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Pacifica Council Race Packed as the City Heads Into Troubled Times

An in-depth look at the Pacifica City Council race and the council's challenges ahead

November's election brings a Pacifica City Council race of unusual magnitude, both in terms of the number of candidates running and their collective experience and track records of engagement in local civic affairs.

When the window for candidate filing ended Aug. 11, nine candidates were running for three possible seats, two of which are being guarded by incumbents Sue Digre and Jim Vreeland. Both candidates can be considered veterans with over 20 years experience on the council combined.

Councilwoman Julie Lancelle threw a curveball when, after three terms and over ten years on the council, decided not to run again, thus freeing her seat for a newcomer.

At the time this article was published, 8 candidates remain in the race: Leo Leon, a Pacifica Planning Commissioner and former postmaster, Tom Clifford, Planning Commission chair and construction contractor, Barbara Arietta, a public relations and marketing consultant with a long track record in San Mateo County and politics and local government, Len Stone, a Farmers Insurance broker, Heather Tanner, a local attorney, Karl Davidson, and IT professional, and Susan Vellone, president of the Pacifica Chamber of Commerce and local business owner.

Barbara "BJ" Nathanson, another planning commissioner, withdrew from the race recently. She said she wasn't up to the task of campaigning this year.

Bill Collins, a local leader in the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, which incorporates Pacifica, said that in addition to the high number of candidates running this year, several of the newcomers—namely Leo Leon and Tom Clifford—are particularly strong, distinguishing this election from those of the past.

Collins headed up the Sierra Club's endorsement interviews of the Pacifica City Council candidates.

In a violation of its own rules, the Loma Prieta Chapter endorsed four City Council candidates this election: Leo Leon, Tom Clifford and incumbents Sue Digre and Jim Vreeland. It was only supposed to endorse three, which is the number of seats that can be won this election. 

Leon and Clifford prove to be strong candidates outside of the environmentalist sphere, said Collins. They're both experienced business managers with experience in implementing large projects in a way that won't waste Pacifica's cherished open space. 

It's no coincidence that these two newcomers are on the Planning Commission.

"The Planning Commission is the highest body we have in Pacifica," he said. "If you're not on the council, it's the steppingstone to being on the council. They've done very good jobs on the Planning Commission, too."

But it's not just the Planning Commission that's making its presence felt this election. The newly-revamped Pacifica Chamber of Commerce's president, Susan Vellone, is running, and she believes it's about time Pacifica's businesses had a voice on the council.

"We want a balance," said Vellone. "They [the current city council] are more environmental, but we need to work with business, too. They've forgotten about that, they don't understand the retail lifestyle that brings in the tax base."

Vellone—who owns Visions Seaside Spa—is running primarily on a platform of "moderate" economic growth for Pacifica. She wants to achieve this by streamlining the process by which businesses eyeing Pacifica as a potential new home can obtain a license, which, according to many city officials and business people, is cumbersome at best and repulsive at its worst, finding ways to use and improve Pacifica's existing empty commercial space, and pushing a new marketing strategy for the city.

Specifically, the city needs to find a buyer or tenant for the old sewage treatment plant that has sat empty on Beach Boulevard for over a decade, she said. Additionally, Palmetto Avenue needs the proposed facelift to make it a walker-friendly shopping area, and at least a part of the old Rockaway Quarry, which has remained empty for years, needs to be developed for commercial use.

A revitalized marketing strategy for Pacifica began last month, much to the credit of Vellone. For years the city council had proposed joining the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), which promotes destinations in the county globally.

It was the Pacifica Chamber of Commerce, under the new leadership of Vellone, which sealed the deal with CVB last month. Vellone hopes membership in that body will bring in record revenue for the city through retail and hotel taxes.

All of the other candidates interviewed for this article—Clifford, Arietta, Digre and Leon (Vreeland, Davidson, Tanner and Stone did not respond to requests for interviews)—agree with Vellone that it is the priority of the next council to fill Pacifica's vacant commercial space and revitalize its rundown commercial areas, such as Palmetto Avenue. Pacifica's membership in the CVB is also a popular development among candidates.

