Blogging Bayport Alameda

September 20, 2012

You asked, they answered: Jane Sullwold, City Council candidate

Filed under: Alameda, City Council, Election — Tags: , , — Lauren Do @ 6:00 am

1. What is the hardest decision you’ve had to make in your professional life?

In the mid-1990s I worked for a partner at the large, San Francisco-based law firm where I had been employed since 1979. She was trying a case in San Francisco Superior Court, and I was doing trial preparation work for her behind the scenes. She assigned me to defend one of our expert witnesses at the first deposition he would be giving in the Bay Area. I worked with the witness in preparing for the deposition, and was confident he would need little if any support from me because he had testified many times previously for the same client on the same issues in other jurisdictions.

The deposition was scheduled to take place on Friday, but on Wednesday I learned some horrible
news: a very close friend from Fresno, also a trial lawyer, had killed himself. The details were sketchy, but the preliminary story was that my friend had realized in the middle of a jury trial that he had incorrectly analyzed his case, and believed his client was likely to lose – big time. He became so obsessed by his perceived failings that he chose to end his life rather than endure a humiliating verdict, leaving behind a beautiful wife and three young children. It came as a complete shock to everyone. The memorial service was scheduled for Friday in Fresno.

I immediately called an office colleague and asked her to fill in for me at the expert deposition. She also had been involved for years in litigation on behalf of the same client, and I was confident that she would be able to handle the deposition easily. When my boss returned from court that evening, I told her of my plans, and how my colleague was prepared to cover for me.

My boss went berserk, telling me that I could not possibly go to the funeral; that my presence at the deposition was essential; and that I would be risking my job if I decided to go to Fresno.

I attended the memorial service anyway, and am very glad I made that decision because it gave me some degree of closure over the sad loss of my friend. (P.S.: I still had my job when I returned, and the case did not suffer at all because of my absence.)

2. Explain your understanding of the current state of the City Budget.

The key fact about the current state of the City budget is that, according to City staff, the City will run a deficit – i.e., spend more than it takes in – every year between now and fiscal year 2016-17, and, as a result, the City will exhaust its reserves – i.e., run out of money – by the end of that year. Here’s the chart included in the last budget report:

FY 2012-13

FY 2013-14

FY 2014-15

FY 2015-16

FY 2016-17






$73.8 MM













Ending balance






There are some who apparently believe that nothing can or should be done to address this situation. For example, I have heard that:

  • The federal government will come to the rescue because Obamacare will reduce health care costs and thus reduce the amount the City has to pay for medical benefits for current and retired employees.
  • The state government will come to the rescue because, having adopted the Housing Element, the City can obtain grants from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to pay for transportation and infrastructure improvements.

I hope both of these wishes come true. But I, for one, am not willing to risk our future by relying on Washington or Sacramento to solve our problems for us.

Nor I am willing to risk our future by trusting that economic recovery – if and when it occurs – will eliminate the need to make hard choices. I hope we haven’t forgotten the recent past. Every time the economy boomed, fiscal restraint went by the wayside. Why pay attention to costs when the boom, or, later, the housing boom was filling the state coffers with tax revenue? Look where such misplaced optimism got us. Eventually, the piper has to be paid.

This is not a bean-counter issue. Unless the budget is brought under control, the services provided by the City to its citizens are going to suffer. Some services may have to be eliminated. Some may have to be reduced. And others may be provided only if citizens are willing to pay for them out of their pockets. I don’t want to wake up one morning five years from now and find out it’ll now cost me $5 if I want to use the public library or attend a class at the Mastick Senior Center. But if a “don’t worry, be happy” approach prevails, that day may come.

3. Much is made of the City’s “unfunded liabilities;” briefly explain the issue and what solutions, if any, do you feel should be pursued.

An “unfunded liability” comes about when you’ve made a promise to give somebody something in the future but you don’t set aside enough money to pay for it. For example, suppose when your daughter enters kindergarten, you promise to pay for a four-year college education. But you don’t bother to set up a college savings account. You then have an “unfunded liability” for her college education.

