November 16, 2013
The Life and Death of Measure V
Editorial & Analysis
On June 10, 2013, a 2013 Revenue Measure Feasibility Survey Topline Report was presented to the City of Pacifica. The report, a presentation of data gathered from phone polling conducted by Godbe Research beginning on May 30, 2013, was designed to gauge Pacifica residents’ support of a proposed expansion of the 6.5 percent utility users’ tax (“UUT”) from gas and electricity service to include a variety of telecommunications services. Godbe’s report concluded that 60.2 percent of likely voters supported the idea, stating that “the survey results indicate a solid base of support for a utility users’ tax modification measure.”
The measure, appearing on the ballot as “Measure V,” would end up receiving a thorough thrashing at the polls six months later. On November 5, 2013, Measure V received a mere 34.12 percent of the vote, far shy of the 50 percent-plus-one needed for passage, an astounding reversal from Godbe’s 60.2 percent early telephone polling.
What explains the 26-point difference between June’s polling and election-day results? Where did it all go wrong for Measure V? What happened?
To begin answering these questions, let’s go back to the City Council’s March 20, 2013 Study Session, when a City Council subcommittee on Committees and Commissions presented a report that subcommittee members Mayor Len Stone and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Ann Nihart had been working on for some time. The report delineated policies formed to address deficiencies in the committee and commission appointment process. The deficiencies, arising primarily from a lack of city oversight of its committees, were great enough that at least one body, the Open Space Committee, was unable to meet for almost a year due to a lack of sitting members—as members left for one reason or another, they simply hadn’t been replaced.
The subcommittee’s solution, adopted by Council on June 10, 2013, was to clean house. All city commission and committee seats, except those on the Beautification Advisory Committee, were declared vacant, though sitting members could continue to serve until such time as City Council reappointed new members. Council took pains to assure the volunteer commissioners and committee members that this was in no way personal and that members were welcome to reapply for their positions, but the message was read by many as a firing.
The move caught almost all of the commission and committee members by surprise. Most were puzzled, and a few were angered, by the scorched-earth approach. One planning commissioner in particular who was not reappointed reacted by becoming a vocal critic of City Council—an unintended consequence of council’s decision, and one that would have repercussions for the future Measure V campaign: formation of an organized opposition.
On November 5, 2013 at precisely 8:05 PM it was clear that Measure V was doomed and would not reach the 50 percent plus one threshold needed for passage.
According to the San Mateo County Elections Office, 22,749 Pacifica residents were registered to vote on November 5, 2013. Assuming that voter participation in this off-year election would be 30 percent (a bit on the high side as the actual percentage was 26.56), it could be forecast that 6,824 voters would cast votes. For YES to win, the campaign would have to capture at least 3,413 voters (50 percent+1):
22,749 x 0.30 = 6,826
6,826 ÷ 2 = 3,412
3,412 + 1 = 3,413
At 8:05 p.m., the Vote-by-Mail ballot tallies came in:
YES 1,481 (35.90% of mail-in)
NO 2,644 (64.10% of mail-in)
TOTAL 4,125 (100% of mail-in)
The numbers were grim. With only 2,700 votes still in play (assuming a 30 percent participation rate), 1,931 (71.5 percent) of votes cast on election day would have to break for YES, an almost-unachievable reversal of the numbers so far.
3,413 - 1,481 = 1,932
1,932 x 100 ÷ 2,700 = 71.55%
The numbers didn’t break that way, though; things became even worse for YES with support among election-day voters dropping to 30 percent from the 36 percent among mail-in ballots, and the numbers held steady throughout the night.
Final Vote Tally
Measure V Votes By Mail Early Voting Election Day Grand Total Votes
(68.69%) (0.33%) (31.01%) (100%)
YES 1,481 (35.9%) 9 (45%) 560 (30.06%) 2,050 (34.12%)
NO 2,644 (64.10%) 11 (55%) 1,303 (69.94%) 3,958 (65.88%)
4,125 20 1,863 6,088
(Data from shapethefuture.org; retrieved on November 6, 2013)
In the face of 2-1 opposition, there wasn’t much the YES campaign could have done differently to turn the tide, but it also did itself no favors by conducting the campaign with what appeared to be an insistence on sticking tightly to one particular game plan even as the landscape quickly shifted beneath it. This, combined with a number of questionable actions by City Council, provided fodder for the fledgling NO campaign to drive home its objections to the measure. From the get-go, the YES campaign appeared to be on the defensive for the entire race.
CREATION OF A MEASURE
The campaign for Measure V began taking shape many months before the general public caught wind of it. Sara Stern of TBWB Strategies, a consulting firm that, according to the firm’s website, “helps you package and pass a ballot measure to meet your needs,” had consulted with the city in 2011 and was eager to work with City Manager Steve Rhodes once more to take another shot at getting a revenue measure passed for Pacifica.
Stern, with a small group of community members who had worked together on the Pacifica School District’s 2011 Measure L and Jefferson Union High School District’s 2012 Measure E campaigns, volunteered to run the ground game, and collaborated with Rhodes, who looped in Mayor Len Stone and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Ann Nihart to explore the viability of a utility users’ tax and to lay the groundwork for the revenue measure. While not exactly a secret, the meetings of the community group weren’t exactly made known to the public, either. I was tipped off to the group’s existence just days before the utility users’ tax increase proposal was to be heard at a City Council meeting for the first time.
The clandestine meetings upset many who found out about them. When preliminary polling data, paid for by taxpayer funds, were made available to this citizens committee before the results were presented to the public or City Council, people became angry.
In doing their due diligence, Stone and Nihart, working with the now-growing citizens group, huddled with Rhodes, who reached out to Godbe Research for polling services. The telephone polling, designed to gauge Pacifica residents’ support of a utilities tax expansion and to sound out acceptable ballot language, began on May 30, 2013. The city paid Godbe $24,720 in two payments of $12,360 issued on May 31 and June 28. The total amount was below a $25,000 threshold, so the expenditure of taxpayer funds did not require council approval.
