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Schools are city's top challenge, mayor says; Friedman also says he's unlikely to seek re-election

The greatest challenge facing El Cerrito is the quality of its schools, said Mayor Mark Friedman. Friedman spoke before the El Cerrito Democratic Club July 25.  Other challenges, he said, are economic development, transportation, infrastructure needs, and staff morale.

Friedman also told the club he is unlikely to run for another term because of the demands of his job as executive director of the * Alameda County Children and Families Commission .

Friedman said the quality of its schools is the number one challenge “holding back El Cerrito from becoming even more of an ideal community than it is.”

“We have the best school board we’ve had in the time I can remember,” he said. But he said the lack of resources, including the “unjust” debt the district is paying off to the state, are holding the schools back.

The $21 million debt owed for a bailout loan incurred nine years ago, he said, was not run up by the people now in charge “and it was not run up by a single child or classroom.”

On a related issue, in response to a question from the audience,  Friedman said he found the council’s handling of a recent application for a child care center on Schmidt Lane “pretty shocking.”

The council supported the center, which would be housed in Trinity Evangelical Free Church, at a June 19 meeting, with Larry Damon and Kathie Perka dissenting. On July 10 Gina Brusatori said she no longer supports granting a use permit for the child care facility, leaving only Friedman and Janet Abelson in support. The matter is expected to come back before the council for further discussion.

“It was extremely disappointing for me, working in the field of early childhood education,” said Friedman.

Economic Development

On the issue of economic development, Friedman noted that the Plaza is finally being revitalized, El Cerrito Honda  is moving to a larger site, and plans for a a project that would including housing and retail are being discussed for the El Cerrito Mill and Lumber property.

“I think it looks like a pretty good project,” said Friedman,. He said he’d like the developers to look at making it more pedestrian friendly, taking advantage of its proximity to the Ohlone Greenway park under the BART tracks.

Economic developer is important  to provide residents a close place to shop and to bring the city sales tax revenue, he said.

He noted that as the state has taken funds from cities it has left them heavily dependent on sales tax revenue, which can lead to bad planning. He cited as an example the gridlock in Emeryville, “and their schools are still bad.”


Transportation is a difficult issue for El Cerrito, he noted, because of the impact of regional matters. He reiterated comments he has made at council meetings about BART parking, that he prefers increased shuttle service but considers it unlikely transit officials will shift money voters have approved for BART parking to bus service. A proposal to build a structure combining parking and retail at the Plaza is a step in the right direction. The proposal calls for parkers to be charged, with proceeds going to shuttle service.

Traffic on Interstate 80, San Pablo Avenue and other cross-town streets such as Richmond and Arlington is likely to get worse as well, as growth continues along the I-80 corridor.

“There’s no way I see transportation getting better in the short or long term,” he said. But, he said, the city should do what it can by being creative with the resources it has to promote alternatives to driving.

Infrastructure needs

Another challenge, he said, is meeting the city’s $30 million to $50 million in infrastructure needs, such as roads, park improvements and improvements to public buidings such as the public safety building.

The city is having a difficult time meeting all of those needs, he said, because of the state shifting of funds away from cities.

Staff morale

He also noted the recent staff turnovers in El Cerrito. City Manager Gary Pokorny leaves at the end of July, the city is also looking for an economic development manager, and community development manager Gerry Raycraft left earlier this month. There have been other recent departures as well, with the police department particularly hard hit.

Friedman called city staff good people who work hard without the level of compensation they might get in other cities. He said workers were motivated by Pokorny’s management style and he’s concerned about the impact the changeover will have on morale.

Personal priorities – the arts, new city hall, 2001 election

Friedman said his personal priorities for El Cerrito include supporting the arts.

“El Cerrito is in danger of looking like every other town along San Pablo Avenue.”

He said El Cerrito needs something to give it “charm and uniqueness.”

Getting a new city hall is another priority for him. He said it’s important to El Cerrito’s economic development effort to have an attractive city hall to show that the city is making an investment in its infrastructure.

Finally, he noted that there will be an election next year with three seats up for grabs and that the club should concern itself with ensuring Democrats get some of those seats. He noted that the council currently has a majority of Republicans – Damon, Perka and Abelson.

In response to a question, he said he probably will not seek reelection because of the demands of his job. He didn’t rule out running for a different post but said he has no specific plans to do so.

Run dates: 2000-07-26 - 2000-08-09

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