Friday, September 30, 2022

Volunteers Needed - Please Sign Up

The biggest challenge in a successful campaign is getting the word out that I'm running and what I stand for.  Name recognition is helpful, but it's only the beginning. In an effort to reach as many people as possible, I am asking for help placing door hangers throughout the city.

The plan will be to place a door hanger on every residential door in the city.  With a little more than 4,400 residences, the more people we have the better.

I am targeting 10/15/22 to distribute door hangers and am asking for volunteers.  To facilitate the signing up for various areas, I have created the following sign up sheet. Please click this link to sign up:

Once you are signed up, we will establish a central meeting place to distribute materials and depending on the number of people we can subdivide the areas even further. The more people we have the better, but I am asking for approximately 2 hours or so. 

Thank you everyone for your support and together we can do this.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Transparency and Misleading About the Need

A key aspect of being fiscally responsible is knowing what the financial demands of the city actually are.  If we are not clear on what we need to spend, how can we prioritize our activities to make sure we are being as effective as possible with taxpayer dollars? 

The first time a 5 year projection was prepared was in June-2021.  This is what was shared with the Budget/Audit Committee:

This reflected a balanced budget in 2022, and deficits starting in 2023 of approximately $200K, worsening approximately $100K each year.  And while I raised the alarm bells, no significant discussion took place at Council during the rest of 2021.  If I controlled the agenda I would have included a discussion item each meeting so we would have sufficient time to validate the information, brainstorm, and discuss potential actions.  Unfortunately this did not happen.

The next projection we saw was presented at the 2.1.22 meeting:

Here, the projection had improved.  Deficits still started in 2023, however the amount was reduced to approximately $100K, still worsening approximately $100K/year for the following 5 years.

Staff also presented what they characterized as "unmet needs" though I call it a wishlist.  Things like bringing our City Engineer to an in house employee rather than a contractor (this request was set aside in the prior year due to increased cost including associated pension), an additional police lieutenant, making up shortfalls in special district funds, etc.   This wishlist projection was also presented at the 2.1.22 meeting:

Here deficits still began in 2023, but instead of the approximate $100K baseline, when including the wishlist items the projection showed an initial 2023 deficit ballooning north of $600K, with the projection still worsening approximately $100K/year.

After the 2.1.22 meeting, the Pioneer published yet another table illustrating the projection, however it's unclear where the information was obtained from since it did not match the tables shown at the previous meeting:

This table reflected figures about the same as the "wishlist" projection, but it appears the writer was in contact with someone from the city as each of the figures had been updated.  So why use the "wishlist" version and not the baseline amount?  It seems misleading about the actual need if discretionary spending gets included as a way inflate projected deficits.

And then there was the $30K survey that the Council decided to spend money on (I voted no).  In this survey, the first question about a parcel tax was this:

After already inflating the projected deficit, staff crafted survey questions to query the public, the first of which characterized the first option as an additional parcel tax of $400/parcel.  But with approximately 4400 residential parcels in Clayton, a $400 parcel tax would yield approximately $1.76M!

If we have a baseline deficit projected at approximately $100K, why would we survey residents regarding a $1.76 million dollar tax measure?  Working with the paper to inflate the need and then using $30K of taxpayer dollars to hire a polling firm to inflate the ask is not transparent and is highly misleading.

We do have fiscal challenges.  But we need leadership that will not accept information at face value, especially when it is clearly misleading.  We need leaders who won't look to raise taxes an exorbitant amount as a first option. And before we do anything else, we need to gain a better understanding of our fiscal picture so we have better information to act upon.  This will take more than attending meetings and pontificating at the lectern - it is going to take real nuts and bolts work to dig into what is actually happening and work through solutions that prioritize and support city services so we can preserve Clayton as a great place to live and raise a family.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

9.20.22 Meeting Summary

Last night the Council discussed several significant items:

- On the consent calendar was a resolution to update traffic patterns during school pickup and drop off hours near Mt. Diablo Elementary on Four Oaks Ln.  There has been issues with vehicles making U-Turns on this street causing unsafe conditions during school pickup and drop off times.  As a result, the city will be restricting U-Turns on that street at certain times.  We also were aware of the confusing nature of the signs and will be updating them for clarity and conformity.

