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Mike McGowan: the man whose name is on West Sac’s newest bridge

NEWS-LEDGER — DEC 3, 2014 —

By Steve Marschke
News-Ledger Editor

  EDITOR’S NOTE: Friday (Dec. 5), West Sacramento officials will cut the ribbon on a new bridge across the barge canal. The bridge is a few hundred yards west of the existing bridge that takes Jefferson Boulevard over the same canal. It will provide a new connection between Southport and the freeway and other points north.
  In another year or so, the new bridge will fully connect South River Road north of the canal to Village Parkway in the south.

  The bridge’s name?

  It will be called the “Mike McGowan Bridge,” in honor of the city’s first mayor.

   Earlier this year, the News-Ledger sat down with McGowan for a wide-ranging chat about his experiences and service in this city. With the planned opening of the Mike McGowan Bridge this week, perhaps this is a good time to bring that interview to you.

  We’ll present it in multiple parts starting here this week.

__________

It was midget car racing that brought Mike McGowan to West Sacramento in the early 1950s.

mcgowan michael 2014 by news-ledger  “We moved here when I was probably about five,” recalled McGowan, talking from a chair in Southport’s Eagle Café. “We came here from the Bay Area. My father was essentially a concessionaire. His business model was to sell beer, soda, hot dogs, popcorn and whatnot at different race tracks around the state.”

At the time, West Sacramento was home to a popular track on West Capitol Avenue called the “Capital Speedway.” The roar of the engines was a familiar sound in the air on Saturday nights. The speedway attracted McGowan senior.

“He liked the town, and moved us up here. It was quarter-mile dirt tracks,” said McGowan, 66. “This was right after the war, and dirt track racing was becoming more and more popular. At that time, the cars were called ‘midgets.’ They were little open-cockpit cars, mini-roadster cars. After the war, we started seeing what we called jalopies, which were modified street cars. The guys would take all the glass out, put roll bars around them, hop up the engine and cut out the wheel wells. It was the ultimate entry-level racing, very amateur.”

When the track’s owner contemplated shutting it down, the elder McGowan took over as its promoter to keep it going (and kept it going into the 1970s).

“That’s where I grew up,” recalls Mike McGowan. “That’s how I grew up – selling popcorn, cleaning the bathrooms, doing anything and everything that had to be done. It was a family business and everybody worked in some capacity.”

The track provided family entertainment, he said, although “the families could be a little rough.”

“Especially the jalopy types – but they were all good, hardworking people. It was a wonderful place for a kid. In those days, we could hire a 12 year old, give them a basketful of peanuts, and they could work all night and make a dollar-fifty. For me, it was also the place where I could watch this incredible array of mankind. I learned a lot. . . There were a lot of interesting characters on the racetrack!”

McGowan spent most of his elementary school years at Westmore Oaks Elementary School, then Westacres School, following that up at James Marshall High. He met his future wife, Sue, there. He graduated in 1966 and went to Sacramento City College.

But:

“I flunked out because I was in a band and having way too much fun,” he remembers. (He still plays drums in a popular local band).

That was during the Vietnam War, and there was a draft going on. McGowan rated high on the draft list.

“I was classified 1A, and I didn’t want to be drafted, so I joined the Marine Corps,” he chuckled. “That was a 19-year old’s logic.”

But he said the decision to join up was really a little more complicated than that. At college, McGowan had met some returned veterans and had been impressed.

“None of them had been in a war zone, but they had these great stories about being in Germany, or wherever they had been stationed. . . I believed at the time that this (war) was going to be my generation’s story. And I didn’t want to be 50 years old, sitting around when guys are telling their story, and I didn’t have one.”

“There was anti-war sentiment, there were protests, there were people going to Canada” to avoid the draft,” he added. “But West Sacramento in 1966-67 was a very patriotic, blue-collar, middle class town. VFW (the patriotic Veterans of Foreign Wars organization) loomed large in our world.”

“Most of our fathers had been in the war – not that they were rah-rah for us to go,” he continued. “My friend’s father, who had been in the Pacific in World War II, was basically telling me ‘don’t go, you don’t want to go to war.’ But at 19, I was invincible.”