Incumbent Sue Digre, a former grade school teacher currently the Mayor—the head of the city council—said that getting Pacifica involved with the CVB has always been one of her priorities.

"I've been advocating for that for all the time I've been on council and helped find whatever hurdles were there," said Digre.

And Digre said she's been instrumental in the city's efforts in finding new and better ways to market itself beyond the Bay Area. The revenue more visitors could bring in, she said, would mean that "instead of being a struggling city, we will now be a sustainable city."

As far as getting reelected goes, Digre believes she has an advantage over her opponents because she appeals to and works for Pacificans of all walks of life.

"It's that broader base I am in sync with and I am there for them to do whatever I legally, possibly can," said Digre. "And because that base is broad, I think I have a good chance."

Digre is not without her worries, however. She sees an "anti-incumbency" mentality at a national level right now--especially in California--and considers it a danger. In fact, she did not list herself as an incumbent this election as a safeguard.

Past Pacifica City Council elections, however, indicate that incumbency is a huge advantage.

Taking the two most recent council elections into perspective—in 2008 and in 2006—10 newcomers have challenged a total of 5 incumbents and only one incumbent lost their seat.

Collins, at least, believes that Digre and Vreeland—who is also an incumbent—are very tough cats to skin this year, meaning this election could turn into a six way brawl for one open seat. 

Despite the guarantee of a new member on the council, Todd Bray, a Pacifica resident, believes that after the dust has settled in November, it will be the same old story for the Pacifica City Council.

"No matter who's on the council it's going to be screwed with the budgetary restraints, the potential for sizeable layoffs and even the possibility of a couple of department heads leaving," said Bray. "It's going to be a mess."

What Bray referred to is the daunting five-year budget plan that was recommended by the Financing City Services Task Force and unanimously passed by the city council last June. The city council forged by November's election—whether there are three new faces or only one—will have to deal with it. Politically, it's a hard sell. The plan is intended to close Pacifica's $14-15 million budget deficit, which pans out to be about a $2.8 million deficit every year.

The plan is comprised of three options in decreasing palatability for the city and, presumably, Pacifica. The first option is comprised of three tax measures to be put before voters combined with negotiations with city employee unions ending in a wage freeze and a freeze of city's rate of contribution to city employees' pensions. These freezes, the task force estimated, would save the city about $8.5 million over five years. Those negotiations are underway currently, but likely will not be complete before the November election is decided, meaning the next council will have to continue them. Top that with convincing voters to pass three new tax measures within a single term on the council and even the most capable politician would flinch. 

"Its going to be a very, very difficult next four years, guaranteed," said Clifford. "Whoever gets elected, it's going to be a difficult four years."

The first tax measure is on this November's ballot—Measure R. It would consist of a 2 percentage point increase in the hotel tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent--a 20 percent increase--for five years. The second tax measure, which the city would attempt to put before voters this June, is a public safety assessment costing about $85 per land parcel. It would raise about $4 million for the city's general fund. The third measure, a utility user's tax, would come to voters in Nov. 2011 and would raise about $2 million over 3 years.

The second option in the five-year plan, which would either totally or partially replace revenue saved by option 1, is an across-the-board cut to city services. The third option is layoffs, particularly of high-ranking city positions, including some in the Police and Fire departments.

Arietta, Clifford and Leon all believe the five-year plan is the best present option for solving Pacifica's budget deficit, at least for now. All of them believe it will be their responsibility to explain the plan to voters and convince them to pass the tax measures.

"If you don't have enough money to make your obligations now, you don't get anywhere else down the road," said Arietta. "Voters need to hear how important it is at the moment to comply with the beginnings of this plan until we can get something better, but if we say 'no' we are walking into a minefield that will lead us into bankruptcy and potentially disincorporation. It is that bad."

In truth, the major differences between Digre, Vellone, Clifford, Arietta and Leon can't be found in their stance on issues in Pacifica moving forward, but in their backgrounds and how they believe their experience makes them the best candidate.