- We formed a new Community Facilities District (CFD) in order to facilitate the HOA creation and fee collection for certain city services at the new Diablo Meadows development at the southern end of Mitchell Canyon Rd.  The rules require a vote of the landowners for this type of action, but as the developer is the only landowner of those parcels, the vote was unanimous.  

In addition to the creation of that CFD, the action taken by the Council also created a future annexation overlay for almost the whole city.  This was done to facilitate potential future developments entry into the CFD and allow them to piggyback off the process we just undertook.  Creating a CFD is a complex, prescribed process that takes several separate meetings and creating this additional overlay could make less administratively burdensome for future developments to pay for city services.  I was concerned this could make it easier to levy taxes, however after in depth questioning all the safeguards in place including the voter approval threshold would still be in place should any property outside of the Diablo Meadows development wished to participate in the CFD.

This development is scheduled to start selling within the next few weeks.

- We approved the placement of plaques in memory of Braden Fahey at the Grove Park and the Clayton Community Park.

- We discussed the preliminary design concept for the Complete Streets Feasibility Study on Pine Hollow Rd as a joint project with the City of Concord.  The initial draft called for improved sidewalk access and connectivity in several areas, two way bike lanes in certain areas, raised crosswalks and better lighting, overall improved signage and crossing areas, and certain curbs to be extended called "bulbouts" which reduce the distance that pedestrians need to cross and narrow the passing of turning vehicles to reduce speeds.

The city approved the feasibility study to move forward.  From there, more detailed work to flesh out specific design and overall cost, as well as potential funding sources, will be presented as a deliverable of the feasibility study.

- We discussed what feedback to provide to Councilmember Cloven as the city's representative to TRANSPAC related to the designation of Marsh Creek and Clayton Road as Routs of Regional Significance.  The benefit of such a designation would be notification and communication regarding projects in other areas of the county that could impact traffic or related issues in Clayton.  Cloven and Wolfe used the familiar refrain that they wanted to have a seat at the table rather than be on the menu.

Upon questioning however, it was clear from the permissive and conditional language used by representatives from CCTA and TRANSPAC, that any such discussion that may be had as a result of the Route of Regional Significance was simply that - discussion.  Nothing required other agencies or jurisdictions to take action based on the desire of the City of Clayton.  In fact, since all of these bodies and jurisdictions are subject to the Brown Act and aren't conducting their business in secret, the benefit of being part of the discussion can be had with or without accepting this designation.

I questioned whether any funding is jeopardized by not accepting the designation and there was no potential loss of funds or access to funds described.  Even if future funding was conditioned upon such a designation, the City could take up the discussion anew when more information was available.

My concern was that such a designation and the publicization of such a designation could lead to increased traffic through Clayton to and from East County.  Even things like publicizing a hiking trail on a website lead to areas within Clayton being inundated with traffic and congestion beyond what was reasonable. In addition, while the proposed designation doesn't require any specific action right now, we've seen how certain designations can be incorporated into other laws like "opportunity areas" that were defined and then incorporated into housing laws taking away local control.  This was also included in the staff report:

Because there was no tangible benefit, and only potential negative outcomes, I conveyed my opposition to designating Clayton Rd. and Marsh Creek Rd a Route of Regional Significance.  There was clear disagreement with the regular majority on the Council and Cloven as the representative to TRANSPAC is able to speak on behalf of the City as he sees fit.

- We were set to discuss a letter of support for the CEMEX Quarry Reclamation Plan Amendment, however a representative from CEMEX was unable to attend and asked that the matter be tabled so this items was closed without any action taken.

