Former Mayor Ben Tarver was city's first 'slow growth' leader

Tarver, who died Monday, served in Pleasanton politics nearly 20 years

Ben Tarver, active in Pleasanton politics for nearly 20 years and the city's mayor from 1992-2000, died Monday in Penn Valley, Calif., where he lived with his wife Jeanie. He was 63.

He was Pleasanton's first "slow growth" mayor, actively supporting measures to slow down new home construction and an outspoken advocate of saving open space and the Pleasanton hills from business and residential development.

Although politicians often campaign on slow growth themes, Tarver actually succeeded in slowing the residential growth momentum, winning City Council backing and broad public support for measures that capped housing at 29,000 units, reined in developers with tighter annual building permit limits at less than 350 a year, down from some earlier years when as many as 1,000 permits were issued, and established rigid city boundary lines to stop further annexation and preserve open space beyond the city limits.

While he won most of his land use and environmental battles, he failed in his effort to block the development of Hacienda Business Park and later Ruby Hill, arguing that they didn't fit in his long-range plan for a less commercially and residentially populated city.

Tarver served on the Pleasanton Planning Commission and then was elected to the City Council in 1988. He was elected mayor in 1992 and again in 1994, 1996 and 1998. In stepping down, he backed his long-time friend and fellow councilman Tom Pico, who was elected mayor in 2000.Shortly after, Tarver retired as head of Information Technology for the city of Concord, moved to Colorado and re-married.

Pleasanton prospered during the Tarver years with the city becoming a prestigious residential and business destination. Housing prices appreciated rapidly and have been among the highest in the East Bay. Downtown rents soared in those good economic years and prospective buyers and tenants were on waiting lists for space in Hacienda Business Park. A vibrant downtown and other prosperous retail centers, including Stoneridge Shopping Center, added to the city's appeal and financial strength during Tarver's tenure.

Early on, Tarver instituted strong fiscal controls and financial accountability under the leadership of Sue Rossi, then the city's financial director. Those policies continue today under City Manager Nelson Fialho and Finance Director Dave Culver, making Pleasanton one of only a few California cities that are still in good fiscal shape despite a mounting state budget deficit and state takeaways of millions of dollars from Pleasanton in recent years.

Higher housing prices hiked property tax assessments, resulting in soaring municipal tax receipts with the city's general fund revenues now over $100 million, more than three times the $33 million reported when Tarver was first elected mayor in 1992.

"Clearly, Ben Tarver was a great steward for our city," said former Mayor Pico. "He set a high standard for integrity and did everything possible to protect Pleasanton's future. In the days and years ahead, we will see the continued benefits of his good leadership."

Former Councilwoman Becky Dennis agreed. Like Pico, she was part of Tarver's Dream Team of select council candidates in the early 1990s, although she and Tarver later parted as political allies.

"Ben was pretty much ahead of the curve on many of the growth issues we faced as a city when he became mayor," Dennis said. "Although every mayor talks about growth, he really pursued measures to bring it under control and got the City Council to work to get it done."

In general, Tarver advanced his ideas for Pleasanton even if others disagreed. He often sparred with the business community and developers and there were times when as a councilman he found his proposals lacking any support. As mayor, though, he actively sought volunteers to fill key positions on various city commissions and committees, appointing political friends and foes alike in his effort to provide balance.

He opposed the Ruby Hill development but relented after the planned gated community was approved by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and would have been developed outside of Pleasanton. Reluctantly, and with the urging of Livermore officials who agreed to handle sewer connections but otherwise didn't want to annex Ruby Hill, itself, Tarver cast his vote with a majority on the council to bring Ruby Hill into Pleasanton.

After battling the city and county of San Francisco over its plan to build several thousand homes on the 510-acre vacant and unincorporated Bernal property, Tarver agreed to a 1,900-home development there that would have added more affordable housing and provided the city with an 18-hole public golf course, parks and trails at the developers' expense. At the last minute, however, Dennis recalls, he changed his mind and that early agreement fell apart.

