June 22, 2004 > Interview with Dr. Rakesh Sharma
Interview with Dr. Rakesh Sharma
Dr. Rakesh Sharma was appointed to the Fremont Planning Commission in 2002 and has been serving in that capacity to the present time. His term on the commission expires at the end of 2006. Dr. Sharma: has indicated that he will be a candidate for a city council seat in the November 2004 election. TCV asked Dr. Sharma: for his thoughts on some issues facing the City of Fremont at this time.
TCV: Dr. Sharma:, what is your background?
Dr. Sharma:: I was born in India and received my doctorate degree in Clinical Biochemistry in 1976. In 1977, my wife and I left for Japan where I worked at the Research Institute for Nuclear Medicine and Biology in Hiroshima. In 1979, I came to the United States to work at University of Texas - Dallas, in Texas. I lived there for about one and a half years and then moved to California to work at Stanford Medical School and University where I stayed for about 18 years. My last full time job was at a Caribbean medical school (Saba University School of Medicine in the Antilles) as a Chairman, and Associate Professor of Clinical Biochemistry. Now, I am self-employed. I have been in Fremont for over 16 years and am very committed to the city.
TCV: Why did you decide to run for a city council seat?
Dr. Sharma:: I have been very active in the community, in charitable causes and in the background helping other candidates. I decided to run because I want to bring city government to our neighborhoods. I think that is what is missing in Fremont. Residents need to be involved at the initial stages of key city issues. I am pro-business, and plan to act aggressively to bring good businesses to Fremont. I support affordable housing, preserving our hills, and creating an excellent learning environment in our schools.
When items are being considered by city council and you see a room full of people trying to make a change, you know there is a lack of communication. With some projects, like the Bay Street plan, residents have been involved. I have gone to some of the public meetings. That project is not perfect - there are some parking issues - but that project comes to us [planning commission] for a decision and we do not see people saying that they have no idea what is going on.
Fremont residents are our customers. They elect their representatives to take care of them. Politicians visit with them [the public] just before an election; why not continue the same trend after election? We also have the same responsibility once we're elected and take their input. Most of the time, people who are living in the neighborhoods, who are witnessing the issue, have the best ideas to resolve them.
TCV: The City of Fremont is facing a large deficit. How do you think the current city council is handling things?
Dr. Sharma:: I heard that the city is proposing a tax. They have the option of whether they want a special tax, or a general tax. I'm not sure if I agree with a tax. If the city has to ask for a tax, a general tax would be my preference rather than a special tax. You can use a general tax for any purpose that is deemed correct. The city has done a good job for the last year going out into the community and teaching them what is done with the money. I don't know if they did it because of what they're proposing now or if they really wanted to do it. If residents were informed in good times and bad times, I don't think we would be in the situation that we are now. I haven't decided if I'm going to support it or not, but if I do, I will support the general tax.
TCV: What would your priorities be if elected to the council?
Dr. Sharma:: I am people's candidate. I believe in communication. I will work very hard to bring city hall to each neighborhood, both in good times and bad times. Going to the community and telling them that you're there to listen is very important. In good times maybe the neighborhoods are not as interested in government, or what you have to say because they don't have problems. When the situation starts turning, you can see that I've been here for the good times and for the hardships. Then the people will respond to it because they will realize that you were in the neighborhood and that you cared. I think that bringing that kind of feeling is important. I don't think that that exists in the city as of now.
I'll work to create and provide best services for each dollar we spend. If you look at big businesses, what do they do? They analyze their business. A business close by had an oil change service and closed it. They didn't close the whole auto shop just the oil change part of it because they realized that it wasn't worth operating. We have to do the same thing in the city. We've got to think about how we're spending our dollars at a micro level. Sometimes that's necessary.
I'll work to bring good businesses to Fremont. When I talk about bringing good business to Fremont, I want to say, "Where is the beef?" Did the business receive a call from the mayor, or from city council? So that he thinks that the city was really interested in making a difference.
I'll work to create more affordable housing. The biggest job right now in Fremont is to convince people of the definition of affordable housing. When you're creating or helping people to buy a house in Fremont, these people are educated and making good incomes. They have permanent jobs and a family to raise. Affordable housing is not always equal to bringing a bad element into the community.
I'll work to preserve hills. I love hills. I'm a long distance runner. I hike on Mission Peak; I have been living in Fremont for 16 or 17 years and running a marathon at least one every year, running and finishing it. I run on the street in Fremont. I run on Mission, I run on Washington Boulevard, and I run on Paseo Padre. I run from Washington Boulevard to Decoto road and come back. I run in the evening. I care about the quality of life and I care about the traffic. Because I see it! I'm on the road for two hours on one of the busiest streets and intersections in Fremont. So I do care about the environment.