In addition to the above items, I requested future discussion regarding two items:

- I received a message from a concerned citizen regarding a family member that resides in Diamond Terrace.  The allegation was that the facility was adjusting fees in a way that may be contrary to the requirement for low income housing that the city monitors.  I requested a future agenda item to discuss what information was available and what potential action the City could take on behalf of the residents.

- I requested a future discussion item about the quality of recent pavement work, how the work scoped, performed, and accepted given the concerns of many residents.

ETA: I removed mention of Tillman in making the comment about "having a seat at the table".  While the majority clearly felt differently than I, it was only the two that made that specific comment.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Transparency and Social Media

There's something that I've been telling people consistently over the last four years and will continue to do so - residents should not have to be super dialed in to the minutiae of government to know what is happening in their city.  

Unfortunately, the city has made this more difficult in the last few years.  There was a change in how minutes were taken, going from a description of what was discussed to "Action Style" where only the result of votes are published.  This means that even reading the minutes of each meeting isn't sufficient to understand why a particular decision was made.  And while meetings are available to everyone, coming to meetings all the time, or sitting through hours of video is not a reasonable expectation of people's time.  

With technology today, the City and its leaders have the ability to communicate and interact widely with residents in a way residents are most comfortable.  We are a small city and there is no reason that people shouldn't be able to ask direct questions and get direct answers from those they elect.  Commonly requested information should be available at the City's website - things like a schedule of upcoming maintenance or the latest report on our street conditions (now on the website after I asked). 

When evaluating candidates, it's one thing to say they are transparent, but it's another thing to actually be transparent.  Take social media for example.  Do they share substantive policy positions?  Do they answer questions? I've heard folks including other Councilmembers bemoan social media and platforms such as Facebook and NextDoor as things they avoid participating in.  Of course there will always be those who act as troublemakers or are bad actors, but that should not be a reason to eschew the communication medium entirely.  In our small town, most people are able to filter out the the bad actors and get to the substance of what is being shared.

Really being transparent means being available, answering questions, and accepting criticism.  That should be both the expectation and the norm.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Upcoming Council Meeting 9.20.22

Since we cancelled our last meeting, it's been a while since my last meeting update.  I'll continue to do so throughout the campaign, along with other campaign updates.  Please stay tuned.

There are a few significant items we will discuss at our next meeting:

- As part of the consent calendar, we will be discussing extending our current contract with Republic Services for waste management so that negotiations for a new contract can take place.  The current contract has been in place since Aug-2011, and is set to expire at the end of 2022.  With over a ten year term, it's unfortunate we haven't been able to start negotiations so it could be in place more timely, but hopefully a six month extension will be sufficient to ensure we negotiate in the best interests of our residents.

- We will be having a first reading of an ordinance establishing a new Community Facilities District (like an HOA) for the new development, Diablo Meadows, at the southern end of Mitchell Canyon Rd.

- We will be discussing placement of plaques in memory of Braden Fahey at the Grove Park and the Clayton Community Park.

- We will discuss the preliminary design concept for the Complete Streets Feasibility Study on Pine Hollow Rd. as a joint project with the City of Concord.

- We will discuss feedback to provide Clayton's TRANSPAC representative regarding designation of Marsh Creek Rd and Clayton Rd as Routes of Regional Significance.  One impact of this designation would be increased regional pressure to provide improved connectivity and reduced travel times along these streets, likely increasing traffic volumes that use Clayton as a pass through from East County.

- We will discuss the request from CEMEX to provide a letter of support for their Quarry Reclamation Plan Amendment that is before Contra Costa County.

If you have any thoughts or questions on the above, please let me know.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Transparency and City Services

Transparency is an oft touted ideal but when it comes to the city and its activities, we often fall short.  

One of the questions I get most often from residents is around maintenance - when is a particular area going to be addressed, etc.  For several years now I've been asking for a schedule of activities from our Maintenance Department regarding their regular activities, and Engineering department related to the Oakhurst Geological Hazard Abatement District. What areas of landscaping will be worked on, and when?  When will the weeds be addressed?  And so on.  How are we managing our resources if we don't even have a schedule of activities?

