Seaside finds itself politically adrift
Thursday, March 11, 1999
There was a feeling of renewed optimism in the city of Seaside with the defeat of incumbent mayor Don Jordan by political newcomer Jerry Smith in last November's election.
During much of his two-term tenure as mayor, Jordan was besieged by complaints from within and without city hall over his administration's management of city finances, its responsiveness to citizen and employee concerns, and the perceived usurpation of council authority by then-City Manager Tim Brown regarding development and planning policy.
Just three months into the new year, the exuberance surrounding the outcome of the November mayoral election is somewhat diminished and Seaside finds itself without a permanent city manager, and politically hobbled by a failed effort on the part of the mayor and City Council to fill the open council seat left vacant by the resignation of former Councilmember Helen Rucker.
For those seeking a quick start and clear political direction for Seaside's future, the Smith administration has created more questions than immediate answers.
"It's offered some tremendous challenges," concedes Smith of his administration's somewhat rough beginning. "I don't know of too many first time mayors who, within their first 15 days, were seeking a council position and city manager."
Fairly or not, the expectation that Smith would capitalize on his upset win over Jordan and ride into city hall with a clear mandate for change was undercut by the very basis of Smith's victory.
If there was one defining issue in the November election, it was Don Jordan's unwavering support for Tim Brown, whose fiscal performance and authoritarian managerial style alienated most city employees and residents.
It was inevitable that with Jordan's defeat, Brown had little choice but to resign from office, a move that looked good on paper but which resulted in the city being unable to immediately hire a replacement due partly to Brown's generous severance package, as well as the fiscal mess left behind by Brown and Jordan. Audits from 1995, '96 and '97 revealed $3.6 million in deficit spending.
"The decision to postpone recruitment of a city manager is related to information we received on our mid-year budget review," says Smith. "The city is not in great financial shape, a carry-over from the previous administration. As a result we're going through the '97-'98 audit, but I don't know how long the audit will take."
The financial difficulties confronting Seaside have also delayed a decision on whether to hire a new fire chief, or to opt for a single public safety officer who would oversee both the fire and police departments.
When Seaside's former fire chief retired in 1997, the City Council decided to fill that position on an "interim" basis by having the police chief direct both departments, which is still the case today.
The Monterey County 1998 grand jury report concluded that morale in the fire department had been adversely affected by the council's failure to decide whether to appoint a new fire chief or create a public safety department headed by one chief.
The grand jury recommended hiring a new fire chief, and that remains the favored proposal to date at city hall.
"The [original] concept was to create a public safety director who would serve as an administrator over the two divisions," explains acting City Manager Rich Guillen. "Now there are two considerations--to move forward and create a public safety director position or go back to the old structure of [separate] police and fire division chiefs."
"My focus is on the supervision of those departments with independent department heads," comments Smith. "As to whether we can make that transition is a question of economic solvency."
More problematic for Smith's political future is the political havoc that resulted from Helen Rucker's resignation.
Like Brown's resignation, Rucker's departure from the council was a direct result of Smith's victory. Prior to the election, rumors circulated that Rucker, a close ally of Jordan and Brown, would relinquish her seat if they were ousted. Rucker herself was not up for re-election in November.
Those rumors were indeed confirmed, leaving a degree of bitterness among the remaining councilmembers over Rucker's abrupt departure; and leaving Smith and the rest of the council with their first political test.
Among the three top candidates to replace Rucker were former three-term mayor and City Council candidate Lance McClair, who placed third in the election behind incumbents Tom Mancini and Darryl Choates; council candidate Lisa Mitchell; and former Smith campaign manager Tom Collins.
Although McClair was considered a likely replacement as the next highest vote-getter in the council election, it was felt he carried too much political baggage from his tenure as mayor.
Smith and the remaining councilmembers could not agree on another candidate for appointment, which means that Seaside residents will have to wait until June to elect a replacement for Rucker.
As far as McClair is concerned, the City Council fiasco has raised questions as to whether Smith will be a strong, decisive leader in the future.
"Jerry is a fine gentleman and we're fortunate we had someone to run [in November], but the fact he was new didn't work too well for him," says McClair, who adds he is still considering a run for City Council. "Too many people are pulling at him, and I'm sure he'll be a good mayor as time goes along, but at a time that was crucial for good advice and guidance it was not there. The fact that he didn't lead the situation on the empty seat was crucial."
"I think it was just inexperience that got us off to a slow start," adds incumbent councilmember Darryl Choates. "We have a mayor who doesn't know the real functions of municipal government that the other councilmembers do know."
While Smith hasn't had a full or fair opportunity to establish himself politically, there is agreement that the Smith administration at least appears more open than his predecessor's.
And, as far as the city's ambitious development plans go, Seaside remains on track. On March 18, the City Council will consider for the first time two development proposals to build a high-end resort/conference center on Fort Ord adjacent to the Blackhawk/Bayonet golf courses.
One proposal calls for a 400-room Marriott Seaside hotel, the other a 450-room Hilton Hotel proposed by the Seaside Resort Hotel Partnership that includes developers Kaufman & Broad and Danny Bakewell, key players in Seaside's residential development plans.
Observers say the debate over which hotel gets built could become politically interesting, given the close ties between Kaufman & Broad, Danny Bakewell, and the past Jordan/Brown administration. Such a debate could provide Smith with his first real opportunity to establish a new identity for his administration, and to distance himself from the back-room development deals that led to Jordan and Brown's downfall.