Interview with Jennifer West, Emeryville's Vice Mayor

Interview by Danny Host, Jr,

“Where I live, I’m represented at the State Assembly by Nancy Skinner, at the State Senate by Loni Hancock, in Congress by Barbara Lee, and in the Senate by Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. I think it’s not typical of the country, but I’m grateful for where I live, and the power of women in politics here is noticeable.”

Emeryville Vice Mayor and City Councilmember Jennifer West is a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. West has served as a councilmember since 2009, through a time of budget crisis. In November 2010, she was elected vice mayor by her colleagues on the city council. A mother of two daughters, ages five and ten, West has participated with fellow parents to set family-friendly city policy. West shares how she has successfully engaged and empowered her community while governing, and how she has strived to increase transparency.

PolicyMatters sat down with Vice Mayor West in the courtyard of her cohousing residence on April 1, 2011, to discuss civic participation, education policy, and women in politics.

Vice Mayor West earned her bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and her certificate in education at McGill University in Montreal. Her professional experience ranges from teaching and supervising student teachers to facilitating community meetings and working on state and local political campaigns. She served as the Assistant Finance Director for Barbara Boxer’s first Senate campaign. She was also an active member of the California Teachers Association, and has served on the bargaining team for her local union, the San Lorenzo Education Association (SLEA).

PolicyMatters Journal (PMJ): At a Goldman School forum, you mentioned you “look for more ways for the public to participate in the process.” How do you try to gain the participation of your constituents? Have your efforts been effective?

Vice Mayor West: It’s a mixed bag. There’s a flow of information that goes both ways. I inherited, from the city councilmember [who preceded me in office], a list of e-mail addresses that he had accumulated over time. This is a great tool for me to communicate with folks once a month. I post more frequently to my blog to get information out to the community.

I have, I think, an open and approachable attitude. So people stop me, talk to me, call me, or e-mail me partly because of the information that I give out and because they see me as someone they can relate to. I think having an open persona is an important tool also. I don’t think anyone else is doing as much outreach as I am doing. It is important.

One thing that I’ve really emphasized is trying to get folks to apply to vacancies on committees. We have a lot of committees; we have a need for interested and active members. Often we’ll have one or two vacancies and only one or two people applying, and I think that’s a shame. I mean, that’s nice that everyone who wants to get on [a committee] gets on, but I’m also looking for people with a progressive mind getting on, not just the same people. So I have encouraged people to apply to committees.

Finally, I try to get people to come to events. Because of my background as a facilitator, I think it’s really important for people to not just come and sit and listen, but also to have a chance to share their point of view. That doesn’t always happen, so I push for our staff to incorporate meaningful participation, not just the regular old “here’s what we’re doing” kind of stuff. There’s a lot of rubber stamping—“oh, yes, we had a public meeting and no one showed up” kind of thing, but that’s not good enough. All the consultants—and we hire a lot of consultants for projects in Emeryville because we have a small staff—if they’re doing something and they’re not getting a lot of public participation, then there’s something wrong. I know [strong public participation] is possible.

PMJ: What are some policy initiatives that you’ve pursued? How have you pursued them? And were you successful?

Vice Mayor West: One of our successes was saving the Emeryville Child Development Center from being outsourced. Staff recommended that we close it. The community really rallied, saying, “No, this is a great center. We like our center. We like the people who work here.”

This is an asset; this is our jewel. If you outsource it, number one, you’re going to have lower-paid staff because when you look around, daycare providers are generally low-paid. In the end, the Council did not go with the staff recommendation and decided to maintain the center with a pared-down budget. So we adopted a budget that then had to be implemented by a staff that didn’t really think it was wise. And it’s been seven, eight months now, and it’s still not going that well. It’s definitely not fully enrolled, which [is necessary] to make your budget balance.

As a policy, that’s not the way I would want things to go. It feels backwards. This kind of stopgap measure is not ideal because it doesn’t have the buy-in of the staff or the people who are implementing it. So we’re still kind of limping along. Yes, we saved the center. Long term, how is its viability? I don’t know; there still has to be some more work done on that.

PMJ: You were a teacher before joining the city council. Have you found opportunities to push education policy in Emeryville? If so, how?

Vice Mayor West: We have a really strong connection in Emeryville between the city council and the school board. We have monthly city/schools joint meetings. The main thing that we’ve worked on in concert with the school district is to build a new facility that would be joint-use. It would be a K-12 school, a rec center, and a library. So it incorporates city components and school components.

PMJ: Have you run into any difficulties in building this facility?

Vice Mayor West: Actually, we had to have state legislation, carried by Nancy Skinner (our Assembly member), to even make it possible for us to jointly own and run a facility like this. The governor, last year, signed legislation that would allow us to go forward on the project. The school district floated a bond measure last November, which passed handily for $90 million. We’re going to move forward on it. Now, with the state threatening to end use of redevelopment funds, it’s hard to know what the city’s participation will be, because the city is supposed to put in $25 million. We don’t know if the project would be deemed far enough along to withstand the legal scrutiny if redevelopment goes away under Jerry Brown’s recommendations. I am hopeful the project will go forward.

PMJ: How would this facility change the connection between Emeryville residents and their schools?

Vice Mayor West: When I first ran for council, I wasn’t sure that this facility was the best way for a small district like ours to use funds. But as a teacher, I know the importance of reaching out to the community through the students and through the schools. So, I feel good about this school facility as an example of community schools, going beyond just a traditional education structure. It’s cutting-edge, like Harlem Children’s Zone, among others. Emeryville has been touted as an example for others to follow.

The danger is in becoming a legacy project. There are people, I think, who really wanted to see this move forward before they retired from Emeryville public life, and may want to have their name on the plaque. That’s a danger. I think you really have to look carefully at what the needs are. However, I’m all for this project becoming the best project it can be. The community element will make it a better project and make it more meaningful for our schools. How do we cross the threshold where it’s going to bring together the whole community, as well?

I bring a family perspective to our city’s political leadership, and supporting the schools is just one element. I also advocate for more parks and open space, better connectivity, and better ability to get around town without a car—with a stroller, on a bike—and retail that is not meant to attract the regional shoppers, but where residents feel like we belong. We also need developments that encourage families to settle here and stay, with units that are bigger than a studio or a one-bedroom, with a safe play area. Cohousing is ideal for families. Affordable units are also important. To support the schools, we must build housing that supports more families, and the city now has that issue in mind. A Goldman student is doing her [advanced policy analysis project] for the city and school district this spring, looking at family-friendly housing policy. I can’t wait to read her report!

PMJ: As a woman in politics, do you feel like you’re in the minority?

Vice Mayor West: I think being a woman, and being a teacher, were distinct advantages for me in my campaign. There were three of us running—two men and me—and they were both businessmen. The ballot designations were businessman, businessman, teacher. It was a bump up for me being a woman on the ballot in that setting. If there had been a whole bunch of women running, it might have been different.

The other thing is that where I live, I’m represented at the State Assembly by Nancy Skinner, at the State Senate by Loni Hancock, in Congress by Barbara Lee, and in the Senate by Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. I think it’s not typical of the country, but I’m grateful for where I live, and the power of women in politics here is noticeable. It’s hard to find a man that has been elected here to a high-profile legislative office!