San Rafael's Mayor Gary Phillips
Being mayor of Marin’s largest city is only one of his many life pursuits.
GARY PHILLIPS HAS a lot going on. Look up in the sky, Gary Phillips is piloting a four-seat Beechcraft; at home and in the community, he’s a husband of 46 years and the father of three children; in the business world, he’s a successful MBA and a CPA; on the golf course, he’s a member of the Olympic Club in San Francisco who holds a single-digit handicap; and on the highways, he’s driven a vintage automobile in four Great Races across America.
Gary Phillips is also the mayor of San Rafael. San Rafael is Marin’s largest city, with nearly 60,000 residents and a budget approaching $100 million, and it’s the county’s only city where citizens elect a mayor.
But Phillips is no one-term wonder. He was first elected San Rafael’s mayor in 2011 by besting a strong opponent; then he ran unopposed for the office in 2015. Phillips claims his political career, if you choose to call it that, began with coaching youth sports. Then, as he enjoyed that involvement and neighbors responded to his demeanor, Phillips went on to serve on the Dixie District School Board, the San Rafael Planning Commission, and the San Rafael City Council for 12 years and eventually as mayor.
After growing up in the California desert town of Palmdale, Phillips graduated from Northern California’s Humboldt State University. He and wife Linda moved to Marin in 1972 and live in the San Rafael community of Terra Linda. Their son and two daughters are college graduates who work in aerospace and in education.
What is going on in San Rafael?
There’s a lot going on. Across Fifth Avenue from City Hall, a $46 million, 38,000-square-foot public safety building is under construction that will house both our fire and police departments. Our old downtown fire station was built in the 1900s and it was one of my first concerns as a city council candidate — back in 1996. So, when I first became mayor, I rather cavalierly proposed a quarter of a cent sales tax increase to build a modern facility and the voters agreed and supported the effort. Now, we’re rebuilding three of our [seven] stations and significantly repairing the others. We plan for the new public safety facility to be operational within the next two years. We’re also building a new $25 million fire station near San Rafael High School and another new one near the county civic center. As for what’s happening downtown, Paul Goldstone, a Berkeley developer, plans to build, in [an effort that will take] about three years, a San Rafael Market Hall to be located on Fourth Street. It will be like market halls he has in Berkeley and Oakland; they’re like the San Francisco Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. It will transform and further revitalize our downtown.
Isn’t BioMarin about to construct another building near downtown San Rafael?
There’s another great story. BioMarin, the pharmaceutical firm, is planning a five- or six-story building with labs and offices on the old PG&E site between Second and Third streets. This will bring 500 new jobs into San Rafael on top of the 1,100 BioMarin jobs that are already here. And what’s interesting to me, acting almost on their own, BioMarin agreed to accommodate Whistlestop, the senior services center, in their new building. So, there’ll be a Whistlestop clubhouse and cafe on the ground floor and 42 affordable senior housing units on the upper floors.
What about SMART? The commuter rail line currently ends in San Rafael, but construction is underway that will take it down to Larkspur. How’s that proceeding?
I’m also on SMART’s board so I’ve got a handle on what’s happening there. As you said, SMART’s 43-mile line down from Santa Rosa ends in San Rafael. And, by the way, after one year, SMART is doing well; our goal was to transport 3,000 people a day and we’re now transporting about that number of riders, and it’s growing. As for the $55 million extension to near the Larkspur Landing ferry terminal, it is well under construction and should be open by late 2020. Of course, that will require moving the existing Bettini Transportation Center [the new tracks will bisect the site], which serves buses, and we’re now looking at five sites in San Rafael for that center and it looks like it’s been narrowed down to two nearby locations. But it will be well into the 2020s before the transportation center is moved.
On the not-so-bright side, how is the vexing problem of homelessness evolving?
There’s some good news here too. Working with the county, we’ve just found housing for the 100th person under what’s called Coordinated Entry. This approach turns solving the homeless problem on its head. Instead of housing the most accommodating of the homeless, we identified the chronically homeless — the ones with the most needs, the ones constantly causing problems — and found housing for them. As I said, 100 of the homeless who generate the most complaints now have housing and, hopefully, will no longer be sleeping on the street. Marin, I’ve been told, is now on pace to be the first Bay Area county to end chronic homelessness. That’s good news.
Staying with the homeless, what’s the bad news?
Perhaps of significance to many cities, including San Rafael, is addressing the consequences of a recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruling (Martin v. City of Boise) that basically prohibits enforcement against any homeless person on public property on any night when no shelter had an available overnight space. Therefore, like virtually any other city in the state, our city may be required to provide such overnight space. We’re not sure what that looks like, but we are attempting to assess the possible impacts of this ruling.
You have a very full life.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this belief — probably from my folks — that success in life has three legs or pillars. One is your personal and family life; another is your business and financial life; and the third leg is how you’re involved with your community and contribute to it. And if you work on those three categories and succeed in them equally, you’ll have a good life; you’ll be content with your life as you go through it. I’ve been very fortunate in that it has worked that way for me.
What advice do you have for a person who wants to contribute to his or her community but doesn’t know where to start?
First, pick something that interests you and that you enjoy doing. For me it was youth sports, and the more I did, the more I enjoyed doing it — and liked interacting with the people I met. Then, as I wanted to do more, these folks encouraged and supported me. But you shouldn’t get involved expecting to be appreciated or hailed as a hero. Because a lot of what you’ll do is thankless; many people will never notice it. And when your involvement gets too much like work, pull back. I did that once and have never regretted it. Also, know when to stop. People have asked me about the state Assembly or running for a higher office, but no thanks, I have no interest. I like where I am and what I am doing. We’re getting things done in San Rafael and I really like that.
Back to the personal side, what is in the future for Gary Phillips?
My second term as mayor expires in spring of 2020. Will I re-up for a third term? Don’t know. We’ll see. I am enjoying the job.