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Orinda - Leadership by Women

Orinda Unveiled: Leadership, Innovation, and Community with Mayor Darlene Gee on Capstone Conversation

AI wrote this blog post based on a transcript generated by AI from the podcast, which contains errors; for the best content, listen to the podcast.

In a recent episode of the Capstone Conversation podcast, we had the pleasure of diving deep into the heart of Orinda with its dedicated Mayor, Darlene Gee. During this engaging discussion hosted by Jared Asch, Mayor Gee shared insights into her journey from the Midwest to the leadership of this scenic and family-oriented town. She also delved into the nuances of addressing urban challenges through infrastructure improvements, inclusivity, and innovative strategies, making this episode a must-listen for those interested in local governance and community development dynamics.

Mayor Gee, a civil engineer by profession, brings a wealth of experience in transportation infrastructure to her role as mayor. Her tenure on the city council since 2015 has equipped her with a profound understanding of regional and local nuances, which is essential for guiding Orinda forward. She discussed the importance of encouraging young girls and women to explore STEM fields, highlighting her experience as one of the few women in her college engineering class and emphasizing the need for a supportive environment.

The episode also explored Orinda's unique blend of historical roots and modern vibrancy. Officially becoming a city in 1985, Orinda has evolved from a seasonal escape into a thriving, family-friendly locale, boasting attractions such as its school system, historic art deco theater, and the California Shakespeare Theater.

With recent additions to the city council bringing fresh perspectives, including the council's composition of women and its first person of color, Mayor Gee highlighted the value of reevaluating established processes and fostering innovative thinking to tackle contemporary issues. She stressed the significance of addressing housing and fire safety, outlining the city's efforts to creatively meet state housing requirements and mitigate fire risks through comprehensive measures.

From her vantage point as a civil engineer, Mayor Gee shared insights into the Bay Area's transportation challenges, advocating for improved public transit systems and embracing technological advancements to ensure mobility for all residents. She warmly invited visitors to discover Orinda's hidden gems and emphasized the community's commitment to preserving its charm while adapting to meet its residents' needs.

This episode of the Capstone Conversation podcast provided a glimpse into Mayor Darlene Gee's leadership and Orinda's community-focused initiatives and underscored the town's blend of infrastructure development, inclusivity, and innovation. It showcased how Orinda is poised to continue its journey as a cherished and progressive community, making it a compelling listen for those interested in the intersection of local governance, community development, and public service.


BELOW IS AN AI-GENERATED TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST it has not been checked for errors.

Jared Asch

Welcome to today's episode of the capstone conversation. Today we are going to visit the town of Orinda and Contra Costa County. We are joined today by Mayor Darlene Gee. And Welcome Mayor.

Darlene Gee


Thank you, Jared. It's a pleasure to have the time to talk to you today.

Jared Asch


Thanks. Can you give us some of your background and maybe tell us a little bit

Jared Asch


where you come from, how long you've been in council what your day job is, and

anything else you want to touch on for us.

Darlene Gee


Alright. Well, I'm a a native mid Westerner. I grew up in Illinois, but I've lived in the Bay Area since 1,980, and I've lived in Arinda since 1989 raised my family here. So very long term resident planning to stay I've been on the city council since 2,015. I was fortunate to be appointed to fill Senator Steve Glazer seat when he was elected to the State Senate.

and then I ran in 2,016 and 2,020 so it's been almost over 9 years now that I've been there. This is my second term in time, and being the mayor because we rotate.

and II am still working full time. Much to a lot of people's amazement. But I I'm a civil engineer by background, and I work for a large national consulting firm. And I and we specialize in transportation. So I specialize in transportation infrastructure. So over.

the last 4 decades, I've been very, very involved in transportation, infrastructure, and a few other kinds of infrastructure here in the Bay area. So I

bring, I hope, a a good regional perspective as well as a very local perspective to Rinda.

Jared Asch


So the first thing I'm gonna ask is as a dad of 3 girls and a woman civil engineer.

There's there's not a ton out there. It is definitely growing. But you have been a leader in that space. What advice do you have to my daughters that are under 10 or future generations of

of girls to inspire them in engineering and stem.

