Monday, 15 October 2018

Opinion: Questions incumbents should ask themselves — and ideas for first-time candidates

Opinion: Questions incumbents should ask themselves — and ideas for first-time candidates
01 Aug


Daily Post Editor

If you’re an incumbent council member in the mid-Peninsula and you’re thinking about running for another four-year term, ask yourself some questions.

• Have I made the lives of my constituents better in the past four years?

• Have I made it more affordable to live in my community?

• Did rents go down?

• Is it easier to find a place to live?

• Did traffic decrease?

• Did I require developers of new projects to fully abate all problems their projects would cause for the community?

• Are there more small-businesses serving the community? Is it easier now to own a small business now than it was when I got into office?

If you can’t answer “yes” to any of these questions, why on earth are you running again? You had four years and didn’t accomplish anything meaningful to the average resident. Maybe it’s time to do something else.

Voters should ask themselves, which candidates will make this a better place to live?

The difficult thing about council elections is that there aren’t a lot of good candidates. Yes, many people sign up. But most don’t have the experience and ability to improve the city.

Being a “community volunteer” (an actual ballot title I saw in a previous election) might mean you can coordinate a bake sale, but it doesn’t qualify you to run a city.

Too often, first-time candidates are afraid to take positions on important issues. When asked about something crucial, like development or housing, they’ll have a vague response like, “I think both sides have good ideas” or “I’ll listen to the people.” Some will avoid an answer by saying, “I’ll take a balanced approach.”

Tell us what you really think. Don’t try to ride the fence and pretend you’re in both camps. Have the courage of your convictions.

People will respect you if you’re straight with them, even if they don’t agree with all of your positions. Don’t be a phony.

Do your homework

It’s startling how poorly prepared many candidates have been in the past. I always ask the candidates a couple of questions about the city’s finances. Often, they don’t have a clue.
I fear that a naive, poorly-informed candidate can be easily manipulated by the powerful forces that want to control our communities.

For example, in many cities, the candidates will be asked by the San Mateo Labor Council or the South Bay Labor Council to visit them for an interview for a possible endorsement. Candidates are anxious to get endorsements, so of course they all agree.

When they sit down with the labor people, they’re handed a contract that lists all the things they promise to support in order to get the interview for the possible endorsement. The contract will, among other things, require that they support the prevailing wage.

Sounds nice, right? Who could be against that? What it means is that the government must pay the so-called prevailing wage, which is really an inflated wage that allows unionized contractors to compete for bids against non-union companies. The downside is that the prevailing wage can double the cost of an affordable housing project. So instead of building, say, 100 apartments, you can only get 50 for the same money. Other government projects, like roads or parking garages, also cost double what the private sector would pay because of the prevailing wage.

If you’re going to sign such a contract, disclose that fact to the voters, so they know who owns you.

Don’t be a rubber stamp

It’s funny, but when the campaign gets going, a labor-backed candidate will be asked if he’s just going to be a rubber stamp and approve big pay raises and pension increases if elected. The union-backed candidate will insist that he’s independent of the union and that the labor endorsement simply means he has broad support in the community. Of course the candidate will never show the voters the union contract he signed.

On the other hand, city managers try to influence candidates too. The manager will ask the candidates to come down to city hall for an orientation session so they can learn about all the things the city does.

That sounds helpful. But sometimes the city manager will discourage candidates from discussing issues that the city employees would rather keep under the rug. In the 2013 Redwood City council campaign, for example, I remember asking two candidates, Corrin Rankin and James “Lee” Han, what they would do about the city’s unfunded pension liability. I was stunned to hear them say that pensions weren’t a problem for Redwood City.

At the time, Redwood City’s unfunded liability was $167 million (now it’s about $239 million). How did they get that idea that pensions weren’t a problem? They said that’s what they were told during the orientation session. The city’s goal was to make sure pensions wouldn’t become an issue in the campaign, and it worked.

As a voter, you should be looking for well-informed, experienced candidates who are actually going to improve your city. Of course finding these people is difficult. Identifying the best candidates is the purpose of the campaigns that will unfold in our cities over the next three months.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is



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