April 13, 2020 - From the April, 2020 issue

Mayor Christopher Cabaldon Examples Empowered Local Leadership

With all levels of government so singularly focused on the public health and now beginning to consider how best to address the economic crises, the value and impact of wise and experienced crisis decision-making deserves public attention. For this reason, TPR spoke with nationally respected Mayor Christopher Cabaldon (W. Sacramento) on the real-time challenges he, and city mayors across the county, are making in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cabaldon importantly shares how the crisis is both frustrating and, more positively, manifesting constructive initiative not just in public health, but that might spark innovations in ongoing efforts on housing, equity, and climate.


“Like so many other issues, the pandemic is revealing structural problems and challenges in access to food—particularly to healthy food—for lots of communities we already knew that, but it’s a matter of life and death at the moment.”—Christopher Cabaldon

Mayor Cabaldon, having been Mayor of W. Sacramento for 20 years. you've navigated many complex and daunting governance issues,  including positively rebranding your City; but, it’s doubtful you have experienced anything like this COVID-19 pandemic. Share how you and your city, in collaboration with other jurisdictions, are grappling with the immediate triage challenges of this health crisis.

Within the first three weeks I got sworn into City Council, we were having emergency meetings and considering an evacuation order because of the 1996 flood threats here in the Sacramento region. So, I started in emergency planning, but none of that has been very useful preparation for this crisis because it's slow moving

A lot of the resources that we might normally count on aren't there. It's been a particular challenge in that sense, to marshal in real time what's been going on, especially with the initial failure of the federal government to be involved at all, and a lot of questions about who does what.

When you realize you have a crisis, it takes a while for folks—including governments—to understand what their role is. People are losing their jobs and in fear of getting sick when systems are potentially falling apart. I do land use and zoning and police and fire protection, but it's my people that are that are endangered, threatened, and worried.

It was cities—in cooperation with counties—working out the health orders, shelter orders, and gathering limitations on the front end, but flying completely blind. It's especially hard for cities because, for all the right reasons, cities are where place comes together. The first response from a lot of mayors is whether they have to cancel little league opening day or tell that small, 50-year-old local restaurant they have to close down for six months.

The great thing about cities is that we're able to balance the small things, and look at the whole picture, and how things fit together.

In this crisis, we’ve had to put that aside and act with a single purpose. Whether it’s a state or federal agency, all we care about right now is protecting public health and making sure people don't die.

That was a hard shift for a lot of mayors to make, and—listening to some of the early experiences in Seattle and elsewhere—it really helped galvanize, at least for me, a complete shift in the way we think about problem-solving in order to protect the fundamentals of public health and safety.

But—other than Long Beach, Oakland, and a handful of other cities—most of us don't have health departments or the expertise on how to deal with a pandemic in any particular way.

Elaborate on the governance challenges that elected Mayors, like yourself, have when circumstances require the exercise of command and control leadership in response to an unseen health crisis that threatens life and economic havoc.

The information about this was slowly rolling out and experienced elsewhere. I think we had a school district in our region, about a month ago, declare that they were going to close down classes for one week, and it caused a bit of outrage from everyone in the whole region, including other mayors, city council members, and county supervisors who summoned the school district to account for why they were taking this brash action. Sure, there were process issues of not coordinating with Pubic Health. But within a few working days, everyone had such orders in place. It was an example of how quickly knowledge, and particularly public opinion, change.

It's been interesting to watch this because national politics and opinion polls don't really change that much—people think what they think about abortion rights, climate change. But for mayors at the city level, people come to city council one week and demand we build more affordable housing, and then next week ask why we’re building that housing project on their corner.

We're used to that to some extent, but even for us in city government, this was radical. At the beginning, it was “this is all an overreaction;” “it's just the flu;” “why are you taking these draconian measures?” That's where we were at the beginning, and within a matter of days, public mood shifted to, “why are you still allowing people outside at all?” It’s a lesson in being careful about how much you're letting opinion on social media drive your actions in government; this was a terrific example how people were violently disagreeing with themselves from 48 hours earlier.

This is where Governor Newsom, Mayor Garcetti, and others got ahead of a lot of our east coast friends in recognizing that you had to listen to the science and take action. Hopefully you would be wrong and people would say you overreacted, but you want people to be alive to complain about it later.

