As part of an ongoing series of interviews with community leaders, we checked in last week with Mary Koberstein, one of two new St. Helena City Councilmembers elected last fall. This board endorsed Koberstein in that election and the electorate agreed, making the relative newcomer and recent planning commissioner the race’s top vote-getter.
Being the top vote-getter gives you a strong political mandate, but it also sets high expectations.
That was the situation Mary Koberstein found herself in when she was sworn into the City Council in December. In her first seven months on the job, faced with a string of contentious land use matters, she’s shown to be the assertive and process-oriented councilmember her supporters wanted.
The Big Picture
A former city planner and land use attorney who moved to St. Helena in 2014, Koberstein prides herself on adhering to the General Plan and zoning standards. Yet she does think that some of her supporters have passionate views on issues like hotels.
We asked her whether she’s had to cast any votes that would disappoint those who supported her in the election. She said she hasn’t had to do so yet, but if necessary she will, while spelling out the factual basis for her decision.
She walked us through her views on a few controversial issues that have come before the council this year: rejecting the Culinary Institute of America’s Pratt Avenue dorm plan, opposing the Chamber of Commerce’s proposed Property Based Improvement District, and rejecting Ladera Vineyards’ application for a tasting room in the old Tamber Bey Vineyards space on Adams Street.
In that latter case, we disagree with her position, but we applaud her for basing her decision on her interpretation of city codes. That’s what we elected her to do, whether we agree with her interpretation or not.
We endorsed Koberstein’s candidacy last October, citing her experience with land use issues and zoning ordinances, her community vision and attention to detail, her advocacy for a comprehensive housing plan, and the benefit of having the fresh perspective of someone who’s new to St. Helena.
On land use, she’s clearly delivered, citing chapter and verse of city code on the CIA dorms and other issues.
Koberstein’s idea of involving more community members and her commitment to detail were in evidence when she pushed to form the Ad Hoc Utility Rate Committee and analyzed the technical details of the city’s water and sewer rates.
Her housing plan hasn’t come together yet, but she promised to make it a priority when the council gives incoming City Manager Mark Prestwich his goals.
As for a fresh perspective, she is part of a bloc on the council that doesn’t take staff’s conclusions for granted and strongly values community input and process. She’s also willing to entertain ideas that have never caught on with the council, like passing an ordinance requiring hotel developers to build their own housing instead of paying the city to do it.
The nexus between hotels and housing is going to be a crucial issue over the next few years, and Koberstein correctly believes that hotel developers, not the city, are in the best position to build housing to offset the impact of their projects.
Koberstein, who has worked on both sides of the developer-government equation, said developers won’t offer to do more than they have to, but if they’re told to build housing, they’ll make it work. You have to ask, she said – or, better yet — require. It’s all part of the negotiations.
When thinking about housing, we need to think about more than just affordable and workforce units, she said. We need to think about Vineyard Valley residents struggling to afford to stay in their homes. In that context, even water and sewer rates become a housing issue.
Koberstein wants the city, not the Chamber, to take the lead in attracting desirable tenants to vacant spaces downtown, such as the old Goodman’s space.
That might involve hiring a consultant who meets with landlords and tenants and figures out how businesses are doing, how much rent they’re paying, what the city could do to help, and develops an action plan to revitalize downtown. She said overhauling the city’s 24-year-old use permit system would be a good start.
We’re hopeful that with a new city manager starting next week, a new Chamber of Commerce president arriving soon, and the leadership of Koberstein and other councilmembers, St. Helena can move beyond the unhelpfully binary pro-business/anti-business debate that’s failed to enhance our economy or our quality of life.
Like Councilmember Paul Dohring, with whom we met for our July 6 editorial, Koberstein is providing the kind of leadership that St. Helena needs.
Note: Editorial board member Bonnie Long chaired the Ad Hoc Utility Rate Committee.