Three years ago at a meeting in Walnut Creek Laura Hoffmeister was asked about an improvement list for the seven Bay Area counties. She responded “Where are we going to get all the money. Can someone tell me where even a dollar is going to come from to do this wish list?” It is this type of pragmatic candor, honesty, and looking out for the interests of her constituents that has made Laura Hoffmeister arguably the most trusted political figure in the region.
Laura Hoffmeister was first elected to the Concord City Council in 1997, and has served continually since then including several stints as Mayor. With this experience and her work as Assistant to the City Manager in Clayton, Hoffmeister’s expertise is constantly called upon to offer her unique perspective of the internal workings of local government.
Despite this stature and power, she is a very unassuming person who remains approachable to discuss any issue or problem her constituents might face. Recently, Hoffmeister sat down with Halfway to Concord to reflect on her career, along with her thoughts of how the place she loves so dearly can be improved and made a better place to live.
Laura Hoffmeister on local government
How do you visualize yourself as a member of the community?
Hopefully a common sense member of a group of five on the council.
As a City Council member, do you see yourself as Democrat, Republican or independent?
None! It’s a non partisan office the perspective I bring is being pragmatic. I have idealistic views on certain things but usually I am the person who asks is it realistic, how are we going to get there or is it a pipedream where you get people’s expectations that you can’t deliver on?
What do you think about several members of the city council that were previously registered as Republicans changing their affiliations to independents and Democrats?
So I heard. You will have to ask them. I have no clue. Political parties do not involve the city council. A pot hole is not a Republican or Democratic thing. It’s a pot hole!
Why did you first run for public office?
Its sounds pat but I felt I could provide something positive at that level of the community. There was an opening the year that I ran… At that time Concord was coming out of a difficult time following the aftermath of the Lloyd Mayshore era where Concord was perceived as being anti gay and racist (replete with back stabbing between Council members at each meeting.) It disintegrated to the point where we were a laughing stock. I was on the design review board and rate development advisory committee and had been on the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership committee to understand things from the business perspective. There was concern that Concord was going backwards and with Lou Rojas not running again, I ran for the vacant seat.
Did you envision such a long stint on the City Council when you ran in 1997?
No I did not go into with any preconceived time but rather evaluating things every four years.
Have you considered running for the State legislature or be a County Supervisor? Would you contemplate such a notion in the future?
I have had several people who have encouraged me to do this, but right now where I’m at where the community is at and the issues we face, my contributions are at the community level. There are a lot of challenges, and it is good to have someone here with my experiences at that level. At this point the timing is not right.
What have been the biggest changes in Concord since you took office?
One thing is Todos Santos downtown area becoming a positive gathering place with promotion of business there. We have been able to put in more parks recreational facilities. The parking structures are great to have because there was once a time when we did not need them. Challenges more recently have been the State taking tax funds from 8 cents to about 14 cents on the dollar. Continue to see where funding in the states goes from the local communities to Sacramento. Concord has old infrastructure and now has been given new requirements by the state to be dealt with. This is especially true the last couple years with the pavement in many places not having funds to fix it. The same with sewer repair and maintaining the parks.
What is your biggest accomplishment as a Council member?
In today’s time. It’s a little mundane, boring and not to sexy, but being able to look at the budget and make sure the city has a balanced one is most important. In addition, properly using the funds generated by Measure Q to the best use is a high priority. Looking around at other cities that are really struggling, I am pleased Concord is still able maintain our essential city services. As a building project I am most proud of the Senior Center on Oliver.
With almost 60% of the budget going to law enforcement, are there other priorities being neglected?
It is not uncommon for this figure as law enforcement. It is a service that goes on 24/7 365 days per year. There is no other department that does that. The police department has taken its hits as well. Our first priority remains street patrol coverage but some of external services are gone like with all city services.
Does the city have any alternatives to this?
Realistically, the city does not have a lot of choices in the matter of providing law enforcement services.
Because of endorsements and making large contributions to many of the elected of the city council, do you think the POA has undue influence in negotiating their labor contract with the city?
No. I have been in these negotiation sessions in the past. It’s never come up. We look at pros and cons of the offers we look at the financial implications to budget. Now we have the new law where we go thru the fact finding process which, supposedly, is independent person which is outside the city’s council’s realm. I can definitively say that we look at these matters on merit only.
If this is the case why has the POA invested so much money in political campaigns for City Council races in the past?
I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them. It’s not an uncommon situation across the board. It may be like any other organization where they support candidates who are going to do a good job for the community. But when it gets the labor negotiations side of things in all honesty the facts are what matters.
Would you rather have a City Council that is divided or has 5-0 votes?
Hopefully we have more 5-0 votes because issues are vetted thru the committee process before it gets to the Council where we can narrow down any issues or give staff direction to look at things. If you are doing things right, differences can be worked out before formal votes. I used to do this with Helen (Allen) and when Mark (Peterson) was on the Council. Even if he wasn’t on that committee I would ask questions in anticipation of what would happen when the full council dealt with an issue.
What are the most difficult votes you have had to make on the City Council?
Generally speaking in the last several years it has been the budget. Because we are talking about where to reduce or some cases hold the line. Everyone wants to do something else. That’s harder where its more library hours, maintain the parks, graffiti abatement, fill pot holes… and yet you trying to maintain services when people want more. What impact do these kinds of cuts have on the community makes these decisions so tough.
