San Leandro mayoral candidates (left-right) Stephen Cassidy, Mayor Tony Santos, John Palau, Sara Mestas and Councilwoman Joyce Starosciak Sept. 8 at the candidates forum in San Leandro.

By Steven Tavares

All politics is local, yet the areas of concern for mayoral candidates at a San Leandro forum last week mimic those both statewide and nationally. Pension reform, business quality of life issues allowed the four candidates hoping to unseat incumbent Mayor Tony Santos a chance to peg their policy differences in front of a large Wednesday night gathering of over 350.

Santos’ job last week was extensively to fend off criticism from all of his opponents the city’s economy during the four years has been lacking along with a less than rosy outlook for the future. “I kept business strong when other cities were not,” Santos said while mentioned the construction of the new Kaiser Permanente building–the biggest construction project in the city’s history, according to Santos.

If re-elected Santos would become the longest serving politician in San Leandro history passing former Mayor Jack Maltester. He noted his experience during the hour-long forum while gesturing to his opponents, specifically Councilwoman Joyce Starosciak. “My colleagues have not been a part of government as much as me,” said Santos. “None come close.”
Pension reform in the city has become a simmering issue in San Leandro as the city budget continues to hemorrhage in the red while dollars set aside for employee pensions rise. “Your employees have given a great deal,” said Santos who cited recent concessions from the Police Officers Association saving almost $800,000 along with steep cuts to all eight city departments. But challenger Stephen Cassidy says the mayor is not doing enough, making reform of city pensions his signature issue.
“I’m the only candidate with the courage to take on pension reform head-on,” said Cassidy, who also said the path to economic solvency by collectively coming together as a city. “There’s a third way to [fixing] the economy: Ask everyone to sacrifice,” said Cassidy. The night’s only contentious moment came in response to Starosciak’s answer in favor of pension of reform. Cassidy maintained Starosciak’s answer did not match statements made to the Alameda County Central Labor Council earlier in the week. “You hear different voices to different groups,” Cassidy obliquely said in response to Starosciak’s comments. A campaign aide to Santos also agreed with Cassidy’s view of Starosciak’s apparent flip-flop.

Starosciak, whose campaign has failed to gain much momentum, called for city employees to make concessions during collective bargaining. At one point in response to a question on employees and pension reform she said, “Good pay should equal good results.” She reiterated her platform calling for “low crime, good schools, well-paved roads” and good places to shop. Her constituents say there are eschewing dining and shopping in San Leandro for better places in Castro Valley and Pleasanton. In a flyer passed around Wednesday, Starosciak vowed to bring premium stores such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market to the city.

Activist and rapper Sara Mestas attempted to carve a niche as the outsider candidate saying, “I have no allegiances to any special interests, only to the citizens of San Leandro.” Mestas said she would create both union and non-union jobs in San Leandro and believes economic development will get the city out of its current troubles. She curiously offered keeping pensions for the police department at 100 percent while others would only contribute slightly. Later in the forum, she reversed herself saying all employees should contribute to their pensions.

John Palau, the late entry to the mayor’s race failed to give much to the crowd other than comic relief. At one point he jokingly (hopefully) said he would clear the city and plant cherry trees before offering a rambling closing statement about fishing. On two separate occasions, Palau’s solution to San Leandro’s problems emanated from the pocketbook of Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle. Apparently confused, Palau referred to Ellison as the CEO of Yahoo!