CLAYTON, CA (Jan. 20, 2023) — When newly reelected City Councilmember Jeff Wan took the gavel as the new mayor, there was a big sigh of relief – if a bit guarded.
It signaled the end of a vicious election season that played out mostly on social media sites Nextdoor and Facebook, with venomous professional and personal attacks, slick “hit-piece” mailers that resembled a regional or national election and a general sense of divide in this usually quiet community.
“I want to find a way to reduce the polarization and heated rhetoric that has served to crowd out reasonable discourse,” Wan said in his recap of the Dec. 3 meeting, when he was elected by a 3-1-1 vote. Councilmember Peter Cloven was the lone no vote, while Councilmember Holly Tillman abstained. Councilmember Jim Diaz and newly elected member Kim Trupiano supported Wan.
“It is not healthy for passions to overwhelm reason,” Wan added.
And it was a passionate election. Besides Wan’s reelection, Trupiano beat out challengers Bridgette Billiter and Ed Miller, largely by aligning herself with Wan and his supporters, says Miller.
Staff and housing issues
The drama, however, won’t end quickly. The city has long-term vacancies in its top positions, as City Manager Reina Schwartz is leaving in February, a new finance director was just hired and Police Chief Richard McEachin is reacquainting himself with city, having served as an officer then left for a post in the Central Valley to gain management experience.
The biggest problem, a city manager, will at least be solved on an interim basis, as Wan announced Jan. 13 that retired Antioch city manager Ron Bernal will take over until a permanent replacement is hired.
The city also faces pressure from the state to develop a strong a Housing Element by the end of the month, which needs to include sufficient inclusionary and affordable housing. This has been a sticking point with many residents who are vocally opposed to more housing – especially high-density housing.
Striking the wrong chord?
Perhaps, however, the council move that is hitting a sour note for some residents is the development of a Concert Committee, an official oversight city panel tasked with overseeing Clayton’s beloved Concerts in The Grove series.
What sounded like a simple plan reverberated through the town like Clayton Valley High School’s marching band. To some, it seemed like a veiled political action to oust former City Councilmember Howard Geller, the longtime promoter and master of ceremonies who withdrew his support for Wan and Trupiano during the election.
“That was my first thought, but then I had three meetings with Councilmember Diaz, who told me in no uncertain terms that was not the case,” Geller said. “I will continue to book the bands and MC the event. So it’s on with the shows as usual, at least this year.”
Wan and his supporters on the council believe the concerts need some city oversight, especially in the financial aspect of money raised. And Geller agrees on that point.
“Myself, Jim (Diaz) and former Councilmember Julie Pierce started the concerts back in 2008 offering different musical groups – mainly cover bands – for free,” Geller recalled.
It was designed, he says, to bring people downtown and help businesses during the Great Recession. With City Council members and other leaders involved, it seemed like it was sponsored by the city or the Clayton Business & Community Association (CBCA) – but it was all volunteers, funded by private donations.
Unique fundraising ideas
Geller says it was an expensive endeavor, with bands needing to be paid up front. But because the events were so much fun and the community atmosphere so positive, many bands would cut their price just to play in Clayton, he noted.
He and Pierce came up with the idea to “pass the can” at the events so concertgoers could donate, and that proved to be lucrative. Pierce also created a $20 “pass” that could be redeemed at the Clayton Club Saloon for a drink. Ideally, the customer would bring friends and buy more.
Unfortunately, there was some confusion at the city level of how to account for the proceeds, so Geller says he took over. Each year, even after he left the council in 2016, he would give an exact accounting to the City Council and city staff.
“It’s expensive to book bands,” he said. “But this year, we have $95,000 up front, ready to go.”
Even though the music will play on, this is Geller’s swan song. He says it has nothing to do with the oversight of a Concert Committee – he was planning on retiring anyway. “It’s a lot of volunteer hours, and my wife and I want to travel more and see our grandkids.”
Still, some people in town have said that Joe Medrano, who was convicted of insurance fraud in his Clayton business, has said he plans to take over the concerts, booking bands and bringing in food trucks, which might anger local restaurant owners. Medrano was a vocal supporter of Wan’s, according to Miller. Medrano could not be reached for comment by press time.
At odds over housing
While the concert drama plays out on one stage, another philosophical division is brewing between the Wan camp and Tillman over an issue that impacts what Clayton wants for its future.
Wan plans to gain council support to join the group Our Neighborhood Voices, a “coalition of California neighborhoods” that are fighting back against many of the state mandates on housing, specifically Senate Bills 9 and 10, that make it easier for developers to circumvent many steps in the permitting process. The bills are also assisting affordable housing developers to come into neighborhoods that may not want affordable housing near them.
When asked about affordable housing, Wan said that the city should comply with state law regarding inclusionary housing, and that the city’s Housing Element – a blueprint for the state to approve before it releases any housing funds to cities – will “be in compliance with state law, balancing the needs and desires of residents with the requirements that the state has imposed.”
What that will look like remains to be seen. But with Wan, Diaz and Trupiano sharing many of the same sentiments, building more housing in Clayton, especially the amount of affordable housing the state requires, will remain a wedge in the divide.
Peggy Spear is a journalist and frequent contributor to the Pioneer.