Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Lot to Be Moody About in Vallejo

A report from Moody’s Investors Service was released recently about Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino entitled, “Without Pension Relief, Bankrupt California Cities Risk Return to Insolvency”.

Moody’s warns that because of Vallejo’s continuing structural imbalance, the city, “risks a second bankruptcy filing if it continues on its current path.” And while the City did cut cut retiree health benefits, created a second benefit tier for new hires and made City employees contribute more of their pay toward their pensions, Moody’s argues that Vallejo missed the opportunity in bankruptcy to cut its pensions.
“Vallejo’s current budget challenges are largely driven by its failure to alter its pension obligations to CalPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System,” the report says. Moody’s analyst Tom Aaron, who co-authored the report, says, “By failing to address its pension liabilities (Vallejo) remains vulnerable to increasing annual payments,” which will exceed 70 percent of payroll in just six years.

Having been through the bankruptcy up close and personally, I have mixed feelings about Moody’s pronouncements. They are spot on about Vallejo’s continuing structural deficits. Giving our police officers, some of the highest paid in the state, raises in bankruptcy was unfathomable, and refusing to cut salaries across the board for all employees, with the highest paid employees taking the biggest hits, was irresponsible. Moody’s is correctly sounding the warning bell about the dangerously steep rise in pension costs coming our way.

Vallejo’s own budget hawk J.D. Miller notes that:
“CalPERS rate increases will raise Vallejo’s pension costs roughly 50 percent by 2020…The combination of increased pension costs and the expiration of Measure B in 2023, in excess of $20 million a year, will reduce the amount of money Vallejo has to spend for police officers and firefighters…Vallejo could have 80 fewer police officers, 80 fewer firefighters, or some combination of these two.”

Many of us in Vallejo hear the tsunami sirens very loudly. We get it and we’ve been asking for pension and pay cuts from our city employees. But Moody’s blithely says that Vallejo should have “cut pensions while in bankruptcy.” Much easier said than done. CalPERS contends that pensions are not touchable under the Chapter 9 bankruptcy code because, under California law, public employees' pensions are contracts that cannot be involuntarily “impaired.” That’s definitely arguable. And with the judge’s ruling in Detroit's bankruptcy that pension obligations are debts that may be subject to modification like other debts — that definitely opens the door to a CalPERS challenge.

But under threats of long and costly legal action from CalPERS, as a Council Member, I made a choice not to cut pensions of current employees. Vallejo simply didn’t have the time or money for a long and protracted legal fight with CalPERS that would have stretched our bankruptcy out even longer. And CalPERS had unlimited time and money to fight us. It was an awful choice to make. But I figured that there would be other cities coming behind us that would file for Chapter 9, and they’d be bigger and wealthier than Vallejo, and therefore would have the resources to fight CalPERS on behalf of the rest of us. That’s what San Bernardino is doing right now. I applaud their chutzpa and wish that Vallejo had been able to lead that charge.

But it shouldn’t have to come down to a legal battle between cities and CalPERS. It really doesn’t have to. If we enacted the pension reform that San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed is proposing, and I am supporting, there would be no need for lawyers and judges to steer us through budget crisis. This statewide pension reform will give California cities the tools to negotiate new pension formulas with current employees for their future earnings (not what they’ve already earned). No bankruptcy or court battles necessary.

Ultimately, many California cities are in this position because they promised their employees much more than they could afford in terms of pensions and health care. And the solution is not as easy as just paying more to cover the deficit. No amount of economic development can cover a structural deficit based on exponentially rising costs like our pensions. Cities like Vallejo can’t pay much more or they won’t be able to provide even basic services to its citizens. The taxpayers have taken the hit again and again and again in terms of paying more to cover the pension deficits. It’s time we addressed these unrealistic pensions head on, together, as a united California.

Mayor Reed’s statewide pension reform — and elected officials with strong political will and public employee unions with integrity — is the only thing that will keep cities like Vallejo from being stuck in a revolving door of bankruptcy.

Read more about the Pension Reform Act of 2014: http://reformpensions2014.com

Sunday, January 26, 2014

It's Time to Take Our Medicine

Daniel Borenstein, columnist for the Bay Area Newsgroup, recently wrote a cautionary and sharp article on the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) and the unrealistic life expectancies they use  in their retirement system calculations. By using shorter life expectancies in their calculations, CalPERS is (again) underfuding the retirement system, which will eventually result in increased contributions to the system by local governments to make up for the "error". (And, as Borenstein points out, this is already on top of the underfunding of the system through overly optimistic high rates of return on their investments, which has and will continue to result in rate increases for local governments.) Borenstein said:
"The California Public Employees' Retirement System hasn't previously factored future mortality improvements into actuarial calculations. As a result, it has not collected enough money to pay pensions when workers retire.
The fix, which the CalPERS board will consider in February, would further drive up rates for public agencies, which already face recent changes to correct for the system's unrealistic investment return assumptions and a dangerously slow paydown of debt."
The CalPERS board must stop playing games with the numbers to avoid reality and protect the pensions for current public employee union members. This is hurting our local governments because these unrealisitc calculations are resulting in a seemingly constant rise in payments to CalPERS and a decrease in services to local taxpayers. It will also hurt future retirees, because there simply won't be enough money in the system to fund their retirements.

While the proposed fix the CalPERS board will be considering would result in a rise in rates that local governments will have to pay, not approving the fix will hurt local governments even more in the long run in terms of even higher unfunded liabilities. We can't keep passing these liabilities on to the next generation. It's irresponsible and it's not fair.

I'm not sure when the change occurred from our grandparents' generation that believed in sacrificing for the betterment of the next generation, and the current generation's belief in taking care of themselves first and foremost, the next generation be damned.

But we need to go back to that belief in sacrifice for the next generation, "take our medicine," come to grips with the real costs of the CalPERS retirement system, and realistically fund it. There should be a mandate that local governments with unfunded retirement and OPEB (health care) liabilities develop a 10 or 15-year plan, depending on the size of the liability, to fully fund their employee retirement programs. These plans MUST be available to the public in simple, easy to understand language.

Perhaps by daylighting the additional costs of these unrealistic calculations to the taxpayers, it will show that the current system is simply not sustainable for local governments. If so, then we need to look at transitioning into a hybrid defined benefit/401(k) style system. Either way, we can't keep whistling past the proverbial graveyard when it comes to public employee pensions in California.