Such a schedule would increase actual transparency and let people know what is supposed to happen and when. By preparing such a schedule, it allows for better resource management and helps city leaders and residents hold people accountable. Without such a schedule, no one really knows what is supposed to be happening, or when.  This makes it more difficult to set expectations and foments community dissatisfaction.  

Working with our departments to create such a schedule would be a valuable first step in demonstrating that the city is doing what it is supposed to be doing, or holding them accountable when they are not.  That is actual transparency and would be an early goal of mine in the upcoming term.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Let's Have a Chat - Meet and Greet 9/10/22

In order to get the word out about my candidacy, and give all residents a chance to get to know me, I am hosting a casual meet and greet so all the residents of Clayton can ask questions and talk about anything that's on your mind.  I will be at Skipolini's on the deck from 11-1pm this Saturday 9/10/22.  Please let your friends and neighbors know, and stop by to say hello.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

First Term Accomplishments - and Looking Ahead

After serving four years there are a number of accomplishments that I'm proud of, and some things that I wish went differently.

Transparency in communication - For government to work for the people, it's critically important that those people be informed.  But ultimately people shouldn't have to be dialed in to the day to day activities of the city - that's why we elect representatives.  But if people want to know what's going on, they should be able to find out easily.   That's why I write updates before and after every Council meeting.  If there is an item of interest, then it gives people a heads up how they can participate.  From the mundane to the impactful, the city always has activity going on and we should make it easy to find out about it.  Unfortunately the meeting minutes that are kept are what's called "Action Style Minutes" - only capturing the decisions made, but none of the discussions or rationale for why a decision was made.  With meetings being hours long, it's unreasonable to expect people to watch videos just to find out why a decision was made.  Elected officials have a responsibility to share their reasoning and I will continue to make it as easy as possible for people to do so.

Fiscal Discipline and the Budget/Audit Committee - I've served on the Budget/Audit Committee each of the four years I've been in office.  During that time, I recommended that we save surpluses to help stabilize pension expenses, identified and corrected numerous items with our external audit reports, facilitated the funding of an additional school crossing guard, and was first to identify the structural financial challenges that the city is now facing.  When we revisited our expenditure policy, I pushed back to make it more fiscally conservative.  Even though I was in the minority, I consistently argued against utilizing consultants for routine activities and was opposed to spending 10s of thousands of dollars and staff time on conducting a survey where the results were entirely predictable.

Addressing quality of life issues outside of Regency Gate - After the trailhead was popularized by social media and even events hosted by hiking groups, the quiet neighborhood became anything but.  Previous concerns from residents in the area around Regency Gate regarding a complete lack of street parking did not gain traction at the city. From driveways being blocked, to trash littering the street, and excessive speeds and aggressive drivers looking for parking, this was something that great impacted the quality of life for the residents in this neighborhood.  After talking extensively with the residents, and meeting with folks that wanted to preserve park access, I proposed a balanced solution that addressed the issue while preserving the ability for members of the public to access the trails.  Even though there was some hesitation, eventually the majority of the Council was persuaded and we were able to implement a permit parking system.  The result has been successful - residents say the impact was like night and day.

Additional crossing guard and interactive signal crossing signs - I have young children and I am acutely aware of how important traffic safety is, especially around our schools.  So when the president of the Mt. Diablo Elementary PFC reached out to me to ask if the city could help provide an additional crossing guard outside the school, I was glad to take action.  Initially this took the form of the city acting on behalf of the PFC, accepting a donation and then working with existing service providers.  This type of cooperation was great, but I thought it the city's responsibility to do what it could to ensure the safety of its youngest residents.  As part of the Budget and Audit subcommittee, I made sure this item was included in future budgets.  Providing a crossing guard, and improving traffic and pedestrian safety especially around our schools is a way that the city can make sure that its spending reflects its priorities.

