2016 Emeryville City Council Candidate Questionnaire: John Van Geffen

Published On September 12, 2016 | By Rob Arias | 2016-Candidate Questionnaires, Election Coverage, Local Government, News & Commentary, Politics

This 2016 Emeryville City Council election will see six candidates vying for three available seats in what could see a shift in city priorities. The E’ville Eye distributed twenty questions covering a gamut of relevant topics in our city to each candidate. Our hope is to help our readers better understand the priorities of each candidate and see where they align with your own. Candidate Questionnaires will be published daily over the next week in the order they will appear on the ballot which is determined randomly by our Secretary of State (John Van Geffen, Louise Engel, Christian Patz, Brynnda Collins, Ally Medina & John Bauters). Candidates have been instructed to provide answers no longer than 250 words.

Our first questionnaire is from John Van Geffen. Van Geffen is a relative newcomer to the Emeryville political scene but has planted roots in our city by purchasing a home along with his wife. An attorney by trade, Van Geffen’s focus is helping Emeryville become a better city to raise his young daughter “I want to focus my energy on building my community and making it the best it can be for raising a family.”


John T. Van Geffen: Attorney/Father/Volunteer

1). Please state your party affiliation (i.e. Democratic, Green Party, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, etc.) and please list any campaign donations you’ve received or have been pledged by PACs.
100% self funded Democratic.

2). How long have you lived in Emeryville, what has your involvement been with the city thus far and what compelled you to run for council?
I have lived in the Bay Area since 2003 and my wife and I moved to Emeryville in the Fall of 2014.

As a new father and first time home owner, I felt driven to learn about my adopted city, to put down roots in the community and find a way of getting involved that would ensure my voice and values are heard.

I am running for city council so I can push the council’s agenda towards putting the needs of Emeryville residents and small businesses ahead of politics, industry groups and developers.

As for my values, I want to see a city council that fights to keep its residents through renter protections and incentives for homeownership. I want to stop special interest groups from forcing regional issues on a small town at the expense of local small businesses. I want to help build and promote a community zeitgeist by bringing our city’s citizens, businesses and community groups together to share ideas, collaborate on community projects and celebrate their common bond, Emeryville.

3). What is your professional background and explain how this is applicable to local government.
I graduated from the Santa Clara School of Law and have been handling regulatory compliance matters, negotiating business transactions and litigating in the Bay Area since 2006. I’m familiar with how laws, ordinances and regulations intertwine to create a societal framework.

In addition to my legal practice, in 2009 I started and ran a small business specializing in helping Oakland and San Francisco companies save money by hiring locally and taking advantage of Enterprise Zone tax credits. Unfortunately, I learned how easily Government can stifle small business with over regulation when Gov. Brown gutted the tax credit program and I had to close shop in 2013.

On top of my business and legal background, I also volunteer with several non-profit organizations, including legal industry groups and the Oakland Aviation Museum where I have been a trustee on the Board of Directors since 2011 handling the museum’s legal issues as they arise.

All of my experiences helping companies comply with regulations, litigating breach of contract actions for clients, and starting my own business has turned me into a committed problem solver.

Today, my newly found roles as father and homeowner simply refocused me and the types of problems I want to solve. I want to focus my energy on building my community and making it the best it can be for raising a family.

4). List your top-5 priorities in order, explain why and list one specific thing you intend to accomplish in your four year term should you be elected.

  1. Put Renter Protections in place
  2. Advocate and promote Small Business
  3. Community development
  4. Public Safety
  5. Enhancing the Emery School District

My goal and my promise to voters is to advocate for creating a sense of community that is unique and specific to Emeryville. First I will put Renter Protections in place to slow the loss of long time residents. While this should have already been done long ago, we can act quickly by using the Berkeley and Oakland ordinances as templates.

Our local businesses have gone long enough without a voice on the city council. If the council doesn’t act soon to protect small business, it will be too late; Emeryville’s privately owned businesses will leave and Emeryville will just be box retail stores. I will reopen the discussion on Emeryville taking a regional approach to business regulation–e.g., MWO and FWW.

