The Uncivil Wars
Financial shell games, golden parachutes, dirty little secrets—it’s election year again in Pacific Grove.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
To hear the challengers to Pacific Grove’s four available council seats tell it, PG is ruled by a special-interest cabal that has nothing but contempt for anyone who disagrees with its members. To hear incumbents and their sympathizers tell it, the dissenters are ill-informed rabble-rousers bent on making trouble. Both sides are paranoid, but it’s hard to blame them. Small-town politics are often bitter and personal, and in PG they are definitely so. America’s Last Hometown has a civility problem, and that underpins every other issue in this election.
It is evident in the resentment swirling around this year’s official hot-button issue, the golf course clubhouse. An affluent town of 15,000, Pacific Grove does not have gangs, a high crime rate or any of the other ills that plague so many California cities, but it does have a council majority that wants a new clubhouse for the Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Course, and an active, vocal group of residents who do not.
Clubhouse opponents collected signatures on an initiative, which the council rejected because of a problem with wording. On their second attempt, they succeeded in getting an initiative on the November ballot that would limit council authority over open-space zones, which includes the golf course, by requiring voter approval for new construction.
Rather than wait until Nov. 2 to learn the results of Measure I, however, a council majority on July 7 approved a $4 million bond to pay for the clubhouse, and days later a bulldozer broke ground on the project.
Measure I supporters hit the roof.
“They rammed this thing through,” says candidate Scott Miller, PG’s former police chief. “They ignored the will of the people who signed those petitions. It’s illustrative of the current attitude the city council has.”
Candidate Dan Cort, who chairs PG’s planning commission and runs a business buying and restoring large historic buildings, hedges on Measure I, saying the worst thing about it is that it proves the citizens have lost trust in their elected officials, and that he could help bridge the gap between the two sides. (A large part of his platform rests on his diplomatic skills.) But, he says, “No, we didn’t need to build a $4 million edifice. As a historic preservationist, I thought for half that price we could have a very nice building.”
Incumbent councilmember Don Gasperson says clubhouse opponents had two and a half years’ worth of meetings in which to air their views, while the council was spending money on studies and architects.
“If we had waited [and Measure I passed], we would have had $500,000 in wasted money,” Gasperson says of his vote to go ahead with construction. “I don’t think we ignored the will of the people. I think it was the thing for the majority of the people in the city.”
Incumbent councilmember Sue Renz echoes Gasperson. “This golf course clubhouse was not a rush job,” she says.
Councilmember and PG school teacher Jim Costello, one of two candidates running for departing Mayor Morrie Fisher’s seat, voted to give Measure I a chance at the polls even though he supports the clubhouse.
Costello says he dislikes golf, and initially supported a remodel rather than a new building, but the need to keep PG’s course competitive and the structural realities of the building convinced him otherwise.
“A third of our city’s budget is tourism dollars,” he says. “How many of those people come to play golf? I sure talk to a lot of them who do.”
Costello adds that the clubhouse will be paid for entirely through golf fees, at about $1.5 million a year.
Candidate Bruce Obbink, a former CEO of the California Table Grape Commission, whose council bid two years ago failed by a mere 118 votes, chairs the golf commission, sits on the planning commission, and is viewed by most of his opponents as a member of the present council’s cozy inner circle.
Obbink supports the clubhouse, and was instrumental in the process of getting it built. But he says he opposes Measure I because its supporters inadvertently put in language limiting the growth of Meals on Wheels.
“It was unintentional,” he says.
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Closely intertwined with Measure I and the clubhouse is the golf course enterprise fund, which operates separately from Pacific Grove’s general fund. Golf course fees pay only for golf course upkeep, not for pothole repair or longer library hours. Critics of the fund say golf course fees should fund the upkeep of recreational resources in general, not just the course. As for the clubhouse itself, they say taking on a $4 million obligation when cities around PG are tumbling into debt is a bad idea no matter what the specifics.
Candidate Jeffrey Flathers, a former Chinese Mandarin linguist at DLI and onetime manager of the Peninsula Salvation Army, says the council is not telling Pagrovians about the risk incurred by the debt.
“If you want to refinance your house and you go to the bank, the bank will ask for all your assets and liabilities,” he says. “A bank would do the same with PG. PG can’t say, ‘This is our enterprise fund, but you can’t look at our general fund.’ This is a shell game the council is playing.”
