MORAGA -- The five candidates running for three seats on the Town Council agree on several things: Moraga's roads need to be fixed, open space needs to be protected and something must be done about Rancho Laguna Park, a swath of turf that was the focus of a lawsuit after town leaders decided to separate park users from those with off-leash dogs.
But two recent candidate forums have highlighted some of the sharp differences between incumbents and their challengers, two of whom have criticized the current council for wasteful spending and trying to sell highly-prized open space. Those issues and others were debated recently by candidates Philip Arth, Seth Freeman, Roger Wykle and incumbents Mike Metcalf and Karen Mendonca. Incumbent and current Vice Mayor Howard Harpham is not seeking re-election.
The first forum was held last month in Martinez and was moderated by Contra Costa Times political reporter Lisa Vorderbrueggen; it is being televised on Central County Channel 26. Candidates Arth, Mendonca, Metcalf and Wykle attended that forum, but Freeman was absent; the second was held Thursday in Moraga and was moderated by Tim Farley, director of community and government relations at Saint Mary's College. Metcalf did not attend that forum as he was out of the country.
Much ground was covered, but roads, pensions, open space and the infamous dog park plan at Rancho Laguna sparked the most debate.
All council hopefuls said they support Measure K, which asks Moraga voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase that would sunset in 20 years. The town wants to use the tax to address failing roads and other needs, including maintaining neighborhood police patrols. Moraga currently spends about $500,000 annually on street maintenance and is estimated to have a $25 million backlog of road and storm drain repairs.
At the Martinez forum, Mayor Mike Metcalf said there is no alternative to the measure. "We just simply have to do something," he said. Wykle, a planning commissioner, said it was a step in the right direction.
However, some candidates said they couldn't guarantee that all the money would be spent strictly on the roads; although the tax would generate $1 million annually for the general fund, according to town data, it is a general tax and can't legally be earmarked strictly for roads.
"This is a leap of faith by the people of Moraga that all that money is going to be used for roads," said Arth, who emphasized the tax would be monitored by an oversight committee. Freeman agreed that residents were "putting a lot of faith" in their leaders and lamented the difficulty in getting communities to provide a two-thirds vote for measures such as parcel taxes, which secure funds for specific purposes.
While she agreed with her challengers, Mendonca said the council was committed to using the money for the roads. And she reminded residents they do have control over what the council does. "If we don't do what you want us to do, there's a word called 'recall,' " she said.
The Martinez forum can be viewed online at www.contracostatimes.com.