Read Mr. Borenstein's article here:

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

My Final Speech: Two Terms and Eight Years
Before I begin, let me thank first and foremost my family, for understanding my absences and single-minded preoccupation these past eight years. I’d like to dedicate my two terms to my mom, who passed away one year ago this month. She taught me to be a strong and independent woman and to stand up and fight injustice, to use my strong voice to speak for those who didn’t have a voice, or whose voices weren’t so strong. Mom was was at every election night party, every swearing-in, and if she could be, she would be here with me tonight to walk up that isle and out the chamber doors. I think she’d be dancing up that isle, actually, as she wanted me to be done with this work so badly. Well mom, I’m done!
I’d also like to thank my friends, who have supported me through many difficult nights in these chambers, and many difficult decision-making processes. They were my sounding boards, my guides, sometimes even my conscience! You made me feel protected when I felt vulnerable. I won’t name you because somebody will be left out and I’ll get in trouble. But you know who you are.
I’d like to thank the city staff who have shared these council chambers with us so often, who I wasn’t always so easy on, but whom I depended on and came to have a deep respect for. We’ve grown together through these difficult years, and I wish you nothing but good luck and continued growth and success.
I have to thank my fellow council members — because despite our differences, together we achieved a lot!
Finally, I’d like to thank the public for voting for me, for believing in me and trusting me to represent you. Each election I felt so humbled by that, and I always remembered that feeling as I went about my business serving you. It has truly been an honor to represent you.
________

I’ve said this many times over the years, but one of my goals on Council was not to leave for future councils what was left for me. So to the incoming Council — you’re welcome. :-)  
I was fortunate enough to be the public’s representative before, during and after bankruptcy. I sometimes lamented that fortune, that my time on the Council has been full of difficult “Sophie’s choices”, service cuts, personal attacks, intimidation tactics, and employee union  skirmishes. But really, I was probably the right person to pull that short straw. Because I’m smart, I’m stubborn, I’m headstrong, I’m ethical and I’m outspoken. And that’s what we needed to unravel the dysfunction, the misconduct, the backwards financial practices and the unsustainable employee contracts.  
My accomplishments aren't newsworthy or sexy or anything that will get a building named after me some day. My name will be but a footnote in time. But my accomplishments were course-altering. Because in eight years, I, along with several of my colleagues, have dismantled and began rebuilding a strong foundation from which the city can build on in the future. When I was first started, we had a fire union president suing council members, trying to get his personal lawsuits paid for in their new contract, years of raise deferrals coming due that were about 12%, city managers going in and out of a revolving door, a police and fire chief who represented the unions and not the city and definitely not the people of Vallejo, and a budget that was bleeding red all over the place. It was one big hot mess. 
Today, the undue influence of the employee unions is out of the closed session room and contract decisions. We have a City Manager who is professional, ethical, strong and determined to turn this ship around. We are close to having a budget devoid of a structural deficit. And we have police and fire chiefs who represent the City but who also represent their employees in an appropriate  balance.
But don’t let the good news settle you in your seats. There is much work to be done, and there is much danger in the decisions ahead. If this new Council and the citizens of Vallejo aren’t careful, all the work we’ve done to change the trajectory of our city can be turned back around in a minute.
------------
So as I pass the baton of leadership on to a new City Council, I have some thoughts to leave with everyone.
The economy is slowly recovering — do not use that as an excuse to stop restructuring. Our reserve fund is pathetically low and our infrastructure is aging, broken and underfunded. The next financial crisis that hits the country, be prepared to weather it and not be forced to make poor decisions or go into bankruptcy again. Just because the intense pressure of the Great Recession is over doesn’t mean you should let up on reform. Continue full tilt until Vallejo is healthy again.

And don’t forget about our unfunded liabilities. By imposing the police contract and getting agreement on the CAMP contract, the City cut its OPEB (health care) liabilities 70 percent — from $110 million to “just” $33 million. That’s a big deal.
And our unfunded pension liability remains overwhelming. If this City doesn’t address this unfunded liability, we will never be healthy and successful. It will always be a yoke around our collective necks, something that J.D.’s grandchildren and great grandchildren will be stuck with. 
Consider this, and please, heed this warning: 
Our unfunded pension liability is $239 million dollars. This year, for every dollar we spend on salary to a public safety employee, we are paying 52 cents for their retirement and those who have already retired. In just six years, for every dollar we spend on salaries, we will be paying 73 cents for their retirement and for retirees. So this means that in just six years, we’ll be paying almost double for every public safety employee we have on duty.  How will Vallejo afford that? Measure B will be sunsetting just a couple of years later. 

