Silence Is Golden?
It's a long way 'til November, but Seaside politics look surprisingly peaceful.
Thursday, April 6, 2000
It''s beginning to look like a quiet political year in Seaside. That''s surprising, not just because two council seats and the mayor''s seat are up for grabs in November, but also in light of the city''s fabled history of political turmoil. Toss in resignations by city staff, and a number of apparently stalled projects, and it would seem the city should be a simmering witch''s brew of political ambition.
Although the filing period for the council positions and the mayor''s seat doesn''t officially open until July, it usually doesn''t take a crystal ball to predict the most likely, viable candidates at this time in the year. At stake in November are Mayor Jerry Smith''s gavel and the seats of Steve Bloomer and Nancy Amos, who has said she will not run for reelection. But, to date, no one has stepped forward to say they plan to run against Smith, and the only council candidates who are ''fessing up to their intentions are sympathetic to Smith''s agenda.
It''s not as if Smith doesn''t have his critics.
In 1998, Felix Bachofner, then chair of Seaside''s planning commission, ran his second unsuccessful campaign against reigning mayor Don Jordan. He finished well behind both Smith, a political newcomer, and Jordan in the balloting. Bachofner doesn''t plan to try again this year.
"I''m going to sit out and watch a bunch of crazy people bash their heads out," says Bachofner. "I don''t think Jerry Smith is unseatable in the near future. It''s going to take a while for people to see that Jerry has done nothing for the city."
If there''s a general concensus in the criticism of Smith, Bachofner has gone to the heart of it.
During the 17 months that Smith has wielded the gavel, the city has been plagued with staff resignations, including the city finance director and, as of last week, the city''s police chief. In fact, the tone of Smith''s tenure was set before he was even sworn in: Both Councilmember Helen Rucker and City Manager Tim Brown resigned before Smith took office, with Brown receiving a golden parachute worth more than $160,000.
The search for a permanent city manager was just launched last month, and a permanent fire chief-one of Smith''s campaign pledges-has yet to be hired.
Proposed housing projects on former Fort Ord land have been subjected to review (something Smith promised to do during his campaign), leaving the impression that the projects have been delayed-even though not all the land has been conveyed to the city yet, due to incomplete site cleanup by the Army. And two proposed projects ballyhooed by the Jordan administration-a theater/shopping complex and a drugstore-have fallen off the table.
According to Smith, expectations for these projects-as well as a proposed Marriott Hotel near the Embassy Suites and other nearby developments-were blown out of proportion.
"What I really have learned in 17 months is that a majority of the economic development plans were overevaluated in terms of their development," says Smith. "The community had been given this false promise, that these things were on the brink of being done.
"Fifteen months ago, I learned that [many of] these were pie-in-the-sky projects, with no substance. So I, too, was rudely awakened."
Councilmember Darryl Choates, regarded by many as the person most likely to challenge Smith, disagrees. Although he was at constant odds with former Mayor Jordan-and ran against him for the mayorship from a safe council seat in ''96-Choates has harsh words for the current mayor.
"Our economic development has been set back three or four years," opines Choates. "There is no vision that has been set, still.
"There is no experienced staff on hand," he says in reference to the fact that the city still has not hired a city manager, "and there is no true leadership experience."
But, even as he talks tough, Choates won''t make a commitment about his political future, and his comments about this fall are open to interpretation.
"I have a commitment to the citizens," says Choates. "Right now I''m doing the job I was elected to do. If, between now and November, my committee and my supporters feel that a career move is in the future, we''ll consider it."
Some insiders are convinced Choates will get in the race. They point to the fact that he ran for mayor from a safe City Council seat in 1996, and anticipate Choates, whose council seat isn''t up for reelection until 2002, has nothing to lose by running again this year. But, at least for now, Choates is keeping his options open.
"I am not looking at the title at this time," says Choates, "but things do change. I can tell you this, he [Smith] doesn''t have a shoo-in."
If he does decide to run against Smith, Choates may find himself in an uphill battle facing not only the mayor, but the other candidates who have decided to run or are considering it.
Tom Collins, an Internet entrepreneur, wants Amos'' seat. Collins, in fact, had submitted his name as a possible appointee to City Council after Rucker''s resignation, and was the candidate of choice for Smith and Councilmember Tom Mancini. When Smith and Mancini held firm on Collins appointment, but were unable to convince Choates and Amos to vote for him, the city was forced to hold the special election in which Bloomer was elected. Collins sat out that election in favor of running for a full term.
You can count Collins as a Smith supporter. Although progress in the city may not be moving as quickly as he hoped, he finds little to fault in the mayor''s performance. "Jerry Smith doesn''t need me to defend him," says Collins. "His inexperience may have contributed, but it has more to do with other things as well. It''s not like Seaside was the shining city on the hill and then went to crap. Things are not going to change overnight."
If Collins is a Smith supporter, Mark Giblin, who says he''s considering a run for council, is a booster.
"I think Jerry Smith is doing a fantastic job considering what he had to begin with," says Giblin.
Running counter to some sentiment in the city, Giblin says he feels the city is moving too fast in its Fort Ord ventures, saying not enough study has been done on sewers and water.
Even some of Smith''s critics laud him for certain aspects of his performance. And, in their praise may lie a partial answer for why 2000 is shaping up as a relatively peaceful election year.
"The one thing [Smith] has done for the city," says former candidate Bachofner, "is that he has changed the perception of the workings of the council. There is now the perception that the council works in a more open and approachable manner."
And a business leader in the community who preferred to remain unnamed, attributed this new perception largely to Smith''s personality.
"He will listen," the person says, "even if he doesn''t agree. And he''ll think about it and then he''ll give you some intelligent response. He isn''t a real confrontational person; he really tries to work on the problem and keep personalities out of it."