South Lake Tahoe City Council candidate profile: Devin Middlebrook
Occupation: Associate Planner, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Executive Director, Tahoe Regional Young Professionals
Why are you running for council?
I am running for City Council to bring new ideas, leadership and diversity to council. We are at a critical point in our history, there are many great things happening in town. But we need a vision for our future that capitalizes on our community and outdoors to create economic prosperity for all.
My vision for South Lake Tahoe is built on outdoor recreation and entrepreneurship. The goal is to create a diverse economy with year-round jobs and housing for all. An economy that is less dependent on tourism and big winters. We need leaders with vision and passion to carry Tahoe forward, and that is what I bring to the table. For too long the city has been a barrier to progress, development and the community. We need a council and city that promotes and supports the great people and things happening all around us.
What are your qualifications?
I was born and raised in Tahoe and I have been very involved in the community. I currently work for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. In my role I have learned the complexities of government at Tahoe. I am also executive director of the Tahoe Regional Young Professionals. We have fostered the next generation of community leaders.
Directly related to the city, I participated on the city’s cannabis sub-committee. I also helped push the City Council to update their food truck regulations. City staff is now working to update this policy.
What is the No. 1 issue facing the city? How would you address it?
The No. 1 issue facing the city is housing. This is about housing affordability for all community members, including low-income, workforce and middle-class. Many of our residents cannot afford to live, work and play in South Lake Tahoe. Solving our housing challenges will take collaboration and bold ideas.
If elected, I would advocate for a variety of innovative solutions. One of the most important roles the city plays in addressing our housing needs is getting out of the way. See my answer on housing below for more details.
The cost of housing is only one part of the equation. Economic development and creation of living-wage jobs must also be a focus of the City Council. It doesn’t matter how affordable housing is if there are not the jobs to support employees. The city needs to support entrepreneurs and small businesses that are creating these types of jobs.
Yes or no on Measure T? Why or why not?
No, BUT something needs to be done to drastically reduce and control the number of vacation rentals in our residential neighborhoods. There is clearly a breakdown in our system and the runaway vacation rental market has degraded our quality of life, exacerbated our housing challenge, and divided our community. However, we must also recognize that vacation rentals have always been in town and contribute taxes and jobs to our economy. The loss of vacation rentals if Measure T passes will impact our economy and community.
It is disappointing that the current council failed to implement a VHR policy that reached a compromise between the community and economy. While the council did approve a cap and stricter enforcement, it was too little, too late.
If elected, I would work to address the needs of all community members to reach a sensible compromise. This should include a stricter cap, re-examination of residential zoning, strict enforcement and potentially limits per neighborhood.
The best thing the community can do to solve our challenges with vacation rentals is to vote in a new council to lead and reach a compromise that works for our town.
What is your position on the Loop Road?
The Loop Road, or the Highway 50 Revitalization Project, is potentially a game-changing opportunity for the community. The project, if approved, would be implemented by the Tahoe Transportation District. It would not directly cost the city any money. We would gain the “downtown” we have always been missing. Currently 70 percent of traffic in Stateline is through traffic. By sending this traffic around the downtown core we can create a vibrant community street with paths, sidewalks, trees, music, public art and thriving businesses.
This is an opportunity that our community must take full advantage. This is a onetime opportunity to transform our Stateline area and create a space for local businesses to thrive.
As a council member I would open this to the community to create this vision. By re-imagining this area, we can create a vibrant and walkable district where tourists want to spend their money and stay in nearby hotels. This would create more jobs and tax revenue in our city. To me, this sounds a lot better than the current five lane highway with constant traffic issues that we currently have. As a council member I would ensure the community vision is implemented as part of this transformation.
The city’s recently passed cannabis ordinance was the subject of a successful referendum. How should City Council proceed on this issue?
I participated in the city’s citizen sub-committee that helped shape the cannabis ordinance that was adopted by the city. This ordinance was then subject to a successful referendum by Cody Bass. The City Council must either make significant changes to the ordinance or send the current ordinance to the voters. Most likely the new City Council will be deciding what to do on this issue this fall.
I am very supportive of the safe development of the cannabis industry in South Lake Tahoe. Cannabis is already here and being sold illegally. We should allow for a legal and regulated industry, so the city can benefit from tax revenue and fund the needed police and community safety.
If elected to council, I would advocate for making significant changes and adopting a new ordinance as quickly as possible. Changes should include; updated zoning for license types, bring our existing dispensary into compliance, allow for onsite consumption to give visitors a safe and legal location to consume cannabis, expand the number of license types available to allow for a diverse local market, and give locally owned businesses higher priority in the application process.
How should the city address sustainable funding for roads?
Roughly $3 million per year is needed to fully repair our roads over the next 15-20 years. Repairing our roads must be a priority for the City Council. It will take a mix of funding sources to meet this need. This mix of funding includes:
1. Allocating existing city funds to roads
2. Applying for state and federal grants
3. Creating a dedicated funding source for roads
The first step is to allocate existing funding to roads. If roads are a true priority, the City Council should dedicate existing funding to their repair. Secondly, state grants are available for roads, transportation, transit, and bike paths. The city should be more aggressive about competing for these grant dollars. Both steps will fund part, but not all of our current funding need. A long-term sustainable funding source is critical to truly fix our roads.