To the City Manager:
(1) Thank you for coming to Vallejo, for believing in us, and for having the spirit that loves a challenge.
(2) Think about offering pension plan education to city council members — we make multi-million dollar decisions on contracts with little to no education. Perhaps make that education available to the public. Knowledge is power.
(3) Good luck. You’ll need it.
To the City Council:
(1) Let your city manager manage the city — he’s the best city manager we’ve likely ever had. He has the education, the skills and the drive to manage this city well. You now have a luxury I didn’t have — a city manager you can trust so you can focus on setting policy.
(2) Your city manager and economic development staff are already bringing in new business opportunities and development proposals. Trust them and work with them on economic development.
(3) Continue the simple but critical fiscal policy of “one time money for one time costs.” Don’t see Measure B money as a solution to our structural deficit. Structural deficits are reduced by ensuring that your long term obligations aren’t larger than your long-term revenues. And you can’t count on the citizens voting for another tax. So be prudent and conservative and base your long-term projections on long-term, reliable revenues. 
(4) Build your reserves as large as you can. If we learned anything from bankruptcy, it was that you can’t live paycheck to paycheck and not invite disaster. 
(5) Continue down the path we’re on to get our pay and benefits package in line with what Vallejo can afford, not with what Napa or Berkeley can afford. 
(6) Remember, a contract is not a promise, it’s a contract. Getting hired as a public employe, and I am a public employe myself, doesn’t mean that we get a lifetime shelter from the economic storms of our country and our economy. A contract is a contract, and sometimes they need to be changed.
(7) Finally, in the words of Steve Jobs: “Your time is limited...Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
To City Staff:
(1) Whether you live here or not, we’re all in this together. Please join with our community to make Vallejo prosper. We know most of you work hard and care about this city. Know that many of us residents recognize this and appreciate you. Please remember that residents in this city have been through the wringer alongside of you. 
To the residents of Vallejo, I leave you with this:
(1) YOU have the most important job to do — more important than the city manager, staff or the city council. YOU are the watchdogs. It’s up to YOU to ensure that the city council does’t let the city backslide. Please, pay attention, read the staff reports, and speak out if you see something wrong. A strong democracy cannot exist without a thoughtful, involved citizenry. 
(2) This last election turnout was abysmal. Next election, please, come out and vote. Get your neighbors, your family, co-workers and friends and convince them to vote. And before you vote, please, do your homework. And by that I don’t mean read the glossy flyers that fill your mailboxes during the election season. The JumpStart mailers are proof that you can’t trust the information coming from special interests — they were so full of lies, but just enough fear, to be effective. So don’t trust what somebody paid for you to read or to know. Study the candidates, go to a forum or two, ask people their opinions, ask questions. 
(3) Take a moment to think about the ramifications of our city employees, most who don’t live in Vallejo, spending large amounts of money in our local elections to sway votes for their chosen candidates who will then approve their pay and benefits packages — pay and benefit packages that are three, four and five times the median household income in Vallejo of $56,000. Remember, when I first ran for office, the public employee unions asked me in my endorsement interview: “If we endorse you, will you stay bought.” Just think about that.
(4) Why is this important to you? Because you take the hit for us not getting employe costs under control in terms of higher taxes and fewer services. Ask yourselves, haven’t our services been cut enough? 
_______
I will say the biggest threat to Vallejo’s economic recovery is what I will call the “police and fire political complex.” (I’ve obviously been reading President Eisenhower’s “Military Industrial Complex” speech!) Those who have had the courage to question the unsustainable pay and benefits of police or fire have been dismissed or attacked as haters of police officers, firefighters or working families. Apparently uncritical support of all things police or fire is now expected from the public safety unions all in the name of “safety”.
The influences of politics and fear, rather than solid financial accounting, is consuming an unwarranted and alarming part of the debate in our elections and the overall budget in Vallejo. We must avoid letting the public employee unions, either separately or together as the Central Labor Council or the JumpStart label, dictate how our city spends our taxpayer dollars or who sits in the City Manager’s seat. 
Again, think about it: employee pay and benefits make up 82 percent of our general fund. That leaves just 18 percent to spend on our roads, trees, libraries, senior centers, etc. Eighty-two cents of every tax dollar we give to the City is consumed by employee pay and benefits. 
That, my friends, is why the public employee unions are willing to spend big money on our little ole’ elections and why your mailboxes are stuffed with glossy, colorful flyers every other November.
So to Jon Riley and his JumpStart Siblings": 
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. We’ll be watching you and your “siblings” and will participate equally in our own way. But just know, we’re not going away, and we don't give up easily. Never again will undue influence or corruption control this City because we, the citizens of Vallejo, will be watching with magnifying glasses.
____________

So we stand now on the other side of the painful precipice that was bankruptcy. Looking backwards, there is a wide and deep canyon behind us. I can confidently say that Vallejo is better off than it was eight years ago. But we’re not that far from the canyon. I hope our new leaders won’t let us fall backwards into the precipice and instead will take strong and confident strides into a healthy future.
My parting words to the new Council: you will face extremely difficult choices, made that much more difficult because of the demands you will get from your special interest campaign donors. Don’t give in to that pressure. Remain independent. Do what’s right for us, the citizens and taxpayers of Vallejo. 
Please don’t make me come back and say “I told you so.” Remember, reality leaves a trail. I wish you good luck and prosperity for all. 
I will end with a final quote by Sir Winston Churchill: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Faces in the Crowd 

By Vice-Mayor Stephanie Gomes
December 20, 2013

Monday, December 16, was my last “full” meeting of my two terms on the Vallejo City Council. And it was a tough one. A fitting end, I think, because so many meetings over my eight years have been just like this -- extremely difficult decisions, lots of controversy and people crowding the chambers with passions running high. 


There’s one common thread that has been woven throughout all of these meetings for me: the faces in the audience. Friends and strangers alike, there were always familiar faces I could look to for a friendly smile, an emphatic shake of the head, or just a solid supportive presence. Some of these people have spoken eloquently and passionately at the podium, and some sat quietly and radiated their passion. You know who you are, and you’ve meant the world to me in some of my most difficult moments as a Councilmember.


And while they weren’t sitting in those uncomfortable, ugly green chairs in the chambers, I know many people who watched every Council meeting on television. There were people who watched quietly, and then there were the people who loved to provide a running commentary of the meeting on my voicemail, which was always hilarious to listen to after the meetings! Please know that although I couldn’t see you, I knew you were watching and I felt your support.

And last but not least, to those of you who took a moment to write a quick email or note of appreciation — you’ll never know how much that meant. Those emails or notes always seemed to come when I needed them most, when I felt the lowest. You helped pick me up and keep me going when sometimes I didn’t feel like I could.
Lots of people say they could never do my job, they just don’t have it in them. Well, it takes all kinds of participation to make a democracy work. Yes, it takes the people who can sit on the dais and make the difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. But I could never have done my job without the people who took it upon themselves to stand in solidarity with me and show their support. Courage comes in many colors.


You all know who you are. Thank you for your support not just of me, but most importantly, for our work for a better Vallejo. Nobody could do it alone — it takes all kinds and levels of participation to make the changes we’ve been making. Lasting change is the hardest of all to make; and for all of us, that’s the only change we’ll accept in Vallejo now.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

This is the Place for Me

When Supervisor Kondylis told me last summer that she was thinking about retiring and that she wanted me to consider running for her seat, I was excited. It was a new opportunity to take everything I'd learned over the last six years and put that to use at the County level while still working for Vallejo. I was honored in Supervisor Kondylis' faith in me.

So I spent a lot of time thinking about it, talking to my friends and family and my supporters. I was somewhat surprised to hear some of my staunchest supporters ask me not to run for Supervisor -- they really wanted me to stay on the City Council for as long as I could. It was an odd sort of flattery, I have to say!

