New Year, New People In Charge of San Leandro

By Steven Tavares

These are either times of great upheaval calling for a new stewardship or a confluence of rough economic waters navigated by political novices. Either way, 2011 is shaping up as a year featuring the emergence of five new people in five of the city’s most important power positions.

San Leandro heads into the new year with a new mayor, councilmember, finance director, police chief along with the search, by the middle of the year, for a new city manager. The turnover is unprecedented how much time the group will need to mesh in advance of another year of deepening cuts to the city’s budget in June. In every instance, it is out with the old and in with the newbie.

Mayor Stephen Cassidy comes from just four years on the city’s school board, but has been out of city government for over two. Aside from Vice Mayor Ursula Reed, who is in the middle of her first term, Cassidy possesses the least amount of experience on the city council.

Councilwoman Pauline Cutter spent 12 years on the school board, but replaces termed-out Bill Stephens, who spent the past 8 years representing District 1. Cutter was not known as the most assertive school trustees. She tended to ride the currents of other members, although she was part of the minority voting against the controversial firing of former superintendent Christine Lim. Her term should be an improvement in attention over Stephens, who over the final year of his term mailed in his service with self-serving general platitudes and chronic tardiness.

Of all the new faces at City Hall, the most intriguing is the 43-year-old Sandra Spagnoli who replaces retiring police chief Ian Willis next week. Spagnoli is something of a law enforcement prodigy. Her biography begins as a junior officer across the Bay in San Carlos. She previously served as chief in Benicia, whose staff is roughly half that of San Leandro’s. The hiring of Spagnoli hopefully ends one of the department’s lowest points. The city settled the last of several sexual harassment suits made by seven female cops. Some skeptics attribute the choice of the city’s first female police chief as a token response to the department’s turmoil involving gender relations, but the incoming chief will likely bring prestige to the city with her involvement with the Police Officer Standards and Training Commission. She sits on the commission’s advisory board.

Some have called Tracy Vesely’s hiring as finance director the city’s most important appointment. Just two months on the job, she has already shaken up the economic view of some councilmember by allowing for an inking of promising news heading into the new year. Those who mentioned Vesely’s hiring as important, tough, said so before the surprising and abrupt resignation Dec. 21 of City Manager Stephen Hollister.

Just two years on the job, Hollister read the tea leaves saying the city would not renew his contract at the end of this June. Any city manager ostensibly runs the day-to-day business of the city. The search for Hollister’s replacement will begin quickly. Cassidy said Monday night the council will begin discussion on the issue in closed session Jan. 18. Councilman Jim Prola urged the group to move fast. “I know we have six months, but that going to come up really quickly,” said Prola. “It’s real critical that we get started on that yesterday.” If the council chooses hire from outside the city, he said, the candidate would also have to make time allowances to its previous employer before taking over in San Leandro. It is too early in the process to decipher whether the city has a preference in hiring an outsider or making a choice among in-house candidates. A few city employees have mentioned a preference for Deputy City Manager Jacqui Diaz, although she has shown no official interest in the job.

Despite the new faces, several issues leftover from 2010 will bleed into the new year. Among them, the potency of the first wave of increased sales tax receipts from Measure Z, which voters overwhelming approved last November. The measure reset the city’s sales tax to 10 percent. The first partial returns from the increase should be received in April. Whether the windfall is significant or somewhat moribund will go far in shaping the city’s hope of a relatively quick economic rebound.

With the possibility that the worst is behind us may come the courage to invest again. What becomes of the city’s planned $100 million housing project due for construction surrounding the San Leandro BART station? The plan, mixing retail, market-rate homes and low-income dwellings was mothballed last spring when the developers got cold feet citing the poor housing market. The project was already controversial among residents who believed low-income housing would overwhelm the school district and attract crime.

By next fall, the topic of medical marijuana growing facilities could return to the city council. A 10-month moratorium against such business permits will expire at the end of September. Most municipalities in the region, outside of Oakland, have been noticeably cautious in tackling the issue. The cause of pot farmers took a broadside last month when the Oakland City Council put off issuing permits costing over $200,000 for the right to grow medicinal marijuana in a limited number of facilities. The move likely releases the small amount of steam the cause had gained in San Leandro, but nevertheless, the issue will persist until a resolution is found at the federal level.

The latest turn in the saga surrounding the closure of San Leandro Hospital could reach another critical moment sometime in first half of the year as it awaits resolution of the Eden Township Healthcare District’s appeal of an Alameda County Superior Court ruling against it countersuit against Sutter Health, which operates the facility. Employees have been told their jobs are safe until at least June, but over the past two years, such proclamations have proven unwise to believe. The new year also brings a new member to the health care district. Lester Friedman’s election last November only strengthens what has become a board fully behind Chair Carole Rogers and her resolve to keep the hospital open through the courts.