Why a utility users’ tax? The city had attempted to pass a sales tax in 2009 (Measure D) and was shot down by voters, with only 38.7 percent support. The assessment avenue was out, too. 2011’s attempt at a fire assessment failed miserably, as well, achieving only 37 percent support.
Godbe’s telephone polling, conducted over a period of five weeks, indicated statistically equivalent amounts of support among likely voters if the measure appeared on either the November 2013 off-year or November 2014 midterm ballots—just north of 60 percent. According to the data, the level of support indicated that the city could likely pass a general tax—one with no specific purpose and thus requiring only a simple majority to pass. A specific tax, to fund a particular service like the police department, for example, would require a higher 66 percent threshold for passage. So a general tax it was.
Godbe’s research, laid out in its Revenue Measure Feasibility Topline Report, ranked city services those polled felt were most important to them. Fire and emergency services, street maintenance, police protection, and senior services all scored at the top of the list, and so naturally those services were the ones appearing within the ballot language and talking points. Open-space protections, revitalizing Pacifica’s business districts, and after-school childcare polled lower and thus were not included or spoken of.
The YES campaign faced another choice: to place the measure on the off-year 2013 ballot, or wait for the midterm election a year later.
The off-year ballot choice meant dealing with a low turnout, but voters who tended to participate in these elections could be identified and specifically targeted—they tended to be older and a bit more conservative. A midterm election brought more people out to the polls, but a measure would be competing with other propositions and candidates for space in voters’ minds—a sales message could be lost in the noise.
With language in the proposed ballot language extending the tax exemption to those over 62 years old, the campaign decided on pursuing an off-year ballot approach, but doing so first involved getting a few procedural ducks in a row.
Proposition 218, passed by California voters on November 5, 1996, amended the California Constitution and changed the manner in which local government agencies could levy taxes and assessments. Several of the amendments introduced stricter notification requirements for local governments seeking to raise taxes and fees and, in this spirit, tax expansions such as Measure V proposed would have to be placed on a general election ballot. The legislative intent behind this is a general election affording an increased opportunity for the populace to be informed of the issues surrounding the tax. But there is an exception to this requirement: cases of emergency.
A FUMBLED INTRODUCTION
Because Measure V involved an expansion of a general tax, to place it on an off-year ballot would require Pacifica’s City Council to unanimously declare a state of emergency. Council had already shown itself willing to sign off on such a declaration, having done so as recently as February 27, 2012—also for purposes of meeting Proposition 218 ballot requirements. In the 2012 instance, council declared a fiscal emergency, but ultimately did not place the measure, a half-cent sales and use tax, on the June 5, 2012 off-year ballot. Fifteen months later, on July 8, 2013, City Manager Steve Rhodes presented a staff report asking that council declare another fiscal emergency.
The report was shocking in its contrast to a budget presentation given by then-Finance Director Ann Ritzma a mere 28 days earlier. Where Ritzma described a healthy budget that was “the second year in a row of a balanced budget that allows for the City to build a modest General Fund reserve and conforms to the Five Year Financial Plan,” Rhodes described a city facing “budget crises [that] can only be met by decreasing public safety and other essential City services.”
Ritzma’s June 10 budget presentation stated that its “revenue projections [were] conservative, reflecting the economic climate as well as portions of ever shifting State funding such as Excess ERAF.” The budget she presented contained a “contingency/operating reserve projected to begin FY 2013-14 at $1,482,048 and end with $1,804,292,” an increase of $322,244. Five weeks later, Rhodes outlined a financial scenario almost the polar opposite: “The City faces a budget deficit of approximately $1 million annually, which could exhaust its reserves as early as January 2015.”
How could both things be true?
I addressed council about this during the public-comment portion of the July 8 agenda, which sought to declare a fiscal emergency, and I pointed out the seeming contradictions between the finance director’s view of things and the city manager’s. I also took council to task for staying silent about proposed changes to the UUT during its May 28 meeting when the annual UUT consideration item was on its agenda. Agenda item 10 was a public hearing “to consider provisions and rate of the gas and electric utility users’ tax” and the staff reported stated: “Staff is not recommending any changes to the provisions or rate.” As was discovered later, the truth was that Godbe Research had been contacted by both city staff and council members long before May 28, and polling on a UUT began in earnest two days later, but council was mum about these arrangements.
I was flabbergasted by the way the city was handling the proposed UUT expansion. Where was the outreach? The public relations? This was a council I had praised earlier for its work on putting together a City Communications Plan. Where were the principles that were to be embodied in that plan? The City seemed to be making things difficult for itself to no good end.
My frustration with what appeared to be the city actively sabotaging its chances of success with the measure boiled over, and I vented about it on two local blogs: Pacifica Riptide and Fix Pacifica. I wasn’t alone in posting about what I saw as missteps and inadequacies with the measure, and I was one of many who dogpiled on the city. It wasn’t until several weeks later that I realized my naiveté—the low-key, quiet approach was part of a deliberate formula aimed at passing Measure V. Wherever a fork in the road presented itself to council, it appeared to outsiders that council chose to follow the advice of the campaign consultants rather than being completely forthright with the public.
I mulled over the absence of an organized and early Yes on V public presence. During the second week of July, TBWB Strategies had, with city money, sent out a glossy mailer recycled from an earlier campaign in the City of Hercules. After the generic mailer, the Yes on V campaign turtled up and there was no blog, news, or advertising presence for more than a month—total radio silence. The campaign didn’t concern itself with negative chatter and didn’t intend to reply in kind.
Numerous “No on V” signs went up around town beginning in early September. A small number of “Yes on V” signs didn’t appear until mid-October. The Yes campaign was counting on a low turnout at the polls. It knew with a fair amount of certainty who would show up at the polls, and it had a deep confidence that it could target those—and only those—individuals with the Yes message. Everything else could safely be ignored.
