April 19, 2011 > Elected to city council - now what?
Elected to city council - now what?
By William Marshak
Union City elected three new members to its city council last year. TCV separately interviewed Councilmembers Emily Duncan and Pat Gacoscos in mid-February to find out how they view their new responsibilities.
TCV: Did the economy play a role in your decision to seek office?
Duncan: Yes. It was one of the reasons I decided to run for office. Union City was about to lose three of five long term councilmembers and with them, much knowledge, history and experience. I was concerned about a knowledge and leadership gap during these difficult times of hard decisions. I have never run for office before and did do so for a political career.
TCV: Has your experience on city council met expectations?
Duncan: There is a lot more work to it than I expected. I attended city council meetings for several years before deciding to run. What is seen at city council meetings is the culmination of a lot of work hidden from view. I serve on many committees and hear the opinions of many community members through emails and phone calls. It is exciting for me to know that people care and make the effort to write and talk with me.
TCV: Do you think it is easier to speak up since many councilmembers are new?
Duncan: The dynamic would be different if I was the only new person on the council. Because the majority of us are new, there are a lot of questions and a need to help us understand a bigger context, the history of an issue. Staff prepares reports with a history and the reason for discussion. They are educating and informing us. If most of us were not new, the conversation would probably begin as a continuation of previous conversations.
TCV: How much time do you spend during an average week on council business?
Duncan: About 3-4 hours of preparation every day. In a recent week, I spent every night at meetings related to council business, committee meetings, sub-committee meetings, etc. I believe a significant amount of preparation is necessary to understand issues and add value to the conversation.
TCV: How were you assigned to outside committees as a councilperson?
Duncan: We [councilmembers] were asked to select the committees that were of interest to us. Some committee assignments were made when no one expressed interest but Union City needed representation. I now serve on six committees. I wanted to serve on the Youth Violence Prevention Advisory Board and also serve on the Fire Commission. As an alternate to our mayor, I serve on the Alameda Transportation Commission (ATC). Discussions at an ATC meeting is like hearing a different language so I have a lot to learn. I need to learn how outside commissions and boards connect to us in Union City.
TCV: How has your role of councilperson affected your personal life?
Duncan: It forces me to pay more attention to things going on in my community - lights, fences, garbage, etc. I now have a different consciousness of my city and am working hard to come 'up to speed' as with any new job. I talk with people differently and am interested in subjects that previously would not have been of high importance to me. Serving as councilmember has become a big part of my life in terms of how I live it. I spend a lot of time in public places where I can listen to people. It is very exciting and a privilege and honor to serve as city councilperson.
TCV: How does this affect your family?
Duncan: I am comfortable with continuing to say what I said during my campaign and able to respond to others with integrity and consistency. This is important to me; I do not see myself as a politician. I am on council to represent the thoughts of our community. In order to do the right thing for my community and our city, I do my homework, roll up my sleeves and read the information provided, go to council meetings and talk to the community.
It is my sense that most people do not see city councilmembers as special people. When we are out and about, for the most part, people do not make a big deal of the fact that I am a city councilmember. My husband is very supportive gives me his perspective which can make things interesting and exciting. To my knowledge, no one has approached him as the husband of a city councilmember.
TCV: Do your friends approach you differently?
Duncan: No. The reality is that most people do not pay much attention to city and local politics unless it directly affects them. This surprises me now and did during my campaign. Most people are caught up in their own lives and not as engaged as I thought they were.
The way to engage people is to help them see that city council actions affect their lives in a good way. When good things happen, we have to impress our constituents with the impact of local government. So often people only hear the bad news and do not connect positive things with the people they elected. We need to do a better job of communicating with our communities and find ways for people to take more ownership of the process. I encourage more people to become involved; the community needs citizen talent and expertise to make it great.
TCV: What advice would you give to a candidate for office?
Duncan: To know the City as well as possible. Even though I attended city council meetings, there is so much that goes on behind the scenes. Attending Planning Commission meetings gives an understanding of land use decisions and developments. My background is in human relations and I opted for service on the Human Relations Commission rather than serve on the Planning Commission. I am not unhappy with that decision, but there is much that council considers that stems from Planning Commission actions. It is also wise to understand what each commission does and how their decisions affect city business.
TCV: Why did you decide to run for city council?
Gacoscos: I have been active in the community for many years and served as a member of the New Haven Unified School Board (1992-2000) and Unified Sanitary District Board of Directors (2004-2010). I believe in serving my community and this is something I can do to contribute. In general, the reason I ran for office is to serve my community. I think that I have been able to do quite a bit. In the Philippines I would probably still be a low-salaried teacher but here I have been able to experience the advantages of being an American. I want to give back some of what I have gained. I hope my service has created change for the better.
TCV: Has the workload been more than you anticipated?
Gacoscos: Although I expected quite a bit of work, the workload has been more than I anticipated. Not only do I attend council meetings, but spend time preparing for them and listening to people and organizations that need attention.
TCV: Are you spending much time attending committees representing Union City?
Gacoscos: There is more to this position that attending meetings and events in Union City. Each councilmembeer has individual assignments for commissions and agencies - library commission, housing, transportation, etc. If I counted all the meetings I attend, it would probably amount to about eight meetings a week.
TCV: How does your family feel about this?
Gacoscos: When I considered running for office, I spoke with my family about how this might affect us. Even with all of my responsibilities, I cook dinner every day and have family time together. I have been involved with many community organizations so they are used to me being high profile.
TCV: Do you act differently as a councilperson?
Gacoscos: I have to be more careful with my opinions especially with ongoing City projects. When I speak about some things, I try to make sure that what I say now doesn't haunt me later. I have matured in how I listen to others and consider their ideas. My decisions are based on what I believe is best for the community rather than just my own personal opinion. Since not everyone will be pleased with all my decisions, I must have a thick skin... at least on the outside.
TCV: Do you think other councilmembers respond in similar ways?
Gacoscos: When I was at a workshop for new councilmembers held by the League of California Cities in Sacramento, we shared our thoughts and I found that we had the same concerns and expectations. On the Union City City Council, we share a basic level of knowledge and ask many questions. We debate but remain respectful of each other. I am working to fulfill the expectations of those who elected me.