Tom Means retires from the City Council
Two-term council member opposed smoking, plastic bag bans
City Council member Tom Means is wrapping up a term in office in which he applied his unique brand of libertarian idealism to most of his decisions.
The San Jose State University Economics professor opposed a ban on smoking and a ban on plastic grocery bags, supported a failed proposal to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, was a major force behind opening up the city's taxi cab market (two companies had a monopoly under a city ordinance) and supported the privatization of the city's golf course. Guided by the belief that increasing housing supply would help keep rents down, he also supported the development of higher-density rental housing projects when others did not.
In December Means and fellow member Laura Macias had their last council meeting and will be replaced by John McAlister and Chris Clark in the new year.
Like Macias, Means says council members are underpaid.
"I could sue the city because they are paying me below minimum wage," Means said with a laugh. "With the amount of time spent, you work enough to work below minimum wage."
"It's not a job for a community activist," Means said. "It's a job for people that are trained at a certain level to understand things. Otherwise what you do is you just depend on staff to tell you what to do."
With only $600 a month in pay, "how are you going to get highly qualified individuals to take a day off work all day Tuesday, like I do?" Means said. "In my job I'm allowed one day of consulting. For professional people, its a pretty high price."
He says one of his "worse voting decisions" had to do with council member pay. In 2006 the City Council asked voters to raise their pay from $500 a month to $1,500 a month, but the measure was defeated. "I wish we'd have gone with doubling the salary rather than tripling the salary," Means said, lamenting his support of the measure. "In retrospect I think that could have passed."
As a result, Means says, the council is mostly made up of members who don't have to work, and as a result, are "out of touch" with the needs of the city's workers. He blames this situation as the reason a proposal for 1,100 North Bayshore apartments for Google employees was narrowly voted down by the council last year, with some members comparing the concept to college dorms or housing near factories in China.
"The council for the most part has been very pro-housing," Means said as he listed the things he was most proud of as a council member. "You can't just build single-family homes and expect everybody to spend $1 million dollars. I know the people that are building these units are trying to meet housing demand. We have one of the most diverse towns and I think it's reflective of the fact we have diverse housing."
A believer in the free market
Means subscribes to a pragmatic brand of free market idealism. "Libertarians a lot of times are OK with monopoly stuff and I'm not," he said. He also supports requiring citizens to serve in the military.
He says government is at its best when it is small and allows competition in the economy. But he's often the first to propose a compromise, such as his recent successful motion to minimize fee hikes on developers. The council had sought to raise fees to go toward subsidizing affordable housing, a practice he is opposed to. He claims it increases the cost of housing and has published research in an academic journal to back up the claim.
Means' faith in businesses to do the right thing was illustrated when he opposed the city's new ban on smoking near publicly accessible buildings. He criticized Martin Fenstersheib, health officer for Santa Clara County, for his support for the ordinance, which among other things closes designated smoking patios. Others said it would protect workers and customers from second-hand smoke.
During the council meeting, Means turned to a local bar owner who said closing the bar's smoking patio would hurt business, and said facetiously, "You ran the business for 20 years but (Fenstersheib) knows more about it than you do. You're just not smart enough, I think."
Before the council banned plastic grocery bags last year, he questioned claims from environmentalists. "Not every city has plastic bags that end up in the ocean," Means said. "They don't make the causal connection."
Means says the smoking and plastic bag bans were examples of decision-makers imposing their "personal preferences" on others without looking deeply at the costs of such decisions. He says the ban on plastic bags could end up being worse for the environment.
"I don't think it is my role as a decision-maker to make choices and to ban things based on my personal preference," Means said. Part of the problem is that officials "assume people are inefficient and wasteful, which is kind of arrogant."
He says he hopes the city doesn't restrict the number of food trucks allowed in town when an ordinance comes up for a council vote this year. He wouldn't necessarily oppose banning them from public property.
"If people want to eat from food trucks on private property, I'm OK with that," Means said.
A surprising start
In 2004, Means won election after spending less than $5,000 against several heavily funded candidates (some with more than three times the funds) and won 11,000 votes, an unusually high number. "I don't think anyone has come close to that" since then, he said. "I had a lot more name recognition than a lot of people anticipated."
"I was a big underdog because I was running against heavily funded candidates," Means recalled.
Means credited his success to his family's reach in the community. His wife was a teacher at South Bay Christian, one of his sons a successful musician and another successful enough in baseball that he played professionally for a year. Means himself coached Little League and spent many years on the city's Parks and Recreation Commission. He skipped entirely the city's Planning Commission, a common stepping stone to the City Council.
"When you are on the Planning Commission, what do you say you did?" Means said. "I worked on R3-R4 housing, I got the right setbacks, a lot of technical stuff no one cares about."
When Means was named mayor by the council for 2008, his friend and fellow council member Matt Pear said it was his honor to nominate "the first Greek American mayor of Mountain View," and that people would now have to call him "Mayor Professor Doctor Tom Means" — quite a contrast to his "humble, simple beginnings."
Means grew up in Concord, the son of a chemist, and says he had a "great time" growing up as the product of married parents. Later on, when he coached Little League, he said he was shocked that most of the kids came from divorced families. "A lot of these kids need direction and help," he said. "I tried to be a stable influence."
During his term as mayor, Means was called on by youth advocates to build a better teen center. Over 200 youth, parents and supporters filled the basement of St. Joesph's Church and put Means on the spot, asking him to take action. The response from Means received some boos. He mentioned the success of his own kids and said, "There are teen centers, I see them all the time. I see no reason why there could not be a teen center at this church."
But when the opportunity arose a few years later for the city to buy the Rock Church on Escuela Avenue and build a teen center inside, Means said, he was a supporter, despite the $3.5 million price.
"It's not often you find a piece of land right next to where our recreational stuff is (at Rengstorff Park), so I said let's jump on it," Means said of closed-door discussion. "When seniors demand something you've seen how that politics works. Who speaks up for the kids?"
Means says he will retire from his job in the next five years, but doesn't predict he'll run for council again. He says he hopes council members in the future will study the city's development restrictions, especially the ones that restrict housing development and the redevelopment of El Camino Real.
"People want all the amenities big cities have but they don't want to incur the costs," Means said. "They say, 'I want a shopping center, I want everything in my neighborhood.' That's not going to happen without more customers, and one way is more residences."
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