Peeved In Pagrovia
A handful of angry activists. Two voter initiatives in the works. A small-town newspaper going for City Hall's jugular. Raw sewage floating in the bay.A mayor who smiles right through it all. What's g
Thursday, January 20, 2000
In mid-January, Christmas lights still adorn a downtown that Norman Rockwell couldn't have made more quaint. Further down the hill, a tidy lane lined with brightly lit Victorian, Craftsman-era and adobe cottages offers a picturesque backdrop for a handsome, sweater-clad family taking an evening walk down to Ocean View Boulevard, where a spectacular pink-orange sun sinks into the Pacific. Along the rocky shore, a sea otter without a care in the world floats on its back aboard a bed of kelp, enjoying an evening meal of sea star.
Looking from the outside in, it's hard to imagine that anything bad could go on in such a place. Yet, idyllic as the pretty little beach town appears to be, Pacific Grove, like everywhere else, has its problems.
Women and children being gunned down in the streets by drive-by shooters? Not exactly. Makeshift crank labs spontaneously combusting in the middle of neighborhoods, spewing noxious gases into the pristine sea air? Nah (although cops once caught a guy in his car making meth in a sports bottle). P.G.'s challenges may be relative to the community's smallish scale, but they're no less real to the people who live here.
In many ways, Pacific Grove is a city in transition. Residents and city leaders are attempting to balance the pressures of carpetbaggers with Silicon Valley and Holly-wood money moving in and threatening their beloved, Mayberry-esque way of life.
Not everyone's complaining. As property values shoot through gabled roofs, many Pagrovians are enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
Others, though, are suffering. Senior citizens living on fixed incomes are being forced out of their homes and neighborhoods as rents soar. Yet a city housing project for seniors has met a dead-end at every turn, and may still be years away from breaking ground.
Meanwhile, city coffers can't seem to keep up with the need for infrastructure improvements. Streets, storm drains, sidewalks, and sewers need repairing--or, in some cases, need to be built in the first place. Pagrovians aren't the only losers. Anyone who's concerned about marine ecology should be worried that thrice recently, the city's century-old sewage system has released thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Other citizens fear for the health of the Point Pinos tide pools, as more tourists, poachers, and government-sanctioned collectors are attracted to the wealth of sea life found there. Still others wonder why city officials would build a $2 million civic center and pay their employees so much.
Add 'em all up, and you'll understand the marathon City Council meetings, the scathing reports by Pagrovia's local paper, the public demonstrations, the impromptu activist confabs in front of the post office, and the tempers being pushed to the limit.
What's being done to solve the problems and douse the discontent? Mayor Sandy Koffman and other city officials say they're working on it. Some residents say not nearly hard enough.
"Pacific Grove is
by the staff,
of the staff,
and for the staff."
--Susan Goldbeck, The Beacon
A Matter of Priorities
There's a joke among P.G. City Hall watchers. It goes like this: "If you want to kill a project in Pacific Grove, send it to committee."
The city has lots of citizen committees, about 25 in all. In fact, P.G. recently won an award from the League of Women Voters for its extensive citizen involvement, an honor that some of the city's more plugged-in citizens found supremely ironic.
They say important issues have languished in committees that have no real decision-making power, while elected officials have focused their energies this past year on planning a grand new civic center, something some residents say is neither wanted nor needed. Meanwhile, senior housing, marine conservation, and infrastructure repairs move forward at a slug's pace. Pacific Grove councilmembers, say these constituents, have their priorities bass-ackwards.
"The people in Pacific Grove see a lot of other priorities other than going into long-term debt to build a civic center, which we don't need," says Dan Miller, a former candidate for City Council and mayor (and brother of Police Chief Scott Miller).
Hoping to put the kibosh on the civic center, Miller has launched a ballot initiative that would require voter approval for all projects costing more than $400,000. (He and his supporters need about 1,000 signatures from P.G. registered voters to get the measure on the November ballot.)
