On the record

SN&R talks to Heather Fargo about her record and her mayoral campaign

SN&R sat down with Heather Fargo last week to talk about her record as mayor, about the city budget and about one of the stranger mayoral campaigns she’s been a part of. This is the long version of that interview, which will appear in a shorter form in our paper on May 8.

What is it you want to get done in the next four years if you’re re-elected?

I want to get downtown to the point where we stop talking about trying to fix it. Where K Street has enough retail and we have enough people living downtown that it becomes another neighborhood, another option as a place to live.

I really want to get us more focused on turning around the youth violence and the gang problems in Sacramento. We have our new office of youth development that we just got going. We’re working on youth jobs this summer. I think we really have an opportunity and frankly a responsibility to do better by our youth, to give them more options. That’s going well.

Obviously, I want to get better flood protection. It’s never going to be done. The first mayor of Sacramento worked on the levees. And I have the feeling the last mayor of Sacramento will as well.

The last mayor of Sacramento? That sounds ominous.

(Laughs.) You’re right, I shouldn’t say the last mayor. It does seem to me that levee work is like dental work. You have to do it on a regular basis whether you want to or not. It’s never going to be done. But it’s pretty clear that the expertise that I’ve developed, the focus that I’ve had on flood protection is really helpful right now for the city. I feel an obligation to continue to utilize those skills.

Then there’s the whole issue of jobs and economic development, and tying that to the issue of sustainability and the green economy—really getting people in Sacramento to look more at what we need to do in terms of climate change and energy production and all the things we need to do to be a responsible stewards of the Earth.

When are we going to be done fixing K Street?

I don’t think you’re ever done with downtown. But it’s real clear to me that if we got retail done on the 700 block, and once those two new projects are done on 10th and K—they’re also looking at a third project on 10th and K—then it’ll pretty much be rolling. We’re getting pretty close. Obviously the intermodal facility and the rail yards are going to have a big effect on what’s happening in the central city.

Many people, SN&R included, have been skeptical about the city’s use of eminent domain on K Street. First, where is that right now in the process?

It’s in two places. Staff is still negotiating with Moe Mohanna. I’ve met with him four or five times. And we went ahead and filed our legal stuff.

Ultimately what eminent domain does is allow us to establish a price. I would still like Moe to follow through on what he signed, the agreement that said he would swap the property. We could all move on. But he has chosen not to do that.

Do you have any regrets about the way that’s turned out?

No. Moe and I can still talk. I hope he’s feeling respected, I think he is being respected in the process. But we’ve been working on this for a couple of years. Now, I wish we had started the eminent domain process sooner, because then we would probably be having stores open right about now. We tried and tried and tried to work this out without having to go to court. But it’s too important to let it stall.

A while back, you said we were too dependent on development. What’s the connection between the housing market and our city budget?

What I meant was that our economy is too based on development. Not that our budget is based on development. Most of what we get from development pays for development. It’s not like we’re taking money generated by new housing and spending it in older neighborhoods. But the economy is based on construction and on development, so here we are. Part of the reason we have such a high unemployment rate is because people stopped building houses.

The good news is that we are a diverse community. The commercial part of construction hasn’t slowed down at all, which is interesting. The residential has slowed down but not the commercial.

I do think there’s a certain amount of your job base that could be in construction, whether its reconstruction or new construction. But when you’re building a new community and you’re adding 50,000 people in a five- or six-year period, that’s not sustainable. We can’t build that many houses forever.

Why? Because we don’t have the space, or … ?

We don’t have the space. We’re not going to have the demand for that. Unfortunately, we didn’t do any phasing in North Natomas. It just all happened very quickly. Our plans, initially, we were looking at a 20- to 30-year build out. We weren’t looking at a five- to 10-year build-out. Which is what we ended up with.


There weren’t the votes on the council to do phasing. The city manager at the time didn’t want to do phasing. Nobody really perceived that it would happen that quickly. It just kept rolling; once you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to put the brakes on.

There is a connection between the deficit and the housing market. And somewhere, between development and cops on the street?