Leon, a retired postmaster, has experience both as a manager in the postal service and as a leader in the carriers union. His career, he said, has taught him how to manage plans, implement projects and negotiate honestly from both sides of the union-business line; an important skill, for sure, considering that whoever is on the city council after the election will likely be dropped into negotiations between the Pacifica city employee unions and the city itself, per option 1 in the five year plan.

Digre said her grassroots start as an environmentalist and subsequent transformation into a pro-marketing official will lend her popular support. Not to mention her record on the council, which garnered her reelection four years ago.

Vellone believes that her experience as a small business owner and position of authority in the Pacifica business community as the president of the Chamber will bring the voice of commerce to the council.

Clifford is relying on his long career as a green construction contractor and chair of the Planning Commission to win votes.

"I think I am a very good candidate," he said. "I'm an environmentalist who is also a business man. That sums me up."

Finally, Arietta sees her extensive past in San Mateo County and local politics and government--she's the president elect of San Mateo Civil Grand Jury, the vice president of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority Citizen Advisory Committee and chair of the Pacifica Green Building Task Force--as an asset.

"I'll make it [a city council position] a fulltime job," she said.

Based on these candidates' involvement in the community, however, perhaps Vellone was right when she told them, after a series of interviews at Pacifica Community Television, that "no matter who wins the election, we'll all still be working together."

Lionel Emde October 07, 2010 at 03:58 PM
Good article Camden, welcome to town. However, "The first tax measure is on this November's ballot—Measure R. It would consist of a 2 percent increase in the hotel tax rate, increasing it from 10 percent to 12 percent for five years." You fell into the same trap as many others. An increase from 10 to 12 percent is a twenty (20) percent increase. Quite a different perspective when viewed that way. Don't worry, the San Mateo Co. Times did the same thing, and of course proponents of the measure would like to minimize the impact of the TOT increase on an already anemic business community.
Steve Sinai October 07, 2010 at 07:37 PM
So far I like what I see. I don't blame Sue Digre for not listing herself as an incumbent. She's done nothing for the city, has zero accomplishments to her name, and was part of city leadership during eight years of Pacifica's decline. If I had a record like that, I'd try to hide from it, too. She's had her chance, and she blew it.
Markus October 07, 2010 at 11:19 PM
Sue Digre said getting Pacifica involved with the CVB has always been one of her priorities. How many years does it take for a priority to become an accomplishment? She had 8 years and going for 12. Agree with Steve. Sue has accomplished nada. Vreeland is shooting for 16 years. I can show a long list of his accomplishments, I posted on another blog. They are all negative. Vreeland is the biggest culprit of our FAB-4 city council, responsible for Pacifica's economic decline over the past decade. Time for a change!
Ryan McMahon October 07, 2010 at 11:26 PM
yeah, its a 2 percentage point increase
Jay Summers October 08, 2010 at 04:59 AM
Sue has accomplished a lot and Pacifica needs her vision and ability to get thtings done. She's running on integrity and independence -- that's more than most of her opponents can say.
Scotty October 08, 2010 at 04:58 PM
Welcome Camden. I also thought you were a little off when you referred to the increase in the tax as "...nudg(ing) the rate up two percentage points..." Increasing the tax by 1/5 is more like an aggressive shove than a nudge.
Camden Swita October 08, 2010 at 06:54 PM
All, Thanks for catching that. I'll change "percent" to "percentage points" now. Thanks, Camden
Scotty October 08, 2010 at 08:00 PM
It's interesting to compare Sue's comment here regarding the SMC-CVB with Susan Vellone's comment in the Tribune: "I've been advocating for that for all the time I've been on council and helped find whatever hurdles were there." -- Sue Digre "A letter was drafted and sent to the City Manager and Council requesting a vote to join the SMC-CVB. It was unanimous. This only took two months." -- Susan Vellone. Let's see... It seems like one gets things done, and one's a windbag that spends a decade talking about doing things and hiring consultants instead. I'll leave it as an exercise for the class to determine which is which.

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