Under the council's plan, the historic City Hall on Forest Avenue would be remodeled, moving council chambers downstairs to make it accessible to disabled citizens. As it stands now, City Council meetings have to be held somewhere else--at the Community Center on Junipero Avenue (the first and third Wednesdays of each month).
The bulk of the money for the project, however, would go toward a new office building solely for the city's Community Development Department. Miller argues that, if money is to be spent on a "civic center," it should be something that can be enjoyed by everyone in the community, not just city employees.
What is needed? For starters, says a study conducted for the city, low-income housing is scarce, particularly for seniors. The need is increasingly critical, as many elderly people are being priced out of their homes and forced to leave their community of friends, family, and churches where they've lived for decades. Seniors citizens living in poverty comprise about 7 percent of the city's population, and four out of five P.G. seniors who rent spend more than 25 percent of their income on rent.
A number of obstacles stand in the way of new senior housing--big obstacles, like no money, no water, and no suitable site. After years of committee work, the project is now literally back to square one. After looking at possible locations all over town, money was recently set aside to study a site originally proposed for the project.
However, critics say if senior housing was farther up the City Council's priority list, the project might very well be farther along than it is.
"As a member of that committee, I am disappointed that senior housing isn't moving faster," says Frank Hespe, an attorney and executive director of Legal Service for Seniors in P.G. "I wish the City Council would specifically embrace this cause. All the other major cities in the county have it."
Another source of concern is crumbling infrastructure in desperate need of repair. A study done last February concluded that city streets are in need of $3.2 million worth of repairs and upgrades. A July study revealed major defects in the city's storm drain system.
And, in three instances this winter, tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage from P.G. sewers have been dumped into Monterey Bay--yep, straight from your bathroom to the bay. Public Works Director Steve Leiker says there's nothing wrong with the city's sewer system. The first spill, Leiker says, was caused by a problem with a privately owned sewer connection. The second one was explained as grease clogs. The latest spill, estimated at up to 70,000 gallons--about 45,000 low-flow flushes' worth--was by far the largest spill of the three. That one was attributed to a blockage in the sewer line.
But those are all are hard excuses to swallow when the city's own general plan says the antiquated system needs a makeover. "Nobody here believes there is nothing wrong with the sewers," says Susan Goldbeck, publisher of Pacific Grove's bi-weekly newspaper, The Beacon.
The city could face fines of $10,000 per day for bacteria levels in the water that are above acceptable state levels.
If it's not sewers, it's sea life. A group of environmentalists calling themselves the Coalition to Protect and Restore the Point Pinos Tide pools says the city is sitting back while tourists, school kids, and scientists rape the coastline of its exotic marine life.
The group asked the city to ask the state Department of Fish and Game, which governs the city's shores, to stop issuing collection permits until a study can be done to assess damage done by humans. The city refused. So the group is going forward with its own initiative to force the city to file a formal objection with Fish and Game. They already have more than enough signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot.
"The city can say to Fish and Game, 'We would like you not to give out permits'," says coalition member Chuck Davis, who also serves on the city's tide pool task force. "They won't do that. We wouldn't even have the initiative if the City Council would pick up their pens and pick up the telephone."
Show Me the Money
When David Goldbeck's sister, Susan, asked him to help her run a small newspaper in Pacific Grove, he hesitated. Susan bought the paper in 1997 because, says David, "she loves the town and she thought it might be fun." But her brother wasn't so sure. He couldn't imagine anything newsworthy happening in the sleepy little burg.
"What happened was we found more news than you can shake a stick at," he says. "It just hits you in the face."
What's hit the Goldbecks the hardest is city finances, which they say are in dire straits. Their research of past city budgets has revealed what appears, on the surface at least, to be a gradual decline in city reserves--from $7.6 million in 1995 to an estimated $1.7 million today. This seeming hemorrhage of taxpayer money, along with an accompanying steady increase in employee salaries--criticisms for which city officials have explanations--set off a barrage of pointed articles and editorials raking city managers and councilmembers over the coals for their perceived financial ineptitude.
