Birdwell, Lovell, Wendell for City Council
On Nov. 7, South Lake Tahoe voters will have an opportunity that doesn’t come along often. A majority of seats on the City Council – three out of five – are up for grabs. And with only one incumbent among the six candidates, the council could see as many as three new faces.
The election comes as the city is facing a bevy of key issues: a shortage of affordable housing, dwindling number of full-time residents, a main thoroughfare in dire need of improvements, and redevelopment including a convention center set to break ground next year, among others.
At the same time, we are troubled by what seems to be a growing mean-spiritedness and backbiting among some in town.
While we view debate and constructive criticism as healthy, we fear this negativity is dragging the community down.
On a brighter note, the election has brought forth a field candidates who seem eager to work toward a better future for the city. While all six have admirable qualities, we looked in particular for those who seemed able to move the city forward and at the same time heal some of the divisiveness.
Our endorsement goes to Jerry Birdwell, Tom Wendell and Kathay Lovell.
If you’ve been tuning out the council race up until now, it’s not too late to form an opinion. All the candidates seem accessible and interested in talking to voters. Also, we are providing links on our Web site to our previous stories on the race.
So be informed, and get out and vote.
Throughout his campaign, the owner of the Black Bear Inn has returned again and again to the success of the Ski Run Boulevard business improvement district as a model for addressing many of the problems faced citywide.
After opening the inn on Ski Run Boulevard in 1999, Birdwell began talking with neighbors about how to spruce up the street. The businesses joined together, pitching in their own funding and also turning to various agencies for help.
Now, the street has been narrowed and an unsightly dirt frontage replaced by wide, smooth pedestrian paths, attractive landscaping and new lampposts. The boulevard is decorated with hanging flower baskets in the summer; wreaths for the winter.
Birdwell sees his customers walking along the paths to other businesses to have a bite to eat, or down to the Ski Run Marina – and not using their cars.
And that kind of revitalization spreads, Birdwell said, citing an overhaul now planned for the corner of Ski Run and Highway 50, where the KFC restaurant sits.
Not all of the Ski Run businesses were immediately sold on the ideas for improvements, but Birdwell persisted. Now he wants to help businesses in other parts of town with their own revitalization.
“We can. We can. We can,” he says emphatically.
His three top priorities as a council member would be to revitalize the “Y” area, beautify Highway 50 and create more affordable housing.
In terms of bringing the community together, Birdwell would hold town hall meetings every few months, where residents could share suggestions or vent frustrations.
He would also like to promote a “second economy” in town of small companies focused on technology, recreation or “green business.” These could be home-based or housed in renovated buildings, and wouldn’t necessarily need new construction to accommodate them.
Birdwell was president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association for two years.
As an attorney and former judge, Birdwell also has received high marks for his listening skills. That coupled with his practical experience makes Birdwell an excellent choice for city council.
Imagine a South Lake Tahoe of the future in which sleek, alternative-fuel vehicles move passengers across town and solar-powered ferries cruise the lake. Development along Highway 50 would be clustered in “villages” with different themes; bicyclists would travel confidently along the highway, not having to contend with driveways every few feet.
These are just a few pieces of Tom Wendell’s vision for the city’s future. The co-founder of Tahoe Region Advocates for Cycling and former recycling manager for the area won’t be satisfied with a few cosmetic improvements: He wants to see South Lake Tahoe set a standard for environmentally and socially responsible planning and join the ranks of world-class resort communities.
In calling for bold action, Wendell says the community seems to be “stuck.” “A Band-Aid won’t fix us anymore. We need major surgery,” he says.
Wendell’s vision comes with practicality. Although he’s a fan of roundabouts in general, building a roundabout at the “Y” won’t fix traffic problems unless steps are taken to alleviate the four-lane-to-two-lane bottleneck on the way out of town, he says.
To allow for the clustered redevelopment he envisions along Highway 50, he proposes moving businesses temporarily into large, vacant buildings such as the closed Albertsons or Mikasa stores.
Wendell wants to produce a video depicting the South Lake Tahoe of the future. With a common vision to rally around, he predicts the community would be reenergized and much of the divisiveness would melt away.
Although some may be concerned that Wendell has his head too far in the proverbial clouds to be an effective city council member, we think the council would benefit from having at least one visionary on board.
Shortly after starting her first term on the city council four years ago, Kathay Lovell received a $5 million shock: Cost overruns on the redevelopment project at Stateline had siphoned $7 million from the city’s general fund – not a mere $2 million that had been estimated earlier.