But if the road to success was a low turnout, things could fall to pieces if turnout increased and Yes on V lost control of the message. And that’s just what happened.
As voter participation increased, support for Measure V decreased. YES carried only two precincts out of 28, the two adjacent to each other in the northeast corner of Pacifica, and second and third from the bottom in voter participation (see graph below).
When converted to a line graph, the trend is a little more apparent: As voter participation increases by precinct (the blue line), support for Measure V trends downward (red line).
Yes on V lost control of the campaign and the message, with voters outside the targeted group becoming “activated” and voting against the measure. Normally, voters who don’t support an issue stay home and just don’t vote in off-year elections. Not in this case, though; the reaction against Measure V was so negative as to become motivational.
How did a perception of the measure develop that was so actively negative that it got people off their couches to vote against it? The answer: lack of outreach and communication.
A RISING OPPOSITION
Within days of the UUT measure reaching the City Council dais, negative reactions to the measure began appearing in the local blogs and the Pacifica Tribune. And they kept coming. And coming.
The negative viewpoints never let up. For quite some time, there were no rebuttals from Measure V supporters. Lack of an early response online made the Yes on V campaign look weak. The No on V campaign had been first to define the measure and impart its spin on the issues. Responses from YES supporters would come eventually, but late in the campaign after Measure V had already been cast in a wholly negative light, and the YES responses would be scattershot and largely anonymous. The organized responses that did appear late in the campaign seemed to follow a tight script and appeared insincere because of it.
An opposition group of citizens already disgruntled with the city over a number of issues (see: planning commission shakeup) banded together and formed a committee called Pacificans Against Higher Utility Taxes, set up a Facebook site, and began soliciting campaign money and canvassing neighborhoods. What motivated the group was anger: anger at perceived personal mistreatment by council; anger with a city that seemed to be more concerned with reaching for residents’ wallets than it did with establishing a sustainable commercial revenue base; and anger with a council that they claimed approached decisions with a “my way or the highway” attitude, appearing unwilling to listen to constituents.
But the opposition group’s anger became one of its liabilities, and damaged its message. Its arguments could appear petty, snarky, and personal. Opponents of the measure logged onto a Yes on V volunteer website and defaced it by posting childish comments. A scheduled debate on the measure, hosted by the Pacifica/Daly City Democrats Club, almost didn’t occur as No on V representatives bickered with the moderator over trivial ground rules. The debate itself was a wash, with the NO side’s prickly and bullying manner dulling its message, while the YES side’s disjointed performance was its own self-inflicted wound.
But two inflection points shook up the YES campaign. The first was an August 26 letter from the Pacifica Chamber of Commerce, which had taken the position that it would not support the measure. The letter, carried in the Pacifica Tribune, adeptly summarized and gave voice to the angst bubbling among the loose coalition of those against V.
The second point was the NO group’s distribution of a flyer two weeks before vote-by-mail ballots arrived at homes. The flyer, distributed door-to-door by high-schoolers hired for the job, was a no-nonsense, two-sided photocopy. It was a personal testimonial from a certified public accountant of many years in Pacifica. In it, he laid out the bullet points of opposition in a clear and concise manner. The simple delivery carried a clear message: “I’ve lived in Pacifica for many years and I’m one of you. As a CPA, I’ve looked at this tax and there are many things wrong with it. I’m willing to put my name and reputation behind my opinion.” It struck home.
The Yes on V campaign remained relatively quiet in the face of growing questions about the measure, either not anticipating the increasingly vocal opposition or being unable (or unwilling) to marshal a response. Without an outreach arm of either the campaign or council, unanswered questions about the measure kept piling up, and as questions grew, so did doubts about the measure itself.
Why was taxpayer money used to conduct a poll without any kind of public vetting?
Were members of City Council meeting in secret with a citizens group to work on campaign policy?
Why did the measure provide for an exemption based on age but none based on income?
What exactly did UUT tax?
If the measure were going to increase revenue by 60 percent, wasn’t it dishonest to say the measure wouldn’t raise our tax rates?
And the killer: Why did the City need this money so badly if it projected that its reserve would be growing to $1.8 million this year?
And there’s the crux: The city never adequately made the case that it needed the money. Yes, there had been a long series of meetings of the Financing City Services Taskforce, but their output—usually in the form of spreadsheets—was difficult to parse. And hadn’t we just balanced our budget for the second year in a row and weren’t our reserves growing?
I opined about this in a piece I wrote for the Pacifica Tribune in an October edition. In it I pointed out that there was no way for an informed and interested citizen like myself to ascertain the true state of our city’s finances beyond what our then-finance director had presented to the City Council in June. To claim Pacifica was now in a fiscal emergency seemed at odds with the available facts. Additionally, there was nothing in our daily lives that would indicate that the city was in dire straits: The budget was balanced; crime was low; the police and fire departments came quickly when called; parks and recreation services continued as they always had. The only indication that all wasn’t well was the visible deterioration of Pacifica’s roads.
But Measure V would have our roads covered, with supporters claiming that funds raised from Measure V would go toward street and sidewalk maintenance. And so another problem with the measure: It overpromised. Road and sidewalk repair, fire response, police services, meals on wheels, the Resource Center, school STEM funding, and on and on—they were all to benefit from Measure V, but the projected $1 million the expanded UUT would bring in could go only so far, and promised uses for the funds were being spread very thin as the campaign went on.
Linda Mar Boulevard is scheduled for a pavement rehabilitation project in 2014. The work will involve repaving a three-quarter-mile stretch of Linda Mar from Highway 1 to Adobe Drive at a cost of $486,835. Most the funding for this particular paving project will come from grant funding, but the takeaway is that with 90 miles of roadway within the city, Measure V funding wouldn’t stretch very far at all even if it were used solely for roadway maintenance, let alone for a dozen other purposes.