Darlene Gee


Well, I hope by you and and other adults in their life we'll find ways to expose them to the opportunity. Because you're right. It's a very, it's a very good opportunity. And there are so many areas. And there's so much in the world that's been discussed and shared with. You know how young girls and women sometimes, you know.

turn left instead of right because they're just not comfortable, or people aren't encouraging, or there are a lot of queues that tell them. No, they shouldn't do that, and the reality is, is, there are so many fabulous careers and so many fabulous opportunities. And and sometimes, you know, you have to be a little tough to to get there. When I was in engineering school.

I was one of 6 women in a class of 600 civil engineers that year in our college class. So you know you have to. You have to be a little brave. But it pays off, and I've had a very rewarding career, and I do my very best to encourage young women all the time to to try

And it's important. It's very, very important to have a lot of different perspectives in the industry.

Jared Asch


That's 1% of the class. I mean that that really is

trailblazing in some ways. So I congratulate you for being well respected in your industry and your career, and rising through that to be a leader.

so tell us a little bit about a Rinda. What should people know about your town.

Darlene Gee


Orinda is a lovely scenic, very family oriented community. It is, only been a city since 1985, although the community has been here over a hundred years.

We incorporated in 1985,

and we

are a very well run. If small city we

are essentially as many people would guess. We're pretty much a suburban bedroom kind of a community. We're not a much of a job center historically. We in the long gone past in the Bay area. We were kind of a summer place for people escaping the fog on the other side of the hills.

and there were a lot of summer homes built in our area, which eventually, as the bay area grew turned into you know, a very suburban community. So we we have a lot of charming things as many people say, hidden gems many people are very familiar with our historic Orinda Theater, which is

one of only 3 remaining theaters in the Bay area. That is the original art deco kind of theater.

we have a, you know, a lot of a lot of other great you know, restaurants activities. You know, just a lot of local charm and a lot of family oriented things. We have a great school system which many people are aware of, and is often the number one reason why people move to Rinda.

So all in all, it's a very beautiful scenic place to live. And you know a very nice community which, you know continues to evolve.

Jared Asch


And you guys are have the Cal Shakes

theater in Orinda. Correct?

Darlene Gee


Yes, we do, and it's it's another one of our sort of hidden gems. And it's sort of reinventing itself, would be a good way to put it. Obviously the pandemic was a hard hit to many things like

theater and arts and social events. But Cal shakes is busy, you know, reinventing themselves with a much broader array of entertainment than they had once upon a time. And I think it's gonna continue to evolve into a lovely a place it's if people haven't been there. It's one of the most beautiful places you can be on a nice summer evening

Unknown Speaker


setting fabulous play, or some kind of music.

Jared Asch


right? Let's talk about

you talked about it being a newer city, probably one of the newer ones in the region.

And within that council. You guys have had a lot of turnover. Recently lot of veterans of the Council had retired in 2022, and you had 3 out of 5 new seats filled.

How is that

been? I've met them all. They're all really nice people very smart, but 3 new Council members getting them up to speed. What does that sort of process been to

bring them up to speed? Mentor them? And what kind of new perspectives have they brought?

Darlene Gee


Yeah, that's a it's. It's been a a very interesting experience. Especially for me, Jared, because at this point it's hard for me to believe I'm the most senior serving council member, because my other colleague is on the same cycle as me. Because of my appointment. I have about 18 months more than she does so.

it! It has been

it! It's been really great. It's you know it would. It's it was so hard to lose, you know. Some of our long term serving people like Amy Worth, who is just sort of a Bay area legend in terms of you know how much public service she's done, and and so, having such a change over

always comes with, you know, everything has opportunity right? And it's been it's been very interesting to have new perspectives, and I think it's I think it's good. I think it's good for all communities and for those who might not know. Our current council is all women. So that's been a big change as well. And we also have our first person of color on our council, which is

fabulous. Again, it's a reflection, I think, of the changing demographics and inclusion of our community. And so it's it's been a a great experience, and I do think it's

I think the most valuable part is to have new people that ask questions that have really, intelligent, inquiring minds and in the in the process of asking questions.

