Some Progress in a Year with Many Challenges
I ran for Student Council in the 6th grade at Mira Vista School in El Cerrito when John F. Kennedy was president. I came in dead last then. And it would take nearly 6 decades before I would be Mayor of my hometown this year. And what a year it’s been!
It’s included a range of problems resulting from Covid-19 and its economic and social impacts; the constant threat of wildfires in the East Bay hills; racial tensions and debates on police accountability; an unstable economy; and El Cerrito making the top ten list of the State Auditor’s financially troubled cities in California. We were in a bad financial place in El Cerrito last January. We ended up better — but we still have a long way to go.
When I was sworn in a year ago, I presented my 5 top priorities for 2021 that I would focus on. Some progress has been made. Let me give a brief update on the goals I mentioned:
Goal Number 1 — Focus Primarily on the City’s Troubling Finances
This City began FY 20-21 with no budget reserves, a lack of potential revenues and the need to take action to get back on track. With the Council supporting the State Audit Report on El Cerrito as a roadmap, this city held public forums and Council made very difficult decisions which resulted in a balanced budget, a $4 million surplus/10% reserve and no new taxes. And this was without applying the $6 million federal relief funds we received from the American Rescue Plan. It took public concern, dedicated staff work and difficult budget and service cuts, but we are at a better place to continue our structural changes to get to fiscal sustainability.
Goal Number 2 — Focus on Wildfire Prevention and Abatement
This year we expanded our fire abatement efforts and passed a resolution which designated wildfire prevention and safety as a top priority. We also passed a resolution to determine if a regional Vegetation Management Joint Power Authority (JPA) could benefit El Cerrito and the East Bay in achieving grants and improving firefighting coordination. I am also proud, that with difficult budget actions, we were able to keep Fire Station 72 open and reject cuts to our fire safety budget.
Goal Number 3 — Establish “Equity” Considerations for Council Actions
I am very pleased that Council agreed that we need to look at our city actions through a new lens that allows discussion and scrutiny to assure greater equity in our community. In addition to “financial,” “environmental” and “legal” considerations, staff and Council members will have to also ask questions about “equity” impacts concerning the policies and ordinances we pass. With the City Manager’s assistance, Council also agreed this goal should be broadened to assure that our city’s administrative operations also include important equitable considerations.
Goal Number 4 — Pass an Anti-Plastic Food Ware Ordinance
Like other local communities, I was pleased that we recently passed an ordinance that will cut down on plastic waste by requiring prepared food providers to use compostable food ware items. This ordinance includes a lot of public outreach, information and extended deadlines so our restaurants will have plenty of time to implement.
Goal Number 5 — Update our Climate Action Plan
In a year of needed climate action, this effort will have to be continued into next year because of an ongoing reality we will have to deal with — inadequate staff due to recent budget cuts, furloughs and transitions. Both city residents and Council members may be frustrated that a decreased city staff won’t allow every priority to be undertaken as soon as they would like. Maintaining critical services remains our priority as we re-staff when funding becomes available. Thanks to the remaining city staff that has had a very difficult year and still must hang in there with many assignments.
Again, despite a year with a myriad of difficult problems — this has still been a productive year in El Cerrito on several fronts. As I leave the Mayorship in December, I plan to continue as a Councilmember to focus on our finances (because we must), work to assure that the Plaza BART station development will be of benefit to El Cerritans as a new city center with a library, work to address growing homelessness, build back and improve our retail sector, and work on public safety and mental health response issues with a supportive Police Department.
Thank you, El Cerrito, for allowing me to work on your behalf.