The Union Q&A: Sally Harris, Nevada City council |

The Union Q&A: Sally Harris, Nevada City council

Pico van HoutryveSally Harris
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This is the seventh in a series of question-and-answer sessions conducted by The Union’s Editorial Board with candidates for Nevada County supervisor and the Nevada City City Council.

Sally Harris, 50, whose family has roots dating in the county dating back to the 1850s, moved to Nevada City in 2000 after a career as a financial manager in the high-tech industry. She is business manager of The Union. She can be contacted at, or 478-1118.


The Union: Would you give us a brief background of your personal and business history, and why you decided to run for the Nevada City City Council?

Sally Harris: I was born in Portland, Ore., grew up in Santa Barbara, and moved to the Bay Area to go to college. I have an undergraduate degree in applied economics and finance from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Berkeley in finance.

I stayed in the Bay Area for awhile and went into high tech and that was a dynamic industry – I enjoyed it and learned a lot. And then moved overseas for awhile and lived in France for a couple of years, which was an interesting experience, and gave me a better perspective on my own country and my own values.

I then moved to New York City and lived there for four years, and worked on Wall Street. For me, being in finance, working on Wall Street was the place. This was in the mid-’80s when things were booming, and I enjoyed that. Because of family health reasons, I had to get back to California. I went to work for Oracle in the Bay area. I also worked at some different places in other kinds of high-tech, including the video gaming industry, and then ended up with Macromedia in San Francisco, which was my final high-tech job.

That experience, while I loved it, was so demanding a lifestyle that I got to the point where it was time for a little more balance. I had been able to save some money over the years and decided it was time for a change, and I wanted a small community. My family had encouraged me to move back to Santa Barbara, and I felt like it was too small of a town for me, and I needed the big stuff, the excitement.

Then very quickly it all changed, and Santa Barbara felt too big for me. I wanted a community where I felt like I was a true member, and meet new people, and could contribute. The Bay area is so large that you have your friends and your work associates, and that’s it – maybe a few neighbors – and it’s quite a different experience in a small community.

I looked at a number of different communities – I didn’t want to be too far from my friends and family – and thought I would land somewhere else.

But when I came here, which is where my father was born and raised, and I’d been coming here all my life, it just felt perfect. I don’t know how to describe it other than that. I could just tell it was the place where I wanted to be. I’m not an impetuous person, but I just jumped right in, bought a house right away.

The Union: This was when?

Harris: In 2000. I moved up and started getting into the community and meeting some people. I enjoy hiking very much, and I’m also a skier, so I got quite active in an outdoor life here. And then a project came up in town that was proposed for the West Broad site, where the co-housing project is now going in. It was an 80-unit apartment complex that was proposed. And conservatively there would be 325 people in it from day one, in a community that had 3,001 persons. And it was huge. Very dramatic grading to the site would be required, extensive retaining walls. I thought it was completely a poor fit.

The Union: Was this near where you live?

Harris: It’s a few blocks from where I live, but in Nevada City, everyplace is near where you live. So I went to the first meeting the developer had ” an informational meeting up at the Madelyn Helling Library.

This was a pitch – they were trying to sell the community on this project, and I thought it was awful, just awful. I ended up getting involved with about 50 other people who also were very concerned, and seven of us actually became the legal appellant in the process, because the Planning Commission did approve the project in 2001.

We appealed to the City Council to overturn the planning commission’s decision. And we were just ordinary people. We didn’t hire an attorney. We did have two attorneys in the community who were interested, so they helped where they could, but it wasn’t their specialty.

Nonetheless, we actually were successful in this, and the City Council overturned the decision. The developer had alluded to the possibility of lawsuit. It’s a big developer from the Fresno area. And in fact it had done so, once before, when a community rejected a project. Not only sued the city, but they sued every City Council person and every appellant personally.

The Union: So there was some risk being out front.

Harris: Yes. But no lawsuit. The project went away. And for me that was both an illuminating and edifying experience personally. The power of just individuals in the community getting together. There were two nights of meetings for this, and it was packed each night. There were dozens of citizens that got up and spoke. Not one resident spoke for the project; every single one spoke against it. Articulate group of people, intelligent, and I liked that. I was very impressed with the people I was meeting in the community.

