April 13, 2004 > Interview with Jan Perkins
Interview with Jan Perkins
TCV: The City of Fremont has grown in the past 12 years that you have been the city manager. What is your assessment of how the city has matured?
Perkins: I came in '92 and the growth from a rural area was in the '80s. That was the big spurt but there has certainly been growth in the last 12 years. I think that the real significant change is not necessarily in the numbers of people but in a couple of other areas. One is participation in the life of the community by people from all over the world. I mean more than politics, I mean service clubs, business, little leagues, schools, chamber of commerce and all aspects of the life of our community. Even though people from all over the world have been here for 25 or 30 years, it took - and I think it was a natural evolution - many years for them to be involved and establish a strong foundation. In some cases, members of the second generation are now very effective members of the community and are setting a path for the future. I had the pleasure of seeing that happen. That, to me, has been a very positive, strong thing.
The other thing is that over the last 12 years we've seen a shift from suburban to a more vibrant urban area with the positive attributes of the suburban. In other words, a low crime rate and a clean, well-maintained, highly educated community with people who own businesses.
TCV: So you think the continuing theme of Fremont is urbanization?
Perkins: I think it is. My hope is that we incorporated this in our strategic plan that goes out to 2020 - an urbanization including the best attributes of the former rural and certainly the suburban. People should feel safe living here, positive about the schools and engaged in the community and their neighborhoods.
TCV: Most cities grow from a center out, while Fremont was formed by combining five historic cities, each with their own identity. Do you support strong districts, each with its own identity?
Perkins: People all over the country yearn for neighborhoods. There's a strong desire to have an identity such as the district of Niles. Of course Niles is part of Fremont, but it doesn't take away from Fremont to say, "I'm proud that I live in Niles." I see that as strengthening. I've talked with a lot of founders of this community over the years because I have always felt that I needed to understand where Fremont history to be effective at doing my job.
People from five small towns had a unique vision. The founders said, "We're going to come together; we're going to draw a line around these five towns and become Fremont without district elections." They wanted to merge yet maintain their identity, and prevent any one of them becoming too powerful so they could be equally represented.
What I've seen over the years is that has been maintained. We all want Fremont, but we want to validate the fact that we have these five districts, and actually more than that. One of the things that our Office of Neighborhoods has been doing over the last several years is to work with the people who live in different parts of the city asking, "What do you want to be called?" When I think of the neighborhoods it's those five, but it's a whole lot more than five, too.
TCV: Warm Springs' historic structures have disappeared and other district commercial centers are being replaced by residential development and plans. Although there is a need for affordable housing, how will that be balanced with protecting commercial areas? It appears that the vision of city personnel has been suburban sprawl around a central district. How do you balance this with supporting economically viable districts?
Perkins: As cities evolve, markets and our tastes also evolve. That's why advertisers and marketing experts are always changing how we learn about products and what we think about products. The same is true for commercial areas. The market is moving in the direction of having commercial areas that are more compact.
People can park and walk around; go to a restaurant and a store, as opposed to what we have now which is really a holdover of the old model, which is commercial everywhere - spread out. In our strategic plan, we actually did a lot of work and talked to a lot of people in putting that together. One of our key objectives is creating interesting things and places to go. That model doesn't have to be just for downtown.
TCV: One of the challenges facing Fremont shoppers, especially in the historic districts, has been parking. Let's look at Bay Street as an example. The basic issue is always a lack of adequate and convenient parking.
Perkins: It has to be solved. That is a good example of where the staff is actually working on some possible opportunities with the post office to create parking. There has to be parking but parking should not drive it. The experts in developing these commercial areas always say "don't let parking problems stop you from doing development." People will say "parking is terrible at Fremont Plaza." I go there all the time and always find a spot within seconds. So, if people say that parking is a problem, I always ask them, I always go right back at people and say "what do you mean? Did you drive away because you didn't find a parking spot? Did you not stop at Barnes & Noble that day?" I've never had a person say "Yes, I drove away." They say "No, I finally got one back there." So I say, well what's the problem?
TCV: That may be the case in shopping centers with a large parking lot, but some of the districts, and Bay Street is a really good example, do not have large lots accessible to the general public, for adjacent businesses.
Perkins: I agree. It has to be solved. I think that there can be some agreement with the post office. There will be parking provided in Niles. Centerville is a little different because it has a major street going through. One of the things that I hope can occur in the future is slowing the traffic. I think that's going to be important. Traffic does need to be slowed down on Fremont Boulevard.
TCV: In your 12 years of local service, what accomplishments are you leaving for your successor that will be the basis for the future growth and prosperity of Fremont?
Perkins: The downtown is at the top of that list. I think the time is right now. We are on a critical path and there is an alignment of interests and opportunity. I want to be invited to the grand opening. That will be the next major phase for Fremont - to have a center, a heart. It can be complimentary to the historic districts and I think it will and should be. That's really the top of my list.
Certainly a continuation of the work in each one of these historic districts to make sure that they continue to be strong. I would add to that the strengthening of all the neighborhoods. Commercial is one side, but residential is another side that I think is very, very important. By way of projects, my successor will have an opportunity to view the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting for the grade separations [Washington Boulevard and Paseo Padre Parkway]. This is very unique. I have worked in five city governments in California for 20 years and it is very unique for a city government to take leadership for regional transportation. It's not glamorous. It's not very interesting to most people, but it's vital.