FAILURE OF COMMUNICATION
I had an ongoing conversation with a City Council member about the perceived health of the city versus the financial realities it was facing, as well as the difficulties the city was having in adequately conveying information to the public. A City Communications Plan was coalescing but was not yet in place and, in the meantime, there were no official channels of communication between the city and its residents.
Motivated residents could come to a City Council meeting and talk to council members for three minutes at a time, but decorum requires that council members not respond. Likewise, council members may talk to the few members of the public present, but in no case is there any conversation or back-and-forth. There just isn’t anything in place to facilitate discussion, so the public has no forum to obtain answers to legitimate questions that arise—about anything. The ballot box seems the only vehicle to get the city’s attention.
The council member I spoke with passed along the latest incarnation of the city’s Five Year Plan to help me understand the crisis facing the city. It was another multi-page spreadsheet that would make most readers cross-eyed if they tried to take it all in, but it laid out the projected budget for the next five years. Had this been translated into an easy-to-understand set of data, it could have been precisely the sort of information that the city could have used to sway voters. It wasn’t, and instead, voters were left to come to their own conclusions as to how it was we faced an immediate fiscal emergency.
The underlying data indicate that one of the primary problems the city confronts is its inability to rely on a steady amount of ERAF mitigation, or givebacks, from the state. Beginning in 1992, the State of California found itself unable to meet educational funding obligations, and it enacted legislation that transferred a share of the funding responsibility to cities. “Educational revenue augmentation funds” (ERAFs) started shifting money from cities, but the state would mitigate the takeaways by returning portions of local property tax revenues to offset them.
Not only have the replacement funds been insufficient, the state is inconsistent with its givebacks, making budgeting difficult. Other cities in San Mateo County address this by not incorporating ERAF funds into their budget planning process. The City of Pacifica, needing every penny it can get, doesn’t have this luxury, and relies on ERAF givebacks for core funding, so the funds are incorporated in budget projections. This puts Pacifica in the unenviable position of having to make “best guesses” as to how much funding it will receive from the state in the coming years, and having to make adjustments on the fly.
But an even greater problem and more basic issue is outlined within the city’s Five Year Plan: The rate of growth in the city’s costs is greater than the city’s rate of growth of its revenue.
14/15 15/16 16/17 17/18
26,524,078 26,941,420 27,355,445 27,765,540
14/15 15/16 16/17 17/18
26,732,787 27,240,483 27,768,325 28,209,871
Revenue is projected to grow at 4.680 percent over this four-year period (an average of 1.56 percent year-on-year). Outlays are projected to grow at 5.525 percent (1.842 percent year-on-year) for the same period.
Growth of Costs > Growth of Revenue
This is unsustainable and illustrates a key point: Unless this ratio can be changed, the UUT wouldn’t have fixed the problem and would have merely delayed another structural budget deficit.
What follows is a very simplistic graph based on the Five Year Plan’s numbers, which serves to better convey the point: Costs continue to rise at a rate greater than revenues. Even if the UUT increase had passed and the Beach Boulevard project were built (generating $500,000 annually by 2017), the city still runs a structural deficit on the ninth year out.
One-time infusions of revenue or other sources of income that fail to grow in proportion to costs are eventually gobbled up. One way out of this permanent state of existential crisis is through investment in city infrastructure and in establishing a business climate that ensures the rate of growth exceeds that of its costs. But if Pacifica taxpayers say “No” to everything, where will the money for this investment come from?
THE WAY FORWARD: LESSONS LEARNED
That Measure V was opposed by 65.88 percent of voters says several things. It indicates a lack of trust in City Council and the campaign it appeared to run. And the trust deficit stems primarily from a lack of communication and openness between the city and its residents.
Council made the mistake of not putting distance between itself and the YES campaign. A campaign is all about the numbers, and nothing else. A campaign may seem almost at odds with democratic principles in that it strives to increase participation among sympathetic voters while at the same time doing what it can to suppress participation by those opposed. Council should have more cleanly separated itself as a governing body from that of the campaigning body.
A campaign is a cold, mean thing at its core, and nothing more than a numbers game. As the elected body of the people, City Council is expected to be a much different type of thing—leaders who are in touch with the needs and wants of their constituents. Council followed the campaign playbook, but forgot its primary charge: responsibility to the people it represented to keep them informed and to be informed by them.
The Yes on V campaign was correct in performing the groundwork it did. Assessing public support by contracting out for telephone polling was absolutely the right thing for the city to do; it would have been derelict in its duty if it were to leap headlong into a campaign without having done so. The type of polling done by Godbe Research is part and parcel of any serious election effort. There was nothing unseemly about the way the campaign for Measure V was handled. It was quiet, low-key, and targeted. One can argue the effectiveness of the approach, but one cannot argue against it as an acceptable and common tactic.
But the community does not expect or tolerate this behavior in a City Council. When a legislative body comes to its constituents seeking to raise taxes and—more important—for its trust, that body cannot behave like a campaign. There must be open and clear communication, and the city’s case must be made publicly.
As the defeat of Measure V demonstrates, in the absence of a healthy discussion between city leaders and residents, potential voters will reach their own conclusions, drawn from the behavior they witness. Questions and concerns that one would naturally expect and that should be anticipated arose during the campaign, and voters wanted answers to questions like these:
After the defeat of two revenue measures since 2009, why was City Council trying it again for a third time?
Why didn’t council take the time to make adjustments to the measure to reflect community concerns with it?
Why did statements about the city’s finances seem so contradictory from one moment to the next?
Why was the city spending public money on the measure? Was this legal? Was it proper?
When was the decision made to go with a UUT as opposed to other avenues for revenue?
Why wasn’t the public involved in the decision-making?
The questions weren’t answered, nor did the city have a way to answer the questions. Residents were asked to trust council but were presented with behavior that appeared to them sneaky and contradictory.