That changed my view about politics and whether or not I would ever be interested in being involved in politics. I had never done anything like that before. A side benefit is that those 50 or so people that got together and worked on this found a lot of common ground and enjoyed each other. Friendships formed through that, so that was a nice little side benefit to this rather scary process. For someone who was new to the community, that was very nice for me.

Through those people ” and having gotten to know all the staff at City Hall through the process, as well as the elected officials ” I started getting involved more in city government in Nevada City. I was appointed to be on the finance committee for the city, and I’ve been on that a couple of years now. Through that, I’m very familiar with the challenges that such a small town faces from a budget perspective.

It’s very tough. At 3,001, when you have sewer and water systems, which are important for Nevada City to have, and you have to do all the functions that any city in the state is required to do, but you have a small amount of money to cover this essential infrastructure, it is a challenge.

I think I helped by being on the finance committee, and it is something that caused me to feel that if the City Council had someone on it with those financial skills, that would be helpful as well, in addition to my business background. That’s not a criticism to the other people on the council – they all bring skills – but no one has the finance and business, and so I think that that could be a significant contribution that I could make.

The Union: What do you see as the biggest problem facing Nevada City, say, in the next four years?

Harris: The biggest problem in the next four years, and the next 10 years and the next 20 years is growth. And it’s not just Nevada City; I think all of California is experiencing that.

The Union: Some of the criticism of Nevada City is that it may have gone to the extreme and is shutting out growth. Do you agree with that? And if

you do, what can Nevada City do to provide enough growth, but not so much that people it is going to ruin the character of the city?

Harris: I’m not sure I agree with that statement. The co-housing project has been approved. I have been walking and knocking on doors and talking to people, and getting close to a thousand houses now in the community. I’ve talked to so many people through this. People are very supportive of that project. And even though it’s a lot smaller than the 80-unit was, it is still significant to our population. People have embraced that, and are looking forward to these new people joining the community.

So I don’t get the sense that most people feel, “Let’s lock the doors here and not let anyone else in.” People are very sensitive about preserving and protecting what we have. The thing I have heard more than anything else when I go and knock on doors is that people really love being in Nevada City. They didn’t just land there. They chose to be there. They didn’t come because of some job bringing them there, or a family reason, or that they just happened to be born there and never moved away. They really choose to be in Nevada City. That means they want to protected and preserved, and any change that comes, they want it to be carefully considered.

The Union: So you wouldn’t call that a “pull up the drawbridge” mentality?

Harris: I don’t think so. The co-housing is a good example of that. There were just a handful of people against that. Many people came to the public hearings and spoke for that project. Now, we don’t have that much land left to develop.

The Union: Is there a possibility of annexing land in the city’s sphere of influence?

Harris: Some mistakes have been made in the past on that, and I think we’ve learned from it and understand that you don’t get sewer and water unless you bring them on in. You annex at the same time as you grant that. So I think there will be some places that make sense to bring into the city, but it will have to be done carefully.

When you bring a piece of property in, typically the density becomes greater that’s allowed on it, so that has to be a consideration. For instance, if they’re in the county you’d have to deal with septic and the other issues that keep people on these larger parcels. So I think there probably will be some annexing that would be appropriate, and again I think we need to be really careful about how we do it.

The Union: The 80-unit project would have met the city’s housing element requirements in one fell swoop. Without that, and without taking in new territory, how do you go about meeting those requirements for low-income and moderate-income housing?

Harris: We have submitted a new housing element, and as of this morning we are being told by Sacramento that the letter is on the way, basically approving that housing element. There were some tiny tweaks required ” I understand were very minor changes ” but it has been accepted.

That’s a very positive thing for the city. That cost – $29,000 in direct payment to the city planner as a consultant, not counting all the other times that went into coming up with this housing element – it’s novel, it’s innovative, and I think we ought to give it a chance and see if it works.

The Union: How do you get around the kind “not in my backyard” thinking when it comes to affordable housing?

Harris: We say, “Put it in my backyard.” This is the whole idea of the second unit, and that they have to be 650 square feet or less. It’s all throughout the city. I’m a walker – I’ve walked this town many times before, and I have a dog that needs a tremendous amount of exercise and is constantly out. When you’re actually hitting every door, you see places that you might not have walked to before, and I’m amazed at how diverse the housing is in Nevada City.

