MILPITAS — Though Milpitas may live in the shadow of its glitzier, more well-known Silicon Valley neighbors to the west, its city council and mayor has attracted its own share of attention in the South Bay for raucous meetings that have at times devolved into shouting and personal attacks.
It’s time for the grown ups to lead the way, say candidates who are vying for the city’s top job.
In the running are three city councilmembers, Karina Dominguez, Anthony Phan and Carmen Montano. The winner will head a city of 80,000 with a roughly $200 million budget that is trying to establish itself as an alternative and more affordable option for the valley’s technology companies to set up shop. It’s also facing a growing homeless and housing crisis, causing consternation from residents who are pushing city leaders to adopt stricter and more robust policies.
Mayor Rich Tran dropped out of the race for a council seat in August after terming out this November, though he plans to try to regain his top seat in 2024 after a mandated two-year cooling off period.
“We need to change the culture inside City Hall,” said Dominguez, a vocal critic of Tran and who has worked previously in administrative roles at various nonprofits. “(We need) a mayor that is ethical, brings accountability and that is respectful.”
Phan, who also has been critical of Tran and at times aligns himself with Dominguez on the council, made similar remarks. “A lot of times it gets personal,” he said about the environment within City Hall. “I want to change that. I was to restore morale.”
Phan, who runs a land use consultancy company, recently made headlines when it was revealed he’d hired his 14-year-old cousin to be his campaign treasurer back in 2016, leading a state watchdog group to fine him thousands of dollars. He also got into deep water after the District Attorney’s office warned him about taking Montano’s full name for a campaign website domain and redirecting it to his own.
Even Montano, a reliable ally of Tran and a longtime school teacher, made clear that decorum will be a priority if she’s elected. “We’re here to do the people’s business,” she said. “Without any drama and any side shows.”
Aside from cultural changes, top of mind for the candidates is what to do about homelessness and a lack of affordable housing — issues which until recently the city was largely insulated from, unlike the rest of the South Bay. This month, councilmembers narrowly passed an ordinance in a 3-2 vote that restricts people from setting up tents and sleeping in public spaces during daylight hours.
Dominguez and Phan, who oppose the new law, claim that it will do little to help the roughly 120 homeless people in the city and have called for more systemic changes like increased collaboration with Santa Clara County housing officials. In earlier comments, Dominguez said the rule “reminds” her of Nazis, while Phan said he doesn’t “see how it is a solution at all.” Montano raised the importance of public “right-of-way” spaces and said she’s open to tweaking the ordinance if issues come up. She’s also called for more resources for the homeless population, including a navigation center and a safe parking program.
Just weeks before the ordinance passed, Milpitas parents with children in the city’s school district were asked to find extra room in their homes to help accommodate teachers since many have left the area to find more affordable options with their comparatively low salaries. Dominguez, Phan and Montano agreed that the situation calls for a housing project specifically geared towards the city’s teachers and other lower income public sector workers.
Each councilmember, meanwhile, has carved out their own slice of the endorsement cake.
Montano has been able to pick up the support of the city’s current powerbrokers, including the current mayor, Councilmember Evelyn Chua, along with officials like District 3 County Supervisor Otto Lee. She’s also got the thumbs up from both the police and fire unions.
Phan has angled his endorsements to be more regional, with Assembly members Alex Lee and Mike Fond giving their support, along with former Milpitas Mayors Jose Esteves, Bob Livengood and Henry Chang Manayan.
The area’s more progressive bloc is behind Dominguez, including District 4 County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, the Santa Clara Young Democrats, Democratic Activist for Women Now and South Bay Labor.
Other candidates include local businessmen Franco Perez and Ola Hassan, along with retired geologist Voltaire Montemayor, who’s trying for his fourth time for the mayor’s seat. Perez and Hassan also spoke on the importance of building affordable housing for the city. Montemayor did not respond to an interview request.
With both Dominguez and Montano’s terms expiring this November, a swath of candidates are trying to fill their seats. They include Planning Commissioner Dipak Awasthi, attorney Garry Barbadillo, school board member Michael Tsai, Vector Fabrication Vice President Isaac Stringer, former Planning Commissioner Demetress Morris, entrepreneur Hon Lien and Chamber of Commerce board member Juliette Gomez.