Council, for its part, is aware of its anemic communications efforts and has been taking bold and concrete steps toward rectifying them. New City Manager Lorie Tinfow was hired on the strength of her community relations and outreach work for her previous employer. As assistant general manager of the City of Walnut Creek, Tinfow was essential in creating a 20-page report, A Community Connected: The Budget Story. The report earned the city a Helen Putnam Award in 2013 for Excellence in Internal Administration, and distilled the city’s complicated and mind-numbing budget numbers into a colorful and simple explanation of the process—as well as outlining the perils immediately confronting the city. More important, the report wasn’t merely a presentation of facts and figures, it was a call to action that presented options designed to encourage Walnut Creek residents to participate in budgetary decision-making.
Pacifica City Council is also finishing up its own City Communications Plan, which seeks to provide an overlay of common policies and procedures designed to help the council, the city, and its individual departments relay information to the public in a more open, accurate, and responsive manner. Some parts of the plan appear weaker than others (the way the public engages with the city, for example), but it’s a big step in the right direction.
Which leads to a final point: Pacifica’s residents cannot constantly oppose all ideas; they must support something if the city is to move forward and improve. As soon as the City Communications Plan was posted online and before its digital ink was dry, it was ripped to shreds. It was depressing to witness. Is the plan perfect? No one would claim it to be so, but it is a Good Thing. But instead of supporting the things worthy and significant about it, condemnation was heaped on it. Can those who would tear down the plan instead work on improving it?
When the next Beach Boulevard or Palmetto improvement project is presented; when City Council reaches out again and announces a new study session on goal-making or its next communications plan; when the mayor holds his/her next “coffee talk”—then can Pacificans resist the knee-jerk urge to immediately criticize whatever the city has to offer?
The death of Measure V sets in motion a chain of events that will have serious consequences for Pacifica’s economy for years to come. The defeat of Measure V most likely spells doom for any library bond measure planned for November 2014. Without the library bond, no new library will be built. With no new library, there will be no anchor tenant for the Beach Boulevard development. With no anchor tenant, there will be no Beach Boulevard development. With no Beach Boulevard development, there will be no $500,000 annual tax revenue from the project. With no increase in the annual tax revenue base, Pacifica’s revenue will remain flat for the foreseeable future, and the city will die just a little, year after year.
Is this coastal town doomed to a life of unending bickering? Is the paralysis due to a never-ending pursuit of perfection to be Pacifica’s lot in life, its eternal quest for the Holy Grail? It appears that residents are against almost everything in this town, but what is it exactly that they’re for, and can they ever agree on it?
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November 5, 2013
My Turn: Searching for Pacifica
By Chris Fogel
Pacifica Tribune Columnist
In an attempt to stay on top of Pacifica community news and developments, I oversee a variety of newsfeeds, alerts and applications. RSS feeds, Google alerts, #pacifica Twitter tags, Facebook, Yelp, Instagram, Pinterest -- I try to monitor all of it for breaking news and interesting stories about the city.
Once in a while I’ll run across a gem, but these nuggets are becoming tougher to find as “Pacifica” becomes an increasingly popular name in the news and my search feeds are buried by references to products and services unrelated to our fair town.
I never knew how many car accidents, car chases or car sales involved Chrysler Pacificas. The vehicle was first offered during the 2004 model year and Chrysler ceased production of the luxury mid-size crossover after releasing the 2010 model, but it appears to me that there are many thousands still on the road careening into one another. It’s probably no coincidence that as time passes, the references to the Pacifica tend to increasingly involve the search for parts.
Ipsy is a website offering discounts on a variety of beauty products and offers registered members the opportunity to subscribe to a monthly “grab bag” of cosmetics. Pacifica brand cosmetics and fragrances are often included in these bags and once a month I’m treated to dozens of happy Ipsy bag recipients Tweeting and Instagramming about their love of Pacifica products and sharing photos or videos of them.
Although you can find Pacifica fragrance products on store shelves throughout our town, they’re actually produced in Portland, Oregon and have no connection to the City of Pacifica other than sharing the name.
Pacifica Radio is a network of five listener-supported radio stations that first launched out of Berkeley in 1949. Whenever something controversial occurs on the liberal-leaning stations--which seems to me fairly often-- I know about the event rather quickly as outraged tweets begin flying fast and furiously.
The last such incident involved the September cancellation of the daily newscast, “Free Speech Radio News,” and the lay-off of staff and reporters associated with the time slot. This decision by Pacifica Radio’s governing board generated hundreds of social network comments and all but obscured any “real news” of the day related to our burg by the sea.
Judging by my newsfeeds, Punta Pacifica is the hot spot for real estate right now. No, Punta Pacifica isn’t “Pedro Point adjacent,” but is rather an upscale neighborhood on the western coast of Panama.
Viewed from the air, Punto Pacifica has a skyline not unlike Miami’s or a scaled-down Dubai City, and as the high rise condos to up, so do the online listings for property there . All this junk news ends up getting captured by my alerts and I see each and every one. To make matters worse, Punto Pacifica contains a district known as San Francisco.
My eyes just about popped out of my head when I saw the words “Trump Tower,” “Pacifica,” and “San Francisco” together in the same article. Needless to say I was a bit let down when I found out that the area in question was 4,000 miles to the south of us. This is what is known as a cruel joke among information professionals.
But I take searching for information about Pacifica seriously and do it primarily so that no one else has to. Hop on over to Pacifica Index to find a collection of materials related to the City of Pacifica and its operation: council and commission agendas, press releases, information on subjects such as Measure V, and other miscellanea. I hope most find it useful and I promise I won’t try to sell you a car, condo or bag of cosmetics while you’re there.
Chris Fogel is the Editor & Publisher of Pacifica Index
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October 8, 2013
My Turn: Improving Communications
By Chris Fogel
Pacifica Tribune Columnist
On Sept. 23, 2013 Pacifica's City Council approved a Communications Plan and directed staff to implement its recommendations. The Plan arose as part of an ambitious City Council Goal Setting process begun in September 2012 and which was intended to "improve relationships with the general community through more effective communication and education on community issues."
