All seven Brentwood government candidates were on hand. They included City Council hopefuls Gene Clare, a high school district administrator; Erick Stonebarger, farmer and current councilmember; Bob Brockman, businessman and council incumbent; attorney and accountant Chris Becnel, a city councilman from 2006 to 2010; and registered nurse Carissa Pillow. Mayoral candidates are retired businessman and current Mayor Bob Taylor, and businessman and current city councilman Steve Barr.
Clare told the audience that one of the most important issues he sees during the election is the need to maintain quality partnerships between the city and local school districts. Brentwood has a highly educated workforce and many shared-use facilities already, partly the result of a cooperative arrangement he wants to see continue. He also believes north Brentwood, particularly along Brentwood Boulevard, has long been neglected and deserves to be a higher priority.
Stonebarger wants to keep Brentwood the quality town it is, and believes a conservative fiscal policy is needed to do so. He thinks new infrastructure is needed to attract businesses that will provide residents with high-paying jobs, but he is also concerned about public safety. Although the city has weathered the Great Recession without laying off any police, merely maintaining the current levels is not enough. Stonebarger does not like the fact that current budget forecasts do not include more officers on the street for at least 10 years.
For Brockman, the main issue is the update of the city’s General Plan. A Brentwood Planning Commission member during the last Plan update in 2000, Brockman said he wants to use what will be his last term to add his experience and knowledge to help insure fiscal responsibility is maintained, and that the city can hire more police in the future.
Becnel pointed out the beauty of the Senior Center, and said the facility was originally going to be a simple structure. As a Planning Commission member at the time, he led the effort to reject it and build the top-notch facility that exists today. There’s a need to remain financially stable, he said, but it’s also important to make sure that what the city does “will do you proud.”
For Pillow, the impetus to run for office came from helping the groundswell of public opinion that resulted in further control over big-box stores last year. Reading the General Plan made her realize that it was important to preserve the “fit and feel” that the Plan now contains, while not missing any opportunity to improve things.
Candidates were then asked about the city’s financial challenges with OPEB (other post-employment benefits), and what they think should be done about it.
Taylor said the problem was one all government bodies were dealing with, and the key was to have leaders “be involved,” making sure the city followed its budget. He commended current city staff that agreed to benefit changes to help control costs in the future.
Barr said it was good that the city’s employees groups had agreed to a cap on benefits, and that the concession will help keep unfunded debt created by retirement obligations from growing. He also believes the city should consider paying more against the $29 million in liabilities that have already accrued.
Clare agreed that recent changes were good, but warned against slashing benefits so deeply that it becomes harder to attract quality employees. “You get what you pay for,” he said, adding that he’d like to make sure the current trend of workers wanting to come to the city from other jurisdictions continues.
Stonebarger called OPEB the “single largest issue we have to deal with.” He also believes the recent changes have the city “on the right track, but we’re not there yet.”
Brockman agreed with Stonebarger, adding that improved performance in the state’s retirement system investments could help reduce the unfunded liabilities.
Becnel said that although the numbers are big and must be dealt with, “OPEB is not the bogey man out there.” Employee concessions and the city’s current track should, with careful management, make it so that “in 10 or 15 years, this won’t be a problem ever again.” Simply paying debts off now would result in cuts to city services, he said. “That’s not a tradeoff we want to make,” he said.
Pillow said the city should consider making higher payments toward retirement liabilities, but not paying so much that services must be cut. “We can’t risk our infrastructure or public safety,” she said, adding that higher payments could possibly be made as the economy recovers and more city revenue is realized.
As the city begins a major update to its core planning document, the General Plan, candidates were asked what changes they’d like to see during the update. Stonebarger said he was not advocating any major changes until after the public meetings have been held, and residents’ desires are known. In addition to maintaining a conservative fiscal policy, he thinks broad areas of change could include improving the north Brentwood corridor and identifying and re-zoning properties adequate to attract employers.
Brockman said the Plan update was his primary reason for seeking re-election. He also wants public input to determine needed changes, and agrees that establishing zoning that can help bring jobs to the city is important. Mostly, he said, he wants to make sure that the quality planning done 10 years ago “is kept in line and moving forward.”
Becnel said an important General Plan discussion would be zoning to attract businesses, but he also wants to make sure the businesses we attract fit Brentwood. The difference between an oil refinery and a business park are significant, and desirable businesses can best be attracted by stating at the outset “where we are and where we want to be.”
Some parts of the General Plan have been disregarded, Pillow said, and that needs to change. She said the current Plan calls for parallel development of housing and jobs, but that the city got away from that during the housing boom and is thus now short on jobs. She believes economic development would be greatly assisted by a commitment to make Brentwood “the greenest, most sustainable city in the country.” Such a direction is not only good for the planet, she said, but would make the city “stand out in the crowd” and be more attractive to high-end employers.
Taylor called the update “important,” and hoped there would be significant public input on it. “Ask questions and get all the feedback and documents,” he urged the audience.
In addition to setting aside commercial land, Clare wants to re-launch the business incubator idea the city previously used to help fledgling business get their feet on the ground and grow into some of the employers the city needs.
In a question asking mayoral candidate what sets them apart from their opponent, Barr said the position is not just one of five votes on the council. The mayor also must represent the city not only to residents, but to the outside world. He must be an effective representative who thoroughly understands how things work in the city and commands the details of what its needs and wants are. “What I bring,” he said, “is just what I’ve just described.”
Taylor said that during his years on the council (two) and as mayor (six), officials up and down the state and members of the public have grown to know and respect Brentwood. That has helped get money for improvements to Highway 4 and the Caldecott Tunnel, he said, adding that he’s “not afraid to speak out.” He also said a difference between candidates is that “I’m not a wanna-be mayor; I am the mayor.”
Provided a chance to address anything not yet mentioned in the forum, Becnel said the city had weathered the recession far better than other communities where service cuts and police layoffs had been needed. The city built a new city hall, improved the downtown area and accomplished many other things during the protracted downturn. He worries that by doing well during tough times, the city leadership could grow complacent and impair the city’s ability to “advance, reinvigorate and rehabilitate itself.” If that happens, he said, in 25 years the city won’t be better; “it’ll just be 25 years older.”
Pillow wanted to emphasize the preparation she has done to serve on the council over the last 18 months. Some of what she learned from meeting with police is that they are beginning to feel short-staffed, and she thinks Brentwood should “dig deep and find a way to support them better with more feet on the ground.”
Taylors’ parting comments were that “What you see is what I am.” He said he had earned the respect of his government colleagues, and promised to continuing wearing his heart on his sleeve. “I really care about this community,” he said.
Barr believes that more police will eventually be needed, and that some of the great vision the city was built with is now a matter of money. The payments on the new Civic Center, for instance, are $4 million per year. The city can afford them, he said, but it makes it tough to hire more cops now.
Clare believes it’s time for a change in city government. His experience in the schools, as the 2009 Citizen of the Year, helping to form the Youth Commission and Community Chorus, and leading the effort to keep the One-Stop Job Center in the city show he’s “a doer” with the track record to prove he can get the job done.
Stonebarger re-iterated the importance of cautious planning. The new City Hall is a wonderful facility, he said, but it remains more than 30-percent empty since growth has stalled. “We maxed out our credit cards, and the effect is that now we can’t hire more police.”