Emeryville has dozens of projects currently underway or undergoing permitting. Community development is not something to “solve”, rather it is our strategy for building an Emeryville residents love. I will advocate for homeownership, bicycle paths, public parks, and low-density construction.

As for safety and our city’s schools, we need to give Police Chief Tejada time to implement her new community policing initiative before the city council starts to interfere. The same goes for the brand new ECCL. We should give the Emery School Board an opportunity to work through the initial growing pains of opening a new school before putting too many “cooks in the kitchen”.

5). You hear people’s desires for a “vibrant community” thrown out a lot in political discussions. What does a vibrant community mean to you?
To me “vibrant community” means a combination of three things: (1) a mixed citizenship from every culture and walk of life; (2) a large network of local businesses invested in the community; and (3) neighborhood events that bring Emeryville’s citizens, businesses and community groups together to share ideas, collaborate on community projects and celebrate their common bond, Emeryville.

There are some great examples out there including, family movie night at the ECCl, Off the Grid foodie events at the Public Market, and National Night Out. But there is still plenty of room to enhance our vibrant community by cultivating art walks, sponsoring athletic events, permitting block parties, etc.

I want the council to take a more active role in supporting and incentivizing local businesses. If elected I will be a voice for local business in city government and will work to network local businesses, Emeryville residents and community groups to build on our “vibrant community” by promoting business participation in community charities and events. To bring community members and local businesses to the table, I will seek to reopen the discussion on the MWO and FWW, analyse the impact these ordinances are having on local business, seek public comment, and ask the serious question of whether Emeryville’s minimum wage hikes needs to be throttled back to match Berkeley and/or Oakland in order to stop small businesses from leaving Emeryville.

6). Will you gather community input outside of the dais and if so, how (social media, your own blog, guest posts on The E’ville Eye)? Would you be supportive of a neighborhood council to better understand the perspectives of the different neighborhoods and demographics of our city that don’t always have time to attend council meetings?
Absolutely. Life is hectic with countless competing priorities and Emeryville residents generally do not have the time to attend city council meetings. I would be open to constructive input from any source that allows the citizenship to have their voice heard, whether it be Twitter, The E’ville Eye, Facebook or other platforms.

Plus, if I’m taking input from social media sources I can remind my fellow residents who are new to the community to update their location to Emeryville and foster local pride.

Regarding your question about ‘neighborhood councils’, I definitely want to foster informal means for residents to be heard. That said, I think it would be difficult to divide up Emeryville’s 1.2 square miles into individual neighborhood councils where the councils’ members are vocal enough to ensure that each neighborhood has an equal voice. But, I’m willing to try.

7). What do you think the most important outcome of the Sherwin Williams project is for our city (i.e., the inclusion of ownership housing, maximizing the percentage of “affordable” units, Parking & Traffic Mitigation, etc.)?
I had to hastily rewrite this response because The E’ville Eye reported on PARC’s success in negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with Lennar Corp. (Sherwin-William’s Developer) just as I was about to submit these answers. Assuming that Lennar upholds its side of the negotiation and commits (in writing) to include those benefits that the community fought so hard for in its Preliminary Development Plan, I fully support PARC’s efforts.

Ideally, we want development in Emeryville that enhances the entire community–e.g., sets aside walking/bike paths and commercial space for small business, creates public park space, mitigates congestion, provides opportunity for homeownership and affordable units, etc.

Before today’s news about the CBA, I believed that the size and impact of this development on all of Emeryville (not just the Park Ave. Dist.) made lowered density and traffic mitigation the crucial outcome since any backups starting around 40th and Hollis will quickly spread throughout Emeryville leading to citywide gridlock. Now that Lennar has tentatively agreed to attempt a 30% reduction in traffic through shuttle service and various mitigations, I believe the community and city council should now focus on pressuring Sherwin-Williams to commit to set ownership housing levels.

As I addressed above, a “vibrant community” requires residents who feel connected and committed to their city which requires a sense of permanence. We can foster this through incentivizing new homeownership and putting renter protections in place to keep long-term residents from getting priced out of their homes

8). The ECCL finally opened its doors after being in the works for more than a decade. Would you (theoretically) have any reservations sending your children to a K-12 school? Will you fight to retain Anna Yates Elementary as part of the EUSD?
Growing up, I was lucky enough to walk to K-12 and I am happy that my one year old daughter will have the same opportunity when she starts school at the ECCL.