It's really good to revisit things, because sometimes people get stuck in a long thinking process of. Oh, this is the way it's been. This is the way it's always been done. This is the way we always do it. And sometimes it's really good to have people really step up and say, Well, why? And sort of rethink things. So I think the fresh perspective is absolutely

Unknown Speaker


really good for the community. And it's and it's been it's been fun.

Jared Asch


Is there any other town that you could think of in the area that has 5 out of 5 women.

Darlene Gee


Yes, I believe so, because I've been working on a project with the League of California Cities right now, I believe. Piedmont has an All woman council.

I believe the city of West Sacramento has an All women council, and I believe the city of San Luis Obispo has an All Women council, and I'm sure there must be some other ones in the State. But it's definitely a a and and even to more amazement. And Orinda, our local are in the Union School district also has a 5 woman board of trustees right now. So

Unknown Speaker


definitely, Orinda is, is seeing a lot of female leadership right at the moment.

Jared Asch


That's great great to hear. And I like how you talked about the innovative perspective. Do you have any examples of things that have come up where people have just been asking the new question or brought a good view to the equation.

no pressure, that there are so many issues that a little a a city deals with. You know. I certainly think.

Darlene Gee



There's been an awful lot of good questions raised about

our city staff processes, our approach to

you know a lot of the services that we provide as a community. You know

good questions about

you know. Why, you know why we're prioritizing certain infrastructure over other things. I mean, just a just a lot of good you know, thinking questions which you know lead to good discussions and

you know, help. I think everybody in the community, you know, continue to understand the issues a lot better.

Jared Asch


That makes sense. And I serve as chair of the Walmart Creek Transportation Commission, and we get to make recommendations for developer funds into the city at hip funds for for years ahead and prioritizing projects, and we recommend it to the City Council, who's the ultimate

decision. But

you know, part of it is like, Hey, things have happened and we gotta re prioritize right? Post covid transportation world. More people biking more people moving into apartments and Walnut Creek. Have all affected like how every couple of years we look at those priorities. So it's probably good to get.

Continue to have people ask those questions.

what are some of the biggest challenges ahead in Orinda?

Darlene Gee


Certainly, like almost every city in California housing. We were very proud that we were one of the earliest communities in the Bay area that got that approved housing element from the State.

But that doesn't quite mean that that the story is over. We have worked very hard, because, like a lot of places in California, our city is essentially pretty much built out we don't have a lot of, you know, completely, green space

our growth potential is really, you know, in fill, for the most part, and and being very creative, we have for the last

8 years really had a very major program called Planarinda. That has been about revitalizing our small downtown.

Which for decades has been a controversial topic. If you can believe that in Orinda some people want everything to stay absolutely the same, and other people want it to transform mightily into a much more vibrant downtown. So we've had an awful lot there. But now

Even with our approved housing element last year. Now we've you know, we're battling. We were sued. And so we're still have that in progress, and we

also are are at the stage where we are required to start rezoning, and that has raised a lot of new interest in what is going on so so trying to

comply with the State's housing requirements and do it in a way that the community is supportive

Unknown Speaker


is a huge challenge. It is probably our biggest challenge. And and there were very much in sync with a lot of other communities.

Darlene Gee


Another key issue here in Orinda, that's, you know, just paramount is on everyone's mind every day. Is fire prevention. We are very much a a high risk community a lot of the beauty and a lot of the scenic part of Orindas, because

When people moved here they planted enormous amounts of trees and vegetation, and we nestle up to the back side of the Berkeley Oakland Hills, and for those that remember the Oakland Hills fire and the early nineties. You know we're kind of the mirror image on the other side. So that's a very big topic as well.

Jared Asch


And what are some of the things the city's doing to address fire safety for people.