As you have the most tenure on Concord City Council, is it difficult to keep your motivation and intensity after all these years?
Actually, it might be more intensive now. When I came in the economics were different and there was more money to do things for the city. We had funds to build a parking lot downtown, construct the senior center and improve Diablo Creek golf course and build sports fields at Newhall Park. It was exciting to do these things. Now, trying maintain these amenities is tooth and nail fighting with Sacramento to keep Concord special.
Do you have a timetable when you decide to step down from the City Council?
No I don’t. I look at it and evaluate when the time period comes you to see if there is something that is still worthy of my contributions. Right now with the budget and reuse project alone, my experience is a benefit for the city.
Being in office for so long, is it difficult to be constantly in the public spotlight?
You are giving it much more credit than it is due. Besides the grocery clerk that asks me about the city, not everybody knows your face except perhaps at election times.
Have you ever felt pressured by a lobbyist or special interest group to take on their position on an issue?
Yes I have been approached by lobbyists especially on the Port Chicago land transfer. We had heavy weight lobbyists from Washington D.C. on our tails. When it comes to these sorts of things everyone can put in their two cents worth, but if people push me, I push back harder.
What would you like to see change in Concord in the next 20 years?
I ‘d like to see more off street bike trails all tied together where you can ride your bike from park to trail and ultimately along the creek at the Naval Weapons Depot. Make it a wonderful experience and where we can connect our parks to trails. It takes a lot money but heck you asked me.
What else is on your wish list?
A new library would be great being able to build another wing on to our city hall for our admin, we lost a wing back in the early 1990s. The courts were using it then but having the space back would be great. I would like to see Park & Shop renovated.
Will it ever be possible for the city to claim eminent domain (or and do something about Park & Shop?
We don’t have the power to do that. Park & Shop was in the redevelopment area which is no longer around since the State cut the funding.
To change the subject, Is the Naval Weapons Station land ever going to be developed?
The answer Will it ever, ‘Yes.’ When? Unknown and not all of it in my lifetime.
Do you want to Concord maintain its character going into the future comprised mostly of single family homes, or to fit into the visions of ABAG with infill high density housing near transit hubs?
Around transit hubs I think it’s appropriate to have your mixed use density. You need balance which is created by jobs that allows for a reverse commute that BART needs. This is Americana where people still prefer less dense congested living. How big those might be are changing. It might not be an 8000 square lot but a 4500 foot one seems to be OK.
Would you consider at a future point having a minimum lot size in Concord outside a 1 mile perimeter of a BART station?
Probably not. Pretty much the State is taking this away from us. If the development is less than 10 units, it’s pretty much of a permitted use. The state wants infill.
What about single family homes?
The State would probably go along with 4,500 feet as this is half of the area of surrounding properties
Do you think ABAG and the MTC are sincere in their pronouncements that local communities are calling the shots when it comes to urban development
From their perspective they are not driving it. It’s the State legislature. We don’t have a lot of control over a lot of residential use activities like an in-law- granny unit is a permitted use now. We don’t even have control over zoning anymore. The State preempted us on that. This is happening more and more by the State legislature.
From your perspective, is this good or bad?
I don’t think this is good. Over time the State legislature is taking over what was once local decision making. We have been pre-empted by legislation in Sacramento. In their infinite wisdom it has decided this is how it’s going to be for all cities regardless of size or characteristics. Sometimes their objectives are different from ours as with daycare centers and special needs housing where we are looking at such developments as they affect the entire neighborhood. At times when the community objects, the State claims this is discrimination. With that kind of push-pull the city is put in a difficult position as we are being hit from all sides.
How is the city dealing with the State’s increasing power.
It’s not only the legislation of what you can or can’t do, but also how you spend money they give you. We are being double hit not to mention being hammered by unfunded mandates……. Here’s what the State is telling us: ‘We will take away some of your land use decisions and we are going to change how much money you are getting, and if you don’t do what we mandate, we will take more money away from you.’
It kind of reminds me of Hobson ’s choice where the alternatives were lethal injections or the firing squad.
Yes. Is the ultimate decision to be made by local officials? But then we can get called as Livermore did where the judge holds officials in contempt of the court because of not complying with State laws. You personally, civilly, as an elected official, because you are sworn to uphold the constitution you (meaning the city) are going to have to change your zoning and general plan to comply with State law. There’s not much choice in this situation.
This seems to be the same as ABAG and the MTC saying this is State law so we must follow it. Why is this so important while obeying other laws on the books might not be so important?
But the State Governor and the legislature has said this is a priority and, “hello” funding? is going to be affected unless AB 375 and AB 32 with carbon footprint implication is all being pushed down to us to implement by their infinite wisdom.
With no money?
But we don’t need that. All we need to do is pass these rules. It’s like “really”? It’s very frustrating.
Do you think it is good for Concord that the entire government in Sacramento is completely under Democratic control?
Can I take exception to the last word? There is no control in Sacramento. It is very frustrating because most of the people in California are in the middle while the politics in the State Capital is very polarized on both the right and left. We elect people to the legislature in the middle road and when they get up to Sacramento, then things change.
What would you like your legacy in city government to be?
Right now it’s that I have done a good job and keep the community going and able to bring some projects and programs to the community they desired and now I’m hoping to do this until better times.