The golf course clubhouse is not PG’s only problem. The city’s antiquated sewer system, which dumped 70,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Bay in January 2000, is still an issue. At that time a new report by Parsons Engineering had laid out a schedule for replacing all 56 miles of sewer pipe within 20 years at a cost of $2 million a year. Since then the council has tossed out the Parsons report and adopted one by consulting firm HDR called the Sewer System Asset Management Plan, which outlines a piecemeal, targeted approach for about $600,000 a year.
Some candidates, like chiropractor Susan Nilmeier, think the city should adhere to the Parsons report.
“We had a lawsuit last year that cost $600,000 because we have not properly addressed the sewer problem,” she says, referring to a lawsuit brought against the city by the Ecological Rights Foundation, based in Garberville.
Mayoral candidate and retired engineer Steve Polkabla agrees with Nilmeier that the current council is not proactive enough about the sewers. “Apparently your sewer fees were raised to generate $2 million a year, so in two years they should have raised $4 million, but they’ve only spent $1.4 million,” he says. “That needs to change.”
Costello, Gasperson, Obbink and Renz all point to a current project paid for by a state grant, the stormwater diversion program, as proof that PG is taking charge of its sewer problem. According to Costello, the city is the first in California to install the system, whereby storm water runoff is diverted to the sewage treatment facility in Marina during heavy rains, as part of compliance with state law created by the 2002 Clean Beaches Initiative, Prop. 40.
“We are ahead of the world on that,” he says. “Everyone else is going to have to follow.”
City budgets are another hot topic this year thanks to state cutbacks. In the last two years PG has lost 16 city employees to attrition, trimmed staff in the police and fire departments, and closed the library on Sundays. This year PG ended up with a $25 million balanced budget and $2.5 million in reserves. Or not.
Led by Flathers, who has scrutinized the budget with hawklike intensity, challengers Nilmeier and Polkabla question whether the budget is really balanced. Flathers says he detects dwindling reserves and a $1.2 million deficit. But whereas Nilmeier advocates raising bed tax and sales tax revenue through specials designed to stimulate tourism and local shopping to fix the problem, Flathers would cut 10 to 15 more staffers and raise golf fees $5 a round.
“We could cut the number of police probably down to 24 and crime would not go up even a hair,” he says. “The reason we have low crime is not because we have 32 police. It’s because we have old people here. Old people basically don’t commit crimes.”
Flathers is utterly alone in this position. Cort would leave police and fire alone and instead try to lure new businesses downtown so Pagrovians do more shopping in Pagrovia—astonishingly, a controversial position.
Costello apologizes preemptively, then utters the words “parking meters.” Gasperson says he would “hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but PG is in excellent shape,” and cautions against bringing too many people downtown lest it become too congested. Miller would explore ways to trim the fat from city contracts, perhaps, for example, having city employees take over the laying of sewer lines. Obbink says he is “totally opposed to any attempt to rejuvenate downtown and make this a destination community—we’re sandwiched between two destination communities.” Renz advocates trying to make PG the second-highest recipient of TOT on the Peninsula, up from the third-highest.
Dangling off the subject of the budget like a broken appendage is the matter of City Manager Ross Hubbard’s golden parachute. Early this year the council voted 5-2, with Costello and Susan Goldbeck against, to guarantee Hubbard his retirement through 2009 even in the event of termination; if he were fired today, it would cost PG about $500,000. The reason, Costello says, is that “the majority of the council worried that if people with an axe to grind got elected to the council, they would throw him out.”
Miller may be the person the council was so worried about. Hubbard dismissed Miller in May 2003.
“The city no longer needed my management style,” Miller says dryly, adding the he believes Hubbard acted at the behest of the council, but that this is not a grudge race.
Costello says hiring and firing are strictly the city manager’s department.
“One thing I have never discussed with the city manager is personnel issues,” he says.
One last issue merits attention: affordable housing. A senior housing project near Lovers Point is about to get underway, but affordable housing in PG is scarce and ideas even scarcer.
Cort is the main exception. He advocates building housing above businesses in downtown PG, a strategy loved by city planners nationwide. He also has come creative ideas about converting hotels into residences. Miller and Nilmeier support these ideas.
Costello would explore partnerships with the school district so teachers can afford to live in PG. Sue Renz has an interesting idea: pairing those who most need affordable housing—the young and the elderly—in house-sharing situations (although it’s hard to see either party tolerating the other). Gasperson and Obbink warn against building residences in downtown PG because of the traffic concerns. And, as Flathers said last week during a candidates’ forum at Chautaqua Hall, “Let’s get real here. There’s no water. There’s no land. There’s no funding. Furthermore—this is a dirty little secret here in PG, but I hear it all the time—do we really want a group of low-income people coming in and using all our services?”
Yep, just another election year in America’s Last Hometown.