The Marin County supervisor from Ross Valley talks about the county, SMART, MEA, desal—and his cousin, California’s governor-elect, Jerry Brown.
Hal Brown is a vanishing breed. He is a plain-talking politician who likes to get things done—and he’s accomplished a lot. “Ten years ago, I considered running for the state Assembly,” says the Marin County supervisor, “but after looking at it closely, I saw I couldn’t get anything done in Sacramento, so I remained a Marin County supervisor and it’s been the best job in the world.” Brown has represented Marin’s 2nd District for 28 years.
So what are his achievements? Remember the 2005 floods that inundated parts of San Anselmo, Fairfax, Ross and Larkspur? “There was $120 million in damages throughout the county,” Brown says. “Their downtown was under four feet of water.” You’d think resolving something that devastating would be easy. It was not. “Truthfully, I’ve been working on our flooding problem for over 25 years,” Brown says with a chuckle.
However, following the 2005 disaster something had to be done. With Brown leading the way, the Ross Valley Flood Control District was formed and a vote scheduled that would raise upwards of $60 million to minimize the area’s flood threat. “We had dozens of town meetings, I met individually with 25 city councilmen, I met with the salmon people, the merchants and the Sierra Club,” says Brown with an exasperated look. “Everyone seemed to be on board.” Yet the measure, a tax averaging $120 a year per property for 20 years, passed by only 50 votes of the approximately 16,000 cast. Then the courts ruled the victory invalid on a procedural technicality.
Brown kept going. “The Court of Appeals initially ruled against us,” he says. “But after three years of legal wrangling, the state Supreme Court said we did everything by the book, so now we’re moving ahead.” Among other approaches to controlling flooding, says Brown, are removing buildings that now straddle San Anselmo Creek and building a series of upstream retention basins to slow the water’s onslaught. “Work will start within 12 months,” says Brown with a smile that quickly vanishes. “Just getting the state Fish and Game permit is taking 18 months.”
Back in 1996, Brown was instrumental in passing a 15-year $77 million parcel tax known as “Fire-Flow” that greatly improved Ross Valley’s capacity to fight the ever-present danger of wildfires. According to Brown—who dubs himself a “fiscal conservative” and the board’s “cheapie”—after considerable opposition from unexpected sources, the issue passed with nearly 70 percent voter approval. “A flood could cause over $100 million in damages,” he notes in his trademark gravelly voice, “but if a wildfire hits Kent Woodlands, we’re talking close to $2 billion.”
Over the years, Brown’s other accomplishments, albeit of somewhat lesser magnitude, include getting stop signs posted at an intersection neighbors deemed dangerous to schoolkids; clearing weeds from traffic medians and installing colorful landscaping; and resolving onerous cleanup and noise disputes between commercial interests and neighboring residents. “Unlike Sacramento, at the county level people really appreciate what you do for them,” he says. “It is both rewarding and humbling.”
In 1982, Brown was appointed Marin County supervisor to fill the vacancy created when Barbara Boxer resigned to run for Congress. (Both Brown and Boxer have consistently been reelected since.) On the personal side, he is the father of two grown sons and readily admits to currently having two best friends—one being Beau, his faithful 7-year-old long-haired German shepherd. “And I know it sounds a bit strange,” adds Brown, “but right now my closest friend is my ex-wife. We divorced 25 years ago and now we talk on the phone two or three times a day.”
Currently, what is the biggest issue in Marin County? Today, Marin has five big issues: first is traffic; second is traffic, third is traffic … and so on. Traffic congestion is the one thing everyone complains about and there is something we can do about it. Let’s be honest, traffic drops considerably when school is out. And when it’s in session, I would estimate 80 percent of the cars going past my door look the same: one parent is driving and there is one child in the back seat. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy. Greater efforts at busing and carpooling have got to occur, and I think it will. When the schools ask for money, the communities readily support them by passing bonds, even though many residents no longer have kids in school. Now it’s time for our schools to support our communities by doing whatever they can to lessen Marin’s traffic and congestion.
How is the county’s economic health? Contrary to what many say, Marin is in its best shape in a very long time. We’ve had very little population increase; our unemployment is among the state’s lowest; we have the lowest spending per capita of 12 similarly-sized California counties; our debts are below $3 million; and our reserves are above $60 million. Yes, we have a problem in that $300 million in pensions and health benefits are unfunded—but that amount is stretched out over the next 30 years and when the economy improves, that amount will start to go down. So we’re in good fiscal shape, make that excellent shape.
Please comment on the following with the first thought that comes to mind:
The SMART commuter rail line: I was opposed to it from the start and I still oppose it. I doubt it will do what we want it to do. Getting fast, clean buses to run on the rail line right away would be a much better solution to the problem.
The Marin Energy Authority: I agonized over this one because years ago I came up with a very similar concept. A few days before the vote, I took (Supervisor) McGlashan to lunch and told him, “I can’t go for this.” Then all weekend I agonized over it and decided we have to give it a shot. So on Tuesday, I voted for it on a 3 to 2 vote. I think it is going to work out.
A Marin desalination plant: I am for it. In the mid-1970s, I went through the drought and it was tough. A drought would really set back Marin’s economy. The Marin Municipal Water District has done a ton of conservation—and the more they do the less money they take in. They had to stop conserving water in order to create income to meet their obligations. It’s crazy, but regarding water, we have to meet the good times and the bad.
SmartMeters: I assume they do negatively impact some people. However, they can be a great tool for conserving energy. I voted for holding off PG&E until they did more studies. Yet, practically speaking, we couldn’t stop them—they have the right to fix up their own equipment.
California’s new governor, Jerry Brown—who just happens to be your cousin: I don’t agree with him on many issues, but the man is brilliant; he’s innovative and creative. During his first term as governor, the Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko sarcastically called Jerry “Governor Moonbeam,” but later took it back because he was impressed with Jerry’s accomplishments. Considering his age, I can’t believe his vigor—I think it’s kind of cool he wants the job. Many, many years ago, former California Governor Pat Brown—Jerry’s dad and my uncle—told us to always remember, “politics is a noble profession.” I know Jerry believed it then and still believes it now. I sort of believed it back then—and at this point in time, really believe it now.