The Beacon has reported on city secretaries earning $80,000 per year, a street sweeper pulling in $52,000 a year, and a city electrician making $66,000, but (according to the newspaper) with little work to show for it. They have criticized the city for spending more than 80 percent of its budget on employee compensation.
In the Goldbecks' eyes, the city's explanation for the inflated salaries is even more perplexing.
As government employees, City Hall workers negotiate their contracts, much like unions do. During those negotiations, most employee groups have opted to take their health and retirement benefits in cash. This, says City Manager Mike Huse, gives employees a higher income on paper (useful when applying for mortgages and car loans) and it ups the employees' retirement, which is based on base salary. It also allows the city's costs to remain constant in a world of fluctuating health-care expenses.
A side effect is that employees can profit. For example, city employees are given a reported $750 per month for health insurance. If an employee finds a cheaper plan, that employee pockets the difference--with the council's blessing and at the taxpayers' expense.
"Pacific Grove is a staffocracy--by the staff, of the staff, and for the staff," says Susan Goldbeck. "There is a sense that nobody is minding the store."
While city officials refute the accuracy of some of the Beacon's assertions (although David points out they've never sought to correct any errors in writing), one thing can be said for the paper's investigative work: It's got the people talking.
Citizens report that more people are showing up at City Council meetings to tell their elected officials what they think. The paper also presents a forum for citizens to spout off in long letters to the editor, for which the Goldbecks provide plenty of space. And, in keeping with its motto--"All the news that fits"--the Beacon covers P.G. government like a glove.
"The political environment has changed radically since the Beacon has started to write insightful stories about the government and what's going on," says David Goldbeck. "We try to present a balanced view, but it's really hard."
City Hall Responds
Mayor Sandy Koffman is hardly through the door of the Lighthouse Avenue coffeehouse before she's broadsided by a customer squealing, "Saaaandy! Hiiiii!" After a short exchange, the mayor breaks away, only to be waylaid by two gray-haired gentlemen. Another chitchat, and she finally makes her way to the table.
Appearances are important to Koffman, the former head of a Chicago modeling agency who moved to the Peninsula in 1990. She and her artist husband, Dan, work hard on their image. Dan's monthly newspaper, Community Links, is distributed in the Monterey County Herald, which recently published an interview with Sandy--in its lifestyle section, not within its news pages--featuring softball questions, such as about how she keeps her hair so perfect.
Like with the models she used to dispatch to trade shows in Chicago, the mayor likes to get it right the first time. She and city officials have been known to rehearse public meetings--scripts and all.
Koffman's image polishing is working. Running on a platform of environmentalism and political harmony, she defeated incumbent Jeanne Byrne in 1994. The Koff-man camp then buried Dan Miller in 1996. In 1998 no one dared to run against her.
Judging by election numbers, at least, one could conclude that the mayor is serving her constituency well. The business community certainly thinks so. "She's an unbelievable woman," says P.G. Chamber of Commerce President Moe Ammar. "Ninety-five percent of us are behind her."
Be that as it may, she's also known to be thin-skinned, not a fan of controversy. Still, Koffman is perfectly aware that her position invites scrutiny. "I don't take exception to valid criticism," she says. She does, however, take exception to some of the Beacon's incisive reporting. "There have been inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the Beacon."
Take the budget. From a layman's view, it indeed appears that city coffers have been slowly dwindling. But in truth, the city does and has for many years, set aside 10 percent of its budget--about $1.8 million--for contingencies, assuring that P.G. remains solidly in the black.
The surpluses that appear to be eroding, say city officials, are in fact "expendable reserves" that are intended to be spent. Some of the money has come from grants and trusts transferred to the city to fund specific projects, such as the youth center and the proposed civic center.
