Claremont city council candidate Zach Courser
Zach Courser wants to bring his know-how in public policy and local government to the Claremont city council.
A Claremont McKenna College professor who specializes in government and public policy, Mr. Courser is running for city council for a second time, and has big ideas on what he can bring to the City of Trees. He is the current chair of the Traffic and Transportation Commission, and is also on the board of Claremont Heritage.
Mr. Courser, who is originally from the Pacific Northwest, has called Claremont home off and on since the 90s, when he first arrived as a student.
“I love living in Claremont,” he said. “I love my job and I love being involved in the community.”
In terms of a new police station, Mr. Courser noted that a lot of progress was made in bringing down the cost and size of the proposal in Measure SC, but he recognizes that residents expressed concerns about equity and that the council will need to earn people’s trust back.
“In the wake of some disappointments surrounding the water, for example, I think there were questions about leadership in the city. Some people may have been questioning if Claremont is up to this challenge,” he said. “And I think we are. I think now that we have had some turnover in city staff, and now that we’re going to have new faces, new energy and new ideas on the council, I think we’ll be in a position to make that case. I’d say a better position.”
The different issues the new council will face in the coming years are, for Mr. Courser, intertwined. Village South, for example, will present an opportunity for the city to increase its tax base, which could help balance the budget. It could also bring more businesses to Claremont like technology startups as well as leveraging transportation options with the Gold Line expansion.
He acknowledges that Gold Line construction will undoubtedly “tear up the city,” and will require constant supervision and keeping in touch with residents in that corridor.
He hopes the city will think beyond restaurants, salons and entertainment to create new opportunities as far as businesses development.
“There’s a right way to do this. I think it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of attention from residents, from the commissions and from the council to do this right, because we’re only going to have one chance to do it right,”?he said. “Once the ink is dry and the concrete is poured on the Gold Line and on Village South or on the new Metrolink station, we’re not going to have a chance to do it over again.”
He cautioned against treating the Colleges like a monolith, in particular Keck Graduate Institute, who will play a big role in the Village South development. KGI and the city recently clashed over participation and what each entity wants out of the upcoming specific plan.
“I’d like to see the Colleges and the city working in lockstep with one another, but unfortunately they’re not. The Colleges each have distinct missions and leaders. All of this is a process,” he said. “Can we trust each other on development projects? That depends on both sides.”
The budget is paramount to Mr. Courser’s campaign, and he pledged to fix the upcoming shortfalls without dramatically impacting the services Claremonters depend on. He believes there is more trimming that can take place but emphasizes that conservation will be a key component.
“It’s going to be hard work for the next council to fill this hole, and the promise I want to make is that I would do my utmost to make sure we try to fill that structural deficit without cutting essential services,” he said. “We need a more hands-on approach.”
Part of that deficit comes from CalPERS, to which the city owes more than $50 million in unfunded liabilities. Mr. Courser acknowledged the city is on the hook for current employees, but said it needs to find a “new normal” when it comes to employee contributions.
“The world has changed in our own retirements, if we are lucky enough to even have them,”?he said. “Going forward, we need to be more responsible in terms of salaries, benefits and what kinds of financial obligations we’re making to employees in the city, because once those obligations are made, they’re very difficult to unwind.”
When asked how he would be forward thinking on the council, he noted that the city council’s job is to provide leadership and stay ahead of city staff in terms of what residents are thinking. He also remarked that certain council meetings can go on for far too long.
“To me, that’s a signal of people not being prepared and not being forward thinking,” he said.
Mr. Courser is happy with the current state of Claremont’s urban forest, but thinks the city can look for more grants to help pay for tree care to relieve budget constraints.
“On the traffic and transportation Commission, working together with the city engineer, we recently helped to secure a $2 million grant to help with transportation in the city,” he said.
Mr. Courser also touched on affordable housing, noting that Councilmember Joe Lyons has been pushing for more, but “we don’t even come close” to meeting the mark.
“It’s a particular challenge in Claremont because we’re pretty built out,” he said. “It’s not like there are vast swaths of space we can build affordable housing in, so the challenge is to figure out the Claremont solution to this.”
In his free time, Mr. Courser loves to travel, especially by train—he recently took his parents on a cross-country Amtrak trip from Portland, Oregon to Chicago. He also loves his job at CMC, and has a book coming out in November about political polarization.
He also likes volunteering with the Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program (CHAP) with his husband, Jerome.
“CHAP asks a lot of their volunteers, and it’s challenging model but I’ve seen a lot of success and I want to see more of that,” he said.
At his kickoff party on September 23, Mr. Courser said he was optimistic about the future of Claremont.
“We have engaged energetic residents who are thinking about the future of Claremont,” he said. “And they are going to play a big constructive role in what’s coming ahead.”