I realized that my decision wasn't about my skills or qualifications, or even my personal desires for my career. In the end, my decision really came down to two things: re-writing a story, and my sense of responsibility.

In the dark of the night when sleep can be so elusive when faced with important decisions, I asked myself what was best for Vallejo. As a senior councilmember with six years of intense learning and experience under my belt, would my leaving the City Council before my term is up hurt the forward momentum we as a community have so painstakingly made?

We are on the brink of a hard-earned recovery, we have a City Council that is working well together, and we have a strong new city manager coming on board soon -- there is a bright light at the end of what has been a long and difficult tunnel. But our recovery is sill tenuous and will require experienced leadership and guidance. I worked too hard to help get us to this point to leave right before we turn that corner. Our story is still unfinished, and I want to stay and help finish re-writing it.

And during those sleepless nights, I also felt a nagging sense of guilt about leaving my term early. Two years ago, I asked the voters of Vallejo to re-elect me. I made a commitment, promised to work hard and focus on addressing Vallejo's serious challenges. The voters put their faith and trust in me for a second time – even in the middle of our bankruptcy turmoil – and I want to respect that trust and honor my commitment by completing my full term.

So once I made my decision not to run for Supervisor, it all became very clear. It was the right choice. In my heart, I want to stay and keep working. I didn't run for public office to start a new career, I ran because I believe in citizen representation and I thought I could help our city. And the best place for the city and me right now is right where I am.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Speech to the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association

Last Friday, I was asked to speak to the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association on Vallejo's bankruptcy experience. I've been working with a new group called California United for Fiscal Reform on statewide pension reform, and one of the members asked me to present to her organization. I hadn't taken the time to look back yet, so I used this as an exercise to start telling the story as I saw it -- and the story behind the story. (Please note that this was a speech prepared and presented by me and is not the official position or opinion of the City of Vallejo or the Vallejo City Council body.)

I can't add PDF attachments using this blog program, so I'll have to post the whole speech here. It's long, so I apologize in advance. I didn't use it word-for-word, and had to make changes due to time constraints. But it's pretty close. I'm sure this document will evolve and I will make changes and additions. (Because of the time constraints, I didn't get to mention everyting -- like the 1993 Citizen's Budget Advisory Committee warning on the structural deficit, or the 2003 letter from community members outlining every pitfall with the new public safety contrcts that ultimately proved right, yet was completely ignored by the then-City Council. You can watch a video of the presentation, or just fast forwad to the Q&As afterwards with me and former City Manger Joe Tanner, at the Vallejo Independent Bulletin website.

I think it is critical to honestly look at what got us to the point of bankruptcy -- and what happened in bankruptcy -- so we never repeat our mistakes. I do think our current five-year plan is as solid as it can be in these uncertain economic times. But beware our unfunded pension/health care liabilities. The new proposed changes by the GASB (Government Accounting Standards Board) will force cities to show our unfunded liabilities as debt, not just a footnote. This is the tsunami behind the tsunami. The GASB hasn't released their draft changes yet, but there will definitely be more to come...

Speech before the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association by

Stephanie Gomes, City Council Member, City of Vallejo

June 24, 2011

One main question I was asked in coming to speak today: is Chapter 9 (Municipal Bankruptcy) a “way out” from the financial crisis facing our cities and counties?

The short answer is: No.

Unfortunately, just like weight loss, no matter how much we desperately want one, there is no magic pill that will solve our financial problems. It’s a simple math problem: revenues in, expenditures out.

Many cities, counties, states and indeed our country have been living beyond our means for quite a few years, gorging on the money filling our coffers during the bubble, and committing those coffers to living off that same amount of excess in perpetuity. There’s one problem with that – the good times never last forever. But our leaders failed to account for that.

And the good times are gone. At least for the foreseeable future.

So that leaves cities and counties asking that million dollar question – how do we hit the “reset” button and make our budgets sustainable again? Many of us are getting deeper into the red, with sales taxes and property taxes on the continual down slide, unions are digging their heels in to more concessions, and the voters are loathe to agree to pay more taxes for increasingly fewer services.

So we’re back to that collective problem that cities and counties across the U.S. are experiencing: “revenues in, expenditures out”. The revenue side is a bit trickier given this Great Recession that we’re slogging through. Some agencies will try to ask the voters for more taxes. When the economy picks up again, we will all be focusing on economic development. That’s an “easier” side of the equation given the right conditions and good planning.

The tougher answer, and the one that got Vallejo into so much trouble, is reigning in the expenditures. Given that local government is labor intensive, our general fund budgets are consumed by salaries and benefits of the employees who provide vital city services. And in Vallejo our public safety employees were some of the highest paid in the Bay Area. So when we need to address budget deficits, we have to look to employee costs. Anything else is just kicking the can down the road.

Vallejo should serve as a cautionary tale not so much about bankruptcy, but of the real and painful repercussions of financial mismanagement, poor planning, and giving control of the purse strings to our public employee unions. Vallejo was indeed unique in almost every aspect. I doubt that many municipalities will face our perfect storm. But many will face several parts of it:

  • Years of wage and benefit deferrals coming due
  • Closure of MI Naval Base – huge loss of jobs/economic impact
  • Employee union influenced City Council
  • Crash of the housing market
  • Crash in sales, property, transfer taxes
  • Budgets based on rosy economic forecasts
  • Revenue sources not identified for new expenditures
  • Huge unfunded liabilities

I will state a disclaimer here before I go further and say that I do not believe the whole problem in Vallejo is our public employee unions. Management in Vallejo failed on many levels over a period of many years to get the city to the brink of bankruptcy. They failed to invest in good, smart economic development when the iron was hot. They agreed to the public safety union’s requests, didn’t cost them out, and left the results to future leaders.

But the public employee unions, especially our public safety unions, helped engineer this unsustainable system, with the compliance of weak leaders, and ultimately they could have saved Vallejo from filing bankruptcy. They could have made real, hard concessions on pay and benefits. They could have saved Vallejo millions in legal fees arguing whether the city was hiding money and indeed was bankrupt. But Vallejo was the epicenter of failing cities, and we were first. The public employee unions didn’t have a “Vallejo example” to urge them to cooperate and negotiate reductions that were distasteful but preferred over the bankruptcy experience.