Mayor Len Stone and former Councilmember Ginny Jaquith spearheaded a Communications Task Force that held two focus groups on April 11, 2013 (disclosure: I was a participant in one of the focus groups) to seek ways the City could improve its communication and outreach, and to incorporate the various viewpoints they gathered into a final plan.
Without exception, the group I was a part of felt the City was moving in the right direction, with City Council becoming more available and increasing dialog with residents. Both Mayor Stone and Councilmember O'Neill have gone "on tour," giving presentations to a variety of civic groups and holding numerous informal forums. Mayor's Walks have been reinstated. Councilmember Ervin makes herself available and is eager to listen to constituents' perspectives on issues. Both Mayor Pro Tem Nihart and Councilmember Digre appear to somehow have cloned themselves; they appear at almost every community event in Pacifica and are exceedingly approachable. More study sessions have been held during the last two years than in the previous ten.
Yet, the whole crux of the Communications Plan is a recognition that there is room for improvement, primarily in "push services" such as publications and subscriptions. When, for example, was the last time a Councilmember wrote a piece for the Tribune? And wouldn't it be nice if you could sign up for an official City of Pacifica email list or newsfeed for regular updates about city policy and breaking news?
There has been a massive uptake in mobile devices and social media use, but as it has become easier to communicate among ourselves than at any other time in our history, City Hall seems awfully quiet in comparison. As the avenues for communication grow, our expectations for increased communication grow along with them.
The benefits of increased communication would be tangible and immediate. Take, for example, Measure V, the ballot measure which seeks to expand the 6.5 percent tax on gas and electric utilities to previously-untaxed telephone use.
I follow the City of Pacifica fairly closely (and no, I'm not perfect, but I like to think that, at a minimum, I pay attention). So, on July 8th I was fairly surprised to hear the City Manager declare a fiscal emergency twenty-eight days after the Finance Director had presented not only a balanced budget to Council, but one that projected that the City's reserve fund would increase from $1.4 million to $1.8 million. I thought to myself at the time, and asked Council directly: "What happened?"
If the budget that was passed three months ago and which was presented as conforming to the Five Year Financial Plan no longer represents the current state of our finances, I didn't know this, the public doesn't know this, and we currently don't have any way of knowing this.
When proponents of Measure V state that additional tax revenue is necessary to keep our City functioning, I point to the projected growth of our City's reserve fund and ask about the apparent contradiction. I have been told by City officials and representatives that this isn't a true picture of the City's finances, and -- this is important -- I don't doubt them. But in the absence of any accessible data to suggest otherwise, you can kind of see how opponents of Measure V might think the City isn't exactly on the up-and-up with regards to this whole fiscal emergency business.
Even worse, someone like myself may be passing off incorrect information as fact! I would feel awful if I were staking a position based on false information, but in a bizarre Catch-22, I have no idea if I'm incorrect about the City's finances because I'm relying on information provided by the City.
Does this come across as ranting? Or whining? I hope not, because I am encouraged by the City's actions with regards to its Communication Plan and the example is intended to illustrate not only the importance of increased, open communication, but it's necessity. I believe Council recognizes this too. Stay tuned for an upcoming Study Session regarding it.
Chris Fogel is the editor and publisher of Pacifica Index
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September 3, 2013
My Turn: The Beginning Days of Paid Parking
By Chris Fogel
Pacifica Tribune Columnist
The City of Pacifica's paid parking at Linda Mar Beach got underway on Aug. 16 with little fanfare and on the following Saturday, I visited the three affected lots to get a sense of how the program was being received.
Use of the lots appeared to be down slightly with anywhere from one-third to one-half of the parking spots occupied. Of those cars present, only half appeared to be displaying parking ticket receipts on their dashboards. Parking along side streets and adjacent lots (Crespi Drive and Pedro Point Shopping Center) was heavier than usual. Those avoiding the pay lots by parking in nearby shopping centers did so at their peril and ran the risk of their cars being towed.
I spoke with Cheryl Koel, one of the two new rangers hired by the city to maintain and patrol the city's beaches as well as enforce the new parking rules. Ms. Koel let beach-going parkers know about the new paid parking requirements with a light touch, having handed out 25 written warnings and no fines by the time I spoke with her. Real citations would come in later days, yielding a $36 sting for the unlucky recipients.
She described visitors as being relatively receptive to the changes and explained that she had been pointing out several of the benefits of the new parking plan -- cleaner bathrooms, leash law enforcement and better overall maintenance of the beach. Our new ranger was cheerful , pleasant, and a good representative of our town.
I'm glad the city choose to tread lightly during this transition period as both the signage at the lots and the pay stations themselves are somewhat unobtrusive. Frequent visitors to our lots, not looking for nor expecting a single sign at the entrances, ought to be forgiven for not knowing paid parking is in full effect, especially as there are no numbers or other markings on the parking spots themselves.
I shadowed several groups of visitors and many expressed confusion over the signs which state that the lots are paid parking "except in designated spaces." The visitors were unsure whether this referred to parking in handicapped spaces or if those cars displaying handicapped placards were exempt.
As it turns out, neither is the case; designated spaces are two sets of six spaces between signs reading "Free Parking - 30 minutes receipt required." But if you're looking for these spaces in Lot C, you're out of luck -- there are none. And what kind of receipt does someone need for free parking? A parking receipt that is validated by a local business? Is the parking machine used to generate a "30 minutes" receipt? I think you can see some of the confusion visitors to our beach were confronting.
The paid parking program has allowed the city to hire two additional rangers (for a total of three) and in the process has reduced its expenditures on annual operation of the beach from $160,000 to $67,191 (based upon conservative projections). It's just in its infancy, but so far it seems to be going fairly well and is generally well-received by Pacifica residents.
What will be interesting will be the discussion the city will be having in 2016 when the operating agreement between Pacifica and the California Department of Parks and Recreation for the management of Linda Mar State Beach expires. I imagine one of the discussions will be: Given all the hassle and costs, why exactly does the City of Pacifica want to assume the operation of a state beach?
