The Union Q&A: Steve O’Rourke, District 2
This is the fourth in a series of question-and-answer sessions conducted by The Union’s Editorial Board with candidates for Nevada County supervisor and Nevada City City Council.
Steve O’Rourke, 46, of Alta Sierra is running for District 2 supervisor against incumbent Sue Horne. O’Rourke is a business consultant who moved with his wife and son to Nevada County in 2000. He can be contacted at email@example.com, or 530-274-8878.
The Union: Give us a little synopsis of your background and why you decided to run for county supervisor.
Steve O’Rourke: I’ve been self-employed since the mid-’90s. I chose to live in Nevada County because it’s a great place to raise my family, essentially. And the bottom line is that Supervisor Horne and I have a very different vision on the future of Nevada County. We’re at a crossroads, especially in the south county, of what we’re going to be looking like in the near future.
I’m not sure that I want to be living in a suburb of Roseville. I moved here because it’s an interesting place and there are a lot of things to like about it. We do need growth, economic growth specifically, and we’ve got to manage the growth in the number of households that we invite into the community. We need to look very closely at that. And Supervisor Horne, I respect her, I hear she’s a nice person, but I think it’s the vision thing. We’re just very different about the future of Nevada County.
The Union: Was it your decision to run spur of the moment, or had you been thinking about it for awhile?
O’Rourke: I pondered this for some time. There are some big differences Supervisor Horne and I have about the way the area should be managed. I think us becoming a national laughingstock over the censorship issue is something we need to look at.
The Union: You mean the Rood Center controversy over nudes in the art show?
O’Rourke: Right. I personally went down there and looked at that when I heard about this, and I thought, “My gosh, what are we doing in our community?” After I looked at it, I took my 10-year-old son as kind of a civics lesson. He said, “What’s up with this, Dad?”
So that is just fundamentally something we have very different ideas on. She was philosophically opposed to the funding of the sex ed clinic. And I’m not philosophically opposed to that. I’ve got a couple of business degrees, and I’m real cheap in my household and cheap with government money, and this makes more economic sense to educate than it does to take the head-in-the-sand position.
The Union: Do you feel the most important issue facing the county in the next four years would be related to growth?
O’Rourke: Land use is the fundamental issue here in Nevada County. And the growth ” how do you manage it? How do you live with it? Is it out-of-control Placer-County-style growth? I don’t think anybody in Nevada County wants that except a small group of special interests, including the Contractor’s Association and the Board of Realtors, and those are the strong supporters of Supervisor Horne. Economically, they’ve given her thousands of dollars.
The Union: If you get into office, in regard to land use, what are some of the things you might be trying to do?
O’Rourke: Well, just for starters – and this is a very complex issue – but this whole super sewer thing, which is part of the reason we’re even talking. It should never have even been discussed bringing it up to Alta Sierra. The most ardent supporters of the super sewer say that’s not a good idea; it’s not economically smart.
What I’ve heard recently is that the super sewer is down the dumper, so to speak, and part of that is because the economics were a bad idea, bad solution, from go. One of the reasons it was brought up was because of the Lake of the Pines situation. Lake of the Pines has had Band-Aids over it for 20-some years. I’m a little rough on the details, but it needs to be upgraded in the next few years, ’07, ’08, something like that.
Again, from my business background, especially professionally: problem, evaluate the options, look closely at the budget and solution. And that’s kind of the order of the things I go. And right now, we’ve got a problem down at Lake of the Pines, let’s solve it and let’s go on. Delaying tactics is only going to cause more ” we know that in government projects.
The Union: What about other infrastructure issues?
O’Rourke: Infrastructure structures in south county, especially the Combie corridor there, it’s not looking good. We have already hundreds of new households coming in at Dark Horse, and they are building now, and we’ve got a fast food, and a gas station and a Longs Drugs going in there.
