Saturday, August 23, 2008

Walnut Creek council to go through big changes

The decisions of Walnut Creek Mayor Gwen Regalia and Councilman Charlie Abrams to step down in November will mean the biggest change on the five-member council in 17 years.

The last time two new members joined the council at the same time was 1991, when Gene Wolfe and Ed Dimmick were elected, following heated growth wars in Walnut Creek a few years earlier.

Now, the council faces tough budget decisions as it embarks on building a $42 million library and parking garage, while trying to cut back in other areas and "restructure" the way it does business in the wake of sagging sales tax revenues and escalating costs.

Regalia, first elected in 1987, said she waited to find out whether incumbent Gary Skrel would seek re-election before deciding to leave the council, because she thought it would be too difficult for three newcomers to tackle budget issues quickly. Skrel is the only incumbent in the race for three open seats, along with challengers Sol Henik, Kish Rajan and Bob Simmons.

"I am surprised that we didn't have more people deciding to run for the council," Regalia said. "When I ran in 1987, there were 11 candidates and only one incumbent was running."

Abrams was the only non-incumbent elected in 1996 in a race between eight candidates for three open seats, he said.

"Since then, there's been not a lot of competition," Abrams said. "A part of this really is the difficulty of Advertisementfinding good candidates who can do this and still maintain their employment and whatever else they're doing. It's the difficulty of really holding a second job."

Skrel, 52, is a civil engineer. Henik is a 35-year-old schoolteacher who ran unsuccessfully two years ago against Councilwoman Sue Rainey and Cindy Silva, who were both elected, and another challenger. Rajan, 38, is a technology executive and chairman of the city's Transportation Commission. Simmons, a 60-year-old planning commissioner, is the only retired candidate running for office.

After the November election, Walnut Creek's council will change from a female-dominated group to one with three men and two women. The council has sometimes split votes along gender lines, with Abrams and Skrel casting minority votes.

"I think it was kind of philosophical points on different issues," said Abrams, a transportation engineer, "but it did end up that way."

The new council will be younger than it has been in many years, with at least one member younger than 40. Regalia is 75 and Abrams is 67. They have both endorsed Skrel, Rajan and Simmons, based on those candidates' city government experience.

Skrel has served two terms and is in line to be mayor if re-elected. Rainey, appointed in 1997 and subsequently elected, will be the senior member of the council after Regalia and Abrams leave. She is 68.

Regalia and Abrams have helped the city maintain its reputation as a regional leader by representing Walnut Creek on the boards of agencies that wield considerable influence in Contra Costa County and beyond. Regalia is past president of the Association of Bay Area Governments and Abrams has voiced strong opinions as a member of TRANSPAC, the Regional Transportation Planning Committee for Central County.

"It'll be a while before the current council members rotate to those levels of influence on those (boards)," Abrams said.

He and Regalia have also served as "institutional memory" to City Hall staff and other council members. "It will be a learning curve for the new council members and it will mean more staff time to help them get up to speed," Regalia said. "They also can call any of us who have been on the council recently."

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