It wasn't until a new council with Pico as mayor that an agreement was made to allow Greenbriar Homes and its associates to buy Bernal from San Francisco and build 581 homes, which it now has done, and also give 318 acres of the Bernal property to the city of Pleasanton free of charge.

Tarver moved to his Vintage Hills home from Martinez in 1974 when the city's population was just over 20,000. He first got involved in city affairs in 1982 as part of Citizens for Balanced Growth, a newly-formed citizens action committee that was concerned about balanced jobs and housing growth in the Tri-Valley. Then he heard about Hacienda Business Park.

"The more I read and heard about this monstrous park, which was being promoted as the biggest business park west of the Mississippi, the more I felt that it wasn't right," Tarver told the Pleasanton Weekly in an interview. "It wasn't being planned the way it should have been. It wasn't going to be cost effective. There was too much money being spent on streets and sewers ahead of development to make it work."

Tarver supported a voter referendum to block Hacienda's approval. It failed in a 60-40 vote, but his ability to rally such strong support on an anti-development issue made him an instant hero among those who believed Pleasanton was moving too fast again with commercial and housing growth.

Even later when he was stepping down as mayor with Hacienda generating significant tax revenue for Pleasanton, Tarver considered the business park poorly designed.

"Look at what happened," Tarver said. "When the economy went sour in the early 1990s, the owners of Hacienda came to the city for help. Here are the people who assured voters early on that the park would generate jobs and have absolutely no impact on housing. Now, all of a sudden, they had to get retail stores and 1,500 apartments to bail them out."

"Had we done the commercial, industrial general plan review properly with full citizen participation, we would have planned Hacienda with the right mix of residential, retail, business office and other development, with a school and parks. It would have been better."

Just as Hacienda helped Tarver gain prominence in the community, and he ran for City Council in 1984 and again in 1986, losing both times. Then he won a surprise appointment to the city Planning Commission by then Mayor Ken Mercer. That gave Tarver the public visibility and platform needed to win a council seat in 1988, and to campaign for the mayor's post when Mercer stepped down in 1992. Bucking the odds, he beat a former mayor, Frank Brandes, to win the mayor's post. He ran successfully against Brandes again two years later, against Councilwoman Sharrell Michelotti in 1996 and against Jack Hovingh in 1998, winning all contests by large margins.

"Under Ben Tarver, the whole city process opened up," said Pico. "Tarver truly tried to make sure that all sides got represented, even when he made appointments to various committees."

His appointments sometimes raised the eyebrows of even his staunchest supporters. He named Frank Brandes, his longtime opponent, to the San Francisco property task force. He gave Sharrell Michelotti the coveted Mayor's Award and stunned his no-growth supporters when he also bestowed the Mayor's Award on the developers of Hacienda Business Park: Joe Callahan, Mark Sweeney and Patrick O'Brien.

At Tarver's urging, Pleasanton also became the first Bay Area city to broadcast City Council meetings on community television, which, depending on the issues before the council, has turned out to be some of the best Tuesday night television programming on the air ever since.

He also was a strong advocate for Pleasanton children, working constantly to increase joint uses of school district and city facilities to provide more opportunities for youth. Under Tarver, the city started sharing financial responsibilities for middle school gymnasiums and other facilities that are now open after school for community use.

As part of the slow growth measures he supported, Tarver worked with Pico, Dennis and others to protect the Ridgelands, campaigning successfully to prevent a housing and retail development on acreage that is now part of the East Bay Regional Park District.

Among other accomplishments, Tarver also brokered a pay-as-you-go Developer Fee Agreement that provided developer-paid funds upfront for schools, sewers, water lines, street improvements and other infrastructure that would be needed by their proposed construction projects.

A golfing enthusiast, Tarver also formed a Golf Course Advisory Committee to develop an 18-hole championship public golf course in Happy Valley. It took years of work to meet stringent regional, state and federal environmental agency requirements, but his effort paid off in 2005 with the dedication of Callippe Preserve Golf Course, an event that brought Tarver back for one of his few visits to Pleasanton after moving away.

