On Friday, Dec. 9, our city will swear in a new mayor and two new councilmembers. It’s possible that all three of them share the Shredder’s disdain for my advice. Nonetheless, voters elected me to two terms on the City Council, and I suspect that they knew they weren’t voting for a potted plant. When I leave office on Dec. 9, I don’t intend to plant myself where the sun shines (nor where it don’t). While out of office, I will continue to seek consensus where I can, but I won’t shy away from controversy when it calls to me. If you don’t like controversy, stop reading now.
The circumstances facing us today call for strong leadership skills. Our newer councilmembers are largely untested, but they hold out great promise for taking San Luis Obispo to a new level. I am excited about the possibilities for positive change. I encourage our new leadership to consider how to expand opportunities and address the challenges of economic development, climate action, and housing—but first, a word about process.
Collaborate when possible, but stand alone when you must
Aristotle defined politics as “the art of the possible.” I’ve worked to build a three-vote majority wherever I could, and a larger consensus wherever possible. I’m proud of what our council accomplished as a team. I’m not in the least ashamed of my well-earned reputation for being a little combative on occasion, because I fight hard for the things I truly believe in. I’ve chosen my battles carefully, but I’ve agreed with my colleagues on most of the “big picture” decisions.
New leaders, don’t hold back when you need to stand up, even alone, for your principles; sometimes, consensus can be overrated. Always be respectful, however, of your council colleagues, and of our staff. Try very hard to show respect for all those who engage with you, to be the “leader who listens” (my campaign slogans in 2008 and 2012). But stick to your principles and defend them vigorously when the stakes are high.
Our regional economy has never been stronger, but we’re entering stormy waters—or, even more dreadful, a scorching desert. The city must prepare carefully for the planned closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 2025. Our council and staff led the effort to negotiate a settlement between PG&E and the Coalition of Cities that offers a one-time pot of $1.8 million in economic mitigation funds. The new council faces a huge challenge as well as a great opportunity: How to invest this seeming “windfall”; I’ve found that it’s often harder to get consensus on how to spend such revenue than to cut the budget!
Here’s my suggestion: Don’t limit this program merely to “job development.” Consider the source of this windfall: An energy facility that has generated reliable, very low greenhouse gas electricity to millions of PG&E customers for almost 40 years. Given that history, consider linking our mitigation fund to sustainable energy projects that benefit the climate—an important cause that was championed by all our new leaders. There’s no reason we can’t add greenhouse gas reduction to the criteria for deciding how to invest that $1.8 million. The alternative energy sector of our economy is growing fast. Wise investment in programs that stimulate those technologies can generate more jobs per investment dollar than any other option—while simultaneously cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Another major threat to our regional economy today is the continuing drought that has depleted our reservoirs. This crisis may or may not linger. It’s certain, however, that ongoing climate change will bring more severe weather events like this drought in the years and decades ahead. Plan accordingly. Invest in making our community more resilient.
Five years ago, our council put a Climate Action Plan in place to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but we need to go much further. Consider a program to utilize the $1.8 million from the PG&E settlement to stimulate solar and wind energy production, as well as water conservation, throughout the city. Use it to “seed” an investment pool, using sources such as the PACE HERO program to leverage additional millions in private capital. We should target these technologies toward under-served segments of leased residential and commercial properties in SLO. Specifically, I would suggest that we direct these low- or no-cost loans to upgrade some of the 5,000 single-family and duplex units that are registered in our Rental Housing Safety Program, especially those with identified energy and safety deficiencies. We should incentivize the owners of commercial properties and rental units to install solar panels, energy and water conservation measures, electric vehicle charging stations, and other improvements to reduce their tenants’ utility and transportation costs—all the while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Please don’t abandon our Rental Housing Safety Program; Peter Johnson’s article in the Nov. 17 New Times, “No easy fix,” demonstrates both that there is a need for our code enforcement services, and far more public support among our community of renters than one might have guessed if all you had to go by was the campaign rhetoric. I can affirm that the public was closely divided when the council first adopted this program in 2014, but we made a tough decision to proceed. The program has proved its worth in safety upgrades to the vast majority of the 500-plus rental units inspected to date.
Rather than a simple repeal of the program, the new council should consider an incentive program to attract property owners’ interest in compliance with our basic standards: Use the pooled-investment loan fund to finance improvements at the lowest conceivable rates, reducing the out-of-pocket costs for the owners and minimizing the inconvenience to their tenants.
Affordable housing should continue to be pursued wherever possible—but be aware that some projects such as 22 Chorro St. are monstrously incompatible with their settings. The city does retain the discretion to apply reasonable conditions to assure health and safety, including—at a minimum—a guarantee that every project provides sufficient on-site parking.
I believe that this city’s best days are still ahead. We’ve demonstrated leadership in setting smart growth standards in the past; now is the time to transform our energy, transportation, and housing systems to develop a model community that serves this generation as well the next. Let’s keep asking ourselves, “What’s possible?” And the question after that should be, “What’s next?”
John Ashbaugh served eight years on the San Luis Obispo City Council, as well as four years on the Planning Commission. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a letter to the editor at email@example.com.