The City has two major “unfunded liabilities”:

  • Pension benefits. The City has promised its employees they will get a pension upon their retirement. But the City hasn’t set aside enough money to pay the future cost of providing the pension benefits it promised. By one calculation, as of June 30, 2010, the unfunded liability for the public safety and “miscellaneous” employee pension plans was about $94.5 million. By another, the unfunded liability for these two plans was $183 million.
  • Retiree health benefits. Similarly, the City has promised its employees that they will get medical and dental benefits upon their retirement. Again, however, the City hasn’t set aside enough money – in fact, it hasn’t set aside any money – to pay the future cost of providing the retiree health benefits it promised. According to the City’s estimate, as of January 1, 2011, this unfunded liability amounted to $86.4 million.

Obviously the City doesn’t have enough money available in the general fund to set aside now to cover these unfunded liabilities. In fact, if the budget projections discussed above are accurate, the City can’t even afford to begin setting aside a little money every year to make a dent in them. The pension task force appointed by City Manager John Russo has been considering what to do in this situation. No one believes it is acceptable for the City simply to walk away from the promises it made. One option worth further study is issuing pension obligation bonds to raise money to pay off or pay down the unfunded liabilities now. I expect the task force will crunch the numbers to determine whether this option makes financial sense.

4. Explain how you, as a member of the City Council, would address these issues facing Alameda: falling revenues, increasing costs, deferred expenses and Alameda Point redevelopment.

Revenues. The recession hasn’t had the same impact in Alameda that it has had in other cities, and, indeed, City staff projects that revenues will remain relatively stable through fiscal year 2016-17. The City’s revenues come from taxes, and there are only two ways to increase tax revenues: increase tax rates or expand the tax base. The voters’ recent rejection of Measure C suggests the electorate doesn’t favor the former option. But exploiting the latter option is more complicated than simply proclaiming support for a “vibrant” business community. Different businesses offer different opportunities. Retail stores generate sales taxes. Office buildings generate property taxes. We’ve got to go after both. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves by touting “out-of-the-box” – some would say, off-the-wall – notions of minting money by making
Alameda a tourist destination.

Renewing Alameda Point potentially would have the most dramatic impact on revenues. Currently, the revenue from commercial leases barely covers the City’s costs. Once the City takes title to the developable area of the Point, we should undertake an aggressive program to market commercial buildings for sale or long-term lease. In exchange, we would want the buyer or lessee to invest in infrastructure and capital improvements. This is the approach that we chose for the Golf Complex – and it can work at the base, too.

Costs. The familiar refrain is that the City has “cut costs to the bone,” and there is simply nothing more that can be done. I don’t buy it. My approach would be to identify the core services demanded by Alameda residents of their government and then determine the most cost effective ways of providing them. If the conclusion is that Alamedans already are getting only essential services at the lowest possible cost, so be it. But let’s be sure.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Fire protection obviously is a core service provided by the City. Back in 2009, the City engaged a consulting firm – the International City/County Management Association (“ICMA”) – to analyze whether it was doing so in a cost-effective way. ICMA came up with a report contending that the City could reduce costs yet maintain acceptable service levels with fewer fire stations and fewer personnel. The Acting City Manager shelved the report, and it was never publicly discussed until it surfaced during the Measure C debate. At that time, both City staff and the firefighters’ union ridiculed the report as full of flaws. They may well be right. But – this time – let’s open up the topic for discussion. If I were on the Council, I’d invite the proponents and opponents of the report’s recommendations to make their case publicly and take questions from not just the Councilmembers but also the public. Who knows? We might learn something. Maybe it will turn out that those who see nowhere to cut expenses are right. Then we’ll have to explore the options of saving costs by out-sourcing services in whole or in part; entering into “public/private partnerships” in which we rely on the generosity of contributors to pay the costs of offering services once provided by the City, or charging citizens “user fees” for services they once got for free.

