Yet another asinine decision was made by the Pleasanton City Council majority when it voted March 7 to defund Leadership Pleasanton, a program led by the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce for more than 30 years.
Just like the Feb. 7 decision to scrap the Lions Wayside and Delucchi Parks conceptual plan, Mayor Karla Brown and Councilmembers Valerie Arkin, Jeff Nibert and Julie Testa voted to scrap the relationship with the chamber of commerce with the justification of money -- and staff time in the case of LP.
They didn’t even have a legitimate estimate on the cost of the parks project; the conceptual plan had to be approved before that could happen. They could have asked staff to scope more affordable ways to improve and enhance these beloved parks. This is what they did for the skatepark Testa really, really wants.
I didn’t totally buy that money was the reason behind the vote on the parks. Money was no object in June 2022 when Brown, Arkin and Testa voted to take $2 million from the Rainy Day fund -- against the recommendation of staff and two fellow councilmembers -- to put toward rehabilitation of a historical house that will serve far fewer people than the parks. Brown said at the time she was "confident this economy is going to be pretty good for Pleasanton."
Trying to puzzle out why the majority voted this way, I speculated in my last column that park neighbors might have been whispering in the ears of Brown, Arkin and Testa. The people named assured me they didn’t.
After seeing the staff report for Tuesday's City Council meeting, it dawned on me that maybe the decision on the parks – which blindsided everyone – was about money. Diverting it, anyway.
The March 21 agenda included a discussion about the city’s operating budget and the Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The skatepark is third on the priority list.
By killing the parks’ master plan, money that would have gone to fund that project has now been freed up for other projects -- like the skatepark.
I definitely don’t buy that the defunding of the Leadership Pleasanton program is about money, staff time or making the program more accessible to residents, as the majority claims.
After removing the allocation of the $950 participation fee for up to four city employees per year, the city’s commitment was $6,200. This is a drop in the bucket for a city like Pleasanton. The cost of the time spent on this subject during the March 7 meeting and in 2021 when the council talked about priorities has to be worth more than $6,200.
Ironically, a good portion of that $6,200 went toward scholarships to make the program more accessible to residents.
In addition to removing financial support, the majority voted to cut back staff time assisting the chamber in the programming to two days from four.
"We hear all the time about all of these programs and all of these things that our community wants and that we want to get done, but staff time is so precious," Testa said. "I’m overwhelmed by how much staff time would be going into this program when we are so often counseled to be judicious in what we are directing staff to do."
She asked to pull back the number of hours staff spends involved with the program "significantly."
Vice Mayor Jack Balch did a bit of math, though, and countered that less than .0003% of staff time goes to support the program.
"So for 300 hours we’re not going to support our staff interacting with the community?" he asked Testa.
The concern about staff time is valid. There are a number of open staff positions and there are complex, important and urgent internal initiatives with approaching deadlines.
That’s why the majority's next directive to staff is spectacularly absurd: Launch and maintain a city-run program with modules held in the evenings and on weekends at no cost. And they want part of it up and running in the first quarter of 2024.
In other words, they want to sever the relationship with a program that’s worked very well for 30-plus years and have the short-handed, very busy staff to create and execute a program that would cover vague topics like "commissions and committees."
Arkin also mentioned having a module on "how to run for office," which is already done by the city clerk’s office in election years.
Brown said that because the city is understaffed and "every hour of staff time is valuable" having employees work overtime is unacceptable.
But then who will be planning and implementing this city program? If it’s held during evening hours and weekends, how does overtime not fit into this scenario? Or what will staff have to stop doing to run this program?
The incongruence between the majority’s justifications for defunding Leadership Pleasanton and desire to strap city staff with creating and implementing a program is obvious to most.
Testa’s passion to do away with the city’s connection with the program and the chamber is also obvious.
It was serendipitous when Testa’s friend and campaign contributor, John Bauer, called in during public comment to protest the city giving any money to the "politically active" chamber of commerce, referring to the chamber’s political action committee (PAC). Testa mentioned this later in the discussion, but dropped that talking point like a rock when Balch brought up other groups that have political action committees, like the police and fire unions. (A particularly thorny subject considering Brown accepted $1,000 from the Livermore Pleasanton Firefighters PAC in 2022.)
It seems what really irked Testa is that she thought the subject was closed in 2021 when funding of the program came up during a council priority-setting meeting.
"The messages and the intent and the concerns were very clear," Testa said, "and shouldn’t have been ignored."
Balch asked for clarification on the action taken at that meeting and Testa turned into a petulant child. She literally put her hand up and said, "I think, I’m not going to engage with you, Jack."
How very grade school.
Here's an interesting point: The chamber’s PAC has never supported Testa or Brown in any of their campaigns, nor has the chamber endorsed either over an opponent. Is that enough to incur the wrath of Testa? Well, Balch asked a question she didn't want to answer and got the "talk to the hand -- I’m not engaging" response.
Perhaps residents should start asking questions of the council majority, beginning with why the parks’ master plan was tossed aside before a solid estimate could be done.
Also, does Brown truly not understand the $10 - $14 million number tossed around for the parks’ project was a guess by staff because the concept plan had to be approved before a solid estimate could be provided? Or is she hoping that by repeating the amount often enough we will forget the majority scrapped the plan to improve these existing amenities used by thousands before a real estimate could be developed?
Why was staff directed to return with an estimate of, basically, rebuilding the bandstand "with minimal public outreach"?
And why not re-agendize the parks’ plan, as Balch asked for support to do on March 7?
Why are Testa and Brown hellbent on spending $6 million to build a skatepark, which will serve a very limited group? Especially since it's a new amenity, meaning there will be ongoing maintenance costs and a new repair and replacement budget line item? They’re worried about money?
Balch tried to move the skatepark off the priorities list and "redeploy" the funds to the upkeep and improvement of current amenities. The majority was having none of that. Increased pension costs on the horizon, somewhat urgent infrastructure needs, needed funding to get chemicals out of the drinking water, ongoing labor negotiations and all the other expenses that just keep increasing be damned.
At the end of Tuesday's meeting, Arkin proposed "exploring options in increasing revenue" as a future agenda item and suggested hiring a consultant (a pricey endeavor). She tossed out ideas for doing that, like increasing the sales tax or a ballot measure.
Do you know what that means?
My final question in this long list: Do a majority of residents agree with the direction this council majority is taking the city?