Friday, December 12, 2008

'Trying year' ahead for Moraga council

Tucked amid rolling green hills miles from any freeway, Moraga is a quiet town. Its schools are excellent, and the market for the town's high-end homes is relatively well insulated from financial turmoil.

But recently, town politics and government have been anything but tranquil or stable, with bitter battles on the Town Council, an exodus of town staff, questionable record-keeping and looming budget deficits.

The council's new members, sworn in Wednesday night, will face many empty desks at the town's offices. In recent months the town clerk, human resources manager and her assistant all quit. The former town manager left in May, and the police chief's last day is next week.

Financial records were so disorganized that even after almost 10 months of work, the town's new finance director is still trying to untangle the mess. Some things, like whether certain previous transactions were deposits or withdrawals, will likely never be known.

Budget projections are also troubling. Even before the nationwide recession, Moraga was headed for red ink. Now the situation is worse still.

And the previous Town Council, which has two of its members stepping down this week, has had disagreements so intense and personal that in council meetings they would yell, curse, roll their eyes and giggle at each other's comments.

Incoming and returning council members vow that open rancor will not continue. But it will take more than civility to Advertisementget the town budget and development plans on track, they said.

"It's going to be a trying year for the new council," Interim Town Manager Jay Tashiro said.

Finance Director Joan Streit said the town's budget situation is "not dire," but "not good."

"It's tenuous. It really is like balancing on the head of a pin. One thing goes wrong, you topple over," Streit said.

Many of Moraga's residents are wealthy, but the town government is not. With relatively few businesses, it has a limited sales tax base. Assessed property values are significantly lower than their market values, and the town gets only 5 percent of the property tax collected.

"We've got to do something so that we're not so dependent on those revenue streams that the state can take away," Streit said. "This town in particular doesn't really like the idea of taxing themselves, which is OK, but you have to understand the consequences of that."

Streit's June projections show Moraga breaking even this fiscal year. But starting with the next budget year, the town would face a ballooning deficit, according to the town's budget. In five years, expenditures would exceed revenues by more than $600,000 per year.

The winners of November's council election — incumbent Michael Metcalf and challengers Howard Harpham and Karen Mendonca — each made resolving the town's budget challenges a central part of their campaigns.

And they said the council must move away from the infighting of the past year.

"I think there will be an opportunity with a new group of people to start afresh," Mendonca said.

In the past year, the council has spent hours debating issues like how the mayor should be selected, what the role of the mayor should be and how many speed humps should exist along Camino Pablo. Meetings were often disjointed, with members of the public — and sometimes town staff — interrupting council discussions to dispute facts or make comments.

Mayor Lynda Deschambault and Councilwoman Rochelle Bird, neither of whom ran for re-election, repeatedly sparred, yelled at each other in meetings and accused each other of twisting facts. Deschambault said "some of my fellow council members should be ashamed."

In the discussion of selecting mayors, Metcalf said, "You want to make sure the person sitting in the center chair knows how to manage people in a meeting."

At his next chance to speak, Councilman Ken Chew looked at Metcalf and said, "I'm good enough to get offered a full fellowship at Harvard ... are you questioning my judgment?"

Wednesday night, Dave Trotter was elected mayor and Chew was elected vice mayor.

The acrimony spilled over into the campaign for the three open seats on the council, during which anonymous e-mails attacking candidates and council members appeared regularly in residents' inboxes. Some of those missives had racist or sexist undertones.

Along with fortifying the budget, an early council task will be to choose a new town manager. Final interviews are in January. Tashiro, retired from the town manager post in Corte Madera, is leaving the vacant town hall positions open for the new manager to fill, he said, to build his or her own team.

Former Town Clerk Rhonda Basore left Moraga to take a job as deputy city clerk in Pittsburg, which is closer to her Oakley home.

"I loved working (in Moraga)," she said. "I loved the small-town atmosphere."

She was concerned, however, about the prospect of staff cuts and forecasts of red ink.

"My concern is where is Moraga going to be a year from now," she said.

  • Stephenville: Forestry is finished, but the town is just getting started
  • Moraga mayor will not seek re-election
  • Moraga council candidates face off in televised debate
  • Harpham takes third Moraga council seat