After I went to public school for kindergarten and grade school, my parents put me in a parochial school that had K-12 on the same grounds but with each school in a different building(–i.e., K, 1-5, 6-8, 9-12). While I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I acknowledge and understand that many parents do not want their 6-yr olds mingling with 17-yr olds for fear of bullying, peer pressure, academic degradation from getting “lost in the crowd”, etc. But my past experiences tell me there are ways to minimize these risks should they materialize–i.e., different grades using different entrances, tiered class and lunch schedules, etc.

As for the closing of Anna Yates Elementary which sits East of San Pablo Avenue, the great majority of our fellow Emeryville residents live West of San Pablo Avenue. I believe ensuring our children’s safety is paramount and that includes keeping them from having to cross our City’s busiest streets–e.g., San Pablo and 40th, on their way to and from school.

9). Can you reference any conversations you’ve had with the owners of any non-publicly subsidized businesses in our city and do you get the sense that they’re thriving or struggling and what their sentiment toward operating in our city is?
The two big issues at the top of everyone’s mind right now are the Minimum Wage Ordinance (MWO) that was enacted last year and the Fair Work Week (FWW) or predictable workers schedule currently being considered by the council.

While I believe in the ideals of earning a livable wage and having reasonable certainty in work schedules, I think these are rights that every Californian should have and for the city council to enact such legislation ahead of our neighboring towns puts our businesses at a distinct disadvantage. The council is forcing Emeryville businesses to take risks and accept burdens that could have been easily mitigated, if not avoided altogether, by taking a regional approach instep with Berkeley and/or Oakland. I am pledging my willingness to reach out to other cities to create a regional approach.

With the loss of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce last year, small business no longer has the voice on the council it once did. To many, it feels like the current council is succumbing to ideological pressures from labor groups to help non-Emeryville residents at the expense of Emeryville businesses. Again, while the council’s intentions are good, the result will be a serious threat to Emeryville’s privately owned restaurants, bars, clothing stores, etc., effectively gutting our vibrant community, expediting the growth of big box chain stores, and “gentrifying” our community’s businesses.

10). Is retaining and in fact growing our base of small businesses important to you and what will you commit to doing to help small businesses thrive in our city if elected?
If elected, there are two things I would champion from the very outset to help small business in Emeryville:

First, I would seek to reopen the discussion on the MWO and FWW, analyse the impact these ordinances are having on local business, seek public comment, and ask the serious question of whether Emeryville’s minimum wage hikes needs to be throttled back to match Berkeley and/or Oakland in order to stop small businesses from leaving Emeryville.

Second, with the loss of Emeryville’s Chamber of Commerce, I want the council to take a more active role in supporting and incentivizing local businesses. If elected I will be a voice for local business in city government. I pledge to regularly meet with local business owners who cannot attend every city council meeting to ensure their concerns are addressed. I believe networking local businesses, Emeryville residents and community groups builds a “vibrant community” by promoting business participation in community charities and events, and creates a built-in support network.

11). Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a $15 minimum wage into state law that includes gradual increases and “off-ramps” in the event of economic consequences. If the impacts of our local MWO are proven to have the negative impacts that were predicted by business, would you be willing to “pause” ours and defer to the state model? Do you see the advantage of a regional approach to passing economic policies?
As mentioned above, I absolutely believe that if studies show the MWO is having a negative impact on local business, the MWO needs to be frozen at its current rate until Berkeley and/or Oakland catch up.

To be clear, I do not support Emeryville cutting wages or waiting for the entire state of California to catch up. I only want regional protections put in place so Emeryville can avoid having an unfriendly atmosphere for local businesses.

If small businesses need to cut their costs to stay competitive then the city council needs to acknowledge it and be responsive.