City leaders often cite the work of the late Mayor Warren Harding for initiating zoning and planning measures to place large office and retail centers along the I-580 and I-680 freeways when they were built, protecting residential neighborhoods and the city's historic downtown. Later, Ken Mercer, the city's longest-serving mayor, is credited with Pleasanton's dynamic growth as a regional business and retail center with a wide mix of housing to accommodate a growing workforce. Tarver's legacy is clearly halting that growth and what some saw as runaway development with measures in place to restrain the city's development, measures that continue today.

Tarver suffered a stroke six weeks ago, but was recovering until Monday morning, when he died. He leaves his wife Jeanie, and three children by his first marriage to Margo Tarver, currently a member of the Pleasanton Library Commission. The children, all grown, are Tiffany, Benjamin IV and Melanie.

No services are planned in Penn Valley. Arrangements are now being made for a memorial service in Pleasanton.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Pentin
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2010 at 2:06 pm

My thoughts and prayers to the Tarver Family.

Like this comment
Posted by Stacey
a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jan 5, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Stacey is a registered user.

How sad to hear. Mr. Tarver definitely left a legacy in Pleasanton. Condolences to the family.

Like this comment
Posted by Another Gatetree Resident
a resident of Pleasanton Valley
on Jan 5, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Tarver was Pleasanton's last great Mayor. I am saddened to hear of his passing -- especially when the city he so dearly loved is becoming something he fought so hard against -- a cookie cutter town with nothing but back-to-back housing.

Rest in Peace, Ben Tarver. There are those of us who loved what you stood for and wish others had embraced your legacy.

Like this comment
Posted by Raised in Del Prado
a resident of Del Prado
on Jan 5, 2010 at 9:06 pm

My heart goes out to the family and friends of Ben Tarver.

I echo the sentiment from "Another Gatetree Resident" who said, "There are those of us who loved what you stood for and wish others had embraced your legacy."

Like this comment
Posted by Julie
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2010 at 11:47 pm

What sad news, Ben gave a lot to this community.

Like this comment
Posted by Jerry
a resident of Oak Hill
on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:27 am

Mayor Tarver brought sanity to Pleasanton when it was needed...

Rest in peace, your accomplishments will long be remembered...

Like this comment
Posted by respectful of the lost
a resident of Stoneridge
on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:33 am

Although I respect anyone who would dedicate nearly 20 years of their life to a volunteer elected position with the city, I disagree with the notion that Mr. Tarver's vision for Pleasanton was in every citizen's best interest. We have become a "world class" community IN SPITE of both Ben Tarver's and Tom Pico's leadership role on the Planning Commission and City Council.

I remember Mr. Tarver taking his break from the council dais to smoke, and I'm certain that's what led to his premature death at such a young age. I hope others will heed this warning. My heart goes out to his family and loved ones.

Like this comment
Posted by R
a resident of Mohr Park
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:18 am

a resident of the Stoneridge neighborhood

How inconsiderate you are. I can only hope that when you pass away no one says unkind things about you.

Like this comment
Posted by R
a resident of Mohr Park
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:20 am

Mr . Tarver did great things for Pleasanton. Some of you like " a resident of the Stoneridge neighborhood" may not have lived I Pleasanton long enough to know how far this city has come.
Bless the Tarver family at this difficult time.
Shame on those who can not be kind to a greaving family and community.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Valley View Elementary School
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:21 am

My thoughts and prayers to the Tarver family. Ben Tarver was a good citizen and a good mayor who looked out for Pleasanton's future. He will be missed.

Like this comment
Posted by Elise McQuilliam
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:34 am

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Tarver family and kids.

Like this comment
Posted by DL
a resident of Danville
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:40 am

This is truly a shock to hear. Ben was a stellar Mayor for Pleasanton, during the years I had lived there. My condolences goes out to all his family and friends.

Like this comment
Posted by SJ
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Jan 6, 2010 at 9:17 am

Ben Tarver was in my opinion the best mayor we had. He saved our city from looking like Dublin with the measures he enacted. He was never afraid to say what he meant, and did so in a respectful way. I always found him articulate at Council meetings and he certainly understood the issues. He will be missed. Condolences to his family...

