Next week, Gay Gale is retiring from her work the City of San José. She served admirably for many years in several managerial positions, most recently overseeing the City’s compliance with federal disabilities laws. Recent years’ staffing cuts often required her to take on new or additional tasks and supervisorial responsibilities, all while suffering cuts to her own pay. She also served her community as a neighborhood leader and volunteer, participating in clean-ups, helping to organize the Martha Gardens art festival, and convening community meetings to address needs like crime prevention and mitigating impacts from nearby industrial and housing sites.
Gay publicly spoke up about—and against—the belt-tightening measures that Council has taken in recent years. In public session, she told the City Council about how the 14 percent cuts in her salary would make it difficult for her to continue to make payments on her modest home. She testified against the Council’s decision to impose reductions in retiree medical benefits, and against Measure B, the pension reform measure that recently passed on the June ballot. In every case, Gay spoke with civility and with a heartfelt conviction that comes from someone who reasonably relied upon promises that were made to her when she decided to move to San José to work for the City years ago.
Gay and I disagreed. I consistently voted for each of those cost-reduction measures, as hard as it was to swallow when seeing the impact of those changes on dedicated employees like Gay.
On June 5, 2012, 69 percent of San Jose’s voters approved Measure B, capturing national attention for its proactive approach to addressing a challenge that vexes local and state governments nationwide. The following week, Council approved a second-tier pension and modified retiree healthcare plan, ending a chapter in the most divisive political battle in recent memory. As the battle moves to the legal arena, we need to move beyond this acrimony toward the collaborative approach that has characterized this Valley’s past success.
While I have consistently spoken publicly for more sustainable retirement benefits, I recognize that these changes have come at a steep price. Morale has flagged, some employees have fled to other cities, other workers retired before the changes could become effective, and interest has declined among top-caliber candidates for our police academy. Their frustrations have understandably taken a personal turn, against each of us who supported pension and benefit reform. Two colleagues who recently sought re-election, Rose Herrera and Pierluigi Oliverio, faced a host of malicious and false accusations from union-backed politicians, lobbyists and campaign consultants.
So, where do we go from here? Gay’s example provides some insight, in my view.
Despite her public disagreement with my positions on the very issues that so severely impacted her own financial situation, Gay has not stopped volunteering for her Spartan Keyes community. She also did not stop working with my office on issues of mutual concern. With the advocacy of Gay and several other community leaders through our Council’s budget process, we were able to obtain additional funding for a youth worker in her community, to address rising concerns about gang activity, and to fund the rehabilitation of long-neglected alleyways there. She led a recent meeting to address concerns by neighbors about an expanding industrial site. In every case, Gay continued to be the collaborative, dedicated community leader she had always been.
Undoubtedly, we could point to many other city employees who have risen above the political battles, and have found ways to do more with less. San José police officers worked diligently to reduce San José’s violent crime rate in 2011 (contrary to some media reports), despite steep cuts in police staffing and salaries. Our library and city planning staff each earned national awards for their recent accomplishments. Although our Economic Development staff lacks the 80-employee Redevelopment Agency we had three years ago, they’ve scored big successes in recent months, luring such employers as Polycom, Advantest, LSI, and Netflix to San José.
As revenues to the City return, I hope that we can restore salaries to ensure that employees receive pay commensurate with their private-sector peers. In the meantime, I hope that the examples of many of our hard-working employees serve as beacons for all of us to find a way to rise above our skirmishes. None of those battles, it appears, matter much to the one million San José residents who still depend on their City to respond to a 911 call, or to provide a safe place for their child to read after school.