Darlene Gee


I one very important thing that we did. Jared was in 2020. We were able to get the community to pass an additional local sales tax, which

has provided monies both for more fire prevention activities as well as to continue to support our infrastructure. We for a small community, we were incredibly successful at revitalizing almost all of our roads and street drains over local

bond and sales tax measures. So our measure are in 2020 added monies that we were able to tap into. We're working very closely. With our fire district, which is the Maraga Rinda Fire district. So the city doesn't provide the fire services. But we work in close conjunction with our special district agency.

And so we, you know, we have

pushed very hard to make sure that we're doing all the vegetation, removal, and compliance that we can do as the city on our properties. We work closely with Mo. Fd, to provide education outreach. We have a mountain of

available material to help people in terms of understanding how to manage their own yards, their own property.

We're working very hard on evacuation issues, evacuation routes working very closely with the fire district. In terms of, you know, maintaining compliance along those evacuation routes. We do. We have a lot in motion. We actually have, 2 full-time staff members in our tiny little city that are one of them is fully devoted to our education and outreach and fire prevention, and the other one supports it part-time. So

so we have a lot of emphasis on, you know, a topic that we want to have a forefront and everybody's mind here in Orinda.

Jared Asch


That's great that. That is a lot of

bandwidth to put towards that in your city, and a lot of concentration. But

right. You never wanna have the the avenue you never wanna have to worry about it or you wanna be prepared. I guess

when it does happen. I probably said that wrong.

What's the one thing on fire safety. You want people in Orinda to know about? What's the one thing they should know.

Darlene Gee


The one thing that they should absolutely know is that

that there are a lot of resources for them to find on our website on the fire district's website.

and they should concentrate on

what it takes to safely maintain their own property. There are so many things they can do in terms of vegetation management in terms of

ember resistant vents in terms of gutter guards that are supplied for free by our fire district. Again, to help prevent vegetation leaves, embers. Learning a lot about fire. Science over the last

10 years has been a real education. But it's a very real and scary topic here and in California, and so

doing everything people can, and knowing what they should be doing on their own property, I think, is absolutely critical and the very

linked corollary to that is, making sure they understand, what that they've signed up for all the emergency notifications that they know that they have a plan that they know what they should be paying attention to and what they should do in a worst case scenario. Those are the 2 things that

go the furthest, I think, in terms of helping to protect the community and helping to protect people's lives

Jared Asch


right? And we'll add to the show notes for anybody who's curious about that where the city's website to find more information, and also how to sign up for those alerts for people who live in Orinda and for other cities to hopefully copy.

You mentioned the sales tax which passed in 2020. What else is the sales? The additional sales tax going to fund in Orinda

Darlene Gee


the. In addition to our fire prevention efforts, the other area that it funds is the main team. The maintenance of our of our infrastructure. So we use it to continue to maintain roads, drainage. You know any projects that affect the community's infrastructure. So we we are very fortunate that.

you know, 10 years ago, we on Mtc's list of

you know, road conditions of cities in the Bay area. We were third from the bottom, and last year we were number 2 from the top. So we have made a huge difference in the communities infrastructure. And we now we want to keep it maintained.

And we continue, like all places in the Bay area. Everything is just about at that age where it needs to be replaced. It's like anything.

It's like your home, your car. You've gotta do maintenance to keep it in good shape, and

Unknown Speaker


we have a lot of old storm drains and a lot of old things that need to be upgraded. So that's that's the source of money for a lot of our maintenance.

Jared Asch


That's great. You mentioned housing.

What? What is the city's plan for housing? Has there been any interest in that, particularly in the downtown area in the area near the Bart station.

Unknown Speaker


How did the building property owners feel? What interest has there been from developers? What can you share with us?

Darlene Gee


Absolutely. In fact, the number one location for the greatest amount of planned projected housing and Orinda is in our downtown area.

You know, we we feel there's the opportunity there for some transformation of you know what is currently essentially older. Single storey, you know, buildings that, you know, have a variety of purposes commercially retail.

You know, there's an there's an opportunity there in this cycle of the housing element. Jared. We did not include the Bart station property itself. We are very, very fortunate that you know, right in the center, in fact, actually.

since Highway 24 kind of splits our downtown, and the part station is right in the middle of it. I. We are very fortunate that you know we have an incredible transit linkage, you know, right connected to our downtown, which is very valuable, always has been, and will continue to be so. As we look at you know ways to grow and improve.

