Newly appointed San Mateo council member seeks to focus on sustainability 

The San Mateo City Council didn't have to look far for a replacement when Councilman Robert Ross recently resigned due to health concerns. From a field of six applicants, the council has chosen Planning Commission Chairman Rick Bonilla to serve out the current year of Ross' term.

Bonilla will serve through Dec. 7, and in the Nov. 3 general election, voters will elect a candidate to serve the remaining two years of Ross' term, which ends in 2017.

Due to the City Charter's requirement that the council appoint a replacement within 30 days of Ross' Jan. 6 retirement, the council put out a call for applicants and approved Bonilla's appointment late last month.

Early in the process, Councilman David Lim said he would prefer to appoint a placeholder candidate who would promise not to run for the seat in November because he felt any appointee might gain an unfair advantage in the election. But Lim's idea proved unpopular with the candidates, several of whom were planning to run for the seat in November.

Mayor Maureen Freschet acknowledged that some in the community might view the appointment as an endorsement of a favored candidate for the general election, and she said the council therefore strived to make the selection process as public and transparent as possible.

Bonilla's public service in the city began with his 2001 appointment to the Bay Meadows and Transportation Corridor Citizens Advisory Committee, and he served on the Public Works Commission for six years before being appointed to the Planning Commission in 2012.

Bonilla's track record and his deep involvement in the community are among the reasons Freschet believes he's the right person for the interim job.

"Rick's really immersed himself in San Mateo," the mayor noted. "He attends a lot of public meetings and community events, and he'll be able to hit the ground running without a big learning curve."

Sustainability is a top priority for Bonilla, who said San Mateo's existing efforts to be a greener city could soon benefit from a countywide community-choice aggregation program being spearheaded by supervisors Dave Pine and Carole Groom.

Under the program, which Bonilla supports, Peninsula cities would use their collective purchasing power to provide ratepayers with affordable electricity from local solar, wind and renewable sources.

"You can't go anywhere in San Mateo without seeing electric cars," Bonilla said. "Imagine if we could start charging those vehicles with electricity that didn't come from dirty fossil fuels."

Freschet said some of the challenges Bonilla and the council will face this year include fixing 18 miles of street surfaces in disrepair and adding or upgrading enough protections to get parts of north central San Mateo and the North Shoreview neighborhood off the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood map.

While the city's levy improvements got about 8,000 homes east of El Camino Real and U.S. Highway 101 off the flood map last year, Freschet said about 1,200 homes didn't benefit from the levy upgrades, and the flood risk has made homeowner's insurance very expensive for the affected residents.

Bonilla said he shares Freschet's concerns, and his experience on the Public Works and Planning commissions will help him address those infrastructure and flood control issues.

"I've been in the trenches, and I want to see us succeed," Bonilla said.

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