City Council candidate Jane Sullwold
City Council candidate Jane Sullwold
Alameda Golf Commissioner, 2005-present (chair, 2007-present)
If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
I could say that I favored making Alameda a “vibrant” community with a ”sustainable” future, and who would disagree? I prefer to be a little more specific. These are my top three priorities:
• Bringing the budget under control without impairing public safety. The City is projected to run out of money in four years. We cannot let this happen – and we need to make the hard choices necessary to make sure it doesn’t. We should identify the core services demanded by Alameda residents of their government and then determine the most cost-effective ways of providing them. And all options should be on the table.
• Renewing Alameda Point without risking public exposure to toxics or creating traffic nightmares. Fifteen years after the Naval Air Station closed, toxic waste cleanup is still ongoing; development has focused on short-term commercial leases, and historic buildings are falling apart. In no way do I underestimate the challenges we face in renewing the Point. But isn’t it time, at long last, to get going? I think it is.
• Making sure that the public is fully informed and actively engaged throughout the decisionmaking process. I applaud the City’s implementation of the recommendations of the Sunshine Task Force, but I think the sun can shine even more brightly. It is not enough simply to tell the public what Council intends to do; we should solicit the public’s views about what Council should do. Nor is it enough simply to allow citizens to express opinions at public meetings; we should encourage citizens to raise questions as well.
What is your vision for the future of Alameda Point, and what are three steps you would take to implement that vision?
I envision the western portion of Alameda Point as a clean and safe place devoted to wildlife, parks and open space. I envision the eastern portion of Alameda Point as a thriving center for commerce and light industry with housing located near the Oakland Estuary and/or the Seaplane Lagoon. To these ends, I would concentrate on three action items:
• Insisting that the Navy clean up the western portion of the Point sufficiently to permit its long-anticipated use for a wildlife refuge, parks, and open space;
• Preparing a master infrastructure plan and a base wide environmental impact report so that the City is ready to act quickly on proposals for developing the 918-acre eastern portion of
the Point; and
• Proceeding with development in phases but emphasizing, in the first instance, commercial reuse and redevelopment of the Historic District, including marketing cleaned-up buildings
for sale or long-term lease.
State law limits the steps local elected officials can take to address employee pension and benefit costs. Given these restrictions, how would you address the city’s unfunded pension and health care liabilities?
Our unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree medical benefits are truly staggering. By one calculation, as of June 30, 2010, the unfunded liability for the public safety and “miscellaneous” employee pension plans was about $94.5 million. By another, the unfunded liability for these two plans was $183 million. Likewise, according to the City’s estimate, as of January 1, 2011, the unfunded liability for retiree medical benefits amounted to $86.4 million.
State law may restrict the City’s ability to act unilaterally, but it does not tie our hands. Retirement benefits remain subject to the collective bargaining process, and we can, and should, seek the union’s agreement to increase employee contributions to the cost of providing pensions and retiree medical benefits. If an agreement is reached, the City’s future liability will be reduced.
The pension task force appointed by City Manager John Russo is exploring long-term solutions. No one believes it is acceptable for the City simply to walk away from the promises it made. One option worth further study is issuing pension obligation bonds to raise money to pay off or pay down the unfunded liabilities now. I expect the task force will crunch the numbers to determine whether this option makes financial sense.
Do you think there are unmet housing needs in Alameda? If so, what are they and how would you address them?
According to the staff analysis of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment issued by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the City needs to provide sites sufficient to develop an additional 2,420 housing units between now and 2014. I have no reason to second-guess this number – or to pronounce it ideal. The City recently adopted a Housing Element designed to meet its RHNA target, which included a so-called “multi-family overlay” that was inconsistent with Measure A. Staff represented that taking this action was the only way for the City to comply with state law. Personally, I am not so sure that staff’s legal analysis was correct, but what’s done is done. I do not support repealing the new Housing Element, but I do remain a strong supporter of Measure A and the principles underlying it.
