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Mike McGowan looks back: Part II

NEWS-LEDGER — DEC 10, 2014 —

By Steve Marschke
News-Ledger Editor

  EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, the City of West Sacramento opened a bridge named after Mike McGowan, the city’s first mayor and later its longtime representative on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
  Earlier in 2014, the News-Ledger had a lengthy chat with McGowan about his own window into the city’s history. We brought you the first part of that interview last week (you can find it here). We continue below, taking up roughly from the moment that local voters approved cityhood and McGowan became mayor of the first West Sacramento City Council in 1987.  

When you ask Mike McGowan what it was like to be part of the city council that took control over the fate of four newly conjoined neighborhoods in 1987, he can answer with a simile:

“It was like fixing a car while you’re driving it,” he has said in the past.

“So much was coming at us at the same time, it was like drinking out of a fire hose,” he explained much more recently. Either way, you get the picture.

MIKE McGOWAN got a ride in the ceremonial procession on Dec. 5 at the opening of the West Sacramento bridge named in his honor. Visible in front of him is his wife, Sue.   (News-Ledger photo)

MIKE McGOWAN got a ride in the ceremonial procession on Dec. 5 at the opening of the West Sacramento bridge named in his honor. Visible in front of him is his wife, Sue.
(News-Ledger photo)

You have to understand that West Sacramento was different then – the population was in the mid 20-thousands, or about half of what it is now. There was old West Sacramento and the less reputable Bryte and Broderick neighborhoods to the north, and the barely-developed Southport area, and a troubled downtown strolled by prostitutes and grifters.

This section of East Yolo had an inferiority complex. It did not compare itself well to, say, Davis or Sacramento. And local voters wanted change.

The new council members included McGowan – the top vote-getter and first mayor, along with Fidel Martinez, Ray Jones, Bill Kristoff (who is still on the council) and Thelma Rogers. The five met unofficially a number of times before they took their seats at city hall, which was then located on Stone Boulevard. They brought on a temporary city manager to serve as their C.E.O. – a college professor who had once worked for Governor Reagan’s administration.

“We hired him, and gave him this pamphlet we got from the League of California Cities on how to start a new city,” recalled McGowan. “And it quickly dawned on me that what he did was read one chapter ahead, then he would come into our meeting and said ‘Okay, now it’s time to hire our lawyer. . .’”

One of the city’s first challenges was deciding on a police force. Unhappiness with crime and law enforcement (provided before incorporation by the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department) was one of the reasons citizens approved cityhood in the 1986 vote.

“That was the platform – law enforcement, cleaning up West Capitol, and schools were important as well, and (providing more) shopping. Those were the issues,” said McGowan.

The new council had the option of creating a local police department or paying Yolo County to provide patrols by deputies. The county was obligated to provide interim service for six months either way.

McGowan said the new city leaders went to see Sheriff Rod Graham about a Yolo County contract.

“He said, ‘You’re going to have to do a long-term contract with me and you’re not going to tell me who I deploy over there.’ We literally walked out of that meeting and said, ‘Well, we’ve got to put our own police department together in six months. We did. I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way. . . There were some bumps along the way, but it turned out fine.”

In came the next city manager, Gene Roh, a former County official whom McGowan respected but with whom there were some “personality clashes.”

“When we hired him,” said McGowan, “he said ‘I’ve only got two conditions. One is that we agree on the (salary) number, and also I get to hire my number two.”

Roh chose as his “number two” another county employee – Carol Richardson. Richardson still remains as the assistant city manager, (although city managers have changed several times in the past 27 years or so.)

“Carol is another one of those people, in my opinion, who I would call an unsung hero,” said McGowan. “So much of what we put together at the professional level has come through her.”

One of the first big tasks for the new city was to come up with a “general plan” – a state-mandated document that includes land use zoning and other big, long-term policy choices.

The general plan contained broad outlines that have mostly endured and in some cases been fleshed out by succeeding “specific plans” and in some cases, actual development.

The early council developed this plan, “grandfathering” into it some existing plans for a major Southport industrial park near the port (championed by local developer Frank Ramos and his partners) and plans for what was then the Lighthouse Project (with a proposed marina) in the north. Lighthouse later morphed into “The Rivers” gated subdivision, and plans for the marina were dropped.

