Eight questions for eight candidates: Zachary Courser
A government professor at Claremont McKenna College, Zachary Courser has also been a member of the Traffic and Transportation Commission since 2014, where he spearheaded an effort to look into creating a quiet zone on railroads through Claremont.
Why are you running for city council?
The first thing has to do with my experience working as a commissioner on the Traffic and Transportation Commission. I learned a lot about local government in California. I’ve learned a lot about the city of Claremont and how it works, and seen some places where it really could be improved. I want to take that experience on TTC and bring it to the council.
Another is more of a personal reason, and that is my disappointment in the 2016 election. It made me feel that a way to start improving our politics begins at the local level, and that I should be doing more to contribute my experience to the community and to this city.
Do you think the city should issue an appeal in its effort to take over the water system?
As things stand, we ought to appeal and continue for a couple of reasons. But I want to clarify exactly what I mean—I think we are obliged to continue this process because I think the vote was clear. Also, we’re committed in the sense that if we lose, we’re on the hook for the legal fees for Golden State Water. And considering that downside, I think we should continue.
However, after reading the judge’s decision, I was not pleased to see his interpretation of the city’s legal representation. I got an impression from him that the council and the city needed to take a more hands-on approach on this sequestration. And part of the reason I’m running is because I think the council could use more of that hands-on approach that gets into the details about public policy—that pushes to do things that aren’t just the minimum or to be expected but a little more—particularly when you enter into really complex and potentially financially difficult questions for the city.
Last year, the city council rejected a proposal by the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority to install a bridge across Indian Hill Boulevard for the upcoming Gold Line rail. Do you agree with their decision?
The Traffic and Transportation Commission was not consulted on this matter. I anticipated having the opportunity to look into the issue as a commissioner, to take citizen input and understand how people felt about this question. We didn’t get the chance.
I was told by staff that the reason for that was they had a short timeline for making the decision, and I didn’t find that acceptable. I felt that if it was truly too short of a timeline, they should have asked for more time. I found that to be an excuse, and felt that the commission system is not working like it should.
I don’t think the council had full input from this commission process. And I also felt that residents not only didn’t have a chance to talk about it, I don’t think they even knew what was going on. It happened so quickly, I don’t know if there was enough discussion and debate.
Right now the Gold Line is at what is called a “30 percent development plan,” where there’s still opportunities for communities to weigh in and talk about small changes to the overall plans. I’m not entirely sure if Gold Line would be open or receptive at this point in asking for a change, but I think it’s appropriate and overdue that citizens have the opportunity to at least hear the issues and decide, because it’s going to affect the future of Claremont in some very real ways. It will be hard to undo that decision later once the Gold Line is installed.
Recently, there has been some frustration about the role commissions play when vetting a project. Do you think commissions hold as much power as they should in the decision-making process?
I wouldn’t put the question in terms of power, but I would say that as a commissioner, I have felt some frustrations over being heard by the city staff and having a strong and meaningful connection, or even line of communication, with the council. I accepted the challenge and I tried to work within it.
I have worked particularly on one issue involving train noise. That was not an easy road in the sense that I had to disagree with some people on staff. I had to push hard in certain directions to make not my voice heard, but citizens’ voices heard. There were lots of people showing up to our commission meetings on the question of train noise, when I had been trying to get the attention of staff beforehand.
If I was elected to the city council, I would concentrate on trying to make the council-commission system work better by having more open lines of communication, and by trying to build better expectations and relationships between commissioners in terms of training, expectations and process.
Do you think Claremont is becoming too commercialized, that it’s losing its small-town feel?
When I was a student here in the ‘90s, I was here before the development across Indian Hill Boulevard. I think that was a great change for Claremont. I think the look of it, the feel of it, is just right. However, I do think that we could remember and recognize our special and unique character and do more—in terms of planning and development—to have that reflected so it’s not lost. I know for me and for many other people, that’s what makes Claremont a special and unique place.
Speaking as a member of the CMC faculty, do you think the relationship between town and gown is fractured?
I don’t know if I would call it a fracture as much as it may be something of a vacuum. I’m not running to represent the Colleges, but I do have a perspective as an alumnus of CMC and as someone who now teaches in Claremont. I have a really good sense of what’s happening with the gown and what’s happening in the town. When questions of the Colleges come before the council, I oftentimes would have to recuse myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be someone who helps build and fill that vacuum with more communication.
I don’t know that it’s fractured, but I do think it could be improved. I think there are tremendous resources in the Village and throughout Claremont for students in terms of lifestyle, volunteering and thinking about a way they can give back to the community. Claremont is a wonderful and welcoming place for them. In terms of faculty, a lot of us live here and have a lot invested in this community. I’m ready to help bridge that gap in finding ways that the city and the Colleges can work more constructively and more deeply together. I think you can’t have Claremont without the Colleges.
Do you think the city should do more in the realm of sustainability and, if so, can you offer some examples?
There’s always room for improvement, and I think this is one way in which citizens really have led and continue to lead. I think there’s a lot that the council can learn from groups like Sustainable Claremont. I’ve seen Sustainable Claremont give the council really good input on how we locally can improve the way in which we can be a more sustainable place.
Last night there was a very complex presentation about the Shot-Hole Borer, and one of the interesting ideas brought up was a way in which you could take essentially waste from contaminated trees and turn it into a useable mulch. That’s something that was brought by citizens. I think continuing to encourage and to open those lines of communication between the council and citizens on how we can improve our sustainability is essential.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about Claremont?
I would change voter turnout. One disappointment that I’ve had about Claremont politics—and another reason why I decided to run—is the last council election was cancelled, and the council election before that had a turnout of 18 percent. I would love to wave a magic wand to get more people interested in returning their ballots and more involved in thinking about Claremont politics. In my small way in this particular election, I would like to contribute to that turnout in trying to connect citizens with what’s happening politically.