Are there any city services that you believe are underfunded? If so, how would you raise revenue or what would you cut to pay for them?
I am concerned about the extent of deferred maintenance of the City’s streets, sewers, storm drains and parks. When the Fiscal Sustainability Committee was doing its work, the Public Works director estimated that the total cost of improving the City’s infrastructure was a whopping $662 million. Nevertheless, the fiscal year 2012-13 budget included only $17.8 million (of which only $1.2 million came from the general fund) for capital projects. Obviously, spending at that level leaves a lot of work left undone.
Of course, we don’t have money in the general fund available to fill the gap all at once. Bringing the operating budget under control is a necessary but not sufficient first step. We’ll still face a series of hard choices requiring trade-offs between maintaining the current level of services and ensuring that the infrastructure doesn’t disintegrate in the meantime.
City Manager John Russo has said he would like to implement more public-private partnerships in order to continue providing services at a reduced cost to the city. Do you
agree? And if so, which services currently provided by the city do you think could be sourced through private contracts?
I certainly can see Mr. Russo’s point about how a “public-private partnership” can save money for the City. The Animal Shelter is the most prominent example. The City agreed to pay $300,000 a year to the Friends of the Animal Shelter to operate the facility, which previously was run by the Police Department. According to staff, this agreement will save the City $497,000 annually. I also have heard the suggestion that the City enter into a similar arrangement with a non-profit organization to take over operation of City-owned sports fields.
My concern with “public-private partnerships” is whether they will work over the long term. If the City isn’t providing the funds to pay for the service on an ongoing basis, the sponsoring organization is going to have to raise money – every year – to keep it going – or else to begin charging fees to those who use it. Initial enthusiasm for the project may run high – but if ardor wanes the viability of the enterprise will be threatened.
On the larger issue of “privatizing” City services – i.e., turning them over to private contractors – I can draw on my experience with the Chuck Corica Golf Complex. The decision to find a private operator, and later, long-term lessee, for the Complex was predicated on the conviction that the City itself could not, or would not, run the Complex efficiently. I am not convinced that we have reached that point for other City services.
How could city government improve the way it does its job?
I could say that I favor making city government “transparent,” and who would disagree? Again, I prefer to be a little more specific. Here are my ideas for increasing public involvement in and awareness of issues before Council:
First, I recommend translating agenda items for Council meetings and community workshops from bureaucratese into plain English, in words that clearly spell out what will be discussed and what impact it might have on residents. An example of the way not to do it is the process that led up to adoption of the Housing Element. Many citizens – me included – did not recognize the real significance of the workshops and therefore did not attend, and so were surprised when it turned out that Council was being asked to take an action that was inconsistent with the City Charter.
In addition, I recommend that Council consider adjusting the format of its meetings. In particular, I urge allowing citizens to submit written questions during both the public comment and Council discussion periods. The questions could be screened by the Mayor or someone else to eliminate frivolous or irrelevant ones, but, in a representational government, no citizen should be told that he or she may not ask questions of staff during a public meeting – much less be scolded when he or she tries to do so.
I would also recommend allowing, and indeed encouraging, Councilmembers to turn back to members of the public for answers to questions that staff members are unable to provide, even after the close of public comment. All too often I have been present at a Council meeting where an issue is raised by a Councilmember after the public comment period has ended, no one on the dais knows the answer, and members of the public who do know and are raising their hands are ignored. I am unaware of anything in Robert’s Rules of Order or the Brown Act that would prohibit these changes.
Finally, I encourage Council to conduct more public workshops on controversial issues prior to the meetings at which votes will be taken, with the topics described simply and directly and the workshops publicized well in advance. I particularly commend as a model the Golf Commission special meeting on April 24, 2012, at which representatives from KemperSports and Greenway Golf, the two companies bidding to be selected as the operator of the Golf Complex, made presentations and then responded to questions from the community.