Like this comment
Posted by dublinmike
a resident of Dublin
on Jan 6, 2010 at 9:52 am

SJ, actually, I agree with you to some degree. But, please keep in mind that Dublin did not have 100 years to learn from it's mistakes as Pleasanton has. My family moved to Livermore when I was a toddler 1956 and I know something about Pleasanton and Livermore's recent history. The planning along with redevelopment wasn't pretty sometimes. So, take it easy on the self-righteous demagoguery.

I see by the comments above, as during his leadership tenure, his controversy remains. But, leaders that lead are usually that way. They have ideas you may not agree with but at least people like Mr Tarver got out there to do something.

My condolences to his family. I trust they are proud of him.

Like this comment
Posted by SMD
a resident of Birdland
on Jan 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

Although I didn't agree with Mr. Tarvers politics or the way he conducted business, I appreciate all that he did for the City. He gave of himself and that is a generous gift. It is not easy to be in the public eye and my heart goes out to his friends and family. May he rest in peace forever.

Like this comment
Posted by Pete
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2010 at 11:52 am

Mayor Tarver understood the opportunity that existed in Pleasanton. Attemping to make every person competent in their own attempt to contribute, in my opinion, was one of his strengths. Rest in peace.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay
a resident of Birdland
on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I was a frequent participant in city council meetings when there were issues that affected me. One of the things I was always impressed with Mr. Tarver was having conversations with those who spoke at the podium at a council meeting. If you brought up some new facts or ideas, he would engage in conversation and have a discussion between the speaker, the Council, and staff. You knew you were being heard. Even if the Council did not vote the way you wanted, you had respect for the decisions being made. I have stopped going to Council meetings as it is obvious that the current council has already made up their mind and see the open meeting as a requirement but a waste of time. You get up there now, have up to 3 minutes for your monologue, and the mayor says "next". I do not have my ideas validated and if I have questions I am told they will be asked of staff after everybody speaks, and the questions are then dropped. I have resigned myself to the fact that the public opinions do not matter now, so I do not go to council meetings anymore, as I am guaranteed frustration.

Sorry to get off on a tangent but I admired Ben Tarver for what he did for the community and how he truly engaged and listened to the community, even if he sometimes voted differently than I would have.

Like this comment
Posted by Katie-O
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Our hearts go out to the Tarver family.

Ben Tarver had a number of major accomplishments during his tenure as Mayor. His crowning achievement was slowing the growth of Pleasanton. In that regard, he particularly stood out as the only one of the Dream Team that stood up to the developers over time. One of the other two did a complete flip-flop (one wonders what kind of grease caused that) and the other became a lobbyist for developers. The City was certainly better managed during his time in office than with our current Council and Hippie Mayor.

Ben, you were solid as a rock and we are going to miss you.

Like this comment
Posted by Me
a resident of Walnut Hills
on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Our hearts and prayers go out to Mr. Tarver's family. Sharing the news with my father was not easy. God Bless.

Like this comment
Posted by Stacey
a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jan 6, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Stacey is a registered user.

Which is it? Penn Valley or Paradise California? The news is conflicting, even on the other Embarcadero publishing websites.

Like this comment
Posted by Jennifer Pearce
a resident of Pleasanton Valley
on Jan 6, 2010 at 1:36 pm

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Tarver family.

Like this comment
Posted by Me
a resident of Walnut Hills
on Jan 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

@rs: the view of Pleasanton from your glass house must be pretty!

A father, a grandfather, a husband and a friend died.

Like this comment
Posted by old but remembers
a resident of Bonde Ranch
on Jan 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Have we forgot Ken Mercer? Easily the best Mayor ever in P-Town and the one of the creator's of modern Pleasanton. When he was Mayor we were the only city in California that had a budget surplus. After him people became pro-growther's and no-growthers and that's what we still have today. Planned progress was his platform. I will not comment on what I thought of Ben Tarver the politician, and I didn't know him as a man but my best wishes go out to his family

Like this comment
Posted by Native
a resident of Alisal Elementary School
on Jan 6, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Rest in peace.
To the family and friends of Mr. Tarver, my deepest condolences.

