Cupertino council candidates share ideas on housing, schools at lengthy forum

The five candidates seeking two seats on the Cupertino City Council squared off at a generally amicable forum Wednesday afternoon.

Steven Scharf, Kitty Moore, Hung Wei, J.R. Fruen, and Charlene Lee all participated in the event.

Organized by Cupertino Rotary and League of Women Voters Cupertino-Sunnyvale, Tracey Edwards, Co-President of LWVCS moderated.

Over its more than 90 minutes, the event was mostly free of fireworks despite outbursts from candidate Charlene Lee. Each of the candidates got a chance to respond to a large number of questions, covering housing, education, and more.

Housing affordability and the role of development

Cupertino’s now infamous reputation in the region on housing policy was a major point of discussion during the forum.

Incumbent Mayor Steven Scharf defended his work and the current council, directing blame instead at developers and the state. Scharf repeatedly honed in on the need for increased state funding for affordable housing. Despite calling for more state funding, Scharf pushed back aggressively on potential state laws to increase density.

“We need to watch out for laws being promoted by real estate interests that would destroy single family neighborhoods,” Scharf said in response to a question about duplexes and fourplexes, calling them a promoted effort of Wall Street investors.

J.R. Fruen, a lawyer and founder of community group Cupertino for All, debated that claim.

“I live in a duplex, they’re not scary and they are not a Wall Street investment vehicle,” Fruen said.

All of the candidates, including Planning Commission Chair Kitty Moore and former School Board Member Hung Wei, also discussed their support for Accessory Dwelling Units in the city. Wei noted their potential role in support intergenerational living in the community.

Homelessness in Cupertino

Encampments along Wolfe Road and the I-280 onramps, set to be cleared out soon, also elicited interesting viewpoints.

Lee, as she did throughout the forum, said billionaires would help fund homeless facilities in South San Jose. Scharf praised Cupertino City Manager Deb Feng’s work on the issue, while Fruen noted the difficulty of the situation.

Wei noted that neighboring cities have long had homeless problems, and that Cupertino needs to learn from their work. She pointed to collaborative work with local non-profits, and resources at the city and county.

Vallco, Westport, and lessons learned

The redevelopment of Vallco mall and recent approval of the Westport project to replace the Oaks shopping center also featured. All candidates promised to make public the litigation costs around Vallco within 60 days of their swearing in.

Wei leaned heavily on her overarching messaging of the need for community engagement and smart collaboration. She also repeatedly honed in on the Westport development’s lack of benefits for De Anza College across the street.

Moore lauded the Westport plan, despite voting against its most recent iteration at the Planning Commission.

“Westport is an amazing project for the community,” said Moore, who helped lead the failed litigation against Vallco redevelopment plans.

Scharf took a different tack, decrying past leaders and what he called “developer-controlled councilmembers.” Regarding Westport, the Mayor said the project came out of extensive negotiations.

“I think we can all live with that,” Scharf said.

Funding for Cupertino’s schools

Cupertino Union’s financial woes and declining enrollment also got airtime during the Zoom-based forum.

Moore and Scharf highlighted their support for the so-called “Berkeley Plan.” That approach would change school parcel taxes to vary based on property square footage rather than per unit.

Fruen pushed back on that approach wondering why residents should tax themselves further, when development could ease the burden.

“Building more housing broadens the tax base,” Fruen said.

As a long-time Fremont Union School Board member, Wei also expressed doubts about Scharf and Moore’s approach. Instead, Wei focused on the need for better communication with parents about the reality of likely consolidations to come.

Little mention of COVID

Despite the ongoing economic pain and life disruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic got surprisingly little discussion.

Scharf, as the city’s incumbent mayor, lauded the city’s response.

“We took COVID-19 serious when the county failed to do so,” Scharf said, though it wasn’t apparent how he disagreed with the county’s nationally lauded approach.

Scharf and Moore also pointed at recent changes to banner fees as evidence of support for small businesses.

Fruen and Wei meanwhile pushed for greater outreach to local small businesses. Wei highlighted the actions by other city councils to cap delivery fees on apps like DoorDash and GrubHub. Fruen called on the city to take more direction action.

“We shouldn’t be waiting around for federal government or state to act to help our small businesses,” Fruen said.

Next forums for sharing ideas

The five candidates are set to participate in two more forums before the November election. One, organized by the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce, is October 7 from 6 to 7 p.m. A second, organized again by the League of Women Voters is October 12 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.