McGowan was sent into the Marines and “lucked out,” he said. He was assigned to artillery, and was a section chief for a 105 millimeter Howitzer gun for 13 months, mostly in 1968.

He came home from Vietnam in one piece and turned Sue Barber into Sue McGowan. Then:

“I went to work for PG&E as a field clerk,” McGowan recalled. “I’m proud to say I was the world’s worst field clerk. It was a terrible job. I was sitting there one day, talking to a co-worker, and all he did every day was talk about retirement. I was 21 years old, working, trying to start my family. I had this epiphany, that I did not want to be sitting here at 38 (like that coworker) counting the years to retirement. I decided, ‘I’m getting out now.’”

He went back to school on the GI bill, graduating from Sacramento State and then from McGeorge School of Law.

“I wasn’t a master student, but I got through,” said McGowan. “I opened my own office January 1, 1977, just about where the massage parlor is over by West Sacramento Land Company (near Merkley and Jefferson). I wound up doing almost extensively indigent defense. I was a private attorney but I was doing public defender work, both in Yolo and Sacramento. I was doing lots and lots of trials, which I truly enjoyed.”

McGowan kept a hand in his practice through his later years on the West Sacramento City Council, and into his the first years of his service on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. He had a partner only briefly, but shared an office at various times with Clark Cameron and with Doris Shockley (who later became a Yolo judge).

Meanwhile, what’s now the City of West Sacramento was really just a group of neighborhoods in what was called “East Yolo,” governed by the county supervisors in Woodland. It was a troubled area, and dissatisfaction was brewing. There were a couple of failed attempts at shaping part of the area into a new city.

McGowan was still in college in 1976 when one of those efforts sprouted and dried up.

“I had virtually no role,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I went to some hearings with (the late activist) Grace Ohlson. I wound up writing a paper about the incorporation.”

Then, in 1986, a new incorporation effort sprang up. This one was championed by a variety of people, including enthusiastic citizens. Developers and other businesspeople provided most of the campaign funds.

“The motivation primarily was that we were sending a lot of tax money over there (to Yolo County), and we weren’t liking what we were getting back,” remembered McGowan. “Also, we don’t need those folks from Davis and Woodland telling us how to live our lives.”

The community also was unhappy with crime and the services provided by the county sheriff’s department, and it was fed up with the “sin city” character of its decaying main street, West Capitol Avenue. That was a place were prostitutes were commonplace and respectable people didn’t linger.

“There was a growing dissatisfaction with the sheriff’s department and the way they were treating us,” said McGowan. “Rod Graham was the sheriff at that particular time and he didn’t have anything good to say about us.”

Also, McGowan said, “there’s no question that development – the monied interests that are here – wanted to have greater influence over the governing body and would rather have a group of local policy makers than have to go to Woodland and Davis to get their stuff approved. . . This successful incorporation was, as you know, significantly backed by development money and the business community – (Frank) Ramos, (Tom) Raley. Those folks over here, for a variety of reasons that were not all self-serving. But certainly there was a feeling that hey, we want to have our own team here to work with.”

McGowan gives credit to people like County Supervisor Clark Cameron (an “unsung hero” of the effort) and Jake Misfedt (who actually “wasn’t a fan of incorporation”) for paving the way for the separate communities of Bryte, Broderick, “old” West Sacramento and Southport to become one city. They laid groundwork including arranging a county incorporation study and consolidating the various communities’ water and fire services.

Cameron also helped create a “redevelopment agency” in what later became West Sacramento, drawing out a large mapped-out area which would help keep in more of its property tax money local to pay to fight blight. The city kept that agency until recently, and although some aspects of it were controversial, the redevelopment agency helped to fund many of the city’s bridges, roads and other infrastructure.

“There was an evolution, then there was a revolution,” said McGowan.

At the same time voters were asked to vote up or down on incorporation in November of 1986, they were asked to choose from a slate of candidates who would serve as the first five people on the city council.

“It was a beauty contest – a popularity contest,” he remarked with a chuckle.

McGowan was on that list, and he drew the most votes. Does that mean he won the beauty contest?

“Go figure that one out!,” he answered.

Today’s elections in West Sacramento are fairly sophisticated, with money raised and spent and most of the campaigning done with mailers and other impersonal communication. Then, it was different.

