July 20, 2004 > Fremont Councilmember Bob Wasserman Will Seek Mayor's Seat in November
Fremont Councilmember Bob Wasserman Will Seek Mayor's Seat in November
Former Fremont Police Chief and present Councilmember Bob Wasserman has declared that he will fill out Nomination paperwork to run for the position of Mayor in the November 2004 General Election. Mr. Wasserman runs from a "safe" seat since his present term on the city council is not due to expire until the year 2006. TCV asked the candidate about the state of the city and what course he would take if elected.
TCV: The most obvious question, since you are in the middle of your term as councilmember, is "why are you running for mayor?
Wasserman: I have very deep roots and a lot of good feelings for Fremont. Fremont has done some great things over the years and made some mistakes, as well. A course was set a long time ago of the way Fremont runs government. In many ways, I think that has served us well but along the way we've done some things that have lead us to, with the right intentions, the point we're at right now, economically. I think those things can be corrected. These problems wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for outside influences. I believe in the City Manager form of government and I think that we have done a good job building Fremont. I have been a part of that and want to continue to be a part.
TCV: We are entering a challenging period for government in general and the City of Fremont in particular. Do you foresee changes in governmental structure?
Wasserman: To start at the end, I see nothing changing. Unfortunately, government doesn't change easily. The biggest change that needs to occur in California is State Government. Undoubtedly, now I understand that the governor has introduced as a plan is going to eliminate a lot of commissions and political appointments. That's marvelous, that's a good start. It will save lots of money and do away with a lot of problems that get created from that. Change is good, but always hard.
Locally, I think that over a period of time, we have developed, for instance, Economic Development. That is something we didn't have when I got on the council. We will see more of a community intervention type of approach. We have sort of the beginnings of that now, we have a neighborhood unit that can go in and help the neighbors.
There needs to be change in public finance. I think that cities should have the means to finance their programs without any [state] "pass-throughs." Counties should have the means to finance county programs, whether or not counties finance state programs. Schools, in my opinion, should never, ever, have been removed from local financing and taken over by the state. Schools should be financed locally. I think that there could be fewer special districts. This would lead to more efficient government. I think a lot of streamlining has to occur.
TCV: How about regionalization of some services? Can some city functions be administered on a Tri-City basis rather than duplication by each city?
Wasserman: No question. Our fire dispatch is now reaching a large region. Police dispatching is horribly expensive. When I was in Orange County, we put together a county-wide dispatch system. It saved millions. Even though it was a regional system, it allowed local cities to do their own dispatching to whatever extent they wanted to. It gave everybody the ability to be regional. We were "all in the information loop."
TCV: Does Fremont need to mend fences with neighboring cities? Are there more regional opportunities?
Wasserman: At one time, there were many connections and we still have - for instance, the Tri-City Animal Shelter. There are a lot of Tri-City services, but there are things that have created obstacles. When we took over Union City's Fire Department, it ended in a really bad way. It left a lot of hard feelings. It's over now, but the feelings aren't gone.
I think that those opportunities will be acted upon when the need is there. Fremont has become more aggressive in economic development and we butt heads with Newark more than we ever did in the past. There are all those barriers, but when there's a need, we do tend to come together. For instance, the police departments of all three cities work together - there are no barriers there. The politicians might throw salvos at each other, but the departments, for the most part, work together well.
TCV: Is Fremont's Transfer station still in litigation with the City of Newark?
Wasserman: It's still in litigation. I can't speak a lot about it, but I can say that it's unfortunate that those issues crop up. We certainly didn't go out looking for a bad place for them [Newark]. We ended up with a choice of about six locations and it was the best possible place for us, but not for Newark. Those things happen, it's unfortunate that they do, but we'll get past it and when we do, we'll end up with a transfer station that all three cities will use. I'm confident of that. We tend not to talk a lot with each other until there's a crisis. Of course the worse time to come together is when you're at odds because it's a win-lose situation.
TCV: Why didn't the city ask for a lower tax earlier rather than wait until the last minute when everything needs to be done in such a hurry?
Wasserman: The question speaks for itself. Why didn't we? Several things happened. We discussed this, talked about it and did a survey. The survey told us to forget about it. We made a decision to see what happened at the State level. If our survey had given us any promise, we would have proceeded.
I'm saying this as one out of five [councilmembers] but I believe we would have proceeded. The survey didn't give us any promise, so we didn't move. Do I wish we had moved? Yeah. I'm sure that all five of us do. But we didn't, and then more recently and especially with what's going on with the state, we're looking at more doom then we were looking at then.
