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Small town, big race


The four candidates for the Nevada City council bring different skills and styles to this year’s race.

There’s the self-described community activist, the conservative, the mediator and the incumbent. They are running for three open seats on the City Council in the June 3 election.

David McKay is seeking his third term on the council. Robert Bergman, Gene Downing and Reinette Senum are the challengers. Sally Harris and Steve Cottrell decided not to seek another four-year term.

The activist

Reinette Senum is not one to sit around and wait for something to happen.

It was just a couple of years ago when concerns about oil led her to help organize Power Palooza, a two-day event in Nevada City featuring workshops, speakers, vendors and demonstrations that focused on energy efficiency, alternatives and conservation.

The success of the event encouraged her to establish PowerUp-NC with Kelly Casterson. The nonprofit, which recently moved into a second-story office at the New York Hotel on Broad Street, seeks to find energy-efficient programs and incentives for local businesses and agencies.

It’s a job she has thrown herself into totally, which is the only way Senum said she knows how to work.

“My nature is that I address every issue pretty passionately,” she said recently at her office.

Senum, however, wants to do more than raise awareness about energy conservation and disputes the notion she’s exclusively an environmentalist, although she was recently named “Environmentalist of the Year” by the Sierra Nevada Deep Ecology Institute.

Rather, Senum said she has a broader vision for a “self-sustainable community” and feels the City Council must play an active role in making that happen.

“Every elected official needs to be proactive,” she said.

Senum, 42, is also one of the founders of the Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy and a board member for the Nevada City Downtown Business Association, a group of “people who pretty much roll up their sleeves and go to work like me.”

In fact, she was among those working on a recent Saturday at the new public bathrooms at Robinson Plaza, wearing the painter’s pants she had donned for many years while working as a private contractor.

The 1984 Nevada Union graduate has perhaps the most ambitious agenda of the candidates.

She wants to reduce the city’s energy usage, encourage green programs, revitalize the downtown for residents, help create a market for locally grown food and establish a town center for events such as the new Saturday farmers market, which she helped organize.

“I don’t see many of these issues being addressed,” she said. “I think we need to be more assertive and productive.”

The libertarian

Gene Downing tends to stand out in a crowd.

That quality was on display at a recent debate when he was asked by the moderator to use the microphone for his opening statement.

But he was already standing when he said he didn’t care for microphones and bellowed that he is a “property-rights advocate,” which is the central theme of his campaign.

Downing, 66, prides himself on being an independent thinker, a quality he believes is missing from the current City Council.

“I’m not part of a group that has an agenda,” he said recently. “I think the other side needs to be represented, and I don’t see my viewpoint in City Hall right now.”

The retired Air Force pilot and Vietnam War veteran said it was primarily the council’s approval in 2006 of a tree ordinance, which requires a permit to remove a tree, that motivated him to run for City Council.

“I just think it is the worst piece of crap,” he said from the deck of a shop he built that overlooks a large landscaped yard that is home to various trees and bushes.

In the recent League of Women Voters debate, Downing said government should do little more than provide fire and police protection, good roads and basic infrastructure needs such as water and sewer.

He believes neighbors have too much say in what individuals want to do, citing the Planning Commission’s recent decision to deny a home-occupancy permit to a resident who wanted to start a part-time hair salon business in her home.

“I want the neighborhoods to leave us alone,” he said. “The city doesn’t seem to care about what property owners want.”

Downing, who owned the Nevada City Brewing Co. from 1985 to 1996, has experience as an elected official. He was elected to the Nevada City council in 1988 and served for eight years as the city treasurer.

Now he’s taking a low-profile approach to this campaign.

“I’m not campaigning in the traditional way,” he said. “I’m just talking to friends and depending upon word-of-mouth. But people should know that I have a wealth of world experience. I really do.”

The mediator

Robert Bergman carefully chooses his words.

The soft-spoken real estate attorney likes to listen, study and contemplate before he makes a decision, which is how he conducts himself as the newest member of the city’s Planning Commission.

“I want to be fair-minded,” he said of his approach to governing.

Bergman, 60, took his first tentative steps into public service when he asked Sheila Stein if he could be her representative on the Planning Commission after she was elected to the City Council in 2006.

Stein has since resigned, but Bergman has set his sights on his first elected office.

He describes politics as a “learning experience” where his skills as an attorney will be useful.

“I see part of the job as determining what’s best for the people by listening to them,” he said at a recent debate.

It’s a theme Bergman returns to repeatedly while discussing what he can bring to the City Council.

“A well-mediated situation can go a long way toward understanding the problem,” he said recently while taking a break from door-to-door campaigning at the Wisdom Cafe in downtown Nevada City.

Bergman’s skills were put to the test when the Planning Commission had to consider the home-occupancy permit for a hair salon on Clay Street.

Most neighbors opposed the request, which was made by the wife of a fellow planning commissioner.

Though the applicant met the city’s requirements for a home-based business, Bergman determined after a careful reading of the city’s code that the neighbors’ concerns needed to be respected. He voted to deny the application.

Bergman said it was difficult to vote against the project, but that’s part of the job when you are a city official.

“I’m here to effect an end, and I listen well,” he said.

Bergman’s agenda does extend beyond his belief in the importance of process, discussion and mediation.

According to his campaign literature, he wants more transparency of city government, a review of the city’s design guidelines to promote energy efficiency while protecting historical heritage, to help develop a sustainability program and support plans to make the city more walkable.

But in the end, Bergman said it is his approach that defines his candidacy.

“I like process,” he said. “I like fixing things.”

The incumbent

As the only city councilor seeking re-election, David McKay found himself defending Nevada City’s actions at a recent debate.

When one challenger said the City Council performed poorly when the Business Improvement District was formed, the two-term councilman was quick to respond.

“The council did not create the BID,” he said. “It was created by business owners who have the right to assess themselves for improvements.”

The 57-year-old professional photographer went on to say he supports the goals of the BID, now known as the Nevada City Downtown Business Association.

In the same League of Women Voters debate, the candidates were asked if they would support a program to make residents pay for actual water usage.

It was McKay who explained the city is already in the process of “installing electronic meters.”

He also helped craft the tree ordinance that was approved in 2006. It has drawn the ire of one of his opponents in the council race.

“We spent a lot of time studying ordinances from other cities,” he said from his studio on Clay Street. “The purpose was to make it easier to cut down a tree. Before you had to go to the Planning Commission for that.”

Overall, McKay said he is pleased with the city’s direction.

“The city is doing well these days,” he said at the debate. “We’re becoming more progressive.”

McKay said he’s adopted a “servant-based leadership” model that he learned while taking leadership training classes from the California League of Cities. He also cites his experience on the City Council.

“This job is not my private bully pulpit. I can only make as good a decision as the input I get from the community,” he said, adding that he prides himself in doing his homework before council meetings.

McKay said his accomplishments include working to reduce the size of the Deer Creek Park II project from 193 to 62 homes and helping develop the voter-approved Measure S, which earmarks a half-cent sales tax hike for street projects.

Even though he has enjoyed his time on the council, McKay said the demands on his family life had him wondering if his wife would support his bid for a third term.

“She said ‘you’ve worked too hard for eight years’ to walk away from it,” McKay said.

To contact Staff Writer Pat Butler, e-mail pbutler@theunion.com or call 477-4239.

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