In addition, the state was about to grab millions of dollars in tax revenue from the city, and city reserve funds had been drained.
In all, the city needed to trim more than $4 million from its general fund budget of about $24 million.
Looking back, Lovell is proud to note that no employees were laid off (although there was a hiring freeze), and the city did not close a fire station.
The city council approved a 10.4 percent, across-the-board budget cut, and slashed marketing subsidies. And the council set sound fiscal management as its top goal.
“It was a lot of sacrifice, but it didn’t affect (city) service,” she said.
Now, reserves have been replenished to $7.9 million and the redevelopment agency is on track in paying back the borrowed $7 million. The police department has added two officers; the fire department, three paramedics and a new fire station on Ski Run Boulevard.
This year, $1 million has been allocated for road repairs, $250,000 for track renovations, and new snow-removal equipment will be purchased. Construction on sidewalks and lighting for Highway 50 is set to start in 2008, following design and engineering work.
Progress has been made on affordable housing, which Lovell expects to continue at an accelerating pace as tax revenue from the redevelopment project increases. Planning has begun for the 56 acres of public land in the heart of town.
Lovell has a commanding knowledge of all these financial figures, and rarely turns to the thick, information-filled binder she has carried with her throughout the campaign.
None of this is glamorous work, and many undoubtedly wish improvements had come about more quickly. But sound finances are the foundation for more visible changes we hope to see in the next four years.
For her diligence and consensus-building during her first four years on city council, we say that Kathay Lovell deserves another term on the council.
Businessman Tom Davis is another candidate who hit the campaign trail with energy and enthusiasm. Davis served on the city council for 12 years, but has taken a break for the last two.
He’s a strong advocate for a free, citywide bus system (which he says would cost about $1 million a year), and has also spoken in favor of more drive-through businesses in town.
He says his prior council experience means he wouldn’t need time getting up to speed as a council member, and he’s familiar with the various agencies the city works with.
His experience in the convention business also could be an asset as it appears a new convention center will finally materialize. As director of sales and marketing from 1982 to 1991 at the Sahara Tahoe (now Horizon Casino Resort), he brought hundreds of meetings to the facility.
Yet for many, Davis carries the “baggage” from past council missteps, and we say it’s time for some new faces on the city council.
Real estate agent Michael Phillips was motivated to enter the race in part because of the outcry over the citywide business improvement district created to fund tourism promotion. The council moved to approve the BID without listening to the many small businesses opposed to it, Phillips contends. It was ultimately dissolved.
Phillips says that Stateline was the right place to start with redevelopment, but that the process could have been done differently. The 34-year resident says the city’s focus now needs to move from Stateline to the rest of town.
He says he’ll be an advocate for the average citizen, and that he’d support cutting the business license fee.
Phillips’ service on the Planning Commission and the board of Clean Tahoe are commendable. He has also served as chair of the Tahoe Keys Architectural Committee and as a director of the South Tahoe Association of Realtors.
Phillips admits he’s not the best public speaker, but we worry that this reflects a lack of focused ideas.
Retired schoolteacher and former city council member Bill Crawford’s campaign platform is one of bringing more openness to city government.
Crawford, who was on the council from 1998 to 2002, says he doesn’t like the council’s habit of assigning many issues to two-member subcommittees – which work outside the public eye and then only need one more vote to pass a proposal.
He’s big on fiscal responsibility, and wants the city to make lists of its financial liabilities along with the subsidies it hands out, and then to decide which subsidies are truly worthwhile.
Crawford’s supporters say he is needed on the council to serve as a watchdog and bring a different point of view.
He says he likes the community as it is now and has no great vision for change. We think change is needed.
City Council candidates square off on streets, dogs, buses and the TRPA
Council candidates discuss their priorities
Candidate coffers vary from 0 to nearly $9K
City Council candidates forum – Oct. 13, 2006 (audio podcast)
Forum brings humility, testiness to campaign
Candidates square off on housing, small business
City council contenders face off
‘Significant and serious’ says one city council candidate (on Shingle Springs casino)
Eminent domain raises debate stakes for council candidates
Can they all work together? (proposed joint use project)
Council candidate Phillips: ‘A big no’ on roundabout
Candidates skeptical on roundabout
The race is on for Council: Redevelopment and transportation top candidates’ agendas
Issues are emerging in race for city council