Whatever happened to the happy, shiny suburb known as Walnut Creek?
It has been overcome by a gloves-off, hard-hitting, contact-sport election with several different forces fighting for control of the city's destiny. Yes, I'm talking about the City Council race. Three candidates, Kristina Lawson, Cindy Silva, and Justin Wedel, are fighting for two seats, and the battle grounds have been sharply drawn.
When I started my blog, Crazy in Suburbia in the fall of 2008, I wanted to scratch beneath the shiny, happy surface of this California suburb. As AKA Soccer Mom, I thought my muckracking would focus on despairing alcoholic moms, teen ennui, and hookers working out of downtown condos.
But as editor of Walnut Creek Patch, I wound up covering City Hall and the 2010 Walnut Creek City Council race. I have found that the muckraking now extends to educated professional adults going at it over such issues such as per capita spending on police salaries. And, pointing fingers of blame at one another over who started all this craziness in the first place.
Here are some of the low lights from the election:
Citizens are upset that the campaigning has become too personal and bemoan the negativity and nastiness of the rhetoric coming from different camps--a lot of it said to be posted in anonymous rants on the message boards of Walnut Creek Patch and the Contra Costa Times.
Business owners say they have found themselves caught in the middle of angry candidates and supporters who demand that they hang their campaign signs, not their opponents', in their store windows.
The police, who are trying to oust Silva from office, last week held a highly visible demonstration outside the city's new crown jewel of a library, of which Silva was a strong supporter.
Library supporters, in turn, vented on Facebook about aggressive police tactics and misleading statements.
A former mayor and a police sergeant engaged into a yelling match outside the chambers of City Council during a recent meeting.
Two council members supposedly withdrew their support of one candidate at the request of another candidate
What's it all about, Walnut Creek?
The politics of scarcity? That's what Walnut Creek Patch writer David Mills asserted in his Oct. 13 story.
"In Walnut Creek, the phenomenon has elevated this fall's election into the most contentious City Council campaign since the growth vs. anti-growth battles a quarter-century ago," Mills wrote. "Budget cuts and hiring freezes have sent the city's police officers into the streets to campaign against incumbent Cindy Silva."
In its endorsement of Cindy Silva, the Contra Costa Times asserted that the race has essentially been a battle over police benefits and pension reform.
Silva and the current council approved a contract that would freeze salaries and require police managers--sergeants, lieutenants and captains-- to begin contributing into the CalPERS retirement system to the tune of 7 percent.
But the Times showed signs itself of getting caught up in the madness with an uncharacteristic rant that mostly argued about the need to control spending on public employee pensions. Yes, it is an important issue--one the Times cares about, as do all three council candidates. But the editorial also used disparaging language to blast Walnut Creek police officers for being greedy. Reading between the lines, the Times also was telling the cops to be quiet and to stop rocking the boat. This language wasn't necessary for the Times to finally make its point that it thought Silva had been a thoughtful, hardworking city council member who deserved to be re-elected.
I happen to believe that this race is about those issues and more: the city's economic future, its priorities, neighborhood concerns about new developments, official accountability, and even the general question of what Walnut Creek citizens want their city to be.
More urban? More small town? An arts and culture mecca? A shopper's paradise? A great place to raise a family? A community known for its beautiful parks, pools, and open space?
Or a great place for guys to party on Friday and Saturday nights, get really drunk, and get into fights? Yes, a series of bar fights in early October, involving 50 or more combatants at three different bars, emerged as an issue in the campaign with police saying it shows that the city needs to spend more money on public safety.
Then police asserted that council member Gary Skrel, a Silva supporter, had a "secret" meeting with bar owners, at which owners vowed they wouldn't call police if fights break out until the election is over. Both Skrel and Tony Dudum, owner of the 1515 Restaurant and Lounge, one of the sites of the reported fights, denied hearing owners made any such promise.
The outrage in some circles over Skrel's meeting points to questions some residents have about the accountability of city council members.
Neighborhood representatives have told me that council members have been dismissive of their concerns and treated them in a condescending manner. One neighborhood representative, who asked not to be named, said he has become cynical about the Chamber of Commerce "hand-picking" candidates and perpetuating a one-party system in town. He said he was in some ways grateful to police for shaking things up and challenging the status quo.
This representative is pointing to the widespread perception that there is an In Crowd in Walnut Creek political life. Not surprisingly, members of Walnut Creek's In Crowd will deny it exists.
Perhaps this race, like all local, state and national races, is also reflective of the disaffection citizens have for their elected officials.
In his story, Mills said that Wedel has homed in on the city's budget problems, saying the City Council is "broken." He says city leaders have been on "a spending spree" the past decade. And he says the powers that be--the In Crowd?--want to keep Silva in office and elect Lawson, their "hand-picked candidate," to maintain the status quo.
Lawson, an attorney, has tried to "present a calm counter-argument to those claims," Mills reported. She stresses her experience in civic activities, her knowledge of land-use policy and her ability to work with others.
Silva's main campaign message actually hasn't been about police pensions but about integrity, Mills reported. Silva says she made at least a half-dozen promises when she campaigned four years ago and she has kept them all.
"When I decided to run again, I had to ask myself what did I say I'd do and did I do it," Silva said. "I went through the list. I concluded I made promises and I kept those promises."
I wish good luck to all three candidates on Tuesday. They've all worked hard and endured a lot of the craziness--or perhaps helped to perpetuate it? I expect Walnut Creek voters will make the right decision. For the record, I live just outside the city limits, so I can't vote in this race.
I look forward to when this race is over. But with all the anger and craziness this election as generated, I worry about how much trust has been lost, how many bridges have been burned. Which of the three candidates will do the best job addressing the hard feelings that must now exist at City Hall and among citizens? The incoming city manager, Ken Nordhoff, also will have a lot of repair work to do.