Almanac

Cover Story - May 19, 2010

Voters get a real choice in race for supervisor seat

by Renee Batti

It's been a long time since San Mateo County voters saw a real race for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. But they will at last have a choice when they cast their ballot next month in the vigorously contested race to replace Rich Gordon for the District 3 seat.

The five contenders for the seat include two members of the same local health-care district board, a city council member, a former legislative analyst for a prominent local environmental group, and a local government watchdog whose face is familiar to many in the county government center.

Perhaps the most familiar name on the ballot is that of former San Mateo County sheriff Don Horsley, who now is president of the Sequoia Healthcare District board. But his rival and fellow health-care board member Jack Hickey also has strong name recognition, thanks to his frequent, usually unsuccessful, runs for public offices ranging from the U.S. senate and state governor to numerous local posts.

San Carlos City Councilman Matt Grocott, Coastside resident and environmental activist April Vargas, and Michael Stogner, who has been a burr in the saddle of several ranking county officials, including Sheriff Greg Munks, are also on the ballot.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, there will a runoff on the November ballot between the two top vote-getters. The winner will take office in January.

The candidates were interviewed recently by The Almanac, addressing a number of county issues including a multi-million-dollar structural budget deficit. They also spoke about areas of particular interest to them.

Jack Hickey, who for years was a key figure in the local Libertarian Party, brings his familiar "smaller government is better government" message to the race. He advocates working with private local hospitals in creating a consortium to fulfill the county's mandate to provide health care to the indigent. Pressuring the hospitals to take over this function "in return for their property tax benefits" would allow the county to close its own hospital, San Mateo Medical Center, and sell off the properties, he said.

He also wants the county to study ways to reduce the jail population so that no new facilities would be needed. "If someone is convicted of a nonviolent crime, why are they being put in jail?" he asked.

Michael Stogner said that public safety "is a huge issue for me," adding that he is "very dissatisfied" with ambulance service, which is overseen by the county.

Also, he wants to look at the possibility of consolidating fire agencies in the county into one district for better efficiency and cost savings.

Mr. Stogner is concerned about public transportation as well, and noted that county leaders should be working to help Caltrain resolve its budgetary crisis to ensure that it continues to provide service on the Peninsula.

Matt Grocott thinks that a government that's not open is a government that doesn't serve the public well. He said that when a supervisor resigns before serving out a term, there should be a special election if at all possible. Alternatively, if the remainder of the term is short, a person with no intention of running for the seat in the next regular election could be appointed, if qualified, he said.

He questions why supervisor meetings are held on Tuesdays, beginning in the morning, when most people work and can't attend them. He suggests holding meetings more than once a week, later in the day, with consent calendar items coming before the board in the late afternoon, and action items on the evening agenda.

Meetings could also be held periodically in venues around the county to encourage more public participation, he said.

April Vargas wants county decision-makers to begin looking farther into the future when making land-use and other decisions affecting the environment. "We have to take a much longer view ... especially with the rapid rate of change." That applies to planning for social services the county provides, she said.

Citing a publicly funded study by the Pacific Institute, she states in a campaign flier that the county "has $20 billion of property and 100,000 lives at risk from rising bay and ocean waters. ... Existing levees need repair to protect our future."

Ms. Vargas points to Cargill's proposal to build up to 12,000 houses as part of a development on baylands in eastern Redwood City as an example of ignoring the hazards of rising sea levels. She said she opposes any more building in the Bay.

Don Horsley wants to focus on programs that would help keep residents in all the county's communities safe and healthy. He said that throughout his career in law enforcement and as an elected official on the health-care board, he strove to work with nonprofits to provide education and services to communities.

"I have a history of bringing resources to, and working with, disadvantaged communities," he said.

Mr. Horsley said the county also needs to work on reducing its jail population, which continues to grow, driving a costly plan to build a new jail facility.

Supervisorial District 3 includes Atherton, Woodside, Portola Valley, unincorporated Menlo Park, San Carlos, other small unincorporated areas, and the Coastside. Although a supervisor must live in the district he or she represents, supervisors are elected by a countywide vote.

Cutting county costs

Among the many pressing issues facing the county, which oversees a range of services from parks and public works to public health and safety, a bleak economic situation tops the list.

The county is hoping to cut spending by $35 million next fiscal year as part of a multi-year plan to eliminate a structural deficit projected to reach $150 million in three years unless significant measures are taken.

Mr. Horsley emphasized he doesn't want to cut any direct services to balance the budget. Instead, "we need to look at the layers of management" to look for possible cuts, and "streamline county operations," he said.

He pointed to grants provided by the Sequoia Healthcare District, whose board he serves on, as a strategy for reducing costs of health care for low-income and indigent residents in the county, and said the county needs to encourage the north-county district, Peninsula Health Care District, to pitch in as well.

The districts are funded by property taxes, but are independent of the county. With grants from the Sequoia district, Mr. Horsley said, the county was able to continue operation of the Fair Oaks Clinic, allowing that community to access health care much more inexpensively than if people had to use the emergency room at the county hospital in San Mateo.

Mr. Horsley also pointed to the public employee pensions as contributing to the structural deficit, and said that the "3 at 50" pension plan for public safety workers, which allows those employees to retire at age 50 after 30 years of service at 90 percent of their highest salaries, "is a bad policy" and should be rolled back. Although the pensions for current employees can't be touched, he said, the county can at least stop the "spiking" of retirement benefits — the practice of buying out unused sick time, vacation time and compensatory time to bump up the final salary upon which the pension is based.

