Creativity is an asset in the arts, but does it matter when trying to solve a complex financial puzzle such as the recent budget deficits in San Mateo County government, including a projected $26 million shortfall for the next fiscal year?
The voters will decide in the June 5 election who is best qualified among the seven candidates running to succeed Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, one of five county supervisors. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate will be elected. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will face a runoff election in November.
Ms. Jacobs Gibson represents District 4, which includes East Palo Alto, much of Menlo Park and nearby unincorporated communities. She was appointed to the job in 1999, then re-elected three times. She can't run again because she is termed-out.
Running for her seat are, in alphabetical order, Andrew Cohen and Kirsten Keith, both of the Menlo Park City Council; Shelly Masur of the Redwood City School District board; Memo Morantes of the county Board of Education; Carlos Romero of the East Palo Alto City Council; Ernie Schmidt of the Redwood City Planning Commission; and Warren Slocum, former registrar of voters and county clerk/recorder.
San Mateo County is home to 20 incorporated cities and towns, several unincorporated communities, thousands of acres of open space and parks, some 750,000 residents and 335,400 registered voters, according to the Elections Office statistics.
Although a supervisor represents a district, and the candidates must reside in the district, they run county-wide. With turnout expected to be low for the June primary election, candidates tend to focus on the 100,000 or so residents expected to vote.
County services overseen by the Board of Supervisors include public health; the county jail; criminal prosecution; child support; care for the aged and people with disabilities and behavioral problems; protection of the environment and county parks; and housing for residents with financial hardships.
The Almanac sent questions on several important issues to all seven candidates; their responses are the basis for this story.
Lowering the deficit
San Mateo County faces a projected budget deficit of $24 million to $28 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Almanac asked the candidates what they would do to address this problem.
Mr. Schmidt would have county government learn to live within its means by streamlining its functions, not by changing tax rates or cutting programs. That is kicking the can down the road, he said. The county should cultivate new sources of revenue. "I want to seek out those companies that are ready to expand and make sure that they expand here. I want to seek out new companies that are able to sustain growth and revenue."
Budgets have already been hit hard, Mr. Morantes said. Cities and towns have already "trimmed the fat, cut the marrow and deboned their budgets," he said. "We must formulate public-private partnerships. ... One of the ways businesses can help is to ensure that our county remains a strong, vibrant attractive place to live and work. Through innovative collaboration, we can keep the business engine running smoothly for both the public and private sector."
It's a structural deficit, Mr. Romero said, a problem that will require two to three years to correct, and everyone at the table. "We need a balanced approach that looks at the revenue side of the equation in a way that is collaborative and accountable," he said. The tax increases on the ballot -- measures T, U and X, meant to tap visitors' wallets -- "are a good place to start," Mr. Romero said. "We should also recalibrate user fees to reflect the actual cost of providing those services."
As an example of what she would bring to the board, Ms. Keith pointed to Menlo Park's response to a loss of $1.5 million in redevelopment funding and the city's decision to contract out for below-market-rate housing. "I have a long track record of making tough decisions," she said. She said she would not have voted to raise the salary of the newly appointed county controller. "This sends the wrong message when we are asking other employees to make concessions."
Stay the course, Ms. Masur said, referring to the county manager's five-year plan to achieve a budget surplus. "This plan is based on revenue projections, spending cuts, negotiated labor savings, and structural and management changes," she said. "A multi-faceted approach is necessary because the provision of county-wide services is multi-faceted and multi-dependent, so each budget item must be evaluated in its unique context.
Mr. Slocum's approach would include being realistic in crafting a financial plan, imaginative in cutting costs, efficient in operations, thrifty in ways like the timely billing of hospital patients, and smart in making decisions. "We can't continue to spend money we don't have," he said. "If we continue to do business as usual, we will affect the county's credit rating, leave the county without good options to respond to unforeseen emergencies, and threaten critical services."
Mr. Cohen said that he supports measures T, U and X; that with incentives, developers might build more affordable housing; that he expects the board to make further layoffs; and that the layoffs should avoid public safety and health care. "Some difficult choices will have to be made through effective collaboration among the five supervisors based on staff recommendations while preserving key services and meeting the housing needs of our growing population," he said.