12). Our current council is looking to implement a scheduling & employment ordinance being referred to as “Fair Work Week”. Do you support this ordinance? Do you foresee any unintended consequences that could come from this?
I believe that ALL Californians should have a reasonable certainty in their future schedules. Having a family means being there to support them and you can’t do that with last minute schedule changes. But, rights that should be afforded to all Californians should be provided by the California State Legislature, or Alameda County at the very least. This is not an issue that the Emeryville City Council should be addressing.

Much of the literature pushing the FWW cites an ACCE study of 110 “frontline Emeryville employees”. What special interest groups and FWW proponents fail to address is that nearly none of these individuals actually live in Emeryville. In short, the proposed ordinance is designed to help people who live outside of Emeryville at the expense of Emeryville businesses.

There are several issues that directly affect Emeryville Citizens that the city council should be prioritizing over state-wide, if not country-wide, issues. One easy example, 70% of Emeryville residents are renters. Rent controls should have been addressed years ago, but, unlike Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, renter protections have not been a priority of the city council.

Regardless, the current council has decided that workers schedules need to be addressed immediately and they intend to push their agenda before the November election.

13). Do you feel being the “model city” for new legislation by labor groups puts our businesses at a competitive disadvantage? Do you have any concerns that businesses will choose neighboring cities instead of settling in Emeryville or of our city developing the stigma of being labeled “Anti-Business”?
Absolutely. I do not like hearing that my city is being labeled as a test “guinea pig” by national news sources curious to see what will happen.

When entrepreneurs research where to start a new business, they determine where their customers are located and calculate the costs associated with opening shop in potential locations. Simply put, if the city council makes it more expensive to do business in Emeryville than it is two blocks away in Oakland or Berkeley, our city is going to lose its independent coffee shops, family owned restaurants and local culture.

Unfortunately, the current city council, and several of my fellow candidates, are pushing ordinances that are supported by labor groups at the expense of Emeryville’s small businesses just so they can build their own personal political capital.

14). I think a lot of us would like some form of “Rent Control” but achieving this in actuality is complicated and limited. How can we maintain affordability in our city and protect existing residents from getting priced out?
I believe anyone who rents out two or more units is running a business and they should understand that some forms of regulation are not just expected, but are needed in the Bay Area economy. Any potential “complications” can easily be lessened by simply following the roadmaps given to us by Berkeley and Oakland (San Francisco’s tenant laws are overly complicated and Emeryville’s economy does not require that level of red tape).

Oakland’s rent adjustment program (setting allowable rent increases to the regional Consumer Price Index (CPI)) and Berkeley’s notice requirements are straightforward measures that would not be difficult to put in place.

One issue that needs to be explored through community comment is how we want renter protections to be enforced-i.e., do we want to put the burden on renters to contest a rent hikes, wrongful evictions, etc., or do we want to put the burden on landlords to get permission from the city before taking certain actions? Either way we go will put additional costs and burdens on the city so it should be put up for public discussion.

15). Which intersections do you think deserve the most attention in regards to Traffic Mitigation and Bike/Ped safety?
We need to keep Emeryville walkable for families and safe for green commuters. Ideally, I would like to see the bulk of car traffic kept to major roadways–i.e., 580, Powell, San Pablo, and 40th, and have our city’s back roads kept open for community use–e.g., Emery Go-Round, bicycles and emergency vehicles.

As this affects the entire town, I want open discussion from the community on how to handle Shellmound and Hollis because these are our city’s backbone roads that locals use to get around and where many of our local businesses are located.

16). Emeryville is consistently listed as one of the statistically most violent cities in the Bay Area and crime in our city is on the rise (Much of this crime is petty theft attributed to our shopping centers and auto burglaries because of this and our base of hotels). In terms of public safety, what resources or legislation will you be supportive of to allow the EPD to do their best job keeping our residents safe?
I fully support Chief Tejada’s ‘see something, say something’ community policing initiative and believe the council should ensure PD involvement in community events to keep lines of communication open with the public.

I want the residents of Emeryville to know their local officers by name and I want to ensure the PD has the resources necessary to reach out to the community when there is an identifiable problem–e.g., community liaisons, websites/mobile apps where residents can report questionable activities, press releases, etc.