“I wasn’t politically involved when I ran for city council,” said McGowan. “I was sitting there watching everybody else sign up for this thing. I was thinking, ‘I know this guy, I know that guy, I can do a better job than they can.’ And I thought it would be fun. I’d do one term and get out.”

As for some of the other candidates:

“Ben Davis was the only candidate who ran opposed to incorporation, but he wasn’t able to articulate that in a very effective way,” McGowan remembers. “And then Mike Zimmerman, a barber, was in it, Fred Pierini was in it, Bob Mahalisin was in it – it was 21 people It was the best campaign I’ve ever been in. We were making it up, no one knew what they were doing.”

“We’d go to candidates’ nights,” he recalled. “There were about 12 or 13 of us who were serious, and we’d go to the candidates forums and then we’d all go to dinner afterwards, and say ‘yeah, I got you on that one!’ and ‘yeah, you didn’t know the answer to that question, but I did!’ And then on election night, instead of going to our own little camps, we all went to the El Rancho (a hotel near the current city hall) and watched the results come in together. It was entirely different atmosphere.”

Turnout was high, and incorporation passed with an approval rating that was “off the charts.”. The new council was scheduled to take office and take charge of a city just a half-year later – in January, 1987. Questions about everything from land uses to policing would fall on their laps. The other council members-elect agreed that McGowan, top vote-getter in that election, would be the first mayor.

“Being the first mayor, to this day, is the most fun I ever had,” said McGowan. “It was fantastic.”

  Next week: Finding some police, fighting zoning wars. 

The new bridge is sited off to the right in this modified City map. It will cross the barge canal from South River Road from the north. Eventually, it will connect with Village Parkway. Construction may start on that extension sometime after mid-summer of next year.

The new bridge is sited off to the right in this modified City map. It will cross the barge canal from South River Road from the north.
Eventually, it will connect with Village Parkway. Construction may start on that extension sometime after mid-summer of next year.

  Do you like what you see here?

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  You can even try it for free for two months if you live in West Sacramento. Just send your name and mailing address to FreeTrial@news-ledger.com (offer open to new subscribers in West Sacramento ZIP codes 95691 & 95605).

Copyright News-Ledger 2014

Tree-lighting party this Friday

Santa and hundreds of your neighbors will be on hand Friday evening for music and a tree-lighting party in front of city hall, as they were at this party from a past year. Santa traditionally arrives atop a fire engine. (News-Ledger file photo)

Santa and hundreds of your neighbors will be on hand Friday evening for music and a tree-lighting party in front of city hall, as they were at this party from a past year. Santa traditionally arrives atop a fire engine.
(News-Ledger file photo)

FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — DEC 3, 2014 —

The West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce announces a celebration during the lighting of the “community tree” on Friday, Dec. 5, from 6-8:30 p.m. in front of city hall (1110 West Capitol Ave.). Music, holiday refreshments, and kids can get a picture taken while on Santa’s lap. Free. For information, call 371-7042.

  Do you like what you see here?

  You can support local journalism, support this website, and see all the News-Ledger’s articles every week! Subscribe to the News-Ledger newspaper. It’s only $20 per year within West Sacramento – once a week, delivered to your mailbox.

  You can even try it for free for two months if you live in West Sacramento. Just send your name and mailing address to FreeTrial@news-ledger.com (offer open to new subscribers in West Sacramento ZIP codes 95691 & 95605).

Copyright News-Ledger 2014

River City students climb a roof and aim for the sun

    A solar voltaic panel is passed to the roof of an Alabama Avenue home, as students in the high school’s enginnering and science academy learn how to install a sun-powered system. (Photo by Al Zagofsky/News-Ledger) NEWS-LEDGER -- NOV 26, 2014 --

A solar voltaic panel is passed to the roof of an Alabama Avenue home, as students in the high school’s engineering and science academy learn how to install a sun-powered system. (Photo by Al Zagofsky/News-Ledger)
NEWS-LEDGER — NOV 26, 2014 —

NEWS-LEDGER — NOV 26, 2014 —

By Al Zagofsky
News-Ledger Correspondent

For Fay and Russell Landry, one sunny day leads to another, for on Tuesday, November 18 they received a free photovoltaic solar energy system that not only will nearly eliminate their electrical costs while contributing to a greener planet, but offered the opportunity to River City High School students to be part of their solar system installation.