And it’s all rather integrated. You’ll have some bigger places next to some smaller places. There are trailer parks. There are wonderful little apartments just off of Searls ” about 20 of them that are probably 400 square feet. I was invited into a couple of them, and they’re great. They have a door in front, a door in back. They have perfect little heaters that I appreciated in the winter. They are nicely landscaped and they are really inexpensive, the rent on these places.

So there are places spread around, and I think that’s the right thing to do. My neighbors have a little shack at the back of their property, and if they want to turn it into a second unit and they go through the process, that’s the right thing. I’d much rather have housing requirements met by spreading it around the community. It’s worked to date, and I hope that it will continue to work that way.

The Union: A lot of times when government entities talk about affordable housing and workforce housing, they’re talking about renting. How is

Nevada City going to deal with these people that want to actually own a place?

Harris: In the ordinances that relate to the housing element is the requirement that for any project that has four or more units in it, 30 percent of them have to be affordable for moderate income or below, and 30 percent have to be 1,500 square feet or less. And then 20 percent have to have a second unit that is 650 square feet or less. So the concept is if you make them smaller, that is going to help in terms of the pricing, and then the requirement into perpetuity for some of the initial ones that have to be sold.

The Union: So you would see that more of the new developments have more of a mixture of options for people?

Harris: That’s the idea ” mix it in and require it.

The Union: Nevada City, even though it isn’t looking to annex anything, has taken the opportunity to influence a project in the county, Deer Creek Park II. Do you agree with that?

Harris: Absolutely. It was a 5-0 vote to hire an attorney on that project. It is for things like that that we need to make sure our finances are strong, so we can do that. That project directly threatens drinking water. They want to put this whole system in that would leach right down into our water.

That’s a direct threat, and we have to deal with it.

But in the case of Deer Creek Park, this attorney hasn’t been hired to go sue them. This person has been hired to make sure that our best interests are being considered in the environmental impact work that’s being done.

The Union: And you have enough money to be able to do that without stretching things?

Harris: We will do what we need to do.

The Union: Is affordable housing being sacrificed on the altar of mitigation fees that drive project costs so high that workforce housing falls by the wayside?

Harris: It sounds like there’s two questions there. With respect to mitigation fees, they are just that. They’re intended to mitigate the impact of a project, so yes, it is appropriate developers need to take that into consideration. It’s legal and it’s completely appropriate. Why would the rest of the community that’s being impacted by this have to bear the cost of a project that they want to develop?

I don’t directly see the tie-in with affordable housing. Mitigation fees have been around for a long time. I don’t think that’s per se what drives up the cost of a community’s housing – I think there are many aspects, such as desirability, population growth, and good jobs. All these things make a place more desirable, and that in turn drives up the housing costs.

Part of the reason Nevada City is more expensive than other communities around is that people consider it more desirable to live there, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

For me, personally, living there, it doesn’t help me to have appreciation because I have to live somewhere and so I can’t just cash it out and move.

So I’m not for things that directly increase the housing costs. But I don’t think that’s fair to make that direct connection between what a developer is required to do to mitigate the impact of a project and saying, “Well, now I can’t afford affordable housing because of that.”

The Union: An issue that’s popped up in candidate forums has to do with the use of power in Nevada City. Two of the other candidates, Steve Cottrell and Ruth Poulter, have described their campaigns as a struggle against a power elite with which you and David McKay are aligned.

Harris: I don’t see it that way. I am an independent person. I am running my own campaign. I am the major contributor to my campaign. When I get done running, I won’t owe anybody anything. And I’ve had that discussion with people that are helping me on the campaign significantly. I’m completely comfortable with that, and I have no intention of aligning myself with some sort of a bloc on the council.

I wouldn’t run if I thought that that was some sort of requirement. To me, this is public service that is in lieu of volunteer work that I’ve done in the past. It’s not about trying to take over Nevada City. I don’t have a job where my paycheck is directly influenced by what goes on in Nevada City. I only own one piece of property in the community, and that’s my house, which isn’t very big. I’m doing this because I think that I can be helpful and I think it will be a fulfilling and rewarding experience for me. So I’m not aligned with anyone, and I will not be.