The industrial zoning for Southport became controversial and bred an opposing ballot initiative in 1990. The city council majority – including McGowan – took a strong stand against the initiative. The ballot challenge barely failed, and the Southport Industrial Park kept its zoning.

Does McGowan have any regrets on the general plan?

“The general plan was good,” he said. “Looking back, I’m not very good at looking at specific things because that’s not the way I approach the work to begin with. The work is the work. It’s about how we work together to get stuff done. It’s also more about building the team – I won’t dare say ‘leadership’ – and figuring out how to put the pieces together to accomplish the goal.”

Did the developers have too much influence over McGowan and the early city council?

“I don’t think so,” answered McGowan. “I think it’s a subtle distinction to make. I think we agreed with what they wanted to do. I don’t think we were doing it because it’s what they wanted to do.”

“Take (Frank) Ramos, for instance,” McGowan continued. “And I think we were fundamentally in support of Lighthouse, the other big project. . . We were a little naïve, there’s no question about that, I’m not going to over-defend it. Could we have been more knowledgeable about what to ask for, or looked at things more carefully? Of course.”

At the same time, said McGowan, this city was fighting its reputation as a dumping ground. Sacramento’s then-mayor, the late Joe Serna, famously vowed to keep state offices from moving to this side of the river, for example.

“This is the same environment where Mayor Serna is saying that we’re only good for truck stops and warehouses and he’ll put the kibosh on any state governing facilities coming over here,” recalled McGowan.

So West Sacramento fought for progress, and “the attitude was that we’re not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Did West Sacramento focus too much on developing industry at a cost to homes and other commerce?

“Well, only because that was the project that was in front of us, and it was so controversial – Ramos’s piece,” answered McGowan. “But we were even then looking at the riverfront and (removing its) tank farms, even though we didn’t know how to deal with that.”

Businessman Bill Ramos, for example, tried at one point to change his petroleum facility along South River Road to a commercial complex with a marina, McGowan recalls. While McGowan supported it, the early effort didn’t work.

Part of that riverfront and its oil tank farms along South River Road now seem to be finally at the beginning of a transition to higher, urban-style uses. The bridge named in McGowan’s honor last week has just connected that road to Southport, with related infrastructure changes on the drawing board. Together, they may help bring to fruition the dream of changing riverfront oil tank farms into riverfront restaurants, shops and condos.

Other proposed projects came and went. Frank Ramos tried to bring an auto mall to the area where Ikea now stands (McGowan favored the proposal because of the sales tax revenues it would bring). Later, when McGowan had moved on to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, Ramos championed building a tribal Indian casino at the same spot. The casino idea gained a lot of traction and drew a lot of controversy – arguments included jobs and economic growth, versus sin and social costs.

“I was vehemently against it,” said McGowan. “It was one of the few times in my 20 years on the board of supervisors where I came over (to the council) and said ‘This is a stupid thing and you shouldn’t do it.’”

McGowan credits City Councilman Oscar Villegas and other allies for doing the work that eventually defeating that proposal.

Later, the same developers succeeded with a far more popular project – the shopping center that includes Ikea, Walmart and surrounding retail stores.

One of the big changes that West Sacramento has experienced since 1987 is an invisible one – a change to its psyche.

“Being in West Sac is a blessing and a curse,” said McGowan. “Part of it is having an inferiority complex and the other part of it is having a chip on your shoulder. A part of you says, ‘Hey, I had to fight my way back across the bridge when I was in high school coming back from a teen dance, and I’ll fight you again.’ It’s the baseball-bat-in-the-trunk syndrome, and that was very much a part of who we were when we started out.”

Did this inferiority complex cause city officials to lower their standards or give away too much when dealing with developers?

“I think that’s partly true, but like any other generalization, it’s not completely true,” answered McGowan. “I’ll give you a case in point. When we incorporated, there was a developer and he owned a property just about where Nugget is, and he wanted to develop it. I was mayor. He came in and said ‘I want to develop this and that,’ and it was zero-lot-line cookie-cutter homes. Thousands of them.”

