  Do I have to tell you what year? *laughs* That was in 1970.

Approximately how much money do you expect to spend on your campaign, and where does that come from?

     My campaign budget right now is about $25,000. It's a combination of some personal money and contributions from my friends and neighbors.

Are you pro or anti labor unions?

     I get concerned about sometimes that unions exceed the ability of the entity, or of the city, to financially sustain the request.  We've been negotiating for a couple of years with the Fire Fighters Union at The District.  I have to be concerned with the financial sustainability, because the City Council must represent the interests of its residents who are the tax payers.  I'm always willing to negotiate, but I feel its important to hold the line in the interests of our residents who are the taxpayers.

Have you or a business you owned or had principal interest in ever filed bankruptcy?

     No, but a startup I worked for ceased business activities.

And last but not least, what's your favorite thing about Menlo Park?

     There are three things.

     1) It's such a livable city. This goes back to the charm and character of the cities and school. It's a great place to raise a family.

      2) It's very cosmopolitan despite being a small town. You hear all
sorts of languages being spoken at the playground; and I love that vibrancy.

      3) In many ways the future starts in Menlo Park. Virtually every major technology company has been funded by a venture capital firm that is headquartered in Menlo. Google started here; and Cisco went public when it was on Willow Road. We should be very proud of the fact that Menlo Park was the starting point for some amazing global leading technology companies.

For more information, visit Peter Ohtaki's website: www.peterohtaki.com

Or email him at: pohtaki@stanfordalumni.org


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