I'll work to enhance the learning environment in our schools. I think that there should be more frequent meetings between the city people and the school board. The school people responsible for taking care of the children should be informed more frequently about the development the city may be planning in any neighborhood and hear their active input because they're the ones who have to deal with it.
TCV: Why not serve out your term on the planning commission and then run for council?
Dr. Sharma:: I really don't think that the city council cares very much about the planning commission. The big box issue came from city council to planning commission and they wanted us to study how the City of Fremont wanted to deal with these issues in relation to Walmart. We started working on it. We are seven planning commissioners that have experience and want to make a difference in the city. We asked questions; we wanted to make intelligent decisions.
What happened is that we went back to city council and they heard our concerns. They said to forget about it. We asked staff about direction they said we had no right to tell them what to do because city council allocates the money. I want to make a difference in this city. I want to go to the city council and make sure that planning commission is heard. I feel that I can really make a difference by going on to city council. When you are serving for the city, the personality issue, the personal issue, and style is irrelevant. What is most relevant is how to improve the quality of life of our Fremont residents.
TCV: What is your vision for Fremont? What do you think of creating a downtown?
Dr. Sharma:: We need a central businesses district, a downtown. We better think very seriously about what we want there. That will only happen if we know who's going to shop there - Fremont residents. At city hall we can say what we want, but the talk of the street is the talk of the town.
I have spoken to people about the need for a good theater. They [city council] said that they're going to work on it and bring it in CBD. Have we talked to the people who are going to put the project in Fremont? Where they want to put it? How about Pacific Commons? I talked to the Catellus people and they said that the city had instructed them not to entertain that idea, because they wanted to think about it for the central business district. I don't know who they have talked to but if such a business is not interested in the central business and Catellus is not going to entertain that idea, then we are never going to have a nice theater in Fremont.
This is the same issue with the WalMart location. I thought a better location was off Stevenson. It's not that I didn't want WalMart in Fremont, it's that I didn't want Walmart where traffic is an issue. The argument that business knows best what to do is only partially true. If more than fifty percent of businesses close within five years of startup, more than fifty percent of the time, businesses are not correct.
We have [historic] districts that we can facilitate. I see no reason why the city can't work on both simultaneously. There is no way to say we're going to develop area A and not worry about area B because eventually area A is connected to area B.
TCV: What is the role of the city council in relationship to a city manager?
Dr. Sharma:: The city council is the elected representation of the community and they are elected because residents believe that their interests will be served. If you just remember those two things, then it's very simple. It all has to start from the community. Until you know what the community wants, you can't direct city staff to deal with it. If you can't direct city staff to do it, then you have to go the other way. That means that the item is going to come to the city council from staff for a decision. If you go out to the community and they're asking you to make a difference, you are then bringing it back to the city staff and telling them what needs to be done.
TCV: What would you do about the budget deficit?
Dr. Sharma:: It's easy to say we're going to cut personnel right and left. It doesn't make the system better. It makes a lot of people angry. What we need to do is analyze what staff does, what they produce, what is the need. Once we do that, we may find some overlapping functions. When you have two extra people in a department that are really not needed, those extra two people are keeping another hardworking two people busy. In fact, an extra two people cost you four people. I don't want to cut right and left, but I want to make sure that we only keep the services that we need.
TCV: What do you think about rezoning commercial areas for housing?
Dr. Sharma:: I will need some data, really to address this. Some of these issues have come in front of the planning commission and people in my age group have said that school overloading is an issue. High density, crime and loss of commercial square footage can also be issues. In the next two years I will not have a kid that's going to use the schools. The whole block is same as I am. This gives us an opportunity for additional space at our school.
At the last meeting of the Planning Commission, I was shocked that some of the property owners didn't even know that the land was going to be rezoned. - I don't think that there is an explanation for that. If I'm misunderstanding, then I need to be corrected. I would not take commercial area from a vibrant neighborhood because critical mass for retail is very important. I lived in Japan, and if you've visited Japan, the neighborhood shopping, and businesses are extremely important. Fremont is a big city, when I came on to the planning commission I said that you've got to do smart rezoning and infill development.
There are plenty of sites. We have to work hard to find those sites. I think when the Cabrillo Center issue came up, I voted for it; to give an owner the option to do what they want to do. The city can work with the owner to see if the shopping center can be revitalized and remain commercial.
TCV: The big buzzword today is mixed use. When you look at mixed use, it's primarily residential. How much retail area should we sacrifice to housing?