I think California, and its major cities and regions, did a great job of figuring that out. My county, Yolo—one of the one of the ag(riculture) counties in the Sacramento region—followed the Bay Area almost immediately. But in Sacramento County, and some of the other suburban development counties, didn't want to move so quickly.

There was a big debate and ultimately, we all came along. It helped provide the basis for the governor to take more aggressive action. Some of the complaints were about why he didn't do it sooner. I get the health arguments for that, but I'm not sure that the way that it worked out wasn't the right thing to do. At the very beginning of this crisis—when nobody thought it was a crisis, and nobody had tested Gavin Newsom, and nobody trusted government— If the governor had just issued that order by fiat, the reaction in Kern County, Fresno County, Amador County, and near me would have been a revolution.

Having local governments, and counties with the help of cities in particular, experiment and deploy as much control over this as they could— given their own culture and politics—proved to be an effective way to learning about how and when to take the kind of aggressive control measures that ultimately the state imposed.

Many have opined that public trust in government has been steadily declining for decades - at the national level, the state level, and even at the local level. Has this public health crisis begun, do you suppose, to cause the public to value government a bit more?

There are definitely signs that's happening in this case. We don't yet know how much you can generalize beyond this particular situation, but residents of all political persuasions in my city are at the point where they want government to take action, and they see the value of decisive government action. There are very few folks asking to have three readings before we vote on an ordinance.

Not only does government matter, but also government's capacity to act and, its ability to be nimble, experiment, and take these sorts of actions, makes a difference. I think that's encouraging because this crisis is very much in our face, but all the slow-moving crises that we were dealing with before around sustainability and inequality were just as profound, but they weren't as salient. The government needs to have the same capacity, tools, confidence, and support to be able to take those on, and I do see that emerging. But it's not a blank check, where the government takes us wherever it wants to go.

In government, we've got to figure out how to get out of this. In the beginning, we announced that when he hit the performance metric, we're going to remove these restrictions, and most crisis experts would say that may not have been such a good idea. Having said that, we're likely to get to a point where mistrust in government reemerges as folks have different points of view about how quickly, and how much, we start to loosen the reins on the controls that have been effectively controlling the virus.

Like many other cities—in the country, in the state, and in your region—West Sacramento has enacted eviction moratoriums and begun offering rental assistance and small business assistance. Elaborate on the execution of these emergency programs.

We were one of the first cities to adopt the eviction ordinance that the governor had authorized before he made it statewide. We did it pretty much as soon as he gave us that authority. We've also been very aggressive in trying to get motel rooms, in order to provide housing for the homeless individuals in our city who are the most at risk.

The governor was in my city just a few days ago to give an update on the Project Room Key program—initiated with federal support—and he announced that 7000 motel and hotel rooms had been secured. Given our share of the state's population, we account for about 10 times our share of the total amount of rooms that have already been secured in order to grapple with this moving forward; and that number is pretty close to the total number of unsheltered homeless folks in our city, according to the annual point-in-time count.

Frankly, we have a legacy of a lot of budget-rate motels from when the interstate highway was built through the city and marooned all the motels that used to be here. They found their way to other markets over time, prostitution and other things, and it's been a drag on economic development and safety for a long time. But right now, that supply of inexpensive motel rooms has been really helpful in terms of being able to provide shelter and wraparound services for folks to get them off the street and to make sure that they're safer and not at risk of infecting others. That's been a key part of the work that we've been doing.

The other is in the food system, cities are collaborating with our school districts who have a huge amount of resources in this space for the federal school breakfast and lunch programs, but there's also weekends, dinner, and people who don't have anybody in school.

We've been building connections and brokering with our supermarkets, but we also have one of the most extensive networks of urban farms in California, as well. We're focusing on bringing those products directly to through our food banks and to households. 

Mayor Cabaldon, you serve on the executive committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Share, how you and other mayors are addressing one issue—food security—exacerbated by COVID-19.

Like so many other issues, the pandemic is revealing structural problems and challenges in access to food—particularly to healthy food—for lots of communities that we already knew, but it's a matter of life and death at the moment. But it is also revealing the capacity of systems that didn't connect before. It isn't just that we don't have enough food, we do. The Sacramento Valley is one of the world's most productive agricultural centers, so it's criminal for folks to be going hungry. It’s not because we don't have food, it's about the systems connecting food to people.