The Union: Are you supporting anyone?

Harris: No. And it’s not because I can’t differentiate between those candidates. It’s that I think the best thing for me is to do everything that is reasonable and intelligent and appropriate for me to get votes for myself. I don’t even let myself think about which other candidates win – because I don’t have any way to influence that outcome.

The Union: On that point, though, the housing element of the general plan was pretty much written, as far as we can determine, by McKay and

Laurie Oberholtzer, chair of the Planning Commission. Is this vision for Nevada City a universal vision, or is it the vision of one or two or three or four people who basically are at the core of the power?

Harris: It’s very interesting how many people actually watch FCAT and catch these meetings. Some of them will make excuses like, “Oh, I was just flipping around the stations and happened to see a Planning Commission meeting or City Council.” But there are too many people, so I think they are actually making an effort to watch.

And what I hear over and over again about the Planning Commission is “arbitrary and capricious,” and also sometimes downright rude to people.

So my take on that is that if I were a member of a city council and there was some criticism like that being levied at us, I feel as a member of that

group that I would have to take some responsibility no matter how much I might feel that I’m different from the rest of the group.

And that’s true of those five people on that Planning Commission, as well. That every single one of them, including the one that’s running for office [Ruth Poulter], needs to take some responsibility for the perception the public has of the Planning Commission.

All that being said, it’s a tough job, and it’s a really tough job in Nevada City. It’s a little bit like being a cop in Berkeley. You need them, and when it’s time for them to do their job you’re glad that they’re there. But people are just a little bit uncomfortable with it, and that’s how it works in Nevada City with the Planning Commission.

The Union: We haven’t had anybody say that the person who is running for City Council has been rude to people. The drumbeat seems to have focused on Oberholtzer.

Harris: Well, again, I have to disagree, because I have knocked on a thousand doors and I will tell you that while, yes, that one particular person does come up, they think the group as a whole is behaving that way. That’s what I’m being told.

The Union: Oberholtzer, basically, was against the co-housing project, right?

Harris: That’s probably correct to say.

The Union: Would you agree that what people want from government or from a planning commission is consistency ” don’t change the rules in midstream?

Harris: I agree.

The Union: It’s not the way business should be done.

Harris: I agree 100 percent.

The Union: From what we’ve heard, people say Nevada City is not a place to go if you are looking to get a business decision made. They say it’s anti-business. We hear complaints from the Chamber of Commerce, we hear complaints from the ERC, and we hear complaints of uncooperative attitude toward most anybody who wants to do anything in Nevada City. And you’re hearing that from a thousand people that they just love the job that City Hall is doing?

Harris: What I would like to talk about with respect to that is what I can offer to the community. These other things are a bit outside of my running for this office. I am a businessperson; I have been for a long time. I am a capitalist, and I understand how it works. I’m certainly not going to be anti-business. At the same time, there’s a balance about protecting the community and preserving it, and making sure it continues to be the place to live that all these people love.

The Union: Have you thought about whom you are going to name, if you’re elected, to the Planning Commission?

Harris: If I am so fortunate as to be elected, I will make that decision after I’m elected. A man came up to me last night and said that he would be interested. I don’t want any perception that I’ve already made the decision; that it’s some sort of payback or somehow it was an upfront thing that happened.

So I will consider whoever is interested. It would be really nice to have fresh blood up there. I definitely do not approve of the inconsistent way that things and people have been treated, that it seems to matter who you are when you go before the group. Even if a person goes before the group and has the poorest project ever conceived, they still should be heard and treated with respect and politeness.

The Union: Is there a way to include more people in the process of revising the housing element?

Harris: I don’t quite understand why all the planning commissioners didn’t play a role in that. That would seem logical that at least that group

would. I know city staff was heavily involved in it as well.

Again, it goes back to being a small community with limited resources, but if you have a person on the Planning Commission who is a professional planner, who is a very experienced person, there is going to be a natural tendency to lean on those skills. And that’s probably partly what’s happened over the years.