Updating the sign ordinances around town - Prior to being elected I was surprised to learn how restrictive the sign ordinances were in town.  After reviewing the laws that were passed by previous Councils, it became clear that ours was overly restrictive, so much so that they wouldn't be defensible as they likely violated the 1st amendment.  I argued for change and ultimately the city updated its ordinances.  There are almost no speech restrictions that I will support so ultimately I voted against the restrictions that the city ended up with.  At least through having the discussion we were able to change our ordinances to be consistent with 1st amendment caselaw.

Backyard hens - One comment that was pretty common in talking with people were chickens.  Many people in town keep hens, but officially city ordinances prohibited it.  This was particularly poignant in talking with an elementary school teacher who would incubate a chicks as part of a class project, but at the end had to surrender the hens because they weren't allowed to be kept it in the city.  In doing research about the benefits and impacts, I found that not including Clayton, all but one city in the County allowed the keeping of hens.  I worked with city staff on this research and was able to persuade my fellow councilmembers to change the law.  Now people in Clayton can legally keep backyard hens.

ARPA and the Clayton Cares program - When the city first learned that it would receive federal assistance related to COVID relief, the scope was fairly narrow on what was allowable.  The money was primarily to be used between 5 categories, public health response, economic impacts, premium pay, revenue loss, and infrastructure.  While the Council all initially wished to support our local businesses, I made sure that our ARPA program included direct assistance to households as well.  With experience administering larger programs, I made sure that we did not overreach and that what we created would be directly beneficial for clayton residents and businesses, without imposing a heavy burden on them or our city staff.  

When we revisited the subject, we continued the focus on local businesses and households, while at the same time looking at recognizing our police for the work they did and continued to do throughout the pandemic.  While the original amount suggested was in the neighborhood of $2K/officer, I suggested an overall more structured approach and that we target a certain percent of available funds toward premium pay for all employees and then determine what the amount would be.  This mean that our oft underpaid staff was able to receive each $10K/employee - something more meaningful while still being responsible with our ARPA funds.  Later the guidelines for ARPA changed and the character of the funds became the same as our general reserves.

Areas of Opportunity - There are some areas when I haven't been successful, though I continue to advocate to make things better.  The city is responsible for a number of things big and small.  I've been asking for a schedule of activities for several years from our Engineering department related to the Oakhurst Geological Hazard Abatement District, as well as from our Maintenance department related to their regular activities.  Such a schedule would increase transparency, and let people know what is supposed to happen and when.  By preparing such a schedule, it allows for better resource management and helps city leaders and residents hold people accountable.  This would be a valuable first step in making sure the city is doing what it is supposed to be doing.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Fiscal Discipline and the Public Trust

This is going to be quite long, but recently a resident posed a couple questions that I thought would be good to address.  I'm paraphrasing, but the questions went something like this:
  1. Why didn't I suggest any cuts to the budget during the first 3 years of my term?
  2. Wasn't the idea of a parcel tax mine in the first place? 
  3. If so, why the change of opinion from supporting it to being against it?
A bit of history first.  Like many local governments, Clayton operates on a fiscal year that ends June 30.  I began my term in December of 2018 and have served on the Budget/Audit Committee each of the four years I’ve been in office.  For the year ended 6.30.2018, there was a surplus of approximately $181K of which $100K was set aside in a pension rate stabilization fund at my recommendation, a small amount was used for safety equipment, and the remainder placed in the general fund.  We seemed to be in good shape as we also had historical surpluses.  For the year ended 6.30.2019 there was a surplus of approximately $80K.  For the year ended 6.30.2020, there was a surplus of approximately $400K, however $113K of that was due to unrealized gains on investments so a more realistic surplus was $290K.  For the year ended 6.30.2021, the budget called for a surplus of less than $1K, however at the mid year we estimated an actual surplus of approximately $43K due to increased sales tax revenues, however the actual year end surplus was approximately $140K.