The law of unintended consequences. Cities like San Jose and Stockton and Oakland are using Vallejo’s bankruptcy experience as a bargaining chip and extracting huge givebacks from their employees that were unthinkable three years ago.

So in the drunken halcyon days of the bubble, the public safety unions in Vallejo grew extremely powerful by putting their union dues into local elections and to buy favor with the city councils. (and if you don’t believe this happens, when I first ran for office in my endorsement interviews, the coalition of unions asked me point blank: “If we endorse you, will you stay bought? My answer was, “You couldn’t buy me in the first place, so how could I “stay” bought?”)

Before I was elected, the City finally hired a city manager who was tough and willing to demand changes from our public safety unions. Ultimately, he was sued by the IAFF 1186 President, along with two other council members, for defamation of character (that was a practice used or threatened against community members and council members before). This case was thrown out in court as a SLAPP suit (a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition (Wikipedia definition).) The legal fees for that SLAPP suit, for both sides, was approximately $140,000, and the IAFF 1186 President was ordered to pay it all. Amazingly, they turned around and tried to incorporate that $140,000 into their next round of contract negotiations, right after I was first elected. I said that I'd climb to the top of the tallest building and tell the entire city if they tried to fold these legal fees into any new fire contract. Ultimately, the members of IAFF 1186 were on the hook for the legal fees -- why they voted to cover this SLAPP suit is beyond me.

Soon thereafter, we hired one of the best city managers we've had, Joe Tanner (who is in this audience), who also had the courage to take on our powerful public safety unions and help us solve our crushing financial problems. He was beaten up in the local newspaper repeatedly, targeted by nasty union propaganda, and ultimately became a victim of the dark side of politics.

So back to when I was first elected in 2005. The City had a $3 million operating deficit. The previous City Councils had tried to balance the budget by “negotiating” increasingly lucrative contracts with the employees in exchange for raise deferrals and contract extensions. Raise deferrals given in prior years to balance deficit budgets were due in 2005 – something like eight percent raises. (We won’t even go into unfunded liabilities). Our employee contracts extended to 2012, we had minimum staffing on our fire trucks and a debated minimum-manning clause in the police contract. And we had binding arbitration in our City Charter. That all added up to the fact that any changes the City needed to make to cut back expenditures and balance the budget would need to be approved by the unions. If not, then by an arbitrator. The City Council’s hands were effectively tied. I knew then that we were headed for bankruptcy.

So, the unions negotiated with the city for a year, until the then city manager gave up and declared the negotiations a failure. I am proud to say that for the first time in years, the City Council (except two newly elected union-endorsed council members) refused the unions’ offers and decided to cut the fire truck staffing to achieve the cost savings we needed to stay solvent. The city stayed solvent -- barely. The unions arbitrated the decision. But we cut the truck staffing, eliminated all funding for community based organizations, stopped funding vehicle replacements and road repair and maintenance, and exhausted the rest of our meager reserves.

Enter 2008. The perfect storm. The City lost the fire truck arbitration (the arbitrator did not have to consider the financial implications of the decision), which immediately increased our deficit by several million dollars. Development revenues dropped off, housing started to decline. Employees near retirement or able to transfer saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship – taking a $4 million leave payout with them. The City tried to negotiate last minute concessions to stave off a bankruptcy filing. I was opposed to this agreement – it was business as usual. But the Council majority resolved all union grievances in return for some temporary labor concessions that lasted a couple of months and an agreement to “come to the table” again. That was a net loss.

So our General Fund was depleted. Our reserves were depleted. Labor concessions were expiring. We were flat broke. Our closed session meetings were brutal. Those Council members who didn’t want to recognize that bankruptcy was a foregone conclusion, spent hours picking through the numbers, desperately trying in vain to make things pencil out. Trade this for that, move this here, put that there. It didn’t work because of that very simple math problem: revenues in, expenditures out.

So on May 6, 2008, the City Council authorized a filing for bankruptcy. An agonizing, painful watershed moment. The council chambers were packed with union members, community members, media…and lawyers. It was a unanimous Council decision, which shocked the unions I think. Their council members had never voted against them before. But there’s a little part of the law that says that if an official uses restricted funds to balance the budget or allows employees to work with the foreknowledge that there was no money to pay for that work, the governing body would not have normal governmental immunity for official acts and they would not be protected from personal liability. I believe the prospect of landing in jail or losing one’s home was quite persuasive.

So what happened then? It became a nasty legal battle. The unions fought our declaration of insolvency – they said we were hiding money. They said we had tons of money in our water fund, our redevelopment fund, our transportation fund. Just use that. (That’s illegal, by the way).

Eventually, the City prevailed and the judge indeed said we were insolvent. It was a very hollow victory.

So the City created a “Pendency Plan” – essentially our operating plan during the bankruptcy proceedings. We were able to do things we couldn’t do without the protection of bankruptcy. We froze wages and benefits and implemented furloughs. In 2009 we cut our interest payments to the banks to equal what we were cutting our employees – for three months our payments to the banks were suspended to conserve cash. This pendency plan allowed us to continue to operate, to provide services to the public and keep the lights on at City Hall.

We negotiated with our creditors, including our employee unions and retirees. And right here lies the exact moment of Vallejo’s failure in bankruptcy.

In February 2009, the City Council majority (excluding myself and another council member) agreed to a new police contract. You’d think that if unsustainable salaries, benefits and pensions the largest part of your structural deficit, you’d target that if you absolutely, positively had to file for bankruptcy. Right? I mean, why go through the pain of bankruptcy if you’re just going to limp out with a continued structural deficit and the same contracts and with which you went into it?

For reasons I intellectually know, but still in my heart cannot fathom, this police contract didn’t cut wages. It didn’t cut pensions. It didn’t ask for employee contribution to medical. It guaranteed RAISES for the next two years. And it agreed to pay the Vallejo Police Officers Association legal fees if the City was forced to bring that contract back into bankruptcy. And if that wasn’t reason enough to reject it, our finance director said on that very night during that discussion that we were facing another $12 million deficit next year. But the Council majority approved it. This was a huge failure of political will.

That was the most painful moment of my entire Council career. I KNEW approving that contract was wrong. I KNEW we couldn’t afford it. But worst of all, I KNEW we had just failed bankruptcy. Because every employee union that came after that said, “Me too.” It failed to address our structural deficit at THE best time to do so. And it set up one employee group against another. It gave more to police and less to fire and even less to IBEW. It just wasn’t fair.