As for the civic center, city officials point out that at least some of the $1.5 million loan will be paid back with interest earned by a strings-attached trust established by a deceased resident that's earmarked for certain projects, one being a civic center. That money isn't available for senior housing or infrastructure. However, a portion of the payments will come out of the city's general fund.
Furthermore, officials say, a civic center is badly needed. Planning staffers are currently housed in the city's old youth center, where City Manager Mike Huse says they work under "deplorable conditions." The roof leaks and rainwater seeps through the walls and floors.
And, they say, the offices are not as luxurious as they've been made out to be. "It's not a Taj Mahal. There is not extra space," Koffman says. "This is pretty much a bare-bones project."
Moreover, Koffman points to the fact that an extensive public process was followed, in which citizens were given multiple opportunities to comment on the project. Few spoke up. When the council ultimately approved the civic center, nobody filed an appeal.
As for employee salaries, the city will spend 81 percent of its general fund--money that's used to operate day-to-day business--on wages and benefits this year. According to a recent survey of 27 California cities, spending on employee compensation ranges from 58 to 84 percent, with the average being around 70 percent.
That puts P.G. at the high end, according to this particular survey, but not out of the ballpark. "Cities are mostly a service industry," says Frances Medema of the California League of Cities. And it's people that provide services. "The largest percentage of your budget is going to be on salaries."
When it comes to tide pool conservation, Councilmember Michelle Knight, who chairs the city's task force, says the city is making significant progress. Signs are being made to warn visitors not to take the sea stars, anemones, and other critters from the tide pools. And the task force is recruiting volunteers to monitor the tide pools and educate visitors.
Plus, the Packard Foundation has offered to fund a study of human impact on the tide pools. (That funding, however, comes with strings. The Packard Foundation told Mayor Koffman in a letter last month that the foundation could withhold the funding if the study's "quality" isn't up to snuff. Critics say that's a way to control the study and protect the vested interests of the foundation's beneficiary, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is the largest collector of P.G. tide-pool animals.)
Knight explains the City Council's reluctance to demand a moratorium on collection permits from Fish and Game was not an effort to protect the aquarium, as some critics suggest, but because the city had just recently asked for increased regulation of kelp harvesting.
"I don't take exception
to valid criticism."
Pacific Grove Mayor Sandy Koffman
If there are reasonable concerns, and those concerns are in fact being reasonably addressed, why so much controversy? "My personal feeling is that there is a lack of communication between the public and the council," says the Beacon's Susan Goldbeck.
Citizens complain that public hearings are not properly advertised. Yet when a discussion of ways to better communicate with the public--through direct mail and other means--appears on a City Council agenda, it's interpreted as a threat to pull the council agendas (and advertising revenue) out of the Beacon in retaliation for critical articles.
The mayor says she welcomes citizen participation, yet when a resident suggested at a City Council meeting that Councilmember Steve Honegger be removed from the Americans with Disabilities Act committee due to his insensitivity, Koffman cut the citizen off. She later apologized.
At another meeting, Councilmember Morrie Fisher told a citizen at the podium that if she wanted to make decisions, she should run for council herself.
Some citizens who helped elect Koffman in the first place say she's the one who has cut off the communication, turning her back on her grassroots activist buddies and opting instead to cavort with business types and Hollywood jetsetters. On that list of past Koffman campaigners are P.G. native and activist David Dilworth, tide-pool crusaders Jim and Lee Willoughby, and former Councilmember Terrence Zito. She's betrayed her environmental supporters, too, they say, by supporting the Carmel River dam and development interests.
However, Koffman says she is listening. She just isn't hearing the citizens clamor until after pivotal votes are taken. "It's always easy to criticize a decision after the fact."
As far as priorities, Koffman says for the past couple of years, the youth center and the civic center have topped her list. "This year," she says, "my top priorities are senior housing and infrastructure."
Koffman's growing corps of detractors say, "It's about time."