So I don’t know how much of it is that person grabbing it, versus that they can just do the job. That’s an interesting question about how would you involve the community more. The first step would be to make sure the whole Planning Commission is involved in it.

The Union: You said one of your strengths is your financial background. The city is facing considerable expense on the way for a sewage plant upgrade, sewer line repair, issues of street repair. Without a growing tax base, how is the city going to deal with these issues, especially with cuts looming from Sacramento?

Harris: Going back to the housing element, I think it bears recording here that the reason getting an approved housing element is so important is that it is required by the state that you do it. But the part that people either don’t know about or forget is that the teeth in that is when you go to upgrade your sewer plant, because it’s required by law, and you turn to the state to get this really nice low-cost financing, they won’t provide it if you don’t have an approved housing element. That’s a real important aspect.

So having an approved housing element is a big step forward toward how we can afford to finance these improvements that are coming. The streets are more of a challenge. With [city manager] Mark Miller in place, we are getting a little more shaped up financially, so we will be able to do some improvements. But we’re never going to have perfect streets; I just don’t see that happening.

What I’m going to try to do that could help on the financial side – and it intrigues me as a project – is various companies I’ve worked for I have actually been in charge of new site selection. When I was at Intel, I was in charge of choosing the worldwide sites for the assembly and test plants, and making recommendations to the board on that.

At some software companies, it’s been about setting up like a little engineering office outside of Portland – just the kind of incubator operations that are pretty perfect for Nevada City. And if you get the right one, it even throws off some really nice sales tax, like Grass Valley Group does right now.

So I will attempt to actually bring in or entice some companies to consider Nevada City for these kinds of operations, which should, over time, bring up our revenue base. And they are nice, clean industries, good jobs. It’s not a criticism of the ERC, but they have such a bigger job to do, and they also don’t have the direct experience of having done it on the other side. So I think I know what it takes.

The Union: There’s an imminent battle brewing with the Planning Commission right now with the Gold Flat center on Mohawk, in that the building owner now is trying to fill his vacancies. It’s zoned light industry, with the intent of attracting the type of businesses you were just talking about. However, the building owner is now leasing to nonprofits.

Harris: If you just look at it from the perspective of what’s most attractive to these high-tech companies – absolutely, a center that is all high-tech is something they like. However, it’s important that if that landlord is entitled to use that property for nonprofits or other purposes like that, they should have the right to do it.

The Union: One of the key elements that communities use to entice new businesses to come into their area is the cost of the workforce. Do you

see these businesses as providing livable wages for their employees and still live in Nevada City?

Harris: Well, your average software engineer makes $80,000 a year. That’s what they bring to places like this. That’s the whole idea. Believe it or not, we’re still a lot more affordable than the Bay Area. That is appealing to these often 20-something people, where they might raise a family, enjoy the out of doors, all these attractions of the community. Because even today, with the high-tech being in a down cycle right now in Silicon Valley, these people are still in great demand, the good engineers, and it will cycle back up.

The Union: There has been a heightened interest in the entire community about crime, particularly meth-related violent crime. Certainly Nevada City has had its share of meth factories. It has an element, as Grass Valley does, of young people hanging out, issues of vandalism, etc. Is there anything the council can do to try to deal with that or help that situation?

Harris: It is a huge challenge in our community as a whole and, more broadly, in our nation. Just a few months ago, my little neighborhood strip was hit by someone they’re pretty sure was trying to get money for drugs. And the neighbors on both sides of me, we used to joke that I was going to put up a little sign saying, “Don’t bother to break into my house, they don’t lock their doors on either side.”

But we can’t joke anymore, because they both got hit. He tried my house and the door was locked. And now those people had to have locksmiths in and put locks on the doors and issue keys to their kids and this whole thing. It seems like a small thing, but that’s a major impact to someone’s lifestyle. The reason they were leaving their door unlocked was not that they were lazy about it. They liked the feeling that everything was safe enough that they could live that way.

And I am very open to any way that the City Council could help on it. I’m not sure what that would exactly consist of, but I certainly take it very seriously.

The Union: Do you think the number of police in Nevada City is sufficient?

Harris: I don’t think this is the kind of problem you solve by adding one or two more police people on the force. It is a more complex problem than that.