As to how we specifically address Emeryville’s crime statistics, I will leave that answer to Police Chief Tejada. With that disclaimer out, I believe body cameras protect both the officer and the suspect. I believe that targeting the most active criminal elements and obtaining restraining orders gives the PD necessary tools to keep crime out of our neighborhood. I believe that if a commercial property has extensive criminal activity then they should be required to install surveillance equipment to protect their customers and support the PD in doing their job.

17). Homelessness is a regional and very complex issue. Encampments continue to pit neighbors against the unhoused and create quality of life issues for residents. We know “kicking them out” doesn’t solve anything … but neither does the status quo. What solutions are you most supportive of and can you commit to working regionally with neighboring cities to help alleviate this humanitarian crisis?
There are absolutely no easy answers to this question and anyone suggesting they have a “fix” is selling you snake oil. The cost of living is going up, public mental health funding is nearly non-existent, Federal and State resources for addressing homelessness continue to shrink…

Homelessness needs to be addressed regionally with cross-boundary task forces mandated to work with the community and help assess what resources are available (shelters, health services, non-profits, etc.) and how best to apply them.

In the long term, I want Emeryville’s Housing Committee and Planning Commission to continue working with developers to ensure that every new construction project includes space clearly set aside for ‘affordable housing’. We cannot simply ‘end’ homelessness, but we can plan our cities to include space for the less fortunate.

In the short term, I want to work with the Emeryville PD and give them the resources they need to protect our residents before trying to solve a national and region-wide problem.

18). We’ve often advocated for a “resident first” approach to policymaking meaning resident considerations should come before outside special interest groups (such as Oakland-based labor organizations) or at least negative impacts on residents should be divulged and communicated. Do you agree or disagree with this and why?
I wholeheartedly agree. I believe that “leading by example” is great in theory, but Emeryville’s small size means the effects of this policy also mean we will be “leading from behind”.

Emeryville can still lead by example by endorsing and supporting regional approaches to Statewide and National problems instead of passing local ordinances that help non-Emeryville residents at the expense of Emeryville resources and incentivize local business to close or move across city borders.

19). Civic participation and community spirit in Emeryville is sadly lacking. Do you have any ideas to further community building in our town? Do you think resident retention and ownership opportunities are important components to this equation?
This is precisely why I believe the city council should prioritize local issues like renter protections and homeownership over regional/national matters like the MWO and the FWW. If we allow rents to continue to rise unchecked and put unfair burdens on local businesses we will continue to see large resident turnover and loss of local small businesses resulting in Emeryville’s sense of self never being realized.

Bringing families and property owners to Emeryville leads to a feeling of permanence and encourages residents to be more active in the community. While additional single family units would be ideal, Emeryville’s size and location in the Bay Area makes high density development a priority for many. I would like to see the city council put an emphasis on permitting the construction of privately owned condos/townhomes/etc. over apartment complexes.

20). A huge focus of our site is civic transparency and oversight. We’re in a unique position to facilitate communication with our residents as Emeryville’s largest media outlet with an estimated quarter of the population visiting our site regularly (and growing every year). Can we get your guarantee that you’ll be responsive to our inquiries even in the event we disagree on something?
Absolutely. I believe open communication between government officials and the community is even more important when there is disagreement over an issue. I remember taking a negotiation/mediation class in law school and there was a running joke that the way to tell if two parties have come to a good compromise is if neither party is happy. Again, it was a joke, but there’s still a seed of truth in there. At the end of the day, my goal and my promise to voters is when there is a divisive issue before the board, I am going to vote to support Emeryville’s residents and businesses over politics, special interest and developers, and I will accept input from any source.

Read more about John’s platform on his website →

You can also read John’s San Leandro Talk questionnaire →

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About The Author

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who moved to Emeryville in 2003. A new parent in the community, he can often be seen walking his French Bulldog rescue "Fiona" around his Park Avenue District neighborhood, traversing the greenway on his bike or enjoying his favorite Emeryville small businesses. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

2 Responses to 2016 Emeryville City Council Candidate Questionnaire: John Van Geffen

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like a great candidate for Gentryville! Love what he says about rent control & helping small business.

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