Chris Fogel is the editor and publisher of Pacifica Index
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My Turn: Wastewater Workers, Thank You
By Chris Fogel
Pacifica Tribune Columnist
"Uh oh!" I said aloud as I lifted a sheet of plywood covering the trench in our front yard and peered down into it as our family returned home one evening last week. There had once been a sewer lateral down there. Someone had cut and removed a section and now there was a three-foot gap between two open pipe-ends. The end toward my house dribbled a bit of water.
"They forgot to reconnect our sewer line! Don't use anything! ESPECIALLY NOT THE TOILET!" I emphasized as I ran into the house to warn everyone.
My family lives in a neighborhood that has been identified as one of Pacifica's worst offenders when it comes to what's known in wastewater industry parlance as "I&I," which stands for "infiltration and inflow." Others -- myself included -- are used to the more colloquial term: "leaky pipes." Our sewer pipes aren't leaking waste out though; rather, they're letting water enter in and on stormy days our city runs the real risk of its sewage treatment plant being overwhelmed by all the extra water leaking into the system.
In fact, this did happen in 2008 when our sewer plant was inundated with I&I during a rainy period and was unable to treat it all, causing an overflow of seven million gallons of partially treated sewage to spill into the ocean.
In response to this incident, a San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board investigation resulted in a large fine and 20-year capital improvement project being imposed upon the City of Pacifica.
Many of the older homes throughout Pacifica are serviced by sewer laterals consisting of Orangeburg pipe, a material comprised of layers of pressed wood pulp and pitch, and named after the city in New York where it was manufactured. Although marketed as having a lifetime of over 50 years, Orangeburg was anything but sturdy and began to fail in as little as ten.
The rehabilitation project currently underway in our neighborhood is extensive, but has generally not been intrusive due to accommodations made by the outside company that the city has contracted with. However, there I was, staring at our sewer lateral that was no longer Orangeburg pipe, but was...well...no longer. Our neighbor wasn't lucky enough to have checked his lateral before his family settled in for the night. Raw sewage filled the bottom of his trench. It was as bad as you could imagine.
I got on the phone to the contractor. "Yes, we know. It's no problem, just go ahead and use your shower and toilet like you normally would -- it'll just flow out one end and into the other," I was told. Uh, no thanks.
This didn't sit right with me, and wanting a second opinion, I remembered that the city has its own wastewater workers on call 24/7. I called dispatch who immediately transferred me to Octavio, taking my call at his home in Redwood City. He reassured me that we could, in fact, use our facilities with little worry although he totally understood our apprehension.
He was very polite and was very concerned that my family felt safe. Octavio was ready to drive out from Redwood City that instant just to make sure all was okay and we were comfortable, even though the work was being done by an outside contractor.
I called Roy Jackson, another city wastewater employee I know who lives locally, and ran it all by him. He, too, was concerned primarily with my family's safety and comfort. At this point, I felt certain enough that I wasn't confronting an emergency and that, although unusual, these sorts of things do happen, so I asked that everyone stand down.
I posted a picture of the trench with its missing lateral on my Facebook page that evening. City Councilmember Mike O'Neill saw it and proactively contacted the City Manager. The next morning, Brian Martinez, head of Pacifica's wastewater collection system was at my door to speak with my wife and later called me at work to report on the condition of our lateral. We were reassured that the contractor's practice of leaving for the day without leaving connections in place would cease.
In the coming months, Pacificans will undoubtedly engage in debate which will touch upon the salaries, benefits, and pensions of Pacifica's employees. I believe this can be healthy, productive, and lead to a greater understanding of what we're confronting as a municipality, but during such discussions we should always keep in mind the fantastic job our city employees do for us every single day of the year and -- in my case -- who are willing to go above and beyond in taking ownership of a mess that someone else created. I am proud of our city employees and grateful to them.
Chris Fogel is the editor and publisher of Pacifica Index
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My Turn: The Long Road to Paid Parking
By Chris Fogel
Pacifica Tribune Columnist
At the time of this writing, the City of Pacifica remains on track to begin charging for parking at three Linda Mar State Beach lots on July 12, 2013. Visitors at these lots may pay $3 for up to four hours of parking--or $6 for an entire day--using automated ticket machines which will accept coins, cash and credit/debit cards. Frequent guests have the option of purchasing $50 annual passes from the city’s Parks, Beaches, and Recreation Department.
It is estimated that the paid parking program will generate approximately $308,000 in annual revenue which will be used towards ongoing beach maintenance and to fund the hiring of two additional rangers to patrol the beach and parking lots. Pacifica operates the beach under a 25-year operating agreement with the California Department of Parks and Recreation which restricts the use of these funds for the sole purpose of beach upkeep. The agreement, signed in 1991, is due to expire in 2016.
Since 2005, the City of Pacifica has made numerous and varied attempts to initiate a paid parking program at Linda Mar Beach and the process illustrates the hurdles unique to coastal towns who must interact with multiple state agencies for even the smallest of projects.
Eight years ago, the City began the process of implementing paid parking by installing swing-arm gates to the entrance of the main beach parking lot and requesting bids for ticket machines. Shortly thereafter, the program was halted when the California Coastal Commission issued an enforcement letter to the city stating that the gates must be removed immediately and the project terminated due to lack of a coastal development permit.
Two years later, Pacifica prepared a coastal development permit application for parking which would have implemented a multi-tiered parking rate structure, but would require the approval of the California Department of Parks and Recreation before being passed along to the Coastal Commission. The Department objected to the proposal, responding that the city's rate structure was inconsistent with those at existing state parks. Under the beach operating agreement, the City of Pacifica must maintain and operate the beach in a manner consistent with all other California State Parks.
In 2009, Pacifica's Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission began work on a new parking program rate structure and in 2010, the city once again contacted the California Department of Parks and Recreation about the revised parking proposal.