The solar system installation and teaching program was coordinated by Hillary Tellesen – volunteer training coordinator at GRID Alternatives, “GRID Alternatives and the Yolo Office of Education have developed a partnership to have the River City High School students come out and learn about solar installation,” she explained. “We are funded through the California Solar Initiative and through corporate donations.”

The nonprofit works with lower income homeowners, in sunny areas, and with roofs less than 12 years old to install solar systems.

GRID Alternatives  has been working with Deborah Bruns, the science coordinator at the Yolo County Office of Education. “My role in the county office is to connect teachers with resources that help them and their students,”  she explained. “One focus right now is to give students real world experiences that might get them excited about college and careers in a variety of fields, but particularly in the sustainable energy field.”

Solar voltaic panel is placed onto an array rack by, left to right: Estefano Arellano, a senior at River City High School; Nidhi Solanki - a volunteer from  UC Davis; and Mike Scharma - the solar installation supervisor with GRID Alternatives.  (Photo by Al Zagofsky for the News-Ledger)

Solar voltaic panel is placed onto an array rack by, left to right: Estefano Arellano, a senior at River City High School; Nidhi Solanki – a volunteer from UC Davis; and Mike Scharma – the solar installation supervisor with GRID Alternatives.
(Photo by Al Zagofsky for the News-Ledger)

“I am excited about this program because I think that students often don’t know how they’re learning in class applies to the real world, and how it might apply to them as citizens, as consumers, and as workers,” Bruns continued. “I think becoming familiar with the solar energy industry is an exciting opportunity.”

“There are jobs available now and in the future, and they may as citizen consumers may one day have solar panels on their own house. The city of West Sacramento has really made it possible by putting money towards education for kids.”

Mike Scharma – the solar installation supervisor with GRID Alternatives, directed the installation and the instruction of the students. “We are installing a 2.04 kW solar array using eight 255-watt panels which is designed to supply close to 100 percent of the family’s usage,” he said. According to Scharma, the system would have cost upwards of $10,000, and would be eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit.

Scharma and his construction assistant, Anton Muller, instructed the students in the cutting and bending of electrical conduit, the splicing of mounting rails, and the installation of solar panels.

“This program is awesome because the kids not only learn what’s in the classroom but they also get hands-on experience on real-life applications on what they learned in the classroom,” noted Sedikeh Yusufi, Engineering and Science Academy teacher at River City High School.

Estefano Arellano, a senior at River City High School climbed unto the roof to complete the installation. “This is a good project that the school Incorporated because it gives students a hands-on experience at something they may want to do in the future,” he said.

Dan Beveridge – outreach coordinator with GRID Alternatives  works with families to qualify them for the program. “I’ve been walking the streets of West Sacramento, almost all of it at this point,” he said, “trying to find clients. We are still looking to get 40 more clients this year.” Interested homeowners may call Dan at 530-680-3852.

Homeowners Fay and Russell Landry, shown above on their porch, said that both the installation by the students and the solar system were “awesome” and “exciting.”  (Photo by Al Zagofsky)

Homeowners Fay and Russell Landry, shown above on their porch, said that both the installation by the students and the solar system were “awesome” and “exciting.”
(Photo by Al Zagofsky)

Homeowners Fay and Russell Landry said that both the installation by the students and the solar system were “awesome” and “exciting.” In June 2014, they purchased their Alabama Ave. home in West Sacramento.

“I think it is very important to have collaboration between businesses, nonprofits, city agencies, and schools because students can actually be a force for change and help out on projects like this while they are learning,” added Deborah Bruns. “So it’s a win-win for the school and for the community. But it does take all of us working together and collaborating to make it happen.”

  Do you like what you see here?

  You can support local journalism, support this website, and see all the News-Ledger’s articles every week! Subscribe to the News-Ledger newspaper. It’s only $20 per year within West Sacramento – once a week, delivered to your mailbox.

  You can even try it for free for two months if you live in West Sacramento. Just send your name and mailing address to FreeTrial@news-ledger.com (offer open to new subscribers in West Sacramento ZIP codes 95691 & 95605).

Copyright News-Ledger 2014