But eventually I had to set it down and move on. So we created a five-year plan that – at this point in time – is sustainable. We should be out of bankruptcy in July or August. But I have my worries. We haven’t addressed our structural deficit, our employee costs keep climbing while we have fewer and fewer of them to do the work. Our property taxes are down 24 percent since 2008. Our sales taxes are down 22 percent. And they’re still dropping. We’ve tried to be as conservative as we can with our economic forecasts. We’re planning for the worst, hoping for the best. At this point in our economic history, a stagnant budget is a good thing. Not up, but not down. Again, I won’t even go into our unfunded liability – that’s a whole separate discussion that threatens the very core of local governments.

One bright spot of our bankruptcy experience, though, was a shift in public opinion regarding our employee unions’ pay and benefits. Vallejo had binding arbitration in our City Charter – an arbitrator was the deciding official in employee wage/benefit disputes. The City tried to remove it from our charger a couple of times since the 1970s, and it failed. But this time we fought a difficult, bitter battle, with the unions spending ten times what the community spent. We raised $7,000 and hand made our signs in my backyard! But we won. Now, in 2012, when three of our four employee contracts expire, the elected officials of this city will decide on what pay and benefits the City can afford. That is a huge change.

Ok, so what’s the “good, bad and ugly” of bankruptcy?

The good:

  • In the first two years of bankruptcy, the city was able to save $35 million just implementing the pendency plan. Granted, to date our legal fees are $11 million. But do the math – we saved $24 million.
  • Abuse, undue influence, poor accounting practices – they were all revealed. Painful, but absolutely necessary for any chance of recovery.
  • Political leaders are forced to show their cards – there is no hiding, no avoiding. Vote for the people, or vote for your campaign contributors.
  • An opportunity to reorganize and restructure.
  • A municipality can void unsustainable labor contracts, with the judge’s permission.

The bad:

  • $11 million in the pockets of very happy lawyers. Despite the $35 million in savings, I’d have rather spent that $11 million on attracting new businesses, fixing our streets, or hiring more police officers to patrol our neighborhoods.

The Ugly:

  • Bankruptcy hurts. It hurts your city’s image, it hurts the relationship between the community and our city employees, it destroys employee morale.
  • Public employee union battles. Have you ever heard of the “Bloody their noses” doctrine? It's alive and well.

The City has done good things since 2009 to begin to rebuild our financial structure. We have adopted new “Rules to Live by” that may be common sense, but many municipalities haven’t been following them:

  1. Live within your means
  2. Look to your future
  3. Stop deferring expenses
  4. Fund retirement obligations
  5. Dedicate your surplus
  6. Set up a rainy-day fund

If we can follow these rules, Vallejo will indeed be on the road to recovery. Actually, when we were first going into bankruptcy, we saw that other cities were snickering at Vallejo, absolutely unaware that they would be facing similar challenges in just three years. Now, when Vallejo has done our hard work, we’ve got a semi-stable budget while cities all around us are in freefall.

If we have learned anything from Vallejo’s Chapter 9 experience is that filing for Chapter 9 should be an absolute, positive last resort. It is not an end to a means. It’s painful. It tears a community up. But I will say this: if given the same circumstances, I’d vote to file for bankruptcy again. We didn’t have a choice. And contrary to the media reports, Vallejo’s bankruptcy did not cause our decrease in police or fire services, our library cuts or our road maintenance deficits. Our financial mismanagement caused that long before that vote to file for bankruptcy. Those services were steadily decreasing as our deficits continued to increase. And the structure of that deficit was not addressed. It was just covered over with a band-aid year after year. And I understand why, to a certain extent – once you give something, it’s hard to take it back. And trying to take it back from powerful public safety unions is incredibly difficult, legally exhausting, financially crushing, and pretty much political career-ending. It takes courage of conviction, a very stubborn personality, and a very thick skin to try to right that ship.

I’ll close with this difficult conclusion. But I think this is a seminal issue all over this country, and I believe that it’s so bad that many of the traditional Democratic base of union supporters are starting to reach this very same conclusion -- unfortunately, long before our elected leaders are willing to admit it. But Vallejo’s experience ripped the cover off of the dirty little secret of how public employee unions can buy power and control over the very people who vote on their wages and benefits. Private sector employee unions cannot control who their bosses are. But public employee unions take their collective power and money to essentially control the hiring – and firing – of their bosses. This is a systemic problem that must be fixed or the system will ultimately fail.

And waiting for our elected leaders to make these changes will take a long, long time. Just look at the legislature’s response to Vallejo’s bankruptcy – to write a bill that requires municipalities to get permission of a union-majority committee to declare bankruptcy and remove employee contracts from bankruptcy proceedings if a declaration is made. What did Assembly member Noreen Evans and then Senator Pat Wiggins do when Vallejo was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy? They sent a letter chastising the city for considering bankruptcy and being so unfriendly to our employee unions. Did they talk to us to reach their conclusions? No, never.

So I am convinced that we taxpayers of California must demand these changes. We must join together, city-to-city, county-to-county, and raise our voices loud and strong demanding legislative solutions to these issues. There are no saviors – there is only us.



Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Community Spirit is Thriving in Vallejo

Most of us living in Vallejo know that the economy is hurting our neighborhoods and quality of life, as it is in so many cities across our nation. Property crimes are on the rise, along with graffiti, drug dealing and prostitution.

But it’s not all bad news. Vallejo citizens are standing up for our city and forming extremely successful neighborhood watch groups. Last year, Vallejo had ten neighborhood watch groups – today, we have 100 groups with over 1,500 active and involved neighbors.

The key is that neighborhoods with neighborhood watch groups are seeing a decrease in property crimes. In addition, neighbors who had never talked before are meeting and socializing and watching out for each other. We are building a new sense of community neighborhood by neighborhood.

I had an experience recently where I got an email from one of my neighbors who had seen a group of young teens hanging around in front of my house. A couple of them walked up to the front door and were knocking. She drove by the house, turned around, and drove by again, watching them. When they saw her drive by again, one of them said, “Let’s go!” and they all left. Neighborhood watch works.

Tonight Fighting Back Partnership hosted a citywide neighborhood watch meeting. Eighty-five people attended and watched in an excellent presentation on gang activity by Detectives Jason Potts and Fabio Rodriguez of the Vallejo Police Department.

