As part of an ongoing series of interviews with community leaders, we spoke last week with this last election’s newcomer to government office, Geoff Ellsworth. As this board did not endorse Ellsworth in 2016 among the field of candidates for St. Helena City Council, in part because of his lack of relevant expertise, we have been watching his public evolution these last eight months with great interest. We’ve been eager for this chance to hear directly from him, to ask what he has learned thus far, and hear his assessment of current priorities for the city and the council.
Public service as an elected city leader can be demanding work, and has become increasingly specialized in recent years. As someone who had no prior government office or planning experience, Ellsworth has had a hard path to learn his job and be an effective council member. He is definitely putting in the time: In the eight months since the election, which bid goodbye to incumbent councilmembers and brought on board top vote-getter and planning professional Mary Koberstein in a campaign alliance with Ellsworth, he’s been working roughly 40 hours a week learning his job.
Ellsworth’s evolving approach to problem solving, stemming from his career as an artist and musician as well as an activist for slow regional growth, is an unusual addition to the traditional council mix of lawyers and business-focused folks and can make for occasional conflicts. (The frequent 3/2 vote splits on this city council was the subject of an earlier editorial discussion with council member Paul Dohring, who often casts the deciding “swing” vote.)
We are glad to see Ellsworth embrace the responsibilities of office, to be putting in those extra hours, and doing a lot of listening and, as he says, learning patience with the sometimes slow mechanisms of government. Ellsworth grew up in St. Helena and clearly loves this town. He still faces a steep learning curve in the specialized realm of council governance, but believes he now has a clearer idea of what’s needed here.
What are Ellsworth’s priorities now that he’s on the inside? Housing. Water, sewer and roads infrastructure. Getting facts, records, and financials straight at City Hall. Bringing a whole-region perspective to inform any choices about development, especially Adams Street.
This board is with Ellsworth on these priorities. But the devil is in the details. And just saying no is not a constructive path forward. We are glad to see this newcomer putting in the legwork and believe his fresh perspective on governance can be a positive for our town. We hope Ellsworth can continue to listen, learn and to harness the considerable energies he previously brought to his watchdog approach to work within the council system and the whole elected team.
Here are a few additional gleanings from our conversation with Ellsworth.
HOUSING: Ellsworth admits the only reason he’s able to afford to live here is that his parents bought a home here in the 1960s. That’s part of St. Helena’s problem — the lack of housing that’s affordable for working class families – and that’s one of the four challenges that he brought up when he met with our editorial board.
St. Helena needs an effective housing strategy, because our kids can’t move back here and younger families can’t move into town. Ellsworth calls the situation “critical” and believes that accessory dwelling units could be part of the solution. In these you take a larger home and split it into a main house and a granny unit, for example.
He said he’s been talking to city officials in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, because they essentially face the same issues. One solution could be off-site construction, pre-fab apartment units built in a warehouse and brought to the site. What we need is land for multi-family units, Ellsworth said, but not large projects.
More than once during the board’s conversation, Ellsworth spoke of St. Helena’s beautiful rural nature and the constraints of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. These two-lane roads have limited capacity to carry traffic. If St. Helena continues to approve commercial projects, whether they be more wineries or additional hotels, those projects will need workers. That’s just going to add to St. Helena’s housing shortage.
REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: Ellsworth said we need to look at development issues regionally, that we need to add American Canyon and Vallejo to the region of the Napa Valley. Vallejo has the capacity to absorb more tourists, hotels and wine production without overwhelming any one area.
We applaud Ellsworth’s willingness to look at problems Upvalley and address them regionally. We doubt that tourists looking for the Napa Valley experience want to visit Vallejo. It makes no sense to put them up in a hotel in Vallejo and then have them drive to Napa, Yountville or Upvalley, because that just adds traffic congestion on roads that are already jammed.
He claims that Calistoga made a mistake approving two hotel and housing projects – Silver Rose on Silverado Trail and Calistoga Hills on Highway 29 – without first talking to St. Helena, Yountville and Napa. His idea of a regional approach is talking about projects and assessing their impacts before they are approved, much less built. Without that conversation, he predicts a “hospitality arms race” in the Napa Valley.
CITY HALL: Ellsworth listed another challenge: the need to lock down the financial policies and procedures at city hall. They need to be consolidated, so that they are clear, either to new staff or to elected officials. That was clearly a priority for former City Manager Jennifer Phillips and it’s surprising that Ellsworth still finds a problem with the city’s financial record-keeping.
ADAMS STREET: Also surprising is his stance on developing the Adams Street parcel. He disagrees with Mayor Alan Galbraith. He said there’s no need to rush to act on any of the three hotel projects proposed. Instead he wants to wait for the results from a study determining what the city owns, what each property is worth, and the best use of each of those properties.
He admitted that St. Helena needs a new city hall and police department, but added, “I’m not sure a hotel on Adams Street is the best way to do it.”
INFRASTRUCTURE: Ellsworth also spoke about the need for sewer and water improvements, which are covered in the recently approved $40 million Capital Improvement Project and suggested the city should consider improving its wastewater treatment plant to a higher treatment level, so the city can recycle the water.