Because of the mortgage crisis, because our property values have been reduced and because sales aren’t happening, our property tax has basically flatlined. We had been growing about 14 to 15 percent for the last four years. And now everything has just flatlined. And now, even though our expenses are going up, or revenue isn’t. In a normal cycle, we’d at least be having some increase in property value. But there was this collapse, which is a statewide issue and a national issue. The reason it feels like a perfect storm here is that we had built so many houses in a short amount of time, and so many people had taken advantage of the sub-prime loans and these other angles—that we had a lot of new homeowners in a short amount of time and a lot of people who had put themselves at risk.

How does the city protect itself from these cycles?

There will be some correcting that takes place. We have a lot of infill left to do, a lot of projects yet to do. But trying to beat the market is very hard for government to do.

We knew last fall that we were going to have trouble. That’s when we put a hiring slushy in place.

A slushy?

I call it a slushy. It wasn’t a freeze. Now, we’ve decided to eliminate 500 positions, 250 of those were already vacant.

Why do we have to keep building in Natomas?

What people need to remember is that there are 400,000 people in Sacramento who are behind levees. It isn’t just a Natomas problem. Natomas hasn’t flooded since the levees were built in 1911. We have about 100,000 people living in the Natomas Basin. Maybe 90,000, quite a few. FEMA has made it pretty clear that it’s not just the levees in Natomas they’re concerned about. Natomas has gotten a little bit of a bad rap. One advantage is Natomas, even though the flood plain is deep, it only fills up if you don’t fix the levee. It’s an issue, but it’s not any worse in Natomas than it is other places.

Just as strong are the issues of habitat and ag preservation. I think those are important issues, too. So, what I’m looking at is trying to finish what we started in Natomas. If we were to shut down development now, you’ve got a lot of areas of Natomas now where you’ve got people living next to big empty fields—fields that are too small and too close to residential to do farming anymore. So are we just going to leave those empty, or are we going to finish the community? I’m talking about places that are inside the city limits.

But there are places you’d like the city to annex, like Greenbriar.

The Panhandle and Greenbriar. The problem with Greenbriar is that right now, you’ve got three votes on the County Board of Supervisors that will develop it. Do we want the county to develop it? Or do we want to maintain control of it? So what we did was to approve annexation, not to approve the development. That was misreported in the Bee. What I voted for was annexation. They have to come back to city council to get a project approved. But the plan they have, I think, is not as good as it needs to be. I think it needs to be denser near [future] light rail [lines], and they need to have a much wider swath of stuff near Fisherman’s Lake that they leave alone. But they have to come back for that.

What are we going to do to save Regional Transit?

Part of what we have to do is bolster ridership on Regional Transit by doing better land-use planning near the stops. But there’s got to be an ongoing source of revenue. It may be now that gas is above $4 in some places that people will start rethinking how close they live to where they work and where they do other things. If everybody would just drive with one other person, we’d cut the number of cars on the road in half. Some of the greatest congestion comes at peak times when everybody is driving their kids to school. You could walk with your kids to school.

But I don’t think that without an additional source of ongoing revenue that you can fund a complete transit system. Right now, we’ve got a pretty skeletal public-transit system. People don’t feel like they can rely on it all the time. It’s basically a commuter-based system.

In north Natomas, we have something called a TMA, a Transportation Management Agency. It’s the only one in the nation that takes care of residents as well as employers. Most of the TMAs in Sacramento do things like organizing carpools and assisting people with transit and bike riding and things like that.

But in north Natomas, we set up a TMA that has the residents contributing as well as the employers. There’s a neighborhood shuttle which residents are paying for with an annual assessment. We could look at doing that in other communities. You can get people around in a lot of those trips that aren’t just home to work, but getting to school, getting to the grocery store.

So, do you support a transit tax?

I think we might have to look at a half-cent sales tax. It would be great if it could be larger than just the county, but could include Yolo and Placer counties. Those are the three counties that make up the bulk of the people circulating through our system.

