For small town electorates, leadership transitions — and the sometimes-emotional campaigns that precede them — tend, in the months afterward, to leave many stirred-up, a bit defensive of their “side,” and wary of change. Voters for both winners and losers remain sincerely concerned about how the new team will handle the complex questions that continue to face our city government and community.
St. Helena faces a lot of challenges, from housing to infrastructure to the increasing threat of wildfires. Is our city government — the staff, the council, the commissions and committees, and of course, our new mayor — up to solving these problems?
This board has been following council developments closely and were glad for the opportunity last week to put this question to the two top leaders of our town, City Manager Mark Prestwich and Mayor Geoff Ellsworth. Together they laid out the city’s road map for 2019 and beyond.
Our bottom line assessment? We’re in prime position to overcome those challenges, thanks to competent leadership and staff, an engaged citizenry, and revenue from a new half-cent sales tax, the Las Alcobas Hotel, and the new hotel tax.
Ellsworth’s tenure is off to a busy start. He’s joined the Napa Valley Transportation Authority, sought partnerships with the county and Cal Fire, and used his bully pulpit to advocate for emergency preparedness. When we saw him, he was proudly sporting a red backpack containing emergency supplies, available for purchase at redcross.org.
He and the council set policy and leave the execution to Prestwich and his capable team led by managers, including two that we’ve met with: Public Works Director Erica Ahmann Smithies and Planning Director Noah Housh.
But let’s not get complacent. We’ll need all the money and talent we can muster to get through the busy next few years.
First, the council is working on a crucial and long-overdue comprehensive housing strategy. Ellsworth wants to take a holistic and strategic approach to the problem in hopes of avoiding the neighborhood opposition that can drag down even the best projects.
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The housing strategy is closely linked to the General Plan update. The Planning Commission is poised to forward the long-anticipated plan to the council, with the recommendation that the council adopt it now with minimal changes and fix any imperfections later through the amendment process. Ellsworth supports that approach. So do we.
Amid heightened awareness of the threat of wildfires, Ellsworth is working with Supervisor Diane Dillon and Cal Fire on setting up firewise councils just outside the city limits and seeking grants to clear brush from the most fire-prone areas inside and outside the city. Expect a few emergency preparedness workshops, the first tentatively scheduled for Saturday, April 13.
And then there’s infrastructure, starting with an ambitious survey of the city’s underground pipes and a long-term plan to maintain them. Finding money can be tricky, especially for the storm drains. Unlike the water and sewer systems, the storm drains lack a dedicated revenue source, so the General Fund has to bear the brunt.
Meanwhile, the city is investing in public buildings that were neglected during the recession. The library is getting a new roof and City Hall already got some unavoidable emergency repairs during the last storm, even as officials consider the design and functionality of a new City Hall.
Finally, there are ongoing projects like the removal of the Upper York Creek Dam, which will start this year, and the downtown streetscape project, which is just entering the conceptual stage.
The coming year will be a crucial one for all of the projects we’ve mentioned, so we plan to check in with Ellsworth and Prestwich on a quarterly basis.
For now we believe that despite the challenges the city faces, St. Helena is continuing in a positive direction.