April 14, 2012 | Over the past decade post-industrial Hayward has struggled to rebound economically from the loss of high earning jobs. Crime has remained a struggle and its schools have suffered near cataclysmic declines. Last Tuesday night, eight of the nine candidates for four open seat on the City Council almost exclusively grappled with how to again create a vibrant and safe Hayward in tandem with a renewed focus on education.

While comments from the prospective candidates were light on specific ideas of how to attract business to Hayward in the long-term, discussion of how to prepare the city for positive growth was dominant. The city expects a $14 million deficit this next fiscal year starting in June. That follows a $20 million shortfall a year ago that featured cuts to staff and wages and benefits. Two of the incumbents Councilmembers Barbara Halliday and Olden Henson reiterated the cities plea for some public employee unions to accept concessions of nearly 15 percent.

“City services are pretty much cut to the bone,” said Henson, who noted he was part of a previous council that put money aside to offset some of the current deficits the city has endured. Henson also called out the local firefighters union to forego raises along with paying more towards their pensions.

Councilman Francisco Zermeno, the third incumbent up for re-election, was non-committal on the city’s hard line. Instead, on the question of what parts of the budget he would cut first, he said none and preferred to search for government grants to minimize cuts.

The most aggressive answer on handling the city’s budget woes came surprisingly from one of the expected front runners, Planning Commissioner Al Mendall, who appeared to threaten layoffs for city employees if they do not agree to concessions. “We’re asking all our employee bargaining units to step up and negotiate for concessions and the ones that do and agree to concession, we shouldn’t be laying them off,” said Mendall during the forum. “That has to be the reward in my mind. And the ones who aren’t willing to bargain for concessions that are necessary, that’s probably where we’re going to have to start laying off people. I hate to say it, but it’s a tough choice.”

After the forum, Mendall denied the statement is a threat to city workers. “Under the contracts we have right now we cannot afford to pay the employees that we have,” he said. “Either we need to negotiate concessions with the unions or we need to lay a lot of them off. One of those two or some combination. That’s the only choice we have right now.”

If any unit hits that 15 percent, to me, that means we shouldn’t be laying any of them off in that unit because they have achieved the 15 percent through givebacks and the ones that don’t, they’ll get hit by the layoffs. It’s not about a threat, it’s about rewarding the ones who are willing to negotiate.”

Last month, some members of the Service Employees International Union spoke out during a council meeting charging the city’s negotiating team with driving a hard bargain by refusing to accept a pledge of no-layoffs in exchange for 15 percent cuts in wages.

Greg Jones, a former colleague of the three incumbents two years ago as Hayward’s city manager did not touch the subject of the city’s current negotiations, but said the “city is not broke.” Jones said, historically cities were created for public safety and sanitation, but he also noted, “We can’t cut, cut, cut until we have nothing left. We may have to stop doing some things.” Jones’s performance, in fact, may have been the most impressive of the night as he was able to force candidates to speak about currently unknown, possibly non-existent corruption of Measure A funds while shrewdly touting his direct experience as a city manager to the current job description of city council member.

Eight of the candidates, not including challenger Shahla Azimi, who has not appeared in any forums, all agreed the city’s public safety departments should again be spared cuts.

Ralph Farias Jr, running for council for the second time, again proved to be an effective single-issue candidate. He loudly beat the drum of a pro-business conservative and repeatedly focused on Mendall’s vote last week on the planning commission that blocked Walmart from setting shop at the old Circuit City building on Whipple Road. “According to the planning commission, I guess we’re closed for business,” said Farias, who supported the retail giant’s plans to bring a down-scaled supermarket version of Walmart to town. Farias also advocated saving money by abolishing the planning commission, making the city’s permit process more business-friendly and potentially using eminent domain to take over the empty Mervyns building on Foothill Boulevard.

Farias’ commerce-friendly rhetoric, at times, overshadowed Zermeno’s pet issue of business development in Hayward’s downtown. On one occasion, Farias mocked for the second time in as many forums, Zermeno’s signature catchphrase of “Hayward On!” reserved for celebrating Hayward’s economic vitality with his own, “Hayward, Stand Up!”

If the city’s present economic situation is somewhat stable, yet lackluster, the same cannot be said for its deeply under performing schools. Although, the state of Hayward’s schools is under the purview of its school district, there continues to be a long-running conversation within City Hall on how to lend a hand to a segment of its city government that just two years ago flirted with a state takeover of its schools.

In one of the night’s most memorable lines, Farias laid out the school district’s woes in his typical blunt and succinct manner, “Our school district is 672 out of 700 in the state of California,” he said. “That’s just 28 from being stupid.”

Peter Bufete, the youngest candidate in the group at 22, again showed why he may be one of the most intriguing young prospects in the East Bay. As a product of Hayward schools, he said he has the best insight in how to engage the youth and schools. “An education foundation is important to our communities vitality and ensures that in the future we are secure and we’re in good hands,” he said. Bufete, who recently graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara, also mentioned the role of gang injunctions in Hayward as a possible impediment to helping the city’s youth. The absence of the issue in this race’s discussion has been oddly conspicuous. “I would like to be there to make sure the gang injunction that we have doesn’t infringe on our civil liberties and target teenagers,” Bufete said.

Fahim Khan, 28, another newcomer and Hayward native, also cited the importance of good schools, but denied the city has a problem with crime.

While the school district hopes a $58 parcel tax with help alleviate some of its budget problems, Jones said the city has to do more. “Our plan needs to be broader than a parcel tax,” he said. “We need to tell our youth we give a damn about them.”