One of the things that's emerged—both in my city and talking with other mayors across the country—is a much more deliberate connection between these various components of the food system. The school district is working with us and the food bank, who’s working with restaurants and urban farmers. We're also looking at all those regulations—that many of us have been complaining about for a long time—around food waste and the reuse of foods from events that have been very challenging. We're finding ways through them.

It's an example of where crises like this cause you to take a look at some of the barriers, rules, regulations that have prevented progress on a lot of issues in the past. Is that one rule so important that we're going to let people go hungry or die. 

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Mayor, building affordable and supportive housing are top state priorities. Given obvious public fears arising from the respiratory virus’ contagion, how will cities going forward incorporate public health into their city plans, zoning, and approval processes for new and denser development?

In our region, as an example, it's not clear from the data that the densest parts of the region are experiencing any higher levels of cases. They're not experiencing higher levels of deaths at this point, and that’s one data point. It’s important not to confuse what's happening in New York City as a density issue, there's much more going on in terms of preparations, planning, and other factors that are involved there. I want to be careful not to jump to conclusions around density having contributed in some way to this.

But even if there is a factor, we will have to make some assessments—in conjunction with the health experts—about those tradeoffs, like everything else; we already have to make that decision. Living in some dense areas with more traffic, you're exposed to more particulate matter than if you live in the mountains, but you're also exposed to much bigger fire risk and society as a whole is exposed to a lot more pollution from your community if you live in the mountains.

The business of government is often about the balancing of risks and accounting for them. We will learn a lot from this pandemic about the movement and the gathering of people and our capacity to turn that up or down when we need to, but I'd be surprised if the lesson from all of this is that we should return to a sprawl land-use pattern.

“Healthy-by-design” planning has long been a goal of socially conscious architects, public health officials and community housing developers. Might, in the future, “public health' be seriously considered when reviewing infill developments, assessing the value of access to parks and open space, or repurposing city streets and curbs? 

I hope so. The public health community in particular has been very interested in doing this for a long time. They've provided a lot of guidance, support, reports, and it's taken off in some place, but not radically.  My view of this is that we haven't had good public health metrics to tie to land use and transportation.

When you and I first started in this work, land use and transportation were completely different areas—as different as public health and land use are today—and that was bridged by activism, examples on the ground, and policy. But, it was also bridged because we came up with things like vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) as a master currency that could translate into land use, transportation, climate change, and air quality decisions. It became a way to look at how to allocate and mix funds together, and we don't have that common currency with health yet. We have a lot of health, land use, and transportation metrics, but they're rarely the same, so I hope that may emerge from this.

I'm also a university professor, and now I'm seeing a lot of students who now have an interest in the relationship between health, land use, transportation, and sustainability that they didn't have two months ago, so the more talent that we can bring to bear on those issues is encouraging. We don't want the lesson to simply be, let’s have less density, because there are so many health benefits—at the individual and social level—to being together. We'll want to figure out how to design in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the risks.

With the coronavirus outbreak shutting businesses in California and in every state, evidence of the economic devastation caused was delivered this week as a government report showed that 6.6 million more workers had lost their jobs. Noting that this TPR interview takes place as the world grapples real time with its impacts, what initiatives are West Sacramento and your regional governments considering to help revive your economy when conditions allow?

It has hit in the Sacramento region, hard, but not as hard as most other places. That's because of what has always been an albatross around our neck, which is that we're a state government economy. With government having such a large share of employment in our region, very few of the government workers have been directly affected in terms of layoffs or terminations, or even hours cutbacks. So the perspective here is a little bit different than it is in other places. 

With that said, there are tens of thousands of people who don't work for government and are out of work—not that government is immune to this, particularly local government—but we are working with our existing business community around how to provide the relief they need and get connected to the resources, so that they can rebound.

But also, there are also a lot of opportunities for new enterprises to emerge from the new ways of life that people are discovering and that they want to test out or enjoy. New entrepreneurialism and small business startups are definitely in the mix. But, there will also be workforce changes. 

I chair the Jobs Education and Workforce Committee for the US Conference of Mayors.  We've been trying to decide what the future of work will look like. Well, the future of work is now. Like, today, it's begun. It wasn't automation that got us, it was the COVID-19 response, and we were mostly caught flat-footed. 

Will there be a sort of wholesale retraining, not just of individuals, but of what our education system will look like? A consideration of things like universal basic income, like what Mayor Tubbs is experimenting with in Stockton? And other things that might result in reduced total amounts of work that each of us do? The ideas that seemed 10 or 15 years from now are now the sorts of things that we've got to be thinking about. Right now. Because we're going to come out of this crisis with so many people unemployed. 

