Low voter turnout has allowed Gabe Quinto to keep his seat on the Council. As readers of this blog will likely surmise, this author is not pleased. Akin to a few other Contra Costa County results like the Sherriff’s and County Assessor’s races, El Cerrito lacks accountability, transparency and humanity in El Cerrito.
Even so, it is notable that the incumbent, Gabe Quinto, was not the frontrunner. Carolyn Wysinger led the pack in her first bid for Council, receiving 6,063 or 37% of the vote. As the city’s newest Councilmember, Wysinger has an opportunity to help send a message to the City Council and the City Manager that mediocrity is no longer acceptable; El Cerrito needs to make immediate and substantial structural changes in the FY23 mid-year budget, including a reduction in expenditures and Service Delivery improvements.
It’s not the first time independent candidates have lost. Wysinger herself was unsuccessful in her previous run for office. Like Floy Andrews, who lost her 2022 primary race for County Assessor to an incumbent who had been censured for multiple ethics violations, Vanessa Warheit is a capable candidate who faced an uphill battle against an entrenched incumbent. For the best results in any election, high turnout is key. In the 2022 general election, only 59% of El Cerrito’s eligible voters turned out to vote – an incredibly sobering figure, given the city’s current financial straits and inadequate services.
Although the East Bay Times posted the El Cerrito press release, the only local newspaper that issues endorsements did not cover or make any endorsements in this year’s El Cerrito City Council election. The Times claims they omitted El Cerrito because “there were too many races in larger cities”. Maybe the writer of this blog is mistaken, but the races in all East Bay cities are typically similar for each election. It is our hope that the East Bay Times will choose to cover our city in upcoming elections; future candidates are encouraged to reach out to them to ask for this, and members of the El Cerrito community are encouraged to do the same.
Complacency continues to hurt our City. El Cerrito ranks #13 of 430 California cities on the State Auditor’s High-Risk Dashboard – meaning our City is among the top 3% worst-managed cities in the entire State. El Cerrito also has a BBB- bond rating – just one step above junk bonds.
The City has so far missed opportunities to address a long list of issues that continue to keep us on this woeful list, including:
- Excessive spending began before the initial state auditor report. From FY 2015-2019, general fund spending increased from $29 million to $40 million, far more than the inflation rate.
- Using ARPA funds to balance the city’s budget instead of using government funding to help residents and local businesses recover from the pandemic
- The Measure V money should have helped fund the senior center, yet the senior center was closed.
- The reserve increase was less than the $1 million recommended by the City’s finance committee, even though Measure V brought in over $5 million and ARPA bought in over $3 million.
- Despite the state auditor’s warning that the City should not count on one-time money or big money from real property transfer tax in its budgeting, City leadership continues to budget based on a steady increase in tax money
- For five consecutive years, the City received a 0 from the state auditor for future pension costs
- The City has not made any structural changes to the budget, despite the fact that direct instructions to do so from the State Auditor CityHall is open just 16 hours per week. And closed for the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s.
- The Council sorely needs community input and feedback yet does nothing to solicit or receive it.
Although the City blames the pandemic for its lack of service delivery, service delivery in many departments was severely lacking prior to 2020; the Covid pandemic illuminated and exacerbated existing problems. It’s infrequent for leaders who led during inadequate service delivery and a fiscal crisis to recover successfully, particularly when they do not own any portion of the downfall.
As a result, the incoming Council Member, along with newcomers Council Members Tessa Rudnick and Lisa Motoyama, must take the lead on positive change. The vote for the FY 2022 budget was 3-2, so Wysinger’s election could potentially swing things in the Council Chamber.
Progress is possible, but it is fragile – and in El Cerrito, the battles for our most basic services and our democracy remain. However, there’s no power for change more significant than a community discovering what we can do. Here are a few ways to participate:
- Attend the City Council and Financial Advisory Board meetings; if you can’t attend in person, tune in online.
- Develop actions to strengthen the inclusion of excluded groups – such as seniors, underserved communities and youth – in decision-making processes;
- Specify conditions and do’s and don’ts for successful participation projects;
- Identify instruments for increasing social accountability.
We must become more informed and engaged voters if we want a better El Cerrito. Become more informed, and make a plan to vote in 2024. Our democracy depends on local government success.