Unions and pensions
Pension reform for unionized government employees is a hot-button issue that has and will continue to come before the Board of Supervisors, along with construction projects in unincorporated communities that directly affect the interests of the building trades.
Of the four sitting supervisors, campaign websites show significant union endorsement for Don Horsley and Dave Pine and little to none for Carole Groom, Adrienne Tissier and Ms. Jacobs Gibson.
Among the seven candidates running for Ms. Jacobs Gibson's seat, Mr. Morantes received one endorsement from a trade union council, and Mr. Slocum received a similar but conditional "open" endorsement.
Union support for Ms. Masur is significant. The councils that support Mr. Morantes and Mr. Slocum also support her, as do electrical workers, plumbers and steamfitters, firefighters -- including firefighters in the Menlo Park and Woodside fire protection districts -- and government employees, including those in county government and in the governments of Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Redwood City.
"I am proud to have the support of both labor and business leaders, as well as from Republicans, Democrats and Independents," Ms. Masur said in response to a question about union support. With the unconditional support of the San Mateo County Central Labor Council, "I do have support, both as an endorsement and financial from some unions that represent county employees," she said.
"I am committed to working collaboratively with employee groups to address issues facing the county, including budgetary," she said. "I believe that good relationships are key to solving problems and will continue to build on those I have fostered."
Former state legislator Joe Nation, now a public policy professor at Stanford, said recently that San Mateo County's pension obligations are 47.2 percent funded, and that the county spends 18 percent of its total annual expenditures on pension obligations.
Asked to comment, Ms. Masur disputed Mr. Nation's figures, saying that the pension obligations are 75 percent funded and that the system is "relatively healthy." The average payout is $40,000 a year, "despite the media's portrayal of lavish pension benefits," she added.
In any case, pension reform should not be decided by voters -- as was done with Measure L in Menlo Park in 2010 -- because, she said, "these benefits are an agreement between the employer and the employee."
But government retirees with six-figure pensions who go back to work on government contract do "undermine the integrity of the entire public employee pension system," Ms. Masur added. "We should examine whether such practices can be reduced or eliminated."
Ms. Keith said she would be guided by a 2011 reform proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown that includes retirement at 67 (earlier for public safety employees), 401k-like employee contribution plans, an end to retroactive pension increases and benefit spiking through supplemented final-year salaries, and limits to post-retirement government employment. "We are all in this together and must work toward a solution together," she said. She did not receive a union endorsement.
Unions have a democratic right to enter the political arena, Mr. Romero said, but accepting union or corporate money "could be seen as compromising one's ability to be seen as fair and impartial." Regarding pension reform, he said he would put a two-tier system in place immediately and otherwise echo Gov. Brown's plan. "Solving this complex problem will require that all parties negotiate in good faith and trust that each party's positions will be handled respectfully," he said.
Mr. Cohen, too, said he would move to two tiers, raise the retirement age, and increase employee contributions. As for union endorsements, he had this to say: "I have not sought nor accepted support from any union representing county employees. I believe to do so would create the appearance of impropriety, and I must be above suspicion in this respect. In making decisions as a supervisor, if elected, it is essential that I be totally detached and objective in considering the issues before me."
On pension reform, Mr. Morantes said he would not let the county go back on good-faith agreements. Unions have shown flexibility to protect jobs, he added. "We must continue to work with our current employees to make sure that they have a reasonable pension for retirement that is just and fair to the county and to the individual."
Mr. Slocum agreed on maintaining good faith with current retirees. He said he would trim benefits for future employees and consider raising contribution levels of current employees. The first steps, he said, are getting an accurate assessment of the obligation and having at the table everyone involved.
Mr. Schmidt said he does not blame county employees for the pension situation, and that he would consider it a conflict of interest to receive their union's endorsement. A "sensible" pension policy would include a two-tier benefit system that benefits taxpayers and employees, he said. On his first day in office, he said he would propose a task force of union and community leaders and innovative community members to discuss further reforms, with "transparency at every level of discussion."
The Almanac asked the candidates what distinguishes them and why voters should vote for them. Their edited answers are arranged in alphabetical order.