They detailed in a PowerPoint presentation the main gangs operating in Vallejo, provided a bit of their history, what they look like (tattoos, gang tags, signs, colors they wear), and a bit on how and why they operate. They showed us what the various graffiti tags meant and what the tags are communicating all over our city. Just through graffiti tagging, the gangs are communicating specific messages with themselves and other gangs.

I paint out graffiti once a month along with twenty or so dedicated volunteers, Fighting Back and the City, and we have painted out many of these gang tags that I saw on the PowerPoint. It’s chilling to realize the messages behind what we paint out every month, and illustrated the importance of cutting off this illegal form of gang communication.

According to Detective Potts, the gangs’ main currency is fear and respect – they do things to gain the respect of their fellow gang members, and they do things to instill fear in a community and in other gangs. The more fear they instill, the more respect they get and the more they profit from their illegal activities.

The key to fighting crime in our neighborhoods, Detective Potts said, is for neighbors to join together and not be fearful. When we see something happen, call the Police Department. If things are happening in your neighborhood on a continual basis, keep calling. Again and again if you have to. They are getting the messages and are addressing them as soon as they can. As Detective Potts said, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. One resident told her story of working with the PD to get squatters and drug dealers out of an abandoned home on her street. Granted, she had to be that squeaky wheel and kept calling continuously until she got their attention. But her persistence and making her presence known to the squatters paid off, and the squatters are gone. So if you see criminal activity in your neighborhood and it is a non-emergency, call and report it at 707/644-STOP (7867). Of course, if it’s an emergency, call 9-1-1.

Finally, Fighting Back announced tonight that they’re working on a new anti-prostitution program using the neighborhood watch program in collaboration with other non-profit organizations and the Solano County Probation Department. The idea will be to have neighborhood watch members wearing identifiable t-shirts forming a preventative presence on the street. The prostitutes don’t want to operate in areas where they’re being watched, so the idea is to make Vallejo an unwelcome place for prostitutes and the Johns that prey on them.

Several members of the community spoke passionately about getting involved in Vallejo and taking a stand against gangs and taking back their neighborhoods. It was inspiring and energizing and reaffirming – Vallejo is a wonderful city, and we the people of Vallejo love our city, and we won’t back down to criminals.

For more information on the Neighborhood Watch, Anti-Prostitution or Vallejo Anti-Graffiti Program, call Fighting Back Partnership at 707/648-5230. We paint out graffiti the third Saturday of every month – come join us, we have a lot of fun!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Violence: A Community's Problem

Along with many people this week, I watched in horror as the brutal attack of Harold Cabral, one of our City of Vallejo public works employees, unfolded on video clips released by the Vallejo Police Department. It was sickening to watch and horrifying to see that people – especially kids – could act with such callous, senseless brutality. It’s just haunting.

My heart goes out to Mr. Cabral and his family, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I’m happy to see employee groups, other organizations and individuals coming together to donate money towards the reward fund to find and prosecute the perpetrators of this terrible crime. I know some of my fellow councilmembers feel the same, and we will be contributing to this fund ourselves. I sincerely hope that every single person who participated in this cruel attack is punished to the fullest extent of the law.

I know that I’m not the only one who is shocked, outraged and disappointed by this violence. People need to express these feelings, and I’m getting a lot of emails and phone calls from people doing just that. I’ve done the same. But I do hope that we can move those feelings into an acknowledgement of our problems, and an active generation of ideas on how to address them.

Unfortunately, I’m also seeing a lot of finger pointing: not enough police officers, too high of employee salaries, poor city management, bad police department management, absent parents/single parents, a deteriorating school system, a poor economy, bankruptcy, poverty, racism, hatred and anger.

We’ve got to stop the finger pointing. We’ve got to come together as a community to stop this kind of violence. We need to give our kids something to do after school and during the summer. We need to help teach them respect for people and life. Our children are missing a very large part of their “citizenship education” as they’re growing up. Whatever the cause – be it poverty, reduced educational opportunities, less parental participation – this is our problem. Vallejo’s problem. Society’s problem.

I’d like to bring together a small group of community and business leaders to create an action plan on how we as a community can start to address the issues of youth violence and personal responsibility. We need to begin a dialogue with our youth – and not just the kids who are already tuned in, but kids who are tuned out, too. We need to create a city youth commission, to give kids a say in what happens in their city government and their community. And we need the Police Chief to give this community some creative solutions on how the Police Department can help us address some of Vallejo’s most pressing crime problems using the resources that we have.

The time for excuses is over. Let’s get to work.

If you have any constructive ideas, please send me an email at sgomes@ci.vallejo.ca.us.

Information on this crime can be provided to the Vallejo Police Department at (800) 488-9383, 24 hours a day. Also, the Solano Crime Stoppers™ tip line (644-STOP) is a anonymous tip line that offers cash rewards for phone tips that solve violent and/or serious crimes committed in the greater Vallejo area.

If you want to contribute to the reward being offered to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime, contact Sergeant Kevin Bartlett at 707/651-7145.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thank You!

On December 1, 2009, I was sworn in for my second term on the Vallejo City Council. The controversy created by the Mayor's comments in the New York Times article (read last post) turned the Council chambers into a tinderbox, with intense passions erupting on all sides of the issue.

The original intent of the first council meeting in December following an election is for the city to say thank-you and good-bye to departing council members, and to swear in and welcome new and returning council members. It is also an opportunity for those of us who won the election to thank the people who worked so hard for us, who voted for us, who supported us. It is an important night.

But this year, the thank-you's definitely had to take a back seat to the controversy. Many of the people who came to see me and my colleagues get sworn in had to watch on a monitor in the lobby downstairs. The Council chambers had been filled up well before the meeting began. One of my campaign managers, who worked so hard and was so key in helping to get me re-elected, wasn't able to see the swearing-in and couldn't hear my speech amidst the shouting and loud voices out in the lobby. I feel like I missed the opportunity to say a much deserved, “Thank you.” So I'd like to share my prepared speech (it is by no means perfect -- it was scratched out at the last minute!) -- to make sure that everyone in Vallejo knows how proud I am to serve you for a second term, and honored by your faith in me. Thank you!

