New eyes focus on City Hall

Peter Leroe-Muñoz showed up Nov. 18 to work out with members

The new city councilman stared at the dais from the third row of
seats at the Gilroy City Chambers, imagining what the view would be
like up there.
The new city councilman stared at the dais from the third row of seats at the Gilroy City Chambers, imagining what the view would be like up there.

Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro called him out.

“I’d like to remind Peter Leroe-Muñoz: this is the last time you will be looking at the Council this way, next time you will be looking at it the other way,” he said jokingly, and asked a reporter to make sure he didn’t leave early as meetings often venture well past midnight.

Pinheiro’s jovial welcome had a serious slant and Leroe-Muñoz understood it well.

The Nov.15 City Council meeting would be his last as an observer before his rite of passage into the decision-making arena.

“I’ve been attending the meetings for a while now, so it kind of felt like a graduation,” said Leroe-Muñoz, who will be seated at the Dec. 6 council meeting.

“It was exciting, but there’s a responsibility that comes with it,” he said.

The San Benito deputy district attorney swept through the election as the young, can’t-miss candidate with a batch of new ideas.

Veteran council members say now the real work begins.

“Once you get on the other side of the fence you have so much more information that things are not the same,” Pinheiro said. “It’s one thing to look from the outside and comment and criticize.”

Leroe-Muñoz was the top vote-getter in the Nov. 2 election with 4,381 votes, almost 100 more than incumbent Dion Bracco.

He replaces councilman Craig Gartman, who did not run in this year’s election.

As Gartman prepares to leave, he puts himself in Leroe-Muñoz’s shoes.

“If I was sitting out there waiting to get on board, I would be contemplating what my decision would be and try to play it out. What kind of questions would I ask? What would I try to say if I was in the minority? And what would I say if I was in the majority? If you can read the Council and they’re on your side – you keep your mouth shut,” he said.

Re-elected incumbents Peter Arellano and Bracco will be keeping their name plates, so it is only Leroe-Muñoz who will be swamped with binders from the different city departments and orientation material to learn how the Council makes its decisions.

One thing Leroe-Muñoz is in complete control of, however, is refusing his salary and benefits. He asked City Clerk Shawna Freels to research how to do just that.

“We’ve never had a council member waive salaries and benefits. Never,” said Freels, who found herself looking through past agendas and minutes to find out how she could grant Leroe-Muñoz’s request while avoiding the bureaucratic red tape.

Gilroy City Council members make $7,874 a year with the mayor earning $11,800 a year. Their health insurance and retirement benefits cost an extra $11,442.

“It’s a volunteer position,” said Leroe-Muñoz. “Realistically, it’s a tight economic situation. You have to show responsibility and it’s my way doing that.”

Councilwoman Cat Tucker said it was very honorable for him to deny the paycheck, but wondered whether he was aware of the amount of work he will be faced with.

Aside from the bi-monthly City Council meetings, council members attend regional committee meetings and must sift through preparation material.

Gartman said his council duties took 20 hours away from his week.

“It’s quite a bit of work – more work than anyone anticipates,” Tucker said. “I was not aware of how much work is involved if you’re giving it your 100 percent. In this economy, only the rich man can turn down the paycheck.”

When questioned whether the information he has received since the election has changed his mind on any of his campaign promises, he said it hasn’t.

Downtown vibrancy and development are among Leroe-Muñoz’s top priorities. He’s strongly in favor of the California high-speed rail project and not only wants the train to run through Gilroy, but he wants it smack in the middle of downtown. Leroe-Muñoz and other council members have said he could be a strong swing vote for future issues on the $45-billion, 800-mile system slated for 2020 operation.

Leroe-Muñoz said the Council’s Oct. 18 vote of no confidence resolution was a hasty decision.

“The vote (was) just too premature,” Leroe-Muñoz said. “I agree that people have questions and we have to make sure we get answers you don’t want to create a situation where Gilroy opts out.”

During his campaign, Leroe-Muñoz also said he would like to review impact fees – the money paid by developers for city services such as roads and traffic mitigation measures.

“We have to review how they’re calculated and whether they represent the cost of doing business. They haven’t been reassessed since 2004 – prior to the recession.”

Pinheiro countered it would be very difficult to lower impact fees because that would mean less services for the community and added Leroe-Muñoz would soon find that out on the dais.

Downtown revitalization has been high on Leroe-Muñoz’s platform, which is welcomed by Pinheiro and Tucker.

Leroe-Muñoz’s plan is to spur local banks to lend to owners of unreinforced masonry buildings committed to bringing their buildings up to code, by use federal block grants as collateral. URMs are a large portion of downtown’s vacant buildings.

“Almost 30 buildings are vacant. It’s a complete loss of money. Right now they’re not doing anyone any good,” he said.

Another topic of interest for Leroe-Muñoz has been gang prevention. He said he would like to create a police activities league to mentor children and try to lead them off the criminal path even though Bracco, who a member of the city’s Gang Task Force said it is too expensive.

“It’s self financing,” Leroe-Muñoz said. “There are grants out there and the PAL does a lot of its own fundraisers. There wouldn’t be an additional cost to the city aside from providing meeting space.”

Leroe-Muñoz said he is still learning the ropes on how to accomplish these goals.

It is just one transition Muñoz will have to deal with while looking out from behind the dais.

“I’m very excited. It reminds me of being back in law school,” he said.

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