Deferred expenses. Like unfunded liabilities, deferred expenses are another elephant in the room. When the Fiscal Sustainability Committee was doing its work, the Public Works director estimated that the total cost of improving the City’s infrastructure – e.g., streets, sewers, storm drains, parks and the like – was a whopping $662 million. Nevertheless, the fiscal year 2012-13 budget included only $17.8 million (of which only $1.2 million came from the general fund) for capital projects. Obviously, spending at that level leaves a lot of work left undone. As with the unfunded liabilities for pension and retiree medical benefits, we’re not going to be able to tap the general fund to fill the gap all at once. Bringing the operating budget under control is a necessary but not sufficient first step. We’ll still face a series of hard choices requiring trade-offs between maintaining the current level of services and ensuring that the infrastructure doesn’t disintegrate in the meantime.

Alameda Point. A number of the issues involving the Point bear a striking resemblance to the issues I confronted involving the Chuck Corica Golf Complex: deteriorating infrastructure, unrealistic “master plans,” years of inaction. And my approach to the Point will be similar to the one I took for the Golf Complex: gather and analyze the data; find out what the public wants and what economic reality will permit; seek creative solutions – and get going. Based on what I know now, I would concentrate on three areas:

  • Ensuring that the western portion of the Point is made clean enough to permit its intended use for a wildlife refuge, open space, and parks;
  • Proceeding with the planning such as a master infrastructure plan and a base wide environmental impact report that will allow the City to act quickly on proposals for developing sections of the 918-acre eastern portion of the Point; and
  • Developing the Point in phases but emphasizing, in the first instance, commercial reuse and redevelopment of the Historic District, including, as I discussed above, marketing cleaned-up buildings for sale or long-term lease.

I recently attended a meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board (“RAB”) and came away more convinced than ever that this City has a lot of smart people who think analytically and creatively in identifying problems and proposing solutions. The RAB, of course, focuses on environmental issues, but I’ll bet there are other Alameda citizens with business expertise and no axe to grind who can be enlisted in the effort to renew the Point.

5. Explain your position on employee negotiations and the role of the public in this process.

Because our City employees are union members, the terms and conditions of their employment are set through the collective bargaining process. On one side of the table is the union representative; on the other is the City manager (or his representative). Fortunately, the recent moves to take the right to bargain collectively away from public employees have not reached California, and, although the Alameda public employee unions have chosen not to support me, I continue to back their right to collective bargaining.

The public isn’t in the room during the contract negotiations – and, in fact, it won’t know the outcome until the City manager presents an agreement for approval by Council. But this doesn’t mean the public has no role to play. Before a lawyer begins negotiating a settlement with opposing counsel, her job – indeed, her duty – is find out what her client’s objectives are. Then she tries to make a deal that her client will be willing to accept. In a sense, the public is the City Manager’s client when he is negotiating a contract with the union. And just as a lawyer must negotiate with her client’s bottom line in mind, so, too, must the City Manager figure out what the public wants – and what it can live with – before he sits down to talk with the union.

6. As an elected official what is your specific role in promoting civic engagement as opposed to staff’s role?

One of my goals if elected is to increase public involvement in and awareness of issues before Council. That process starts with translating agenda items for Council meetings and community workshops from bureaucratese into plain English, in words that clearly spell out what will be discussed and what impact it might have on residents. An example of the way not to do it is the process that led up to adoption of the Housing Element. Many citizens – me included – did not recognize the real significance of the workshops and therefore did not attend, and so were surprised when it turned out that Council was being asked to overrule the City Charter.

In addition, I recommend that Council consider adjusting the format of its meetings. In particular, I urge allowing citizens to submit written questions during both the public comment and Council discussion periods. The questions could be screened by the Mayor or someone else to eliminate frivolous or irrelevant ones, but, in a representational government, no citizen should be told that he or she may not ask questions of staff during a public meeting – much less be scolded when he or she tries to do so.

I would also recommend allowing, and indeed encouraging, Councilmembers to turn back to members of the public for answers to questions that staff members are unable to provide, even after the close of public comment. All too often I have been present at a Council meeting where an issue is raised by a Councilmember after the public comment period has ended, no one on the dais knows the answer, and members of the public who do know and are raising their hands are ignored. I am unaware of anything in Robert’s Rules of Order or the Brown Act that would prohibit these changes.

