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Joe Medrano, Clayton City Council

CLAYTON -- With state funding take-aways and tax revenues limping into city coffers, candidates running for City Council this November see the downtown as the linchpin to the city's financial stability.

Five candidates are running for three seats on Nov. 6. Jim Diaz and Kevin Liberman are challenging incumbents Howard Geller, Joe Medrano and Julie Pierce.

The election coincides with a crucial point in the three-block downtown's history. A city-approved plan has laid the foundation to bring more retail and commercial properties to the area, and multiple properties are vacant or up for sale, including the former Pioneer Inn, which is at the gateway to downtown and on the market for $2.5 million.

Near the top of each candidate's priority list is ensuring retail stores and their sales tax revenue trickle into downtown to help fill anticipated gaps in future budget cycles.

The issue, the candidates agree, is maintaining the town's quaintness while bringing more people into downtown.

"It's got to be sensible, it's got to be Clayton-compatible and something everyone will be attracted to," said Diaz, at a forum Oct. 1.

Diaz, the vice president of the membership for the Clayton Business and Community Association, said he will work tirelessly to get more retail downtown, calling himself the "champion of revenue generation."

Diaz is a former planning commissioner who has run unsuccessfully in several City Council races over the past decade.

Geller, running for a second term, is a proponent of high-density housing near downtown to bring more foot traffic. Geller favors the idea of closing off some downtown streets to traffic to create plazas.

"Wouldn't it be charming. It's a great idea. I'm looking forward to that day," said Geller.

Liberman, a newcomer to Clayton politics, worries about high-density development downtown. He said it could create an overcrowded downtown and resemble his Southern California hometown, which he left because of noise and congestion. Liberman is more interested in drawing customers from out of town.

"I believe that we are going to need to encourage more retail business in the area to attract not only our local residents to support it but also perhaps from people outside our community, making it more of a destination," said Liberman.

Medrano, also seeking a second term, said what goes downtown should be driven by the market.

"No matter what we build we have to have the residents support those businesses. So we can build it out but unless they are supported they will sit there empty."

Medrano is running for office despite facing criminal charges in San Mateo County. Prosecutors allege Medrano, an insurance broker, embezzled $159,000 from one of his clients. The trial began Oct. 1 and is expected to last a week. If found guilty of the felony, Medrano would not be eligible to hold office. Medrano has denied the allegations and earlier pleaded not guilty.

The other four candidates refused to comment on the matter at the forum.

"I did not embezzle any funds, it's a civil dispute," Medrano said in response to a question about the case at the Oct. 1 forum. Pierce has touted her work on the downtown plan during her years on the Planning Commission and during her tenure on the City Council since 1992.

Market studies have shown that the downtown would benefit from restaurants or a jazz club, she said. She brushed off other candidate suggestions that the downtown needs antique shops, saying some antique shops in downtown Martinez did not survive the economic downturn.

"If you get enough diversity" people will come from out of town into downtown Clayton, Pierce said. She also wants more recreation options for families.

One resident at the forum asked what types of businesses each candidate wants in the downtown. While council members cannot pick specific tenants, only set rules for types of uses in downtown, each candidate explained what they would chose if they could.

Geller favors a boutique store or a bed-and-breakfast style inn; Liberman wants a produce market; Medrano wants new restaurants, preferably a Chinese takeout restaurant; Pierce noted the jazz club; and Diaz wants a mix of new restaurants.

David DeBolt covers Concord and Clayton. Contact him at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.

CANDIDATE FORUM broadcast DATES on cctv
Channel 28 at 1 p.m. Oct. 7, 14, 21, 28, Nov. 4; and 9 p.m. Oct. 8, 15, 22, 29, Nov. 5