ORINDA -- Voters on Tuesday will choose from five candidates to fill three open seats on the City Council.
Those seats are currently held by Mayor Tom McCormick, Councilwoman Amy Worth and Councilwoman Sue Severson, all of whom are running for re-election.
They are being challenged by Dean Orr, currently chairman of the Planning Commission, and Scott Zeller, head of Psychiatric Emergency Services for Alameda County.
The Lamorinda Sun sat down with all the candidates to discuss the major issues facing Orinda as the election nears.
Orinda has some of the region's worst roads and it's estimated the city would need about $75 million to fix them. All candidates said the city should continue to pursue state and federal grant money to pay for major road repairs.
But several candidates felt, at least for now, a bond, parcel tax or other tax measure is not feasible.
"Bonds are not going to work, obviously," McCormick said. "We've been down that road twice in the last four years and they haven't passed."
Worth agreed, saying, "The financial pressure that our residents are under, I just don't believe that it's a good time to look at new taxes, so I think we have to work very thoughtfully with the resources that we have right now."
Along with Severson, both McCormick and Worth pointed to the city's neighborhood partnership program -- through which residents can help pay for their road repairs themselves -- as a one way to get residential roads repaired.
McCormick also said the city needs to increase sales tax revenue and that the downtown revitalization process is aimed at doing that.
Many of the city's roads can be repaired simply by filling potholes, Worth said, something the engineering staff has been pursuing aggressively.
Orr, who agreed the economic climate was not good for a new tax, said the city should rethink the way it prepares and bids its projects, perhaps by bundling projects together or cooperating with other agencies.
"For me, coming at this from a construction background, there's no better time than now to stretch your construction dollars," he said.
Severson said the council should ask residents how they would like to see the problem addressed, including whether they would support a new tax.
"I firmly believe that it needs to be the community that, after understanding the different options, comes to a consensus or recommends what they'd like to see or what they're willing to support at the ballot box," she said.
Zeller said he is not opposed to a new tax it the majority of residents support it, but added that once new funding is secured it must be used only for roads.
"However we find it, we've got to make it a defined part of the budget, that this is something that is going to be untouchable," he said.
He also said the city should increase its sales tax dollars, but that it should do so by being more welcoming to small businesses.
After concern from residents that there has not been enough opportunity for public input on proposed changes to the downtown, the city scheduled two public workshops on the issue. The first was held last week, and the second is scheduled for December.
A recommendation to raise the building height limit from 35 to 55 feet in some parts of the downtown has been the most controversial. Of the candidates, only Zeller is an outright opponent of the downtown recommendations.
The city should have first found out what residents want in the downtown and then created a task force to make that vision a reality, he said. Instead, he added, that process was inverted.
"You had a couple of developers heading up a small task force who decided when they were given the job of find a way to revitalize, they said the way to revitalize is to redevelop, which I don't remember that being what they were charged with," Zeller said.
The other four candidates said some zoning changes need to be made in the downtown in order to make redevelopment possible.
Severson pointed to the former Phair's property as one example.
"That's now been closed and boarded up for six-plus years, and under the current rules it's not "... a viable situation for anyone to come in and renovate that location, economically, to provide additional services that we can use in Orinda," she said.
Severson said she is open to raising the height limit in some areas, but wants to hear from the community before deciding how much to raise it.
Worth also supports more zoning flexibility, but said whatever is done must represent the wishes of Orinda's residents.
The recommendations could also create opportunities to provide more housing and create a more walkable downtown, she added.
"I think this is what cities throughout California are looking at, but the key thing is whatever we do has to really reflect the character of Orinda," she said.
Downtown housing is something that has Orr's support. He said he does not want the city to accommodate its projected population growth by expanding into undeveloped areas.
Some downtown areas could support additional height, he said, but the city needs to study the issue more before settling on a precise number.
"What I don't think you can do is draw a circle around the entire downtown and say 55 (feet) from one end to the other," he said.
McCormick said he supports raising the height limit on lots that slope downward if other design guidelines -- like setbacks, underground parking and promenades -- are met.
The goal is to create a master plan to better tie the downtown, currently a series of strip malls and parking lots, together, McCormick said, to "make it sort of more inviting."
"People can go down there and they can walk down the street, go to a sidewalk cafe and run into somebody they know," he said.
Moraga-Orinda Fire District
A group of residents earlier this year told the council that Orinda could save money by detaching from the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and contracting with the county for fire protection. The money saved, they claim, could be used for infrastructure repair.
A subcommittee of officials from Moraga, Orinda and the fire district have been meeting throughout the year to examine the claims. McCormick and Worth are on that subcommittee.
None of the candidates supports detaching from the fire district, although Zeller said he would support such a move if it was the desire of the voters to do so.
McCormick, Worth, Severson and Zeller said they hoped to see more collaboration with the fire district on infrastructure repair.
"It's important for a fire department to have road access and have high water pressure and things like that," Zeller said. "I would think that perhaps we can negotiate with them that we have joint projects with them where some of the funding might come from them."
Orr said he was not worried about the district having too much money, but rather having too little.
"If that's the case, I want to make sure that Orindans are making decisions, our elected fire board are the ones who are making decisions about where and how cuts or changes to our budget will be happening, and they are not happening in Martinez," he said.
Contact Jonathan Morales at 925-943-8048. Read the Lamorinda Sun blog at www.ibabuzz.com/lamorindasun.