First, I’d like to thank the voters of Vallejo – everyone who voted, not just those of you who voted for me. And to those of you who voted for me, I am grateful and proud to have your confidence. I will do my best to live up to your belief in me. To those of you who didn’t vote for me, I will represent you the same as I will represent those who voted for me or contributed to my campaign. As John F. Kennedy said during his election bid – an elected official is responsible to all, and obligated to none.

I’d like to thank my campaign committee – they are an incredible group of talented, skilled, smart, dedicated, people with open hearts and open minds. I am here because of you. If I don’t thank my family, I’ll get in trouble. My mom couldn’t be here tonight, but my sister Denise, my two beautiful nieces Elyssa and Valerie, and my stepmother, Dinah, came out to support me. When I won the election, my stepmother sent me a very simple email telling me that my father would be so proud. I lost Dad when I was 20, so he never got to see his youngest child grow into an adult. I think he’d be proud, too.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about our great leaders in the United States. The founders of our country, presidents who led in times of great crisis, leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement. I feel them here tonight, looking over our shoulders, seeing if we’re measuring up to the examples that they set for greatness.

The one thing they all had in common was a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, to set aside their personal comforts and sometimes happiness, to effect great change; great change that we all here tonight are benefitting from. They truly defined what public service is supposed to be about.

I could pretend that winning re-election did not make me feel a brief moment of triumph. It’s been a rough four years in this city. I had to take stands on issues that made some powerful people very unhappy. It was uncomfortable at best, downright vicious at worst. That’s politics. I learned to have a hard head but keep a soft heart.

My first term was about shining the light of day on issues that we’ve kept in the shadows for far too long – unsustainable employee benefits, perks and salaries that Vallejo couldn’t afford when they were promised, and we certainly can’t afford them now; smokescreen budgeting that made everything look right and in the black, but hid very deep wells of trouble in the red; a city hall organization that needed more structure and accountability; a lack of effective, strategic planning, business recruitment and economic development.

Our problems are all out there now, visible for everyone to see. While difficult and uncomfortable, this was critical to our recovery. Admitting you have a problem is the first step in any recovery.

Now it’s time to solve these problems. I believe we can do this. But we can’t do it alone. City council members are simply citizens willing to work hard for their fellow citizens. The solutions to our problems lie within us, all of us, the whole city. On the campaign trail I heard many people talk about living here for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and being frustrated at waiting for something to change, something to happen. Well, as I said then and I will say tonight: I challenge you to help us make something happen. Let’s not just sit around and wait for somebody else to do it. Let’s do it. Together.

So I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work. But before I do, I will say this. It’s time to stop the bitterness, the divisiveness, the taking of sides. There should only be one side right now, and that is Vallejo’s side. I am ready to let the negativity of the past go, to focus on a brighter future. Are you? As Carl Sandburg said, we will meet one way or another, with a clenched fist or an open hand. I am offering my open hand. Let’s go.

I’d like to close with a quote Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman elected to both Houses of Congress. She had a creed of public service that I subscribe to wholeheartedly. THIS is also my creed:

"…public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought."

I closed with Margaret Chase Smith because tonight we have made history in Vallejo. For the first time in our city’s history, a majority of our city Council is comprised of women. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a very nice milestone that should be noted.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Responsible to All & Obligated to None

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mayor Davis’ comments in the New York Times recently about gay people and how his religion espouses that they won’t be admitted into heaven. He said he doesn’t hate gay people; he just hates the sin they commit (or, really, what they “do”).

What is it they “do,” exactly? How is it different from what heterosexual people “do?” They laugh, they cry. They hope, they despair. They dream, they wake. They fall in love. They marry (when allowed). They live in long-term, committed relationships. They divorce. They have children. They buy homes. They start businesses. They are our doctors, our lawyers, our lawmakers, our teachers, our plumbers, our electricians, our grocery clerks, our bus drivers, our mechanics, our house cleaners. They are our neighbors, our families, our colleagues, our classmates, our friends.

I’m not going to get into the religious arguments on this issue. As an elected official, that’s not my job. My job, though, is to represent the city and the people of Vallejo. My religious beliefs don’t belong in our government because our government isn’t about me. It’s about us, the People of Vallejo. ALL people of Vallejo.

Forty-nine years ago, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on religion and the separation of church and state. In classic JFK style, he cut a complex and emotionally charged issue down to just its essential elements. It wasn’t about whether he was Catholic or not. It was about who he was, what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to serve. He stated what he believed the People expected from the office of the President, from the People’s representative. And ultimately it came down to, “responsible to all and obligated to none.”

I love that. In seven words he summarized what I believe to be the key responsibility of any elected official.

Kennedy didn’t say that an elected official had to agree with all. Or act at the direction of all. Or espouse the views of all. He said we are responsible to all. That responsibility carries a very heavy weight. As elected representatives, we must be able place our personal interests and beliefs secondary to the best interests of our city and our constituents.

Kennedy said it best, so I won’t try to re-write it. But I ask that you go to this link (www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkhoustonministers.html) and read or even listen to him give this speech. It was nearly 50 years go. Yet his words are as true today as they were then. Just add one more word to update his list of issues: homosexuality.

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood…

I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views -- in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Vallejo is still in the midst of a serious economic crisis that is threatening the very viability of our city. We are holding on by our fingertips. We cannot overcome this crisis unless we’re all working together. But we can’t do that if we can't stand together in solidarity, compassion, respect, and tolerance.

The fact is that words are powerful and words can hurt. I’ve heard the hurt in the voices of my gay and lesbian friends in the past few days, and that makes me hurt. I’ve heard the fear in their voices, wondering if they will face a growing persecution in a town they once thought of as open and inclusive. I’ve heard the anger in their voices at having to hear, as many have heard for much of their lives, that they’re somehow “not right.” That is not right.

But I firmly believe that in every crisis there is an opportunity. And I think we have an opportunity here, a “teachable moment,” where we can open up the lines of communication, share who we are, find our commonalities, look one another in the eye and understand that we are all people, all neighbors, all Vallejoans.

Many people talk about how wonderful it is that Vallejo is so diverse – especially during election season. This shouldn’t be an idea that is dusted off every two or every four years. Valuing diversity means we live it every day. There should be no parameters on that diversity. Vallejo is diverse, and we respect and welcome ALL people.