A Critical Change in Leadership Faces San Mateo County’s Planning Agency

Advocates say C/CAG has historically funded automobile infrastructure to the detriment of the environment and the health of San Mateo County residents. Photo: San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

As San Mateo County’s congestion management agency, the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG), is supposed to be responsible for reducing auto congestion. It also controls the purse strings on transportation projects, doling out millions of dollars in state and federal grants to the region’s 20 cities, whose appointed representatives make up the agency’s governing board.

“It started primarily as a transportation planning agency and to a large extent it still is,” said Joseph Kott, a former transportation planning manager at C/CAG who is now a consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University.

The man at the helm of the agency for the last 17 years, Richard Napier – an engineer who is a former Sunnyvale mayor — is now retiring. As executive director, he gained a reputation as a skilled politician whose biggest accomplishment was building consensus among his member cities’ parochial interests.

“Richard has been a combination of a traditionalist and a cautious innovator. A traditionalist in the sense that he’s convinced that the automobile is and will remain dominant in our society,” said Kott.

Some of those innovations include programs Napier is proud to talk about: a transit-oriented development incentive fund and a “green streets and parking lot” program. The agency also oversees the county’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), which makes recommendations on funding.

“He’s a super administrator and really made C/CAG what it is today,” said Sue Lembert, a former San Mateo mayor who sat on the C/CAG Board for four years and writes a weekly column for the San Mateo Daily News. “It wasn’t just a job for him.”

While no one doubts he was dedicated to his work and successful in attracting money, more than a dozen bicycle and pedestrian advocates interviewed by Streetsblog — some of whom would not go on the record — said Napier’s auto-oriented thinking on transportation would be a welcome departure.

Gladwyn d’Souza, a pedestrian advocate who sits on the Belmont Planning Commission and is one of the agency’s fiercest critics, said C/CAG’s history of primarily funding road and highway projects has meant bigger, wider roads in San Mateo County, bringing more congestion instead of alleviating it.

“If anything, they’re in the business of building parking lots,” d’Souza said. “The freeway ends up functioning as a parking lot at a critical time when people need to use it. It’s business as usual and that’s what Rich Napier was really good at. “

For his part, Napier has no qualms talking about his love of the automobile.

“It’s easy for people to gang up on the automobile,” he told Streetsblog, speaking on his cell phone from an automobile. “It really is. But what I would suggest to that criticism is my record speaks to supporting the automobile, and transit, and all that. Where a lot of people are focused on transit as the single solution, I just don’t see it that way.”

Short Recruitment Window Raises Alarm

Advocates and others interviewed for this story said they were alarmed by the short two-week window the agency opened to accept applications for Napier’s replacement. They said the next executive director of the agency should be a visionary leader on sustainable transportation issues, and that a wider recruitment effort is needed. The 64-year-old Napier is scheduled to retire December 1. Open recruitment began October 12 and closes at 5 p.m. this Friday.

“I was shocked,” said Kott. “There are a lot of possible venues in which people can be recruited, and it seems to me it should be a wide net.”

Kirsten Keith, the Menlo Park mayor who sits on the C/CAG Board, said there was a consensus that the replacement should be someone local.

“It’s not a national search because we felt that we wanted somebody from the nine Bay Area counties that knows this area,” she said.

Steve Schmidt, a former Menlo Park mayor who serves as the BPAC’s vice chair, doesn’t doubt there are good candidates from the Bay Area, but he too believes the search should cast a wide net.

“I wouldn’t say that the Bay Area should have a corner on the candidates, because there are other places, I think, that are ahead of us, and it wouldn’t be bad to have somebody with that experience working here,” he said.

Carlos Romero, an East Palo Alto City Council member who sits on the C/CAG Board and is a housing development and land use consultant, agreed with advocates that the next executive director of the agency should be a visionary.

“I would really like to see someone who has a broad perspective on transportation, sustainability, the integration of land use and housing into that, because I think that’s how we get to a more livable Bay Area, a more sustainable Bay Area,” he said.