Finally, I encourage Council to conduct more public workshops on controversial issues prior to the meetings at which votes will be taken, with the topics described simply and directly and the workshops publicized well in advance. I particularly commend as a model the Golf Commission special meeting on April 24, 2012, at which representatives from KemperSports and Greenway Golf, the two companies bidding to be selected as the operator of the Chuck Corica Golf Complex, made presentations and then responded to questions from the community.

7. Who is funding your campaign and which groups and individuals have endorsed your candidacy?

I am proud that my campaign has been funded entirely by donations from Alameda residents and from non-Alameda friends who believe in me. Following is a list to date of those who have endorsed me:

  • Golf Commissioner Bill Schmitz
  • Golf Commissioner Jeff Woods
  • Golf Commissioner Ray Gaul
  • Golf Commissioner Betsy Gammell
  • Nick Cabral
  • Joe VanWinkle
  • thel and Al Lerche
  • Pam Curtis
  • Joan Jessen
  • Former Councilmember Karin Lucas
  • Councilmember Doug deHaan
  • Robyn Young, M.D.
  • Josie and Chuck Phinney
  • Diane Coler-Dark
  • Former Councilmember Lil Arnerich
  • Alameda Junior Golf Association founder Norma Arnerich
  • Rita Albright Scott
  • Chris Schmitz
  • Emil Radloff
  • Cece and Nick Pereira
  • Bert Morgan
  • Raye and Ray Pereira
  • Jeanie and Emil Firpo
  • Jenny Hong
  • Irene and Daniel Park
  • Former Chief of Police Burny Matthews
  • Former Berkeley Fire Chief Gary Cates
  • Sherry and Bill Westernoff
  • Larry Stewart
  • Astrid Keene
  • Ron Salsig
  • Denise and Dave Lynch
  • Gregg deHaan and Susannah Oram
  • Kay and John Park
  • Bobbie Hoepner
  • Dot Moody
  • Chuck Sabbatini
  • Myrna and Jim McKenna
  • Andy Weber
  • Ann and Eric Cross
  • Don Kittleman
  • William J. Smith, environmental and housing advocate
  • Pat and George Newkirk

8. What current American (not a relative) do you admire the most and why?

I was tempted to say the three men I admire most are the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but I’m told they took the last train for the coast the day the music died. So I decided to pick someone whom I know personally, and whom others in Alameda also know: Norma Arnerich. I have known Norma since becoming a member of the Alameda Women’s Golf Club in 2002, and admire her dedication and devotion to all things golf- related, particularly her role in founding and directing the Alameda Junior Golf Club. The children of Alameda and beyond have benefited enormously from her selfless efforts. Norma was the first woman appointed to the Alameda Golf Commission, and I have tried to follow in her footsteps as number five. I also admire Norma’s achievements as a wife and mother. I’m sure Lil would agree with me that his own accomplishments never would have happened without Norma at his side. I commend her in these difficult times for raising a happy and healthy family of three surviving children, countless grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren, all of whom run to her side to support her or be supported at every opportunity. She is a fantastic role model to them and to me.



  1. Refreshingly free of the political double-speak that masquerades as intellect around here. I am leaning favorably in Ms. Sullwold’s favor. Bravo, Lauren, for this very useful device to help voters make informed decisions.

    Comment by Denise Shelton — September 20, 2012 @ 8:02 am

  2. This was, by far, the best response I have read to date. A few things I would quibble with but all in all a well reasoned and refreshing set of answers. Probably get my three votes.

    Comment by Jack Richard — September 20, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  3. I’m with Jack, the best common sense response I’ve seen as well. That’s why I endorsed Jane.

    Comment by William Smith — September 20, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

  4. If I lived in Alameda, I’d surely vote for Jane. She’s fair and knows her stuff. Good luck my friend!

    Comment by Mallory Haggart — September 26, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

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