I hope those reading these comments dismiss those written by 'lost of Stoneridge' and 'rs of Pleasanton Valley'. They are cowardly and insensitive. Shame on them and those who can't be kind during this difficult time for the family, friends and community.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:11 pm

I once refereed one of his team's adult soccer games at a tournament here in Pleasanton... he played hard and well...

Like this comment
Posted by dublinmike
a resident of Dublin
on Jan 6, 2010 at 8:44 pm

The thing I find interesting between Mayors Mercer and Tarver is their diametrically opposed philosophies regarding Pleasanton's future, but yet they had many things in common...Pleasanton.

One was perceived as "no-growth" and the other as "business friendly." But, at the end of the day they cared enough to get involved. And, they cared about the much bigger picture, the Tri-Valley.

We have others in our Tri-Valley that we should appreciate, whether they are in Dublin or Livermore, or in San Ramon. We are much better off for their participation.

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Wish we had him back....
Hosterman sucks.

Like this comment
Posted by work friend
a resident of another community
on Jan 7, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I had the pleasure to work with Ben for many years. He had the same qualities at work as he did in politics. I didn't always agree with him but it was great to work with him on projects and resolve problems to reach a goal that was to improve what we had. I am sorry to hear of his passing.

Like this comment
Posted by Paulette
a resident of Val Vista
on Jan 7, 2010 at 11:01 pm

I'm so sorry to hear that Ben Tarver died at such a young age. I remember him as a person who was very kind and who had a pleasant smile and personality. He also had a knack for commanding respect from the community. I think it's because he often reflected what many of us wanted for our community - a little less building and a lot more protecting of the open spaces. And, he had an amiable personality. Even if he didn't agree with people, he was always polite and friendly. It makes me happy to know that he opposed Ruby Hills; for, one of my favorite birdwatching watershed areas was destroyed when Ruby Hills was built. I'm still heartbroken over that. I remember feeling sad when the city council voted term limits and he had to leave office. I think if they hadn't done that, he would've been able to stay mayor of Pleasanton for as long as he wanted. People really did like him alot.

Like this comment
Posted by Diane
a resident of Foothill High School
on Jan 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I always looked forward to the City Council meetings on our local TV Channel when Ben Tarver was mayor of Pleasanton. He impressed me with his ability to understand different points of view -- he was able to come up with solutions that satisfied most of the people most of the time. Thanks to his efforts, I think I was more easily able to become a resident of Pleasanton, not just someone who payed a mortgage and taxes. My sincere condolences to his family.

Like this comment
Posted by Nancy of Boulder
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2010 at 2:12 pm

As a former city employee, I liked him then and voted for him. He thought and fought for the same things I did. Open space, pristine ridge line, fiscal controls, clean water and most important to me then, financial accountability. Not all happened but Pleasanton is for the better because of him. The city is STILL in good fiscal shape. Amazing. Rest in peace, Ben.

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Schwaegerle
a resident of Downtown
on Jan 12, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Gary Schwaegerle is a registered user.

Our Condolences & Sympathy to the Tarver Family. Life is Precious and can be so short. We had some great conversations. Thanks Ben for appointing me to the Affordable - Housing Commission in 1996. Sincerely Gary Schwaegerle & Family

Like this comment
Posted by Curt
a resident of another community
on Feb 6, 2011 at 10:37 am

I've not lived in Pleasanton for many years. However, during my nearly two decades of residence, I worked closely with Ben on the massive general plan change (most people considered it a refendum on Hacienda) that allowed for Pleasanton to change from a more quiet residential community into the job center of the East Bay. Ben supported the citizens group that won a law suit against the developers and City Council.

Over the past 18 years, we lost touch. Regardless, I am so saddened by Ben's passing. Ben worked tirelessly in those early days. We shared ideas and participated on community committees. He developed from an exceptonal person to an exceptional leader and I always admired him.

Although I just found out about him passing away, my hopes for peace go to his family and to Pleasanton for holding on to his legacy.

He deserves a park to be named after him.

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