During this same time period, we had quite a bit of turnover in the role of City Manager and Finance Director.  One of the questions that was asked of all candidates for the City Manager role was their ability to produce a 5 or 10 year financial projection – this is something the city had never had before and given the volatility in our financials and overall uncertainty, we thought it prudent to incorporate a 5 year forecast as part of our financial processes.  Because of the turnover though, the first iteration of the 5 year forecast was not provided to the Council until June 2021.  That’s a lot of info to address the first question, but it was asked why I didn’t propose cuts prior, it is because in prior years we had surpluses, and only in June 2021 did we actually have a forecast to operate from.  Nothing nefarious – just taking the best course of action with the information available at the time.

After reviewing the forecast, I knew that this was something that needed to be addressed as what the forecast showed was unsustainable.  I pulled together some preliminary information from our budgets, some wage data, and our forecasts and wrote a post describing the situation.  My hope was this would start a conversation – I was engaged in a thread on Nextdoor discussing it, and began speaking with residents about what challenges we faced.

The post I wrote was titled, “Question: Raise Taxes, Reduce Services, or Both”.  To the extent that the claim is a parcel tax was my idea, then reducing services or both were also my idea.  But this would not be accurate in the context of the post that I made.  Instead, it was intended to start a discussion – among the Council, among staff, and among residents.  It was a question presented to be discussed.  Part of evaluating the best course of action is to talk through all viable options.   All city staff and the Council had this information, but no one else was willing to start the discussion.  I knew even raising the idea of a tax could illicit quite a negative reaction, but I’m not a politician (well, technically I am but I don’t think of it that way).  I want what’s best for our city and if there is a problem like there currently is with our financial position, the first thing we need to do is talk about it, understand the scope of the problem, and try to find potential solutions.

I did not control the agenda though, only the Mayor does that, and it wasn’t until late September 2021 that we actually discussed this issue again, and even then it was only to say that we were interested in having that discussion, and that we needed to outline overall timing if any solution were to include increased taxes.  I had requested that staff prepare a timeline should the Council wish to pursue a tax measure – I knew this process took quite a bit of time and if that was an option that was on the table, we should at least understand the requirements.  This was part of gathering accurate information to help inform any potential decision.

The next time we would talk about this would be in February 2022.  So rather than use the nearly 8 months of time since I raised the issue to discuss potential solutions and engage in outreach with our residents - the city took no meaningful action to address the financial challenges it faced.  During that same time, the city began spending.  Spending on consultants, spending on discretionary items, and spending on things that didn’t align with what I thought our priorities should be. 

In addition, when our financial position was getting discussed more widely, the information that was publicized was misleading.  Instead of a minimum level of funding increases needed for critical items ($110K and $180K in 2023 and 2024, respectively), what was published in the Pioneer (Feb 20, 2022 issue) reflected additional wishlist items that ballooned the alleged deficit to $670K and $810K in 2023 and 2024.  Presenting information in this manner was troubling.  Every dollar spent by the city is from the taxpayer and we should be extremely circumspect in how those resources are used.  Inflating what the actual need was in order to bolster the idea that increasing taxes was the only way to solve the financial challenges was misleading.

If we had taken the time from when I raised the issue to now to have serious discussion about cost savings, efficiencies, and other ways to reduce our overall expenditures, by the time we got to this point, one of two things would have happened – either we would have found a sufficient amount of savings so as to balance our budget, or we would be able to demonstrate that we had done everything possible to do so and there was no alternative other than to raise revenue.  Either way we would have been able to make the argument that we had done our due diligence.

I made this point clearly as I voted against discretionary spending again and again– it makes the argument in favor of raising revenue much weaker and difficult to support if the city can’t demonstrate it’s doing everything in its power to reduce expenses.  What this showed me is that leadership does not demonstrate a sufficient level of fiscal discipline necessary to gain the public trust.  I will not go to the taxpayer and ask them to tighten their belts unless and until the city has demonstrated that it has done the same, first.  I introduced the idea of a potential tax measure to start discussion about ways to address our fiscal challenges.  After extensive discussion and observation of the actions of the city, I am convinced that raising taxes is not an appropriate course of action.