The law provides a framework for civic life, Mr. Cohen said. In his career, he has been an advocate for clients, has weighed evidence, has followed the law and has attempted to be just and fair in making decisions, he said. He has eight years as city councilman, and has spoken on topics of post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, youth violence, and schools and cities working together, Mr. Cohen said.
Ms. Keith cites her third-generation roots in the county; her career in public-interest law, including representing financially stressed defendants in court; being a mother to her children; and volunteering for the Legal Aid Society, Haven House and JobTrain and as an advocate for women's issues. "I will bring a balanced, thoughtful approach to decision making, with a legal background and the ability to make tough decisions, to the Board of Supervisors," she said.
Citing her experience on a city school board, the nonprofit sector, and as a public health advocate, Ms. Masur said she has managed substantial public and private budgets simultaneously and partnered with city and county governments to "eliminate duplication and leverage limited dollars." Her master's degree in public health "makes me uniquely qualified to address the many public health challenges -- including health care reform and criminal justice realignment -- two significant policy and practice shifts that will have a major impact on our county," she said.
As a county school board member, Mr. Morantes said he has helped make projects more efficient while protecting core services in difficult economic times. As a small-business owner, he acquired the acumen to form public/private partnerships "for the common good." As a civic leader, he has a "keen understanding" of the importance of the county's safety net. "I can bring the same success to the Board of Supervisors," he said.
Mr. Romero noted his regional community leadership experience and his academic credentials in urban planning, finance, housing policy and transportation. He is committed, he said, to transparent, inclusive government and, as a supervisor, would be uniquely qualified to hit the ground running on "addressing the difficult challenges faced by our amazingly diverse and dynamic county." The issues section of his website, he said, is "frank and honest" and "thoughtfully tackles issues."
Being a planning commissioner is one of the best qualifications for being a supervisor, Mr. Schmidt said, echoing an assertion he attributed to Ms. Jacobs Gibson. "The work and decisions of a supervisor have a great deal to do with land development issues," and the supervisors now on the board have confirmed that characterization for him, he said. "Granted this is my first election, but I enter into this race knowing that I can do the job and can hit the ground running."
Mr. Slocum pointed to his innovative leadership at the Elections Office, where, he said, he balanced multi-million dollar budgets, made county records more accessible, and practiced people-centered management. "I worked hard, challenging myself and my staff everyday to streamline county services," he said. As supervisor, he pledged "to build consensus, solve problems and represent the public's interests while being accessible and accountable."
Residence: Menlo Park
Education: Bachelor's degree (with honors) in economics, Dartmouth College; law degree, Stanford University
Occupation: Retired lawyer and workers' compensation judge
Public Service: Current Menlo Park city councilman and former mayor
Residence: Menlo Park
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science with an international relations emphasis, University of California at Santa Barbara; law degree from Golden Gate University
Occupation: Practicing attorney
Public Service: Current Menlo Park city councilwoman and mayor, former planning commissioner, housing commissioner, soccer coach, women's advocate, including for victims of domestic violence
Residence: Redwood City
Education: Bachelor's degree from Macalester College; master's degree in public health from Hunter College/City University of New York
Occupation: Nonprofit executive director
Public Service: Seven years on elementary-and-middle-school board; member of hospital community advisory committee, county public health task force, Peninsula leadership groups
Residence: Menlo Park
Education: Some college and insurance certification from the American College
Occupation: Insurance and financial services professional
Public service: Three-term member of county school board
Residence: East Palo Alto
Education: Four plus years of study in international relations and economics, Stanford University; Loeb Fellow, graduate school of design-urban planning/finance, Harvard University; Fannie Mae Fellow, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Occupation: Affordable housing/economic development consultant
Public service: Current city councilman and former mayor, planning commissioner; volunteer on issues of rent stabilization, housing, regional government, transportation, environmental justice, community law, at-risk youth and the Latino community
Residence: Redwood City
Occupation: On sabbatical from management position
Education: Two years at Foothill and de Anza community colleges
Public service: Member of planning commission, Latino community and leadership associations, and neighborhood association
Residence: Redwood City
Education: Bachelor's degree in U.S. history, San Diego State University
Occupation: Retired chief elections officer & assessor-county clerk-recorder for San Mateo County
Public Service: Twenty-four years as countywide elected official and, earlier, appointed to positions in government