We will have had a major role in widening ten interchanges. Most cities wait for the state to do that. That's not what Fremont did. It took 20 years, and my successor will have the pleasure of helping cut the ribbon on the last one, Mission and 880. Fremont said "we want those interchanges widened" 20 years ago. These projects are the result of huge insight and vision. Amazing! I just can't emphasize how unique that is.
Without the staff it wouldn't have happened. When financial obstacles were in the way, the attitude was, "well, we don't have it yet, but we're going to find it." That happened, instead of "well, we don't have the money, I guess we can't do it." Again it's not glamorous. People don't care about it until they're at a bottleneck when they say "Why didn't...?" So I think that's going to be pretty exciting.
The new city manager will need to continue to focus on capital projects to make sure that the city is well-positioned. The other thing that I'm leaving for the new manager - and I would like an invitation when at the opening - is the BART station in Warm Springs. It is not just important to Fremont, but to the region.
Those are type of projects, but I think that the thing that I hope continues is, and I'm sure it will, a real deep commitment to public service and creating an environment where people can be successful. You know that Fremont is in the news a lot, including your paper, with conflicts. I think it's because we invite it, because we don't hide what we do. Our public process is very open. We have all kinds of meetings. If people want information, we ask people "do you want information?" We don't do everything perfectly, and I know that. Anybody in public service is fair game for criticism. I understand that. I understood that when I got into it years ago. We invite people to say what they think. I think that's the only way that Fremont's going to remain strong.
Fremont was founded by people who lived in unincorporated towns feeling that collectively they'd be a lot better off than each little town going its own way. That's really the foundation of Fremont - collective participation, collaboration and planning. Not just leaving things to chance. They were driven by planning. They were not driven by the basic services of city government - police and fire - but rather to control its own destiny.
TCV: What motivated your resignation at this time?
Perkins: People are looking for very deep dark secrets but actually, it's very simple. My husband and I really want to do some things. I have a very long list of "someday I will...'" I have been working 60, 70, 80 hour weeks for my entire career. That is not unique; most people who work do that. But I have decided that it is time for me and Sandy to start working on that other list and really put energy into travel. We have a house in Stockbridge Massachusetts. It's kind of a family house, but it's a house where we plan to spend time. I am going to start exploring other interests. I know that I will stay involved with public service because I'm just very committed to it, but I can find some new ways to do that.
TCV: Will you continue to reside in Fremont as well?
Perkins: We have a home in Laguna Beach, which is a home that Sandy has had since the mid 70's. We are going to move there.
TCV: Do you think that a decision, at least a preliminary decision, for a new city manager can be made prior to your departure?
Perkins: It really depends on how quickly the council and the recruiter can work together on the process. City managers all over the country and certainly all over California know that I'm leaving. I'm already getting phone calls. I will be one of the recruiters. I would say that it is possible, maybe not within the four months I will be here, but it's certainly possible within five or six months.
The city is hiring a professional recruiter. That's the only way a city manager can be hired. Good city managers will not even apply to a city that does not use a professional recruiter. I'm already getting phone calls. I don't think it will occur by the time I leave at the end of July but I think shortly within a couple of months after that it can. I think the staff here can certainly carry on. We have a very competent deputy city manager, Dave Millican who is perfectly capable of leading the ship during that entering period. One of the things that I really tried to do is create an organizational environment in which people can be successful, empowered to do their jobs and able to take responsibility and run with it.
TCV: Fremont is still facing a structural deficit. Income and expenses continue to diverge. How will this be solved?
Perkins: I think the economy will certainly chip away at it and the continued attraction of "big box" retail - in itself bit controversial, but nevertheless that's where the sales tax comes from. That's reality. As we have said at every budget update for the last two years, we have a structural gap that needs revenue, new revenue sources.
At some point it will be wise for the community to decide that it wants to fund itself, through local taxes, with enough money to ensure that basic services are covered. That is fundamental - we can't rely on the state anymore. We never asked them [the state] to give us any money, but we can't rely on them not to take it.
Raising additional revenue is a challenge. The consequences of reductions of police or even in fire are not obvious until you need that service. But the consequences of reductions in street slurry seal are already obvious. We already have a $33 million backlog that is growing every year. That is something that will have a direct impact on property values.
When I speak to community groups, one of the questions I get pretty often is, "What will we notice about the budget cutback?" I say you probably will not notice the cutbacks in police and fire unless you are the unfortunate victim of a crime or in need of a paramedic. There might be a delay. Otherwise, you're probably not going to notice. What you will notice is when you're driving down a street and see a pothole getting bigger and bigger. That's what you're going to notice.
At some point, the community would be advised to make sure that city revenues are not at the whim of the state or of the economy and that there is a fundamental revenue base to pay for an adequate, not the best, but an level of police, fire, maintenance and capital maintenance. A service level above that could rely on the economy or other questions to the voters. I think that we're going to need to do that in many, many communities. I was actually encouraged and surprised that almost all the local tax measures passed. In the entire Bay Area, I think one failed in Oakland.