It was billed as a "State of the City" talk, but it was also a kind of swan song for retiring El Cerrito Mayor Bill Jones as he prepares to step down after eight years on the City Council.
As the guest speaker at the El Cerrito Rotary Club's monthly luncheon Thursday, Jones offered an omnibus overview of key city programs and issues.
He also announced that the city's Recycling Center recently won an award and said there's no basis to a rumor of a cutback in police officers.
"The awards are starting to roll in for the new city Recycling Center," Jones said, alluding to the "2012 Leadership in Sustainability Award" that the facility received on Oct. 24 from the nonprofit Sustainable Contra Costa. Awards were given in seven categories, and the Recycling Center won in the government category.
"It appears from what the staff tells me and the phone calls they're getting and people coming up and actually visiting the center that it's very popular," Jones said. "The word has gotten around that we have a state-of-the-art recycling center."
Jones also addressed a "rumor" about police levels, saying there have been no cuts while acknowledging the department has vacancies that are increasingly difficult to fill.
"The rumor is that we have cut back on police," he said. "We have not cut back on police, not on the street side and on the detective side, the officer side. We've done some reorganization on the administrative side but not on the people in the street."
After his talk, he told Patch that the adminstrative reorganization involved non-sworn employees.
During the talk, he acknowledged that the department has vacant officer positions.
"We do have currently now I think four openings due to the retirement and some disability issues that have come up," he said.
"However, what we're finding is that it's getting harder and harder to fill those spots because we're getting beat by other cities that are paying quite a bit more than we are.
"So we have to be careful when we talk about cutbacks and pensions and benefit cuts that we don't go too far the other way where we're not competitive to get good competent people.
"Right now we have a pretty good reputation, and we do not cut back on training, and in our public safety people, we have well-trained police, we have well-trained fire. And that makes them attractive to other people who are looking for good people."
Charter city study
The mayor said he hopes that the new "Strategic Plan" that the city is developing will include a study of El Cerrito becoming a charter city so that it can be more independent of state control.
"To be perfectly honest, this is one of my pet projects," he said. "I really think that El Cerrito has and always has, by the way, the capability of managing itself.
"We're a 'general law city' now, which means that we follow what the state sets out on how to run a city – state standards. And they set if for all general law cities. But the state Constitution also allows cities to have their own charter – that's where 'charter city' comes from – which is basically the constitution that you run the city by.
"It doesn't mean that you're totally divorced from the state, as there are many laws that cover not only general law cities but charter cities. But it does give you flexibility on running the city the way you feel it should. For instance, under a charter city, you can determine how many council members you have. ... You can set your own labor standards and requirements."
Local charter cities include Richmond, Albany, Piedmont, San Francisco and San Jose, he said.
"I'm pushing that we at least study the issue and see if it's advantageous to El Cerrito," he said. "The reason why I push this is because the state government is becoming more and more instrusive into local government.
"Nancy Skinner, who's our representative (in the state Assembly) actually had a bill that was going to try to tell cities how to park cars statewide. I really think that the cities can kind of figure out what their parking standards and criteria should be. And it isn't a one-size-fit-all. ... Now that is just one example."
City's redevelopment lawsuit
Jones said he's hopeful that the city and that the state will resolve their stand-off and the city's lawsuit against the state and Contra Costa County over a state-mandated order that the city turn over $1.76 million in property tax revenues linked to the city's former Redevelopment Agency.
The city refused to pay the money and filed suit on July 12 saying the amount was miscalculated and that the strict financial penalties threatened by the state violate the state Constitution. The suit is still pending in Sacramento County Superior Court, along with similar suits from several other local governments in California filed in the messy wake of the state's elimination of local Redevelopment Agencies.
"Hopefully we'll have a resolution on that because the state is suddenly wanting to talk about a settlement. And I think they finally got the idea from, I don't know, their lawyers or the Attorney General's office, that 'you're not in good standing in some of this and we don't want it to go to court and lose and now have 400 other agencies wanting their money back too.'
"Hopefully, that'll be resolved without having to go to court, but we're ready to go to court and fight our case."
Jones touched on several other topics, including the city's financial health. He said El Cerrito is better off than many other cities but that the next year or two will require careful attention to priorities and resources. He said housing sales appear to be improving and that city revenue from El Cerrito Plaza remains stable.
He also noted the city's successful agreement with three other small cities – Albany, Piedmont and San Pablo – for collaboration on installing solar panels on city facilities, and the city's participation in a shared police and fire communication system for Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
He expressed appreciation for the difficult agreement hammered out with city employees represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU Local 1021). El Cerrito, like many other public agencies, is struggling with growing pension obligations and healthcare costs for employees and had sought concessions from city workers.
The talk was Jones' second State of the City presentation this year. He gave one to the El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce in February.
Jones did not seek re-election on the Nov. 6 ballot, which had only three candidates for the three open seats on the City Council: incumbent Greg Lyman and former Council members Jan Bridges and Mark Friedman. They will take office next month.
Jones – an El Cerrito High alum who was inducted on Sunday into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame for outstanding performance in football, baseball and basketball in 1967 and 1968– was asked after his talk about his plans after leaving the council.
He told Patch he hasn't made definite decisions yet but is "intrigued" by the recently formed grassroots campaign to build a new El Cerrito Library and might want to become involved.