But but we have you know, our current plan shows a lot of opportunity for development in downtown, Orinda for including housing. And then we have started conversations. We were fortunate to receive an Mtc. Grant to begin studying the Bart station

our bard station is particularly complicated. Because it actually is on property that is owned by Cal. Trans, because it's in the state

highway median. And Bart actually has a lease on the property, they do not own it. So a number of years ago, if you recall, there was a a law passed in California called, which allowed Bart to begin to build housing on station sites that it owned.

Orinda was not included in that, because they do not own the property that the Orinda Bart. Station is on. So there are some extra complications, but there is definitely a very good long term opportunity at our Bart station and connected with our downtown

that you know we hope to see developed in a good way. I think the key for Orinda. I think what people would really like to see if we got the perfect outcome. Jared is, we would love to see revitalization that included housing new opportunities for commercial and retail that

also fit into the community. Right? II think the the number one thing that people hope won't happen is we don't want to see, you know, true high rise buildings in what is a very, you know,

small and generally semi-rural looking community, and you know, so

the trade offs of trying to achieve housing and and vibrancy. With, you know, trying to maintain a look and feel that people are comfortable with is it's a huge challenge and so far, you know, so far we have nothing that's actually in progress. We're in the process right now of finishing our objective design standards for downtown and are rezoning

but ultimately, depending on where the economic climate goes. I think it's pretty easy to see that we would be a location that you know, development would be interested in.

Jared Asch


Yeah, that's interesting to learn about the ownership of the Bart track

in the parking lot. Because if you look at the towns in the stop after you the Walnut Creek, stop the pleasant hill, stop the Concorde! Stop! They have all had

massive development right on their parking lots where apartment buildings condos have gone up with retail coffee shops in them.

Darlene Gee


Yeah. So it's it. It will be interesting to see what evolves over time. We actually, you know, and some of the thoughts, and certainly something I would hope for in the long term is that you know the right kind of project built in the Bard station area you know, would also help

connect our 2 pieces of downtown together. Better, because you know literally right now are, you know, we have downtown and commercial things on both sides of Highway 24 with the Bart station right in between. So again, there, there's the opportunity there to hope that in the end there's a feel of a little bit more continuity. With the right development.

Jared Asch


Yeah, interesting. So now I wanna

look at a bigger picture on your professional background. with regional transportation infrastructure. I've actually gotten to know you a little bit through the Bay Area Council, where you serve as

Co. Chair of the Bay Area Council Transportation Task Force.

let's solve every regional transportation problem right now through that civil engineering perspective. So we so we all know what the problems are. There's there's a lot of people. Little rooms go covid through us all through a loop.

But what do you see from from just your perspective, as one or 2 of the bigger challenges? And

what can be done to.

or or what's being discussed to to look at these problems?

Darlene Gee


I know that's a broad question. So just

well, I think unless you haven't left your house. Recently. Most people in the Bay area realize that our traffic and our highway traffic is back to being as bad as

pre pandemic levels and data is actually showing in a couple of places. It's actually worse than the traffic was before Covid. So clearly, people are. Again, you know, needing mobility and

primarily, because of covid and so many changes in how people are working. You know that the traffic is as miserable as ever. So.

and as we all know here in the Bay Area, our public transit systems, whether it's Bart Caltrain, Vta in, you know, Sfmta, all the transit systems are operating currently at below. You know their pandemic

ridership. So you know, without without a doubt. And you know there are a lot of things that people talk about relative to our transit systems and many things people are concerned about, but without a doubt providing better

safer, secure connected transit throughout the Bay Area is just going to be critical to the long term. There are a lot of different thoughts about how do you do that? Should you consolidate all the various transit agencies.

There have been a lot of Bart has made a lot of improvements over the last year. People may not see them yet if they haven't really tried to take Bart again. But

there, there has to be everything done possible to make transit attractive again, to make it accommodate people sort of new lifestyles. And I think there's been a lot of discussion about that, because in some places the ridership on transit is much higher on the weekends, and you know, for sporting events other events that are going on than it is for what was historically a go to work and come home kind of commute

activity. So we can't live with a high quality of life in the Bay Area without good transit.

