Commentary: Promises versus challenges

It’s Labor Day, which means Election Day is but 60 plus days away. Accordingly, political campaign signs will blossom like mushrooms after it rains and election ads might even be occasionally informative. Unfortunately, most will simply fill the room with political smoke, kind of like being behind an RV belching black smoke as it trundles up a hill.

The antidote to the latter is being an inquisitive and somewhat informed voter, asking specific questions. To accomplish the latter requires having relevant information about what’s happening in your community. If your reaction to the first line of this article was “oh, is there an election this year?” means we are significantly behind the power curve but that can be remedied.

Atascadero politics has been considerably boring over the last few election cycles so candidates have to come up with something to irritate enough voters to get them to pay attention. Attacking the character of current office-holders is a tried and true ploy, somewhat unethical but “business as usual.” I always advise novice candidates to put on some “tough skin” as American politics may not be a blood sport but it’s quite unpleasant for those in the limelight. Candidates are almost always shocked at the personal attacks, almost as much as incumbent candidates are surprised at the short memories of constituents who are perpetually “unhappy with the direction the city is going.”

I often ask these detractors what exactly are they unhappy about but seldom receive more than vague answers. No, they haven’t attended any Planning Commission meetings or citizen advisory meetings, nor talked personally with a council member about anything specific that a council member can actually do anything about, but they’re still “unhappy about the direction the city is going.”

The current Atascadero City Council (two of whom are “retiring” from the Council and two aren’t up for re-election) has a fair list of accomplishments over the last decade, to wit: providing the financial assurance that allowed the Galaxy Theatre complex to be built and completed; they refurbished the old City Hall after major earthquake damage, overcoming considerable naysayer resistance. They completed the pedestrian bridge project connecting the Sunken Gardens with the Galaxy Theatre complex, approved the La Plaza retail complex across from the Galaxy Theater, built a transportation center opposite the new library, modified the zoning for commercial businesses on East and West Mall surrounding the Sunken Gardens, and pushed for more transient occupancy tax revenues by supporting hotel construction.

The latter is crucial for Atascadero, given the loss of the Wal-Mart project and faced with a national retail trade crisis: 57 national retailers have gone bankrupt since January of this year with financial analysts attributing much of this to the brick and mortar stores inability to compete with on-line shopping. It’s a challenge for any developer to find tenants for retail spaces, especially in California given this State’s overtly hostile regulatory attitude.

The transient occupancy tax (TOT or hotel bed tax) is critical for cities as a revenue generator as the California Public Employees Retirement System (CALPERS) is eating California cities alive. CALPERS made poor investments for political reasons, reducing their rate of return which needed to be around 7 to 8 percent annually to be solvent. They’re not even close and make up the shortfall by annually increasing the contribution of cities and counties to CALPERS. The result is that local revenue increases are being systematically devoured by CALPERS with more and more cities facing bankruptcy. Financial analysts reported that San Diego might be the next major city to be overcome by mandatory increases in CALPERS contributions.

It is likely the single greatest challenge to be faced by any prospective elected official is seeing their dreams of civic improvements go down the drain as local revenues are swallowed up. This problem may have been made worse by a recent California court decision requiring a city to reinstate a single retirement system for a city that dared attempt retirement reform by putting in a two-tier retirement system. The California Supreme Court ruled long ago that benefits promised must be paid “no matter what” so the financial future for many cities and counties is in doubt without State constitutional reform.

Candidates may promise much but are frequently weak on specifics, especially the “how to” of their promises. They may criticize the incumbents but have nothing concrete to add, implying their business experience will make all well. Cities aren’t businesses; they provide essential services, like police and fire, neither of which is operated for profit but upon need. Water must be safe to drink and sewage treated before disposal, lest ancient plagues return to attack our families, all being revenue-neutral operations.

Finally, the most essential character trait of a candidate is a willingness to listen and learn and be able to work well with their elected peers. Coming on board with a confrontational attitude might stir up a political base of support but does little to aid in the actual process of governing.


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