Name: Isabelle Gaston
Job: Medical writer (oncology)
What office are you are running for? Berkeley City Council, District 6
What is the main reason you are running? The main reason I am running is because I am profoundly disheartened by the state of our City’s infrastructure, fiscal mismanagement, and seemingly unbridled development — and I want to do something about it.
I am also very concerned about District 6’s safety: our district lacks an earthquake shelter; has not undergrounded most of its utility wires (after waiting decades); and has inadequate police patrolling (only one officer for District 5 and 6 per evening shift).
Why are you qualified for the position? For over four years, I have served as President of the Northeast Berkeley Association (NEBA), one of the largest, oldest, and most respected neighborhood associations in Berkeley. Since being President, I have become very active in City politics; spoken at numerous City Council sessions; and written many articles regarding the City’s budget challenges, structural deficit, unfunded liabilities, and need to rebuild our City’s physical and financial infrastructure.
Professionally, I am medical writer, with a PhD in cancer biology. I perform data analyses for a living. The City Council needs someone who doesn’t shy away from numbers.
What sets you apart from other candidates? I have studied the City’s budget and employee contracts in depth; the incumbent has not.
For example, at a recent endorsement meeting at the East Bay Times, the incumbent stated the following:
1. “SEIU employees received 6% raises.”
This is inaccurate; the raises range from 11.58% to 15.58% (over three years).
2. “SEIU employees are now contributing 8% to their pensions.”
This is inaccurate; employees will not be paying the full 8% until December 31, 2017 (1% starting in early June, 2017).
3. “Two hundred employees were laid off during the recession.”
To my knowledge, there were reductions in vacant positions (FTEs) but no actual layoffs.
4. “We can address the >$500 million unfunded liabilities debt (pensions and health care obligations) by setting aside excess general fund revenue every year.”
This is wishful thinking. Berkeley has a structural deficit because of these overly generous labor contracts. That is, there is no “excess general fund revenue.” The fundamental problem in our budget is our expenses exceed our revenues. The only way to balance the budget (which we are legally obligated) is to cut back on City services and general maintenance. It is why our infrastructure is crumbling.
How did you end up in Berkeley? I first came to the Bay Area to attend Mills College in 1980. After two years at Mills, I transferred to Barnard College in New York. I returned to the Bay Area in 1985 to work in a lab studying HIV at UCSF/SFGH. In 1994, I moved to Portland to go to graduate school, then lived in San Diego for five years, and finally, in 2005, my husband and I returned to Berkeley (where we first met, in 1980, when he was an MBA student at Haas and living in a dorm on the Mills campus for grad students).
What are the three biggest challenges Berkeley faces in the near future?
1. Fiscal mismanagement: The City’s financial health is poor and is worsening every year. We have closed parks (such as the iconic Berkeley Rose Garden), closed pools (Willard Pool and Warm Water Pool), a closed City Pier, a closed West Berkeley Senior Center, and a closed John Hinkel Clubhouse. In total, it is estimated that we have >$500 million in unfunded capital needs and $550 million in unfunded pension and health care obligations.
2. Public safety in District 6: We have no earthquake shelter; inadequate police patrolling; and no concrete plan for undergrounding our utilities.
3. Responsible development: Berkeley is one of the most densely populated cities in California, and in the coming years, the density will increase even more with the building of up to seven new high-rises in the downtown (as approved by the voters in 2010) and elsewhere. This is a lot of growth for our city to absorb so rapidly, especially given our inadequate infrastructure (transportation, pools, parks, roads, and no earthquake shelters). We will need to hire many more police and fire, and build more schools (a cost breakdown has not been provided by the City).
Many District 6 residents have shared with me that they no longer go downtown as much as they used to due to increased traffic, poor transportation and/or lack of parking. In addition, there is growing concern about the overall stability of our neighborhoods. For example, there is a proposal to build a massive new development on the Pacific School of Religion campus (“”Holy Hill””). I do not support this proposal because this is already one of the most congested areas in Berkeley and I also believe it is critical to maintain what little green space is left in the neighborhood.
What are your ideas to solve them?
1. Fiscal Responsibility
We need a master fiscal plan. I am not prepared to say or know what all our options are; however, I believe everything should be on the table. We must stop the hemorrhaging and we have to do this responsibly and fairly to both taxpayers and employees alike.
Earthquake shelter: If elected, I pledge, on Day 1, to contact BUSD to start discussing the designation of Cragmont Elementary as an earthquake shelter; unlike the incumbent, who is unaware that this was its intended purpose when the school was reopened in 1999 with the help of FEMA funding.
Patrols: We desperately need more officers patrolling District 6. I will strongly advocate for more patrols when I enter office.
Undergrounding: Because of fiscal mismanagement over the last several decades and the lack of political will, I am not optimistic that there is immediate funding available for undergrounding our utility wires. Once I am in office, I will scour the budget and analyze all options, and communicate my findings with the community.
3. Responsible Development
I believe our City leaders must actively engage with its citizenry on its future plans for development in Berkeley. I’m not referring to the buildings coming on line now. I’m talking about those that may be built five to ten years from now.
As the author of this article so eloquently states, we need to have a dialogue about the growth-at-any-costs ideology and whether it is one that our community wishes to embrace. This doesn’t mean being anti-growth but it may mean slower growth – where we make sure to preserve the integrity of our neighborhoods and quality of life of our residents.
What is your most inspired/unique idea for Berkeley? To have a giant potluck one day a year in Berkeley where everyone is invited! It will be a wonderful opportunity to engage with people from different parts of the City.
How will you be accessible to constituents? I will have monthly “office hours” and more as needed. I have not decided on the venue. It would be wonderful if someone could suggest a good place in District 6 to meet rather than at my office in City Hall.
How much money do you expect to spend on your campaign? <$10,000
A final thought? My campaign has been a real grassroots effort — going door-to-door and speaking with District 6 residents about important City issues. There is truly no experience like running for office! It is not too late to show your support and donate to my campaign. And to all my supporters, please consider voting for Fred Dodsworth as your #2 choice! Thank you!