Why are you running?
As a fourth-generation Gilroyan, a husband, and a father of two young girls (Sierra, 6, and Charlie, 4), I am focused on the long-term health and prosperity of our diverse community. With hard work and good fortune, I have achieved a comfortable life and a successful career. I am at a point in that career where I am able to give back and, frankly, I worry about the quality of the decision making at City Hall. Since my election five years ago, I have made a positive impact. I am running because I hope to continue to do so. I want voters to know that my great-great-grandparents settled in Gilroy in the 1800s, so I was raised with a profound appreciation for the history of our community. Other than while on active duty as an enlisted man with the U.S. Navy, I have lived here my whole life. After attending Glen View Elementary, South Valley, and Gilroy High, I graduated from Gavilan College (A.A., Real Estate 1991) and UC Santa Cruz (B.A., Economics 1993), and earned a law degree from Santa Clara University in 1996. For more than a decade, I have been a partner with Terra Law LLP, a respected Silicon Valley law firm. I bring expertise to many of the areas that the Council often addresses, in particular the frequent and difficult legal questions that it must confront.
What are your three priorities?
When I ran for Council in 2007, I promised to balance the budget by eliminating a $4.6 million annual deficit and to make city operations more transparent by championing an open government ordinance. I have done both. Along the way, I have tried to raise awareness about the $36 million-plus unfunded pension liability facing us. My top three priorities for the next four years are:
Maintaining a balanced general fund budget, achieving meaningful pension reform (as discussed in detail below), continuing the major progress achieved over the last five years in making city operations more transparent.
What is your opinion of the current relationship between City Council and City Administration?
Under our City Charter, the City Administrator has day-to-day responsibility for running city operations. All of its employees (except the City Attorney) report directly to the City Administrator. It is the job of the City Council to set policy and to supervise the City Administrator, who in turn supervises all staff. But what happens when the Council suffers through years without effective leadership? It then falls to the City Administrator to mediate squabbles between elected officials, while running the entire operation as best as he can and as he alone sees fit. This is a heavy burden and I think the current City Administrator has shouldered it as well as could be hoped.
Change is of course needed, and this election – which will bring in a new mayor – will afford the community an overdue opportunity to ensure that the Council once again functions effectively and as our Charter intends. Things could get better; things could get worse. A lot hinges on the choices that voters make Nov. 6. I strongly agree with the Dispatch’s conclusion that Don Gage is the right mayoral candidate and that his proven leadership ability is what is needed now.
Are there further pension reforms the city should do? If so, what?
Yes. Some examples of immediately needed reforms are:
Pensions should be limited to a maximum of $100,000 per year
Employees should pay for at least 50 percent of normal costs of their pension benefits.
Raise the retirement age for non-public safety employees to age 65 (2 percent max. for each year of service).
Raise the retirement age for public safety employees to age 57 (2.5 percent max. for each year of service).
Strictly limit post-retirement employment
Explore the feasibility of developing a non-CALPERS plan for new employees that is lower cost and lower risk.
As an open government advocate, it also seems to me that the pension crisis is in large measure a transparency crisis. We all know that public pensions are a huge “unfunded liability,” but we really don’t know how large because such questions hinge on much-disputed actuarial practices. The CALPERS “discount rate” is based on very rosy, likely unattainable, projections of earnings. But if CALPERS were to reduce those rates to a safe level, the unfunded liability numbers would soar, and the political fallout would be intense.
We must start to fully report unfunded pension liabilities on the City’s balance sheet as a debt, and we need to do so based on what those liabilities would be using bond earnings. A Stanford University team has already analyzed California’s three state pension systems on this basis and reported a half-trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities. The public employee unions have predictably denounced using safe accounting methods. The City must immediately commission a study to determine the full extent of its unfunded pension liability. When it does there will be huge sticker shock, followed by political shock, as the vast size of this debt finally hits home. Our $20 million reserve will suddenly seem woefully inadequate.
Is there an ongoing or specific one-time city expenditure you believe is wasteful?
We need to explore a method of providing fire and paramedic services that costs substantially less than $8.3 million annually. This alone is 26 percent of our general fund budget. When one compares these figures with the tiny number of structure fires in our city, it should be obvious to any objective observer that something is seriously amiss.
In fact, there was a study underway for more than a year on how to provide these same services through regional cooperation. The goal was to find a way to maintain response times, but to do it in a more cost-effective manner. The firefighters’ union strongly opposed this study. Ultimately, I was outvoted 6-to-1 on continuing this study and the effort was stopped in its tracks before we could get the answers to some difficult questions. We need to get back to work and find a better, more efficient manner of delivering these services to our community that does not exhaust an unsustainable 26 percent of our general fund each year.
Do you think Gilroy has a self-esteem problem?