What about just a city assessment, the way we fund libraries? You know, there’s a county-financing mechanism and a city-funding mechanism?

You know, it could be an option. Especially if you’re talking about neighborhood shuttles. I think part of the problem is that people in the city might not want to pay for people in Roseville to drive to the city or to get on a bus that they’re not helping to pay for. You get into those fairness issues. But it’s worth looking into.

You know we’re also looking at the street car system—which costs about half as much to build as light rail. Maybe we should be looking at a street car going from the Amtrak station to Richards Boulevard and on to Natomas. If we could get it done and have it cost half as much, maybe that’s a better system. I don’t know, most people still want light rail. But given the cost of it, it’s probably worth looking at some other systems.

When Chief Najera was leaving, he talked about a public-safety tax.

We’ve been looking at both, a sales tax and a property assessment. We’re just beginning to have that conversation with the community. Just as we were looking at the transit tax, we need to engage the community and see: Are they willing to pay? What is it they want for that?

The county is looking at an assessment that would focus on youth programs, gang-prevention programs, intervention, those kinds of things. I’ve met with some people there to talk about that, it’s very intriguing. I know a lot of people think their taxes are already going to public safety, and they think that’s what they should be getting as the minimum. The problem is, for the money we have, were already spending more than half of our general fund on police and fire services. But we don’t have the level of service most people would like us to have.

Most people would like for someone to come if their home is broken into or their car is stolen. I feel the same way. The same with traffic; we have all these issue with people running red lights and doing doughnuts and driving crazy, and why aren’t they ever pulled over? There’s a lot of that kind of frustration.

So it may be that people are at the point that people want to pay more for services—if it actually increases the level of service. I don’t think people want to pay more if they end up with what they already have. I’m hoping that with a new administration in Washington, we can get back to having some of the funds for domestic assistance like the COPS grants that we used to get. The Bush administration has pretty much dried up all the assistance to local government. The federal system is pretty strapped right now.

Voters want more cops on the street. Is that what you’re talking about? I’m not sure “programs” always translates to more cops on the street.

Absolutely. But gang-prevention programs and youth-intervention programs do reduce crime. I think what people want is to feel safer. They don’t want to wait on hold when they call the non-emergency number. You know, that’s …we’ve invested quite a bit. We have a new 911 center. We’ve put in a lot of new dispatchers over the last couple of years. We’ve added 75 new police officers in the last two years in Sacramento. That’s been pretty significant. But there are certain things we don’t have the officers to respond to.

What’s you’re reaction to Mr. Johnson’s public-safety plan?

It’s basically stuff we are already doing. He says we should have a gang-prevention unit. Well, we have one. I glad he agrees we need one, because we have one. I know he thinks we should have more police officers, so do I. But I don’t think he’s willing to support a public-safety assessment, and I am. Because I don’t know where else we get the money. He hasn’t talked about any way to actually generate the revenue.

One of my long term goals is this: I think the state of California should be giving us some in lieu property tax. The state of California is based in Sacramento. I’m glad, I like being the state capital. But they don’t pay property tax. And they don’t pay utility-user tax, and they still demand the same level of service as any private business. They need to write us a check.

For example, every time there’s a big demonstration in Sacramento, the city police are out there working the streets. A president comes to town. A candidate comes to town, and all of the sudden you’ve got all of these requirements, you have to clear streets and provide police officers. We don’t get reimbursed for that. We provide all of these things to make sure the Capitol is taken care of.

Why haven’t you asked for this before now?

Well, I’ve had conservations about it, with the governor and with the Legislature. But the reality in California is that the Bay Area and L.A. are where the votes are. Their perspective isn’t the same as mine. I’ve talked to Darrell Steinberg in the past about this. Now that he’s moving into his new position, I want to sit down and present something which is reasonable. With him moving into that new position, this is a real opportunity for us.

Are you familiar with the Fools Foundation?

No … ?

It was an arts and music space that couldn’t keep going because of city codes and permit requirements. It seems to happen a lot to small venues in town.