The Union: You don’t see it as an enforcement issue, but what do you see as the source of the problem?

Harris: I think it is a community-wide problem that we have to address, about the fact that we live in a rural community, that we have these remote areas where people can do this. There must be a certain acceptance and tolerance of it if it’s as broadspread as it is. And that needs to be addressed, and to make it completely unacceptable.

The Union: What about the proliferation of real estate offices on Broad Street. That comes up a lot.

Harris: Yes – I’m a pretty free-market thinker, but you worry that they’re going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, right? And the reason that people come to Nevada City is not to pop into a real estate office really. So if we end up with the whole thing lined up with real estate offices, we will lose tourism and appeal in general, and they will lose business.

There’s that interesting idea about a downtown business association that would address that, and I think that if the business people support that and want that, and if they can figure out how to work effectively in tandem with the Chamber of Commerce, that it’s a great idea. I think Howard

Levine has done a good job with that in Grass Valley.

The Union: You are the business manager for The Union. Do you see that as a conflict if you are elected?

Harris: When I was applying for the job, and it started to seem like it was going to be a fit, I talked about my intentions to run for City Council, to make sure that we were all comfortable with the idea and that we didn’t perceive it as a possible conflict of interest. I think that the businesses in Nevada City are so small, with the exception of SPD, in terms of potential advertisers, that I couldn’t imagine that the amount of advertising they throw to The Union would cause me to have any reason to vote their way.

The Union: For the record, in your position at the newspaper, your influence on the newsroom would be described as what?

Harris: Almost nonexistent!

The Union: Has your job been awkward for you when you’ve been campaigning? have you gotten much flak?

Harris: No, I haven’t. And it’s interesting – people like it that I am a practicing businessperson, and they recognize The Union, so it usually goes over just fine.

The Union: Do you see any difference in whether you get the most votes?

Harris: The way I am approaching this campaign is that every vote counts. And it is because there have been so many elections that have been down to less than 10 votes. In one case I heard about, they actually installed one person, and then they counted some of the provisional ballots and realized, nope, it flipped it the other way. So they had to remove that person and put the other one in. My approach is, every vote counts and I may lose by one vote, and I don’t know how else to run except that way.

The Union: Nevada City’s government Internet presence is pretty feeble.

Harris: Isn’t that something?

The Union: Would you lend your support for actually getting a more citizen-useful website up?

Harris: Definitely. And I think the way to do it in a small community with limited budget is to start it small. Maybe that’s been part of the problem, they think they’ve got to do this whole thing, and have all the ordinances available and whatnot. It would be such a nice thing if they had a website to start with that told you the agenda for the meetings, so you didn’t have to walk downtown to see that; the minutes after the meetings, the hours of operation, the phone numbers of all the different people – just start basic with those things, and then build from there.

The Union: You’ve mentioned promotion of visual performing arts. What could be done more than is already being done?

Harris: There are some buildings behind the Nevada Theatre that offer some potential, that could be developed into further performing arts venues, which I think would be very positive. Part of it is that as much as I am a person who understands business and would not be an obstructionist with business, I also am a person who appreciates the arts and would very much promote the arts in the community. So anything that could be done to encourage that to prosper, I would be very interested in.

The Union: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you would like to bring up?

Harris: There is a point that goes to this idea of sort of closing the gate and not letting anyone else in. With that 80-unit apartment complex that was rejected, the silver lining to that was that because that land wasn’t used, it was available for the co-housing project. So we not only got something out that wouldn’t have been a good thing, it freed it up for a good thing.

There is a closed-up gas station downtown. I guess the way the gas station business works these days is you have to have a mini-mart for it to be financially successful. They had applied for a mini-mart, and between the police concerns about alcohol being right across from that little pocket park and the traffic that a mini-mart brings in, it was rejected.

There is now a proposal for that site which on the surface is very interesting. It’s about building a new building that evokes the historical past there. It would have retail and some offices and possibly some residential in it, and would fit in there beautifully.

The Union: A final comment?

Harris: I would just like to say that I am just running for one seat, not all three of them. And I don’t care if I come in first, second or third, I just want to come in, and I think I have some unique skills to offer that would be complementary to any city council that is seated.

Thank you.

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