I'm very proud that the council is really together on this. Three of us are running for office. To see three people running for office agree on anything, is amazing in itself. I think that it's kind of a group frustration. We have to go to the people and tell them what we're facing and what we think is the answer. If they want it, fine. If they don't, we'll look for something else. My attitude is that we're giving the people the chance to speak up as to what they want to do.
We're doing it in a hurry, no question about it, and incurring a lot of opposition, and that's too bad. I understand the opposition but I was hopeful that people would try and see the problem and what we can agree on.
TCV: Why not propose a tax that would put money directly in the coffers of the police and fire departments even if a higher percentage of votes is needed for passage?
Wasserman: We gave a lot of consideration to that. One of the reasons that we chose to go this way is because a public safety bond would only solve a piece of the problem. We ultimately decided that if we were going to the people that we would try to solve the issue in its entirety. Was that a mistake? We'll find out in November.
I'm surprised at the amount of mistrust. I'm not big on appointing commissions, but I think that the bond issue will have provisions for oversight. I will make sure that that committee is a representative committee, not a bunch of political people. It would be representative of the whole community. Beyond that, I would be interested in appointing a committee, again, not a political committee, but a committee to look at the overall, in a slower way, if the measure passes, let's look the next ten years or the next fifteen years fiscally and try to figure out where we're going, where we have to go and how we're going to get there.
If we went for a police fund that said that we wanted to fund the police department outside of the general fund, there are a lot of ramifications to that. You can end up with a situation where you have a funded police department you can't touch. What if ten years from now, the police department is over-funded to some significant degree? You can't do a thing about it except maybe go back to the people and ask them to defund it.
TCV: If the police department was funded at a very basic level and the rest had to come out of the general fund...
Wasserman: You have to be careful about how you do it. Ideally, if you could make a perfect world, you would have a city that runs for the people and the people trust it.
TCV: The budget shortfall has been with us for several years. A refund from the State Board of Equalization has helped this year, but it appears that Fremont will have to "bite the bullet" to balance its budget for future years.
Wasserman: I think we bit a very big bullet. I don't know what city in California bit a bullet like we did. They are paying for it now, but they didn't do it. You're right. It's kind of like going back and asking why we didn't consider the tax. But, historically, and this is primarily what staff was relying on - and I relate to that - these things right themselves. We come to 2003 and it didn't happen.
TCV: Do you sense a lack of trust in city government and the council?
Wasserman: There's no doubt about that. That came through very clear [at the city council meeting] Tuesday night. People don't come up to us all the time saying they don't trust us. When that gets thrown in our face, it's not easy.
I learned a lot Tuesday night. I feel badly because the realization of it makes me feel bad, but I've been in a leadership role for years and I've always been a good leader, and I can deal with that. It's not beyond me to go to people's meetings and talk to them. I have thick skin. I can take it when I have to take it.
This tax thing that we're going through at the moment, while it certainly has its downside, it's a creative opportunity. We can blame the state and we can want to see a good, solid, effective change in California but none of us can sit back and say that it'll come. We have to find our own creative solutions.
TCV: Redevelopment is currently working on a plan for the Centerville Unified Site. How does this relate to the proposed downtown area? Shouldn't we concentrate on making Centerville a success before working on downtown?
Wasserman: I consider downtown very important and something that we need to work on. I'm not convinced that we can sink all of our pennies into it - we have to be very wise about what we do there. It is unfortunate that Centerville became the big controversy that it did. I thought that the charter proposal would do the world for Centerville, that's how I saw it. I was and am willing to put money into it.
Downtown, in my mind, is important in a lot of ways. How much it does for us economically, I'm not sure, but there's a social and community aspect. The most attractive thing about downtown is that it makes Fremont a community where people will gather. I'm sure you saw the studies that show people leave Fremont to do almost anything; downtown can turn that around and bring people to Fremont and that's a real good thing. In my mind, that's worth concentrating on and it's worth putting money into, but there's a limit.
The other thing that's going on today is the Catellus development on Automall Parkway. Fortunately for us, that's running on its own. Those stores are going to open and be very successful. That's all going to happen regardless of what we do.
TCV: The "downtown" area has many medical facilities in or nearby. Do you see these as conflicting uses?
Wasserman: I think they can both exist. There's a lot of land, it just depends on how to use it. The biggest threat that I see is that the market wants to go residential. If we do that then there is not going to be a downtown. I'm not one hundred percent opposed to any residential down there, but the only way that I would feel comfortable with residential would be residential that complemented a very solid commercial retail.