At this time, work on the Coastal Development Permit was put on hold until the fate of a November 2010 ballot initiative establishing an $18 State Parks Access Pass Surcharge on vehicle license fees could be determined. Had the initiative passed, parking fees throughout the state’s parks would have been radically altered. The ballot initiative did not pass and the City resubmitted its information.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation approved the proposed parking fee structure in 2011 and information was sent to the California Coastal Commission in order to complete the coastal development permit application. The application was accepted and placed on the Coastal Commission's agenda.
A mere day or two before the agenda item was to have been heard, a copy of the staff report was obtained which sought to impose extremely restrictive monitoring provisions upon Pacifica as a condition of approval. With little time to prepare an appropriate response to what appeared to be onerous preconditions, the city requested a postponement. After several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the Commission over these restrictions, the City of Pacifica withdrew its application in early 2012.
During an update on the paid parking program to Pacifica's City Council, Council urged the City Manager to make another attempt at negotiations and facilitated a meeting with the California Coastal Commission's Deputy Director. The meeting was productive, a set of conditions were developed which were acceptable to both parties, and the city's coastal development permit application was reactivated.
In April 2013 the application was approved and the permit to proceed with a paid parking program was issued.
Now, imagine the scope of any Quarry development and the involvement of at least five Federal, state, and local agencies. Oh, and take an aspirin while you’re at it. Maybe two.
Chris Fogel is the editor and publisher of Pacifica Index
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June 4, 2013
My Turn: Commissions, Committees, and Changes
By Chris Fogel
Pacifica Tribune Columnist
To those who monitor the municipal governance and administration of Pacifica, it often appears that the city operates in quasi-crisis mode, working in response to external pressures rather than preemptively charting its own course. The danger of reactive administrative policy, guided by the exigencies of continual, low-level states of emergency, is that the city lurches from crisis to crisis, spending far more time and energy fixing problems than would have otherwise been spent preventing them in the first place with a modicum of planning and forethought.
Lately, Pacifica's leaders have been tackling yet another predicament that has been developing for years and which has grown to the point where it can no longer be ignored; namely, what to do about the state of the city's various commissions and committees, which are currently in a state of disarray.
Although GGNRA land transfers such as the Cattle Hill and Pedro Point Headland properties are awaiting city action, the GGNRA Liaison Committee's sunset date was never extended beyond June 2010 and the group disbanded at that time. The city's Open Space Committee has suffered from attrition to the point that it can no longer field a quorum and has therefore not met regularly in over a year. And to varying degrees, both the Planning and PB&R Commissions have had several terms expire and have been waiting for seats to be renewed or reappointed.
To City Council's credit, it has embarked on the development and implementation of an ambitious set of goals and objectives for itself and city departments. Beginning with a Strategic Plan Workshop held in July 2012 and repeated again in January of this year, Council collected and incorporated input from Pacifica's department heads to create an ongoing set of overarching policy intended to inform best practices and procedures for the city.
Born out of this nascent framework of goals and objectives was the Pacifica City Council Subcommittee on Committees and Commissions, comprised of Mayor Stone and Mayor Pro Tem Nihart, which has been examining the resolutions, objectives and membership of the various groups. The result has been a set of recommendations, presented in a report unveiled during a special City Council Study Session held on March 20, when the findings were discussed and public input was solicited.
Based on the Subcommittee's report and subsequent discussion, Council moved forward with an agenda item during its May 13 meeting which introduced an ordinance and two resolutions intended to formally adopt the proposed changes and set them into motion, but as details of the changes have emerged and solidified, people have become increasingly unsettled by them.
Commissioners from both Planning and PB&R are troubled and confused by the manner in which the changes are being implemented. In the course of establishing a methodical term and appointment process, Council has chosen to declare every single seat on the two commissions vacant (as well as those on the Economic Development Committee), though all members were eligible to reapply for their former positions and are currently continuing in their capacities during the interim.
One of the peculiar aspects of this process is what has been described as an almost total absence of personal communication between the city and the commissioners affected. Many were initially unaware that their seats had been declared open or that they were required to reapply in order to be considered for subsequent reappointment. Many privately wonder about the reasoning behind the city's aggressive course of action, which remains unknown and publicly unstated.
Displeasure over the handling of the GGNRA Liaison and Open Space committees was evident during the same May 13 City Council meeting when the city sought to combine the functions of the two bodies into a single Natural and Other Areas Advisory Committee. Seventeen individuals addressed Council during the evening's public comment period to express their concerns over the proposed resolution which appeared to delineate a set of responsibilities for the new committee reflected GGNRA-related issues, but failed to include those traditionally handled by the Open Space Committee. The proposal was eventually tabled by Council in favor of further examination by the Subcommittee.
The proposed resolution serving as the basis for the sweeping changes to Planning, PB&R and Economic Development did pass, however, and Council is currently in the midst of the applicant interview process. It is notable that of the fourteen Planning and PB&R commissioners, twelve have reapplied for their previous positions. It speaks to the character of these individuals who, having been summarily dismissed after performing hundreds of hours of work on a volunteer basis, are willing to give it another go simply for the good of Pacifica.
Chris Fogel is the Editor & Publisher of Pacifica Index
From the Pacifica Tribune Editor and Publisher:
The Pacifica Tribune is pleased to be partnering with Pacifican Chris Fogel, editor and publisher of Pacifica Index. Just as we have had a long relationship with John Maybury who runs Pacifica Riptide, the Tribune strives to complement locally run media websites, to share news and information and provide the best overall coverage of our community for our readers. Chris has gained a strong following of residents and praise from all segments of the community for his well-researched site that includes facts, timelines and detailed reports and commentary on governmental and other local issues. He will be contributing regular articles and opinion pieces to the Tribune. We all have the same goal at heart: to promote Pacifica and its people, and to pinpoint and discuss issues of mutual concern. We welcome Chris Fogel.
-- Elaine Larsen and the Pacifica Tribune staff