We're not going to have easy answers unless we start to redesign the nature of our economy. And so, we're trying to start on that, now. 

One sector that is particularly challenged is the low and mid-level nonprofit sector. For the smallest ones, they survive based on one annual banquet in March or April. It’s their one thing, and it got cancelled this year. Now they’re going into the next fiscal year and their main revenue source has disappeared. A lot of the civic institutions that are the fabric of our communities—the fabric of place—are at risk of disappearing, essentially overnight.

 In addition, there are others who are also dependent on support from foundations or from government agencies whose resources are going to be focused much, much, more on rescuing people from being out on the streets or going hungry, or other more immediate and urgent needs of a population. 

For those whose mission is learning, capacity building, community building, long-term planning, issue integrating, or the stuff that matters for our rebounding—for, not just picking ourselves up, but really thriving again. I really worry that sector is not going to be there when we need it most to lead and to ideate, to push and to challenge.

City budgets in California are tied directly, as you well know, to the heath of their local economies. Address the immediate hole in West Sacramento’s budget and your preliminary forecast for what is expected …. over the course of this year?

We're doing that forecasting pretty extensively right now. We’re hearing from other places, like from the mayor of Santa Barbara who was laying off hundreds of people or the Mayor of Cincinnati was laying off a couple thousand. What we're seeing in other cities is pretty stark. 

I already know our principal or some of our principal sales tax generators are closed. So it's very likely that we're going to see a massive hit to our sales tax revenue as well. So, we have the direct effects to grapple with, at a time when our needs have gone up. Then we're going to have the secondary effects.

The state government's also going to be hit by this even though the state has a healthy reserve and surplus The state's reliance on capital gains taxes, everything else is going to mean that it's going to also face some significant challenges. And every time the state's been challenged in California, that pain has trickled down to local governments, whether it was the elimination of redevelopment or any other of many examples. 

We’re going to have to have to work. We're trying to ready ourselves also to deal with the secondary fiscal impacts of uncertainty, of not being able to count on the state and the federal government to do as much as they used to or as they forecasted would on programs, services, revenue sharing and capital projects. Particularly at the state level, the real concern is that there might be an erosion of our core fiscal capacity. 

We don't know yet. But it's definitely a matter of major concern as well as a management and leadership problem for the city. 

At the outset of the crisis, when we're just issuing the shelter orders—when there had been no federal action whatsoever, and the state was still figuring out how to be helpful— we were the only folks on the ground. Even though it's the county’s responsibility to deal with issues around health and welfare, not me as mayor, when you've got people who can't eat or don't have shelter and are at risk of being exposed to a virus, you just mobilize. You just do what you can do, but that meant we were taking on roles, functions, and services that other agencies are charged with doing. 

Now we're in the position of trying to figure out how we gracefully exit and return those responsibilities. There was a real possibility that the expenditure side would drag us down as well as the revenue side. Of course, I haven't even mentioned the CalPERS effects, which obviously all local governments in California are looking at with just a great deal of fear and trepidation. Because that challenge, combined with the others, could be disabling

Lastly, Mayor, you are well-recognized nationally for out-of-the-box thinking and being innovative. Might there be – then – a silver lining in this crisis that offers opportunities for cities to do better in meeting the short and long-term interests and needs of your constituents?

This crisis is telling us we have much more capacity and capability than we thought. If you'd said two months ago, that governments can shut everything down, and people won't be able to play basketball in the park, any of us would have said, that's ridiculous. There's no way that that would be possible, even if people accepted that the government couldn't possibly execute on such a thing.

We realized we are more capable, we have more capacity, and we can solve real problems when they feel like they're an emergency. We can also be much more innovative. We can throw out a lot of the barriers— the friction and the status-quo-bias—that have always weighed us down and create a lot of opportunities for innovation for taking on the big challenges that we thought we couldn't do before. 

Part of that is confidence in government. We've been debating about transitional land use and how’d there's no way we can get people out of their cars and not drive so much. Well, we now have a natural experiment of what happens when we drive hardly at all. I think this crisis reveals a lot of flaws and will allow those with big interesting ideas and innovations to be able to step forward. That's got to be a good thing, because even before the crisis, it's that sort of California commitment to progress to inclusion that is going to emerge. 

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