I think there's room there for medical and retail to grow. We could have a very successful downtown along with a very successful medical area. The more things we can accommodate, the more people we can bring to downtown Fremont. I like to say the words downtown Fremont. I never liked Central Business District. That's kind of institutional.
TCV: How do you view the historic districts? Warm Springs has few artifacts left from its historic roots.
Wasserman: Warm Springs never really had a distinctive district. The most distinctive thing that it had was the old hotel. When I got on the council, there was no redevelopment effort directed toward the historic districts, several of us changed the city's goals to direct redevelopment money to historic areas. Originally Irvington and Niles were the only ones. We approved the main streets in all of the historic areas except for Warm Springs.
TCV: I hear that small businesses feel that they are not getting support from the city. Many don't bother getting involved in city politics because they believe city personnel and politicians will not listen. That's a perception.
Wasserman: There's no question about that. Fremont has valued it's historic business communities, and I can say that without a doubt. I've been in cities that don't value them, but the perception is the same in either case. If anybody would sit down with a pencil and paper and started adding up the things that we've done in the historic districts, it's very significant. Bill Ball Plaza, the Centerville Depot, in Niles - we moved the depot out and now they want it back - we bought land and eventually we'll have a very nice town square in Niles. Irvington was the first [district] to be redeveloped and now they're doing Bay Street, so we've done an awful lot. You don't do that if you don't like your historic areas.
I think the place that we probably have been hurt the most is that we don't communicate well through our staff. When I talk to staff people, I don't see that, but when I talk to business people, I'm hearing that they [staff] don't care about this or that. If you want a good reputation in your community, you go out and establish it.
TCV: How are you going to change these perceptions as mayor?
Wasserman: You take things seriously. When you hit one of these perception issues, you don't just chalk it up to perception even though you believe it is. You do something overt; a marketing. I know our planning department has embarked on a feedback process. They send out questionnaires and get feedback where it is needed. You need to do that through all of the departments. There must be attention to everything you're doing, from the mayor on down.
TCV: I have heard comments about your age being a factor in this race. Do you have any comment?
Wasserman: I feel fine. I use the Ronald Reagan approach that 'I don't mind that my opponent is younger than me and less experienced. I won't make that an issue.' I can't control my age. I feel very good and have a lot of energy. I have a lot of investment in this city. I care about this city. I could pack up and go fishing or something but I don't want to do that. I want to be part of this city. I can do it for four years, I can do it for eight years. If something interrupts that, so what, that can happen to anybody. I'm fine. I'll be there.
TCV: At times, city funds have been expended for dubious projects such as the Poe Dam bid. Pockets of money with a different label, such as "Opportunity Funds" are used in these instances, but the money all comes from the General Fund. Money is also being set aside for "downtown." Can we afford to use General Funds for these types of adventures at this time?
Wasserman: First things have to come first, whoever gets elected. We have some funds that take general fund money but all of them are reserve funds, so for instance, if the bond issue fails, we go into next year and we're in big trouble. At that time, we make a decision to cut back in some departments; we don't want to decimate the police department any further. There goes one of those funds. We can defund them. We did a little bit of that already. They would go first. We didn't eliminate the funds because there's everlasting hope that we can fund them. Expenditures from these funds are not authorized. Jan Perkins can't decide to go buy a new building out of the opportunity fund. Any expenditure must have council approval. Like I said, I don't care who gets elected, the council member of the mayor would be a fool to waste that money.
Those funds can be redirected overnight. There are funds that can't be such as park funds and gas tax funds. We've been trying to chip away at the state to allow us to take some of gas tax funds to use as we see fit. I don't know if we'll get anywhere with that.
TCV: Those are for roads?
Wasserman: Yes. There are a lot of different funds for different things. None of them are huge, but it's all money. The state is talking about the ability of cities to use redevelopment money when they take from us again. There is no question that if they let us do that, it's going to happen, but that's a shame. We've accomplished a lot with redevelopment. Maybe we've made mistakes, too, but we've nevertheless accomplished a lot.
It kind of goes full circle because like I said at the outset, the city should raise and control its own finances so that when we screw up, you know that we screwed up and if we do something good, you know we did something good.
I think that one of the most important aspects of the whole thing is leadership. I have a proven record of leadership in a profession and as a politician and for the City of Fremont. I've been a leader in the City of Fremont for 29 years. I've done some good things and have a lot more good things to do.