Hayward Councilman Francisco
Zermeno Friday at Hayward Demos

April 5, 2012 | HAYWARD | Nine candidate, including three incumbents, are vying for four open seats on the City Council this June, but save one particular person, their differences are hard to discern without the presence of a common liberal punching bag showing the way.

Seven of the nine candidates for the non-partisan at-large election fielded questions from members of the Hayward Demos including the possible addition to Walmart on Whipple Road, the controversial Secure Communities federal law enforcement program, the school district’s proposed parcel tax and gay marriage. But, it was the overall economic health of the city that took center stage.

“We cannot provide the police officers and the firefighters, we cannot provide the trees, we cannot provide the paint to clean up graffiti if we don’t have a viable economic plan that will start filling in our empty storefronts,” said Councilman Francisco Zermeno, who along with Olden Henson and Barbara Halliday will be forced to run for re-election based on their stewardship during one of the worst economic periods in generations.

“We are working our way through this crisis,” said Halliday in reference to continuing budget challenges and the council’s push for wage and benefit concessions from city workers. “We can get through this and make Hayward better.”

Talk of the status quo did not filter down to the remaining upstart candidates. “I love Hayward,” said Hayward Planning Commissioner Al Mendall. “It’s a great town, but it doesn’t look as great as it is.” Mendall is viewed as one of two candidates likely to challenge for the single non-incumbent seat. Although Mendall’s profile has risen with a number of well-connected endorsements, the inclusion of former city manager Greg Jones to the mix, may present a huge obstacle to making the move to the city council.

Jones, who quit as city manager less than two years amid a low-simmering scandal including an affair with then-council member Anna May, said he was only recently compelled to run after appraising the current crop of candidates. He said his past work at City Hall makes him an expert on budget matters and employee relations. Jones said he will keep city staff accountable for providing community services. However, questions remain whether Jones and May were upfront about their budding relationship with the current City Council and if the potential for conflict of interests existed during their time together as council member and city manager in 2010.

Twenty-two-year-old Peter Bufete said more of the city’s stated priorities should reflect on the youth and future of Hayward. Raised and educated in Hayward, Bufete’s debut showed a young, but well-spoken and crisply dressed future political prospect. “We need somebody who cares about this city,” Bufete said.

While most of the candidate accurately mimicked Democratic dogma, the lone Republican in the race, Ralph Farias, Jr., played the role of devil’s advocate, if not, with a sharp and entertaining slant.  Citing a pro-business background, Farias blamed the current administration for empty storefronts on Foothill and Mission Boulevards. “Are you happy with the current state of Hayward?” asked Farias, “The murders. The lack of businesses. The lack of attention brought unto Hayward?”

When San Leandro Councilman Jim Prola posed the question of Walmart coming to Hayward, Farias said, “No one forces these people to work at Walmart and if you say they do, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore in this country.” Farias also advocated poaching customers from Union City back to Hayward. The proposed Walmart is located on the Hayward-Union City border and less than a mile from another Walmart at Union Landing.

The issue of Walmart, though, acted as a lodestar in sussing out distinctions between the candidate’s similar beliefs. The issue may also present strategic problems for the three elected officials and Mendall as planning commissioner. The item comes before the commission Thursday night and likely to be heard by the full council before the June 5 primary.

All four were coy about their positions regarding Walmart. “You’ll find out next week,” said Mendall. Halliday said she couldn’t answer the question until the public comment period expires, but also said, “I’m not a fan of Walmart and I’m not a Walmart shopper and I never will be no matter where it is located.” Added Zermeno: “I am torn between the fact that it will be a new business in Hayward with new jobs, but we know what Walmart does to small businesses and that’s really my concern.”

Jones’s background with Hayward’s bureaucracy and experience with its continuing fight in attracting grocery stores to large swaths of the city may have tinted his response. “They want a grocery store, so we as a city need to find a way to provide that by incentivizing somehow property owners and business owner to be there,” said Jones, who added the issue is a planning and zoning matter. “If it’s an allowed use and the city of Hayward has said it is an alowed use, then we should allow that use on that property.

Six of the candidates at last Friday’s forum, excluding Farias, said they supported the Hayward Unified School District’s $58 per year parcel tax. The group also formed a consensus in support of same-sex marriage. The remaining candidates for City Council not in attendance are Shahla Azimi and Fahim Khan.