Interesting question. Gilroy is the third-oldest city in Santa Clara County after San Jose and Santa Clara. That is a reflection of our wonderful location at the base of Santa Clara Valley, and the fact that we are a gateway to Pacheco Pass and the Monterey Pen insula. We have a fascinating history and a climate that is the envy of much of the world. At the same time, we are fortunate to be surrounded by open fields, meadows, beautiful hillsides, and we can be at the beach in a half hour. All this and we are within a reasonable commute to Silicon Valley, the technology and innovation center of the universe. And as we see every year during the Garlic Festival, Gilroy has a spirit of community involvement and volunteerism that is second to none. I would not characterize our situation as “a self-esteem problem,” but I would say that I do not think we have yet realized our full potential.
Gilroy has the highest unemployment rate in the county. What role does the Council play in ameliorating that?
This is a question best answered by way of example. Over the last five years, I have heard a lot of conflicting, anecdotal evidence about how hard it is (or is not) to operate a business in Gilroy. The majority of complaints come from builders. To investigate, I spearheaded the creation of the Development Standards Review Task Force which I now chair and which has been meeting monthly since early this year. My initial impression, which is based on a limited sampling of evidence so far, is that staff has in many cases and on its own initiative created standards that have never been approved by the City Council. In many cases these standards are impractical, even unworkable. The task force has a long way to go to get this sorted out. But this is the role the Council should play: When things are not working, councilmembers must roll up their sleeves, find out why, and figure out how to solve the problem aided by a lot of community input.
What volunteer activities are you involved in?
Before I was elected to the City Council, I regularly served as a volunteer judge for the Santa Clara County Superior Court. Some readers may remember me as the guy who heard your small claims or traffic case in San Martin. After I was elected I had to give that up, since I did not think it would be appropriate for me to be both voting on ordinances at City Hall and then hearing cases at the courthouse as to whether those ordinances had been violated. Also, I am a former board member for Leadership Gilroy. Since 2009, I have represented Gilroy and Morgan Hill on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Board of Directors. This 12-member board is responsible for public transportation, congestion management, and highway improvements from Palo Alto in the north to Gilroy in the south. We are also actively working on a number of large projects, including bringing BART to San Jose. I also serve on VTA’s Administration and Finance Committee, as well as its Audit Committee. Given the demands of being on the City Council, its various subcommittees and task forces, the VTA Board, VTA committees, running a successful law practice, and being a husband to my wife and a dad to our two small girls, there is not a lot of extra time for other volunteer activities.
What are two of your favorite movies? Why?
“Chinatown” (Paramount Pictures, 1974). The story, set in Los Angeles in 1937, was inspired by the California Water Wars (1910-20s) by which Southern California secured water rights in the Owens Valley. It is part mystery and part psychological drama. If you haven’t seen it, you have missed one of the best movies of all time.
“My Cousin Vinny” (20th Century Fox, 1992). “There have been many courtroom dramas that have glorified the great American legal system. This is not one of them.” (Original movie poster.)
Should the City Council have supported the Gilroy Unified School District’s effort to place a sales tax measure on the ballot?
Yes. Our local schools are in a state of crisis that would have been unimaginable back when I was an elementary student at Glen View in the mid and late-1970s. We need to find a permanent, local solution, so that we can break our dependence on the dysfunction of Sacramento. A strong network of public schools will go far in helping Gilroy realize its full potential.
Is the City solely responsible to fix all the buckling sidewalks in Gilroy?
If the homeowner damaged the sidewalk, the homeowner should certainly fix it. But in the vast majority of cases, city trees – specifically selected, maintained and mandated by the City – have buckled our sidewalks. If the City damaged the sidewalk, the City should fix it.
Taking it a step further, sidewalks are like street lights in that both provide community-wide benefits. To me, a buckled sidewalk is in a sense like a city street light going out. Should the homeowners nearest the street light be required to pay to replace the bulb, just because it happens to be closest to their house? I don’t think so. To take the analogy further, just because bulbs are going out all over town and the problem has become really expensive for the City, that does not somehow justify shunting the cost off onto residents.
As an incumbent, what is the best decision and worst decision you’ve made in your time on City Council?
Best decision: No Gilroy elected official or candidate was talking about the need for more openness in local government five years ago, except me. Immediately after I was elected in November 2007, I surveyed ordinances that had been enacted throughout California to further transparency. Working from those other cities’ ordinances, I spent more than 100 hours in November 2007 drafting a unique 31-page law that would fit Gilroy’s precise circumstances and chip away at City Hall’s longstanding culture of secrecy. At my first meeting as a councilmember, I proposed the full text of a ready-to-be-adopted Gilroy Open Government Ordinance. It was enacted the next year, 2008. It was such a good idea that two mayoral candidates – Dion Bracco and Peter Arellano – are now trying to take some measure of credit for it as part of their own current campaigns. The irony is that both fought me at the outset, forced the ordinance to be watered down in important ways, and only begrudgingly came to accept the community’s overwhelming insistence on an open government ordinance.
Worst decision: I wish that I had voted to put the question of eliminating binding arbitration for labor disputes with the firefighters’ union on the ballot the first time it came up, instead of the second.
Why are you running?