So there has to be solutions to that absolutely

And then I you know. And then I think that after that I'm you know, III still think there's an awful lot going on in the technology world right there in term. And when I say technology, I mean relative to transportation.

that you know, more managed lanes, more things that you know. Automated vehicles.

you know. II do think over time. We will see you know things there that will continue to improve people's lives.

And you know again, it'll it'll be interesting how it all comes together. But I think

that's not an area to be ignored for the long haul in terms of trying to solve people's mobility. Challenges. So there's an awful lot, and that's going on. And I and there's always more need than there is money, as you're well aware. You know.

the Bay Area is struggling with trying to think about a new regional measure. I don't know that

the temperature right now of the voters in the Bay Area is really feeling it. But I think you know, over time.

there, there's gonna have to be improvements. Because mobility is just one of the very basics you know, that people need in their life, whether it's for work or fun, or family, or whatever it is, people have to get places. And you know, right now, I think in a lot of respects, we're kind of back to a really

unhappy environment in the Bay area in. In that regard. Most of us that are out driving around are finding ourselves in pretty ugly traffic.

Jared Asch


Yeah. And I was just in Florida, where I finished high school we were visiting my parents down there and been a long time since I've driven down there and and got turned around and ended up on a side road instead of the Interstate, and it was I went in between. I just said, Oh, well, I'll go this way. I know where I am on the street. It was a straight lane, for

through 4 counts, and I probably went through the equivalent of 40 or 50 traffic lights, but

I hit all but 2 of them as a green. Once I got into like the sink of it, and I moved through those couple of towns

fairly quickly at an average speed of probably 45 miles an hour, and it just flowed so much better because they were taking people off the roads into the housing developments, turn lanes into the shopping centers, and I hate to compare anything in Florida to California. I clearly live here. I think it's superior of the State.

Unknown Speaker


But that was an advantage at that moment. Right? It just flowed together. I wasn't sitting

Jared Asch


traffic light after traffic light at 8 miles an hour, waiting for everybody else. So something I noticed around that.

Darlene Gee


Yeah, there and and it, and it is noticeable in other areas. So yes, we have a lot to a lot to figure out here in the Bay area. I agree with you. I've I've lived here for decades, and it's a

place with so many wonderful advantages. But mobility is a challenge, and I think the other thing, Jared, that has to happen is.

and this has kind of been lost. People forget so quickly. But before the pandemic transportation was a very high priority to many of the politicians at every level in the Bay area

in today's polling transportation often isn't even in the top 10,

and there is an awful lot of, as you know, from term limits and just changes going on. There's going to be an awful lot of new elected people at every level. Local state, Federal, related to the Bay Area. And I think the other thing that

you know simply has to happen. If our transportation and mobility issues are going to be solved. Is our leadership needs to care about it. So between, you know, the voters and the leadership, there has to be a resurgence of priority for transportation, because right now it's it's at the lowest I've ever seen it in terms of polling.

Jared Asch


That's interesting. That was something new II learned today. So and if people want specifics on transportation, you can go back to one of the earlier episodes ahead with Tim Hale from Ccta. And we'll have other regional

Unknown Speaker


transportation experts on, and more specific transportation episodes coming up. So thank you for that. Anything. I didn't ask you yet today that you wanted to share

Darlene Gee


definitely. Come visit Arinda, enjoy our theater and enjoy our

our park, our cal shakes opportunities. It's a it's a lovely setting. It's a good place to spend some of your summer on Thursday nights. We have food trucks in our next to our community center and park. And we have, a very a very nice venue for a very enjoyable time. So do come visit us like I said earlier. There's a lot of hidden.

and we're very proud of it. And II really wanna thank you today. I've enjoyed the conversation, and appreciate your interest.

Jared Asch


Alright, thank you for being here. Mayor Gee from Orinda. Thanks for joining me today. So.

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