Sharma: I think that's where the city government and the planning commission come in. I think we have to look at mixed use development around the BART station and around the downtown and around places where it can be accommodated. Residents also have to change a little bit of their attitude about the neighborhood shopping. It's a tough question. I think you just have to work on the individual site and do as best as you can.
TCV: Many staff do not live here. One criticism is that decisions are made by people who don't have to deal with the consequences of their actions. How would you address this?
Sharma: I totally agree. I remember when I was appointed to planning commission and the first interview I had with staff. My first question was about where they lived. A majority of them did not live in Fremont. That question made them feel uncomfortable. I think that there's something to be said for people who are responsible for the shape of our city to be encouraged if not really forced to live in the city and become a part of the community. When you become part of the community, you see what the community needs. You want to do it right. I'm not saying that the people who don't live in the city won't make it right, but I think it will enhance their efforts. The city should work to create housing that could be given to the firefighters, to the teachers, or to the city employees. Stanford does it. I've said this publicly many times. You create a situation where you have a city land, develop an affordable housing component for whatever city employees you want to include and tell them that it is restricted to city employees. They can own it, they can live in it, they can do whatever they want with it but they have to sell it to another city employee. Or you have to sell it to another firefighter, or to another teacher. Now of course it's affordable, it's at market price, but that market price is determined by the city employees. Maybe a lot of employees don't live in Fremont now not because they don't want to, but because no one ever asked them to.
TCV: There was a recent decision by the planning commission to approve the construction of a 16,000 square foot house on the hillside. Why was that passed?
Dr. Sharma:: I completely support Measure T. I completely support preserving our hills. I am a very outdoor person. I love those hills. The one thing that you have to remember is that there is a basic property right. "Measure T prevents over development. Development in hills will worsen traffic and air quality problems." If you look, Measure T expressly protects the property right of landowners. "Existing land use will be permitted while out of scale development and subdivision will not." For me, there were two main issues. One is that any landowner has the right to build on their property. How can we best allow that construction to happen? I looked at the staff report and I think that the major issue was the steep slope. I have a copy of Measure T. It says, "No building site in which, in whole or part, may be located on the slope of thirty percent."
TCV: Or above thirty percent.
Dr. Sharma:: Right. Now, up until Doctor Sandhu invited me to go and visit his housing site the week that it was on the planning commission agenda, I want to say on record, I did not know where his land existed, and I have never before seen the parcel. I knew it was somewhere in Fremont and that's all I knew. When I went there, there was no place that I crossed a thirty percent slope. There was a preexisting road and never did I cross the thirty percent slope. I can agree that the street is going through thirty percent elevation. There is nowhere that it is written that the preexisting street cannot be used to build the property.
TCV: So if a street of less than 30% grade is cut through the hillside of over 30% grade you can use the street grade as the test?
Dr. Sharma:: I think there was a preexisting road, a preexisting condition. Measure T is not saying that you cannot access to your property from the preexisting condition even though it passes through whatever slopes are present.
TCV: What if you look at either side of the road and you see that there's a steeper grade on one or both sides of the road?
Dr. Sharma:: We will have to come to a legal agreement on this one and if the agreement says that the condition is included, then that's fine with me. I read these lines and that was the decision that we had to make. You have to remember that four out of five agreed that Doctor Sandhu had tried his best to fulfill all of the Measure T requirements.
These type of problems come to the planning commission all the time. I presume that the staff has looked into all of these possibilities, and that staff has reached a conclusion that it is ready to go to the planning commission to make some sort of decision. If it wasn't fulfilling the Measure T in terms of visibility, I think that the staff should have stopped it at that time, and said that they didn't think that all of the requirements were filled.
TCV: But staff didn't recommend approval. They recommended either approval or non approval.
Dr. Sharma:: They recommend and in this case they said for us to give them the direction. For me, the direction was about what to do with the thirty percent slope issue. I read Measure T and it says that it protects the people's right to build a house. Somewhere it says that Measure T may not apply if it's a liability to the city. If someone is going to sue the city because you are taking away his right to build a house, then many of these things don't apply. Don't take me wrong that I'm trying to build Doctor Sandhu's house or any house that's going to be visible. But I think that you cannot take away someone's basic right. He has a right to build a house. I want him to do everything that is required by Measure T, and the thirty percent slope issue, I just couldn't close my eyes and say that exists there. My good conscience feeling said that this had to move on. I think I'm glad it did, because the lawyers, the city, will now decide whether it can be built or not. I think if you forget about everything, just look at it the way I've put the issue on fast track this season, whichever way it goes. I want to be sure that people know that I have no affiliation - business or personal - with Dr. Sandhu and my decision was strictly based on my opinion without any personal bias.