Two weeks ago we sent questions to each of the three candidates running for the two open El Cerrito City Council seats. As of today, only one has responded. The deadline is today so perhaps others will respond. For me, the response or non-response is an indicator of how they will respond to constituent concerns.
We very much appreciate Vanessa Warheit taking the time to respond.
What do you see as the most pressing financial issue for EC? If elected, what are your plans to address this issue?
El Cerrito is currently #6 out of 423 cities on the State Auditor’s High Risk Dashboard, and our bond rating is BBB- – one step above junk bond status. The most pressing financial issue for our city is lifting our bond rating and moving our way down the State Auditor’s list. If elected, I plan to follow the State Auditor’s roadmap, which includes setting up a Section 115 Trust (like a 401k for cities) and establishing a plan to start funding it.
What do you think needs to be done to address the city’s pension crisis?
We need to prioritize funding our pension liabilities, and that requires fundamentally reshaping our budget. Much like responsible adults need to save regularly for their retirement, our city needs to fund our pension liabilities annually as a keystone of our city budget.
What would you want to see as far as financial reports to the Council? How often? What level of detail?
Despite the lack of an integrated system, our finance department should be able to provide to the Council, at a minimum, monthly line item variance data (year-over-year, and planned vs. actual expenditures). On a quarterly basis, Council should receive an analysis of this data, which includes detailed explanations for any variances above established thresholds.
What is your stance on accepting campaign contributions from Police and Fire Employees or their unions?
I am a clean money candidate – I am the only candidate in this race to refuse money from all corporations and from police and fire unions. I am also the only candidate to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.
What are your plans for small business development?
Small businesses are the lifeblood of our city, and we should treat them better. I would like to streamline the permitting process for local businesses; to establish better lines of communication between the city and existing and prospective small businesses; and to implement a commercial vacancy tax to encourage landlords to lease out their properties and send a market signal that it is not acceptable to leave blighted properties in our city. I want to work with Richmond on their Green-Blue New Deal to create local green job development opportunities. I want to work with our planning commission to ensure that new development along San Pablo Avenue includes small, flexible ground floor commercial spaces appropriate for small-scale local businesses. I will also work to ensure El Cerrito local businesses are able to access funds coming from the federal government as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Are you satisfied with the budget process? If not, what changes would you suggest? Should FAB do an analysis of the budget’s assumptions or just make general recommendations such as “try to save $1 million”
I am not satisfied with the budget process as it currently exists. Our city is in a financial crisis, and much-needed federal COVID relief funds were spent balancing our city’s budget instead of helping needy members of our community. We owe it to El Cerrito tax-payers to be more transparent about how their money is being spent. I think we need to expand the FAB to include at least 7 members; we need to be prepared to fundamentally reshape our budget rather than simply rolling over from previous years, and to hold multiple open, inclusive, participatory budgeting sessions with members of the public. Council should ask FAB to do a more thorough analysis of the budget’s assumptions, and should heed and respect their input.
How will you evaluate the city manager’s performance?
I believe that Council should create performance criteria for the City Manager and her direct reports. Using a systematic and structured approach, Council should align the City Manager’s performance goals with the City’s goals and objectives. As an elected city council member, I would hold the City Manager accountable in reaching these goals and objectives through periodic conversations as well as a more formal annual review.
Describe what you understand to be the working relationship between the City Manager and the City Council. Are there any changes you would like to see, and if so, how would you go about it?
El Cerrito is governed under what is commonly referred to as a “weak mayor” model, in which day-to-day decision making is made by the City Manager under the oversight of the City Council. The key is for the City Manager to implement policies as established and directed by the City Council. It is essential that the Council be engaged and provide oversight. The Council is the voice of the City’s residents and, unlike the City Manager, directly reports to them. As a Council Member, I will work collaboratively with the City Manager, provide input and oversight, advocate for clear performance metrics, and ultimately hold the City Manager accountable to these agreed-upon goals and standards.
What would you like the city to do that will restore residents’ confidence in the competence, accountability, and responsiveness of the city?
El Cerrito needs a formal commitment to transparency. The city needs a fundamental culture change regarding public information; currently many El Cerrito residents feel like the city does not listen to them or care about what they think. Public funds support City Services, and residents should receive basic information as a matter of practice. The City should provide residents with more opportunities – at hours accessible to working families – to learn about city activities and provide meaningful input. This includes:
* easy access to relevant information on the website, in multiple languages;
* access to departments providing services and prompt replies to public requests;
* increased and/or more flexible hours for public access to city hall;
* improved information dissemination via social media and a public activity calendar; and
* a more open and formal process for listening to and acknowledging the needs and desires of El Cerritans across city services.
The city should also implement performance standards and accountability. The performance plans for each department head should align with the overall City needs, including service level agreements with the public. This can effectively be implemented when the City aligns the funding (budget) with required public services.
Do you support a bond measure for the library? Are you concerned that El Cerrito’s BBB- credit rating will impact the ability to sell bonds at a reasonable interest rate?
I support efforts to build a 21st century library for El Cerrito; our current library is much too small, lacks appropriate HVAC, and does not adequately serve our community’s needs. A new library will improve our city in countless important ways. However, I am very concerned that such a project will be financially infeasible until we improve our city’s bond rating. Before we go to voters and ask them again to support a bond measure to fund a new library, the City needs to demonstrate that it has its financial house in order. Once the City’s fiscal management improves, its bond rating will improve, too, making a bond measure for a new library more feasible. I am also concerned that this improvement in our bond rating may not happen on a timeline that aligns with the ongoing construction planned for Plaza BART. Since siting the library at Plaza could potentially save the city millions in construction costs, I believe the city also needs to pursue other forms of possible financing for the library; this research and planning needs to begin immediately.