Well, I’d be happy to look into that. The arts scene and the music scene is pretty vibrant and a pretty important part of what’s going on here. So, if there’s something that’s making it harder for people to be in business or open facilities, I’d be more than happy to look into that.

For example, Fox and Goose, they have live music. They were told at one point they would have to hire two off-duty police officers every time they had live music. They said “we won’t be able to have live music any more if we have to pay that amount of money.” They never had a problem, they had a small crowd. So, I had staff review it and they agreed it was an onerous requirement and they backed off. Now, I shouldn’t have to do that. The rules should be such that the mayor doesn’t have to intervene on a case-by-case basis. So something’s wrong with our system if that’s what’s going on. Some of these folks, they wouldn’t know me or wouldn’t think they could call me.

Yeah, Fox and Goose is well-known to you. It’s a political hangout.

I’ve been going there for 30 years. It’s one of those places where I know what they are doing. Some places I wouldn’t know.

We just had a meeting last week to talk about Second Saturday to try and figure out how we can keep it going and keep it safe. Initially staff had put together this long list, saying you might need an alcohol permit, you might need this, you might need that. But I don’t want to make everybody go through a long process. We don’t need a whole new bureaucracy. If I was a small-business person and I got this list and there were seven phone numbers on it, I’d pretend I didn’t get it.

We need to have a point person at City Hall, where you can go and say “I’m interested in putting on a Second Saturday event. What do I need to do?” And that’s what we’re doing now. We don’t want underage kids drinking of course. But here’s this organic thing that’s just sort of happened. And it’s exciting and wonderful. We’re at a point in our city where it’s not our job to keep everything quiet and dead on the weekends. We’re trying to have things that are alive and active. But you have to do this balancing act. You’ve got the residents and the people coming in from out of town, people coming and going, what do you do about traffic? It’s a lot to handle. But I really don’t want to lose it. I don’t want it to get to the point where it gets too big and we can’t control it, and we feel like we have to stop it.

This is your third mayoral campaign. How’s this one different?

There are a lot of things. The first race for mayor was so long, it was endless. I think it was 16 or 18 months. In this one, because Kevin Johnson didn’t file until the last week, we basically have a three-month campaign, which is very short.

In my fund-raising, prior to his announcement, people were saying “Oh, you’re OK, don’t worry.” They didn’t really want to give money because there wasn’t a race. Now I’ve got a very short amount of time to raise money, get the word out, capture people’s attention. And I’m running against somebody who’s a celebrity. He’s not asked the same questions, he’s not expected to know the same answers. He’s given a pass by a number of people.

It’s been a little frustrating in this campaign. When you’re mayor, you can’t just make up something. I can’t just promise to do things that I don’t think are going to happen. It’s a lot easier if you haven’t been here or if you haven’t had the responsibility already.

But because he’s a celebrity, there’s lots of attention on the race. And so there’s a lot more media attention. Usually, you have to struggle to get media attention. Here we’re not. And it’s had some interesting twists and turns, as you know.

Rob Kerth told me that when you guys were running against each other in 2000, you had, like, 40 debates.

He’s not exaggerating. It was at least 40, maybe 50 or more. Every neighborhood group had their own, every business group.

And you’ll end up doing how many with Kevin Johnson?

That would be two.

The Johnson campaign wanted to negotiate the terms of those debates?

They hired Steve Merksamer, who negotiated the debates between Schwarzenegger and Angelides. I met with him. But what’s to discuss? I don’t think I should be editing people’s questions. The only question is whether you show up or not. For me, it’s yes. For Mr. Johnson, it’s mostly no.

You had Channel 3 here a few minutes ago, asking about some of the allegations against Johnson. What did you tell them?

I basically said, “I’ve read what you’ve read.” I don’t know anymore than what I’ve read. Obviously, the allegations are of concern. This is the kind of thing that would be very distracting if you were mayor. But it’s not for me to respond. Some people have wondered if it all came from our campaign, but we didn’t create this.

Anything in your past you need to confess to at this point?

(Laughs.) I don’t think so. Anything I’d come up with would be pretty damn mild.