Despite voter approval of three tax measures in the past six years, El Cerrito teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

No other Bay Area city has been as irresponsibly managed. Even before the pandemic, the city was in deep trouble. And it’s gotten worse since. The city has dug a financial hole so deep that it will take years to climb out.

El Cerrito needs council members who understand city finances and are not afraid to make tough and substantial budget-cutting decisions. Two incumbents, Greg Lyman and Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, are not seeking reelection.

Of the eight candidates vying for three seats, the standout is business professor William Ktsanes, who would bring desperately needed financially savvy to the council. For the other two spots, we recommend Lisa Motoyama, an affordable housing financial consultant, and incumbent Councilman Paul Fadelli.

William Ktsanes

Crisis dates to 2012

Council members were warned in 2018 that the city had no reserves and that they were spending more than they were taking in, that since 2012 they had been borrowing money to pay bills.

“We are in almost a dire situation when it comes to fund balance,” city Finance Director Mark Rasiah told the City Council as he summarized an outside auditor’s findings. “Here is an opportunity to clean up this balance sheet and take care of it once and for all.” But that didn’t happen.

El Cerrito continued spending beyond its means. The city ended the 2018-19 fiscal year with a negative — negative! — reserve balance of $57,000. This at a time when the city should have, by accounting standards, had a minimum $7 million set aside for emergencies.

Lisa Motoyama

In 2019, the state auditor examined the fiscal health of 471 California cities. El Cerrito ranked seventh worst in the state and worst in the Bay Area. The precarious position was exacerbated by what is now a $70 million shortfall in the city’s pension plan, which has only two-thirds of the funds it should. General workers hired before 2013 have been promised nearly the most-generous pension payouts available in California for non-public-safety employees.

Meanwhile, walking right up to the legal line by using public funds for manipulative campaigns, city officials have convinced voters to increase the city’s portion of sales tax to the highest rate in the state, lift restrictions on use of city parcel tax revenues so they could be poured into the general fund, and tax the sale of property at a rate that’s among the top eight highest cities in the state. Yet, they still couldn’t balance the books.

Paul Fadelli

The council finally hired a consultant to devise a workout plan and, in February, made some cuts to the 2019-20 budget. Then came the coronavirus — and things got much worse.

Tax revenues immediately declined. Since the start of the year, city workers have seen job cuts, suspension of cost-of-living increases and furloughs. No one knows how long the pandemic’s economic fallout will last. What’s clear is that El Cerrito cannot sustain even the current pared-back level of spending. More cuts are needed.

Ktsanes, Motoyama, Fadelli

That’s why voters should elect engaged leaders who understand public finance. Candidates who recognize that all budget-reduction options must be considered; that the city cannot tax its way out of this, especially not while many are struggling to pay bills; and that long-term goals like economic development won’t provide financial solutions for the current fiscal crisis.

The candidates who best meet those criteria are:

• Ktsanes, a former financial company vice president and municipal securities portfolio manager. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from UC Berkeley and teaches investments and business ethics at the University of San Francisco. He’s correctly concerned that current council members lack essential financial background at this critical time and that city officials have failed to communicate well with residents.

• Motoyama, a financial consultant for affordable housing projects. She also brings a strong understanding of municipal government, having worked in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and served on the El Cerrito Planning Commission.

• Fadelli, who worked in the state Legislature and handled state and federal legislative affairs for BART for more than a decade. He’s seeking his second council term. While we have concerns about the current council, Fadelli does understand the severity of the situation and what needs to be done. And he’s a stronger candidate than any of the alternatives.

We interviewed seven of the eight candidates (Jennifer Greel did not return calls). Of the others, Matthew Burnham, a middle school principal, is the next-strongest candidate, but lacks mastery of the city’s budget details.

Tessa Rudnick, an IT business analyst for San Francisco, opposes layoffs. Isis Bastet, a contract negotiator, considers more taxes key to solving the crisis.

And Arthur Yee says he doesn’t want the job. Next time, please don’t run. There’s too much at stake to treat this like a political game.




By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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