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SN&R chats with Illa Collin about lessons learned from her long tenure as a county supervisor

Among other things, former county supervisor Illa Collin helped bring light rail to the region.

Among other things, former county supervisor Illa Collin helped bring light rail to the region.

Photo By Larry Dalton

During her 28-year reign on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, Illa Collin was a major force in getting light rail established, the American River Parkway protected and flood protection taken seriously. As she leaves office, she sits down with SN&R to discuss some of the high and low points in her career and how the county is situated to deal with growth in 2007 and beyond.

Over the years, how has the relationship been between the city and county of Sacramento?

I think mostly the relationships have been very good because they’re based on individuals knowing each other. And for so many years, the city and county have partnered on so many things and a lot could be accomplished. It’s much more complicated now with the addition of each new city. What happens is that not only do they now drain county resources, but they become their own institutional entity. And that means they can argue with us. Elk Grove has been a poster child of how to argue with almost everybody. And it just complicates things.

It seems that, post-Proposition 13, there’s a mentality that local government can only pay for itself with more development. Is there a way out?

There obviously needs to be a real effort on the part of the state to address this real conundrum that Proposition 13 brought about. Prior to that, property taxes were the rock-bottom strength of all communities. I only think this will change when voters start educating themselves and demanding real answers from elected officials who have a backbone who will tell them just how bad things are.

Best part of the job?

The people you work with.

Worst aspect?

Labor negotiations! They’re painful because there’s still a lot of game playing that goes on. I’ve seen instances where there’s an offer on the table and the bargaining team knows about it, but the employees don’t know about it—and the labor negotiators let them remain in the dark just long enough to get them down to protest and then they vote to accept the package that was on the table before they protested. Then they tell the employees that it was their protests that did it. The whole last negotiating session was a good example of that. I don’t know if it’s legal or not, but it happens.

What concerns you most as you leave office? What work would you liked to have finished?

Whenever you leave public office there’s so much left to do. But the one that worries me the most is the American River Parkway Plan. We never did get the report before us when I was still on the board. We must stop the urbanization of the parkway—and by that I mean the monster houses you see, many approved on 3-2 votes.

Your social-justice juices got flowing when you placed an ordinance before the board seeking reparations for county employees of Japanese descent who had lost their jobs when they were taken to interment camps during World War II. How important was that to you?

It was my greatest personal satisfaction. In 1983, the state of California announced they would seek out state employees of Japanese descent who had been incarcerated to give them an apology and small reparation—token amount. We thought we could do that locally. It was controversial—but I pushed for us to adopt an ordinance. Some supervisors were furious I’d put it on the agenda. There were opponents. On the day of the hearing, when these Americans of Japanese descent stood up to speak, one after the other, and told how this affected their lives, how they were incarcerated … and, finally, when [former Elk Grove school teacher] Mary Tsukamoto got up to speak, there wasn’t a dry eye left. And, you know, the people who had been there to oppose the ordinance just slinked out. Didn’t even get up to speak. Two of the supervisors told me, listening to their fellow Americans, they finally understood. What it meant to be a young mother being sent off to what was essentially a concentration camp. We got the votes and it passed.

How did you manage to come out of 28 years of public service optimistic rather than cynical?

Elected officials are facing their constituents every day in grocery stores and churches, so you have that connection to your community. And I’m just optimistic by nature; I have a great deal of faith in human beings. I’ve seen a great deal of caring in this community.

What will occupy your time after leaving office?

I’ll do volunteer work with Rebuilding Together [a nonprofit that helps low-income homeowners with necessary repairs] and I want to sit on the board of directors of the Sacramento Youth Symphony because I think they’re tremendous ambassadors for our community. And I’ll stay interested in local politics and I’m sure many other things. I’ll be 74 this month. It’s an exciting time in my life.