McGowan recalls telling him “that’s not what we want here.” The developer asked, “Well, what do you want?”

“Estates, million dollar places,” said McGowan. “He laughed and said ‘The market here won’t support that.’ I said, “Well, we’ll just wait for the market.’ He sold and left town.”

Was there an inflection point – a time when West Sacramento seemed to shed its inferiority complex and become a proud little can-do community?

McGowan points to the evening of May 15, 2000 – opening day for the River Cats minor league baseball team at Raley Field.

“The River Cats were the game-changer,” he said. “Opening night was the proudest moment I had since I got sworn in on the first council. . . All of a sudden, other than having nice communities, and Pheasant Club, and Whitey’s and their peach shakes, and the new homes being built, all of the sudden, there was a really gosh-darn good reason to live in West Sacramento.”

“People were sitting there (at the game), and they’d look at the panoramic view. . . and literally, people would say, ‘Honey, this is really nice over here. Why don’t we think about this? We were going to move to Roseville, but why don’t we look at these homes they’re advertising?’ It was amazing.”

Raley Field got built after West Sacramento essentially had to arm-wrestle with Sacramento for it. Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, McGowan believes, was behind a lawsuit that tried to block construction.

But building it, McGowan said, “has done more for us than virtually anything else.”

The early council decided to grow and develop the city’s way out of its problems, said McGowan. There was a possible downside to that:

“I had a concern that along the way – because I grew up with such a strong sense of community – we’d lose that. We’d become, you know, Natomas. But in fact – and I don’t understand this part – I think it’s only enhanced this sense. People who move to West Sac don’t have an inferiority complex. They think it’s great and they love the community atmosphere.”

The city has always been a city of different neighborhoods and of people who live “across the tracks” from each other In McGowan’s eyes, has the City of West Sacramento come together from the communities of Bryte, Broderick, “old” West Sacramento and Southport?

“Probably not,” he allowed. “It used to be the freeway and West Capitol Avenue that were basically the dividing line. I would say (the line) is shifting further south, and it’s now around the deep water channel. It continues to be the big challenge for the community, how to integrate. People try. The farmer’s market is a great example.”

But in general:
“West Sac has been fortunate or blessed, lucky or smart, whatever it is, that there’s been an agreement between elected officials, the professionals who run the nuts and bolts, and the community. There’s more concurrence about the direction of the community than there is disagreement.”
  Next week: problems at the port, and more.

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Copyright News-Ledger 2014

‘3 on 3’ basketball tournament coming


  Donte Greene’s “3-on-3 Jamboree” comes to the West Sacramento Recreation Center on Sat., Aug. 3. There are competitive divisions from age 14 and up, both men and women. Reserve your spot for $50; team registration is $125.

Visit www.westsacfun.org or call 617-4770.

Copyright News-Ledger 2012

Raiders drop opener; Beall shines in QB competition


Sophomore Kevin Burkes on a 95-yard touchdown run for the RC jayvees (Photo by DE'ONNA JACK)

Well, they knew they faced a challenge.

The River City Raiders opened the 2011 football season on the road against the number-six ranked Whitney Wildcats last Friday in Rocklin.

Whitney took control of the game with a 26 point second quarter, and never looked back, securing a convincing 39-0 victory.

The RCHS junior varsity fell by a score of 19-14 in a spirited back-and-forth affair that included a 95 yard touchdown run by Kevin Burkes.

Both teams are on the road again this Friday evening, taking on the Center High School Cougars of Antelope.

JOEY BEALL of RCHS: Runner-up among stiff regional competition (Photo by DE'ONNA JACK)

On the brighter side:

River City High quarterback Joey Beall shone brightly in the Aug. 19 “KCRA 3 High School Playbook Quarterback Combine – North, held at Grant High.

Almost 40 quarterbacks participated, competing in multiple events including accuracy and distance throwing.

Beall’s accuracy put him at the top of the leaderboard in round two, and he ended up tied with Roseville’s Zac Cunha. The pair dueled in a ‘sudden death’ elimination until Cunha emerged as winner.

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Copyright News-Ledger 2011