If elected I would make funding our roads and transportation system a top priority. I believe that if the city contributes their fair share to funding our roads from the existing budget, the voters would be more open to approving additional funding sources.
How would you evaluate the current council’s handling of the previous city manager’s departure?
As a council candidate, I was not in the closed session meetings that led to the departure of former city manager Nancy Kerry. Unfortunately, the voters will never know what happened in those meetings. The El Dorado County District Attorney found that “there were a few possible Brown Act violations in late 2017 and early 2018…” related to how the current City Council handled the situation with Nancy Kerry. One thing is clear, the current City Council failed to be open and transparent with the community about its actions.
The lack of transparency and trust between the council and community has reached a boiling point. The council no longer reflects the community they were elected to represent.
If elected, I would not forget the voters who elected me and always be a voice for the people during council meetings. Trust, transparency, and openness are core to my values as a person.
At the end of the day, we can not change what happened, we need to move forward as a community and start rebuilding the trust that has been lost.
What can City Council do to address the lack of affordable housing?
As mentioned, housing is one of my top priorities. This includes housing for all community members, not just low-income or affordable housing. There are several things the City Council must do to promote the development of housing in our community. First, the council should hire a housing coordinator to work full time on this issue. The city needs to increase our participation in the Tahoe Housing Initiative and Mountain Housing Council, working with partners across the region to solve this complex issue.
Second, I would advocate for changes to city policy to allow for granny units, tiny homes and mobile homes. Allowing for increased height and density is critical to making housing projects pencil out for developers.
Third, we need to attract developers with faster permitting, decreased fees and other incentives. This includes working with other agencies like TRPA and STPUD to reduce their fees as well. Finally, we need to work with land owners, like the California Tahoe Conservancy, to obtain state grant funding for affordable housing projects on their asset lands.
Additionally, our housing problems is also a wages problem. We need to focus on economic development and creation of living-wage jobs.
Businesses frequently complain about a lack of talented employees. What, if anything, can City Council do to help solve this problem?
The business owners I speak with say they can’t find talented employees. The community members I speak with say they can’t find jobs that pay enough to work and live in Tahoe. We clearly have a mis-match between our available jobs and worker talent. The city can help play a support role in bridging this gap. Some of my ideas include:
Support Lake Tahoe Community College. The college has made great progress in developing the local workforce through the ADVANCE program that trains students in high demand jobs, including hospitality and culinary. They also offer four-year degrees in business and hospitality; the city should support expansion of these programs.
Seasonal Job Share Programs. With the seasonal nature of our economy, winter and summer-based businesses should work to share employees across the year, giving more stability to workers.
Attract New Industries. Our economy has changed — we must shift our focus to creating new jobs in the technology, recreation and health care industries. The internet now allows businesses to be based in Tahoe and operate on a global scale. This leads to year-round, high paying jobs, that don’t depend on people visiting Tahoe to spend their money.
It can be difficult to balance a full-time job and City Council responsibilities. How can you assure voters you will be able to commit enough time to council and its responsibilities?
I am fully aware and committed to fulfilling my responsibilities as a council member. I think the bigger issue is the difficulty for community members to be engaged in local government. Council meetings occur every other Tuesday, at 9 a.m. at the airport, which is not on a bus route.
How can the community connect with their elected officials and be engaged in the civic process? If elected to council, I would work to make city government more accessible to all community members and make it easier for anyone interested in serving in office. This should include better planning of meetings, so they don’t go for eight hours, shifting meeting times to after 5 p.m. for people that work, and utilizing digital platforms to keep open communication with the community 24/7.
It is the responsibility of the City Council to reach out to community members not community members to be inconvenienced when they have an issue they care about. If we don’t do this, our City Council will never reflect the true diversity of our community.
A fellow candidate recently raised concerns about “conflicts of interest” given your employment with TRPA. How do respond to those concerns?
My role at TRPA is managing the Lake Tahoe Sustainable Communities Program. This includes projects like electric vehicles, renewable energy, recreation, and climate adaptation. I do not review city permits or projects, approve funding for the city, or negotiate contracts with the city. According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, nothing “prevents a public official from seeking or holding a particular employment position, whether public or private.” (more info: https://bit.ly/2OSRJiK)
Any conflict of interest would arise if a decision on the City Council would “result in a significant clash of duties.” For example, I would not be able to serve on the TRPA governing board, one of the other four council members would have to. In all the City Council meetings in 2018, there were zero votes I would have needed to recuse myself from.
I believe my time spent working for TRPA would be an asset for the City Council. I have spent the last four years learning the complexities of government at Tahoe. I have also built relationships with many community partners. I would bring this expertise to the council, this would let us act more efficiently and effectively.