It didn't quite rise to the level of naming a new justice to the U.S. Supreme Court -- but at times the Mountain View City Council's Feb. 21 meeting sure did resemble that kind of ordeal.
Council members were scheduled to pick their top candidates for Mountain View's new Rental Housing Committee, the powerful new panel in charge of implementing Measure V, the rent control measure. Rent control will affect thousands of apartments in the city but its implementation has been delayed by a lawsuit filed by a landlord group.
After putting candidates through two rounds of questionnaires and in-person interviews, council members based their selections primarily on a basic litmus test -- is the candidate pro-renter or pro-landlord?
The analogy came full circle at the start of the meeting as Councilman Chris Clark explained he wanted a balance of two picks on the renter side, two on the landlord side with a fifth person playing the "Justice Kennedy" role in the middle. The council's selection for the rental committee seemed to fit that mold as members voted in turn for six candidates (five regular committee members plus one alternate).
Those picks included two renters: Emily Ramos and Evan Ortiz, an organizer with the Mountain View Tenants Coalition; a couple of homeowners in the political middle: James Leonard and Julian Pardo de Zela; and two on the landlord side: Matthew Grunewald, the owner of a San Francisco rental property and former Councilman Tom Means, who owns a home and publicly opposed rent control.
But despite naming those picks, the council left plenty of questions up in the air. Which of the six candidates would be the alternate? When would they formally appoint the rental housing committee? And the big one -- Could the council go back to square one to seek exactly the kind of candidate they wanted?
Three council members signaled they were dissatisfied with the candidate pool and wanted to open a new round of applications to specifically seek a local landlord. As the meeting stretched into the late hours, council members Margaret Abe-Koga, Lisa Matichak and John McAlister warned that the candidates before them did not sufficiently represent the apartment owners in Mountain View.
"I'm concerned about the lack of diversity. We don't have someone who has rental units that are subject to (Measure V)," Matichak explained. "It's not lost on me that Measure V passed, but it's also not lost on me how important this committee is."
Exactly who joins the initial rental housing committee is crucial since that first group will set the standard for how rigorously the city will enforce its rent-control program. Among its responsibilities, the board will hire staff, define a fair profit margin for landlords and determine how independently the committee will function from the City Council. As part of the language of Measure V, the council is prohibited from appointing to the committee more than two landlords, property manager or realtors, but the measure doesn't specify any minimum number of representatives from those stakeholders.
Concerns about a lack of landlord representation on the committee were stoked by a letter-writing campaign from apartment owners ahead of the Feb. 21 meeting. Curtis Conroy, who owns seven apartments in Mountain View, explained that he and many of his colleagues were barred from serving on the rental committee since they live outside the city.
"Not one of the nine remaining applicants is a landlord of a Mountain View property," he said. "That this could have happened demonstrates that the drafters (of Measure V) did not have reasonable fairness in mind."
None of the original 17 candidates who applied for a committee seat own a Mountain View apartment property, although many owned local homes and rental property in other areas. The rest of the council pointed out that it wasn't the city's fault if landlords had declined to participate. City Housing Department staff pointed out that during the one-month application period they took out advertisements, posted fliers and reached out to the local California Apartment Association and the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors to encourage more candidates to apply.
"We put this call out, and the landlords had every opportunity to apply, and they didn't," said Councilwoman Pat Showalter. "I feel like the rules have been out there; we haven't obscured what the qualifications are."
Showalter made a motion to appoint the six members who received the most votes at a future date.
For now, the city is blocked from formally appointing committee members as long as a court-ordered restraining order remains in effect from a lawsuit by the California Apartment Association.
That lawsuit is scheduled for its first major hearing on March 14, when a judge will take up the apartment association's request to continue blocking rent control. If that request is denied, then Mountain View must begin implementing Measure V and appoint the rental committee to oversee it.
Local rent-control advocates expect the hold on Measure V to be lifted shortly. Just last week, a similar rent-control measure in Richmond was allowed to go forward after a Contra Costa County judge denied a similar delay request by the apartment association.
In that scenario, Housing Director Wayne Chen said he would like to have the rental committee ready to meet by mid-April. Abe-Koga assured her colleagues that should provide enough time for the city to reopen applications and interview new candidates.
Clark tried to split the difference. He proposed that the council stick with its current list of six candidates and appoint them if the court reached a decision right away. But if more time were provided, he recommended the council could request more applications, specifically for local landlords.
"If we have the luxury of additional time and we request specifically for a Mountain View landlord, then I'm OK with that," he said.
The council approved Showalter's motion, with the friendly amendment by Clark, in a unanimous vote.