Ms. Vargas noted that the county needs to continue its comprehensive review of programs and department operations, looking for ways to streamline operations, and to partner with cities and other agencies to provide services when possible.

She also supports the operation of community health clinics to save costs in providing care for low-income and indigent residents.

The county needs to find ways to help generate new jobs to stimulate the local economy as well, she said, emphasizing that "green tech" jobs are the most desirable.

Mr. Grocott outlined a four-pronged plan to control spending, beginning with cuts in management after a careful review. "The next step would be to go to the departments and say we have the option of contracting out (a job), but to make the departments compete" in bidding for the job, he said. He added that such a practice was used in San Carlos, and city departments "found efficiencies" when they participated in the bidding process.

Consolidating and collaborating with other cities and public agencies is another cost-cutting strategy he advocates. And finally, employee costs must be reduced, he said.

"Employee post-retirement costs are dragging down the budget," he said. Acknowledging that retirement benefits for current employees can't be touched, he noted that salaries can be. "In San Carlos, we've proposed a graduated reduction in salaries," he said, adding that the proposal is now on the table.

Mr. Stogner said he supports pension reform, and that "nothing should be off the table." He also said that salaries are a fair place to cut in economic hard times as well, and pointed to private-sector employees who have been forced to take sometimes substantial pay cuts.

County leaders should be working with employee groups to try to win voluntary salary reductions, he said.

Mr. Hickey said the county should thoroughly review its operations and eliminate programs "it shouldn't be involved with." He said some programs that are partially funded by the county wouldn't be in existence at all if federal funding for them hadn't been available.

He said that the county owns prime real estate that could be sold if programs were scaled back or eliminated.

Electing supervisors

The District 3 race this June, with five candidates, is an exception to the rule of how supervisors are typically elected. Often, there is only one viable candidate for a district seat, even if the incumbent is not running.

Unlike every other county in the state, San Mateo County holds county-wide elections for supervisors, rather than restricting the vote in individual districts to district residents.

Many believe that the county-wide election system is a major reason that so few people run for a supervisor seat, because the cost of running a county-wide campaign is so high. And that leads to dominance on the board by people who have been endorsed by the county's power brokers, they say.

A divided county charter review committee has come out in support of county-wide elections, but is recommending that the question be put to voters in November. The question will be put before the supervisors soon.

Four candidates said they support district-wide elections, and Mr. Horsley said he has mixed feelings about the issue. He said district elections could lead to more parochial members on the board, but that he supports letting voters decide.

Mr. Grocott said he believes that supervisors elected by only residents in their districts could still be good representatives of the county as a whole. In his experience, elected officials in the county "pull together," he said, citing the county's library joint powers authority and joint efforts by members of the City/County Association of Governments.

Mr. Stogner said district-wide elections "would be a cleaner method" of electing supervisors, and opined that in the past "our supervisors have been hand-picked."

Ms. Vargas said she believes district-wide elections "would benefit the public," and Mr. Hickey said district elections would "break up the Good Old Boy network."

Don Horsley

Civic experience: Served as San Mateo County sheriff, 1993-2007; current member and president, Sequoia Healthcare District board; co-chair, state attorney general and superintendent of public instruction Safe Schools Task Force; member, Advocates for Children board; member, Service League of San Mateo County advisory board; former chair, county Criminal Justice Council.

Profession: Retired from law enforcement.

Education: Bachelor's degree, San Francisco State University; holds secondary teaching credential.

Residence: Emerald Hills

Age: 66

April Vargas

Civic experience: Community organizer, SEUI/UHW-West, 2005-08; legislative advocate, Committee for Green Foothills, 2003-05; San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee, District 3, 2004-present; county Agricultural Advisory Committee, 2005-present; county Transportation Authority Citizens Advisory Committee, 2007-present; county Green Building Task Force, 2007-present; Half Moon Bay-Coastside Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee, vice chair, 1999-2000; Midcoast Community Council, 1999-2000.

Profession: Small business owner

Education: Bachelor's degree in humanities, San Francisco State University

Residence: Montara

Age: 60

Matt Grocott

Civic experience: Current member, San Carlos City Council, since 2001; mayor, chair of Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department board, 2005; chair, bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee of City/County Association of Governments, San Mateo County; member, C/CAG Airport Land Use Commission; member, C/CAG Congestion Management Program & Environmental Committee; member, county Library Governing Board.

Profession: Small business owner.

Education: Bachelor's degree in design, Clemson University, College of Architecture.

Residence: San Carlos

Age: 51

Michael Stogner

Civic experience: Local government and court watchdog.

Profession: Victims advocate.

Education: Carlmont High School graduate; student, College of San Mateo.

Residence: San Carlos

Age: 60

Jack Hickey

Civic experience: Current member, Sequoia Healthcare District Board, two terms; member, Alternative Funding Committee of county Parks and Recreation Department; participant in various local government referendum petitioning efforts.

Profession: Retired senior research scientist; inventor

Education: U.S. Navy Electronics Technician School, Great Lakes, Illinois.

Residence: Emerald Hills

Age: 75

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