Then there was the discussion “that has quieted considerably since I’ve been in the race ” about the supermarket next door to Longs Drugs, and the zoning there, as I understand it, is business industrial. Business industrial on those 20 acres next to Longs Drugs – that means services, that means entrepreneurship, that means employment, that means a bunch of good things for the community. I’m not sure that we need more grocery stores, more ice cream shops.
That’s open to discussion, but the fundamental question is the traffic. That corner could not handle thousands and thousands of more car trips in and out. I’m sure DOT will discuss this and have their own point of view. I see it as 150 percent full. You’ve got four schools there also, and Lake of the Pines. I mean, it’s not good.
And what we need to do is really look closely at this. We’ve got things like Wolf Creek Ranch Estates, which Supervisor Horne has not addressed to the best of my knowledge – maybe she has and I’m not aware of it. That’s right in the heart of our district. Their plan is to put 230 more homes on 691 acres, which is the way it’s advertised. But to me it’s a bit of a misnomer, because we’ve got Wolf Creek going through there, we’ve got 30 percent slopes, we’ve got wetlands there, and we’ve got the owners holding back. The numbers changed a little bit from 50 to 100 acres, so all of a sudden we’re talking 230 homes and we’re putting them in a much denser situation.
The discussion is about coming out on Highway 49, which is a bad solution. We’ve already seen that with Alta Sierra, Lime Kiln, and we’re presently seeing it with La Barr. Those are all little country roads. I live off of Dog Bar. I see that that’s turned into a 49 now, and that’s an old little country road. So we need to look these things over very closely before we’re sitting there endorsing hundreds of new homes to come in.
The Union: And we suspect these homes are upscale. What about affordable housing, workforce housing? Is there a need for that in the county?
O’Rourke: I agree completely. That is something we need to look very closely at. I am of two minds about that. Intellectually, I fully support it. I want the policemen who grew up here, that work here, to be able to live here, and the teachers, the firemen, for example. The other side is I’ve got a couple of business degrees and I like supply and demand. Supply and demand does a pretty good job in the marketplace – it needs to be manipulated occasionally. And so what we need to do is kind of put these all together.
The Union: So what you’re saying is that if at some point if businesses cannot find employees, they’ll be part of the solution?
O’Rourke: Exactly. I’ve talked to some groups here, and it’s indicative of what we’ve got here in Nevada County. Some of the groups, for lack of a better term, I’ll call them very liberal, and some of the groups I’ll call very conservative. Both of these groups are harping about affordable housing and how we need to have it, with completely diametrically opposed solutions.
This is a little simplistic on my part, but we should put them all in a room and say, “You can’t have a cookie until you figure out how this is going to come to fruition.” This is a problem in our community that is constantly being discussed. I believe Supervisor Horne is the head of the Affordable Housing Task Force. It does not seem that it’s being addressed, and solutions taken forward. And again, I’m real bottom line, rather than sit there and discuss, discuss, discuss . . .
The Union: Do you think it will take both a public and private solution?
O’Rourke: It has to. Especially up here as housing prices increase. . . . If it’s not going to be profitable, how are we going to do it? . . . I’ve seen things – Davis, Marin, Petaluma – they can create solutions, and it has been done in this state. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel ” which we do too much at the local level, state level and federal level – why don’t we just look for these solutions that are already implemented, tweak them a little bit for here, 5 or 10 percent this way or that, and say let’s go with this. We don’t need to recreate some of these things.
The Union: Perhaps we need to rethink the size of homes, which drives prices up.
O’Rourke: You are hitting on a very good point there. We need to adjust our expectations – do we all need to have 3,000-square-foot homes, oversized garages? In some respects we’ve gotten a little spoiled, but at the same time we’ve lost touch with exactly what we need. For me personally, it was six or seven years ago I was in a 600-square-foot home, and that was with my wife and my son. Now I’m in 2,000-square-foot plus. I don’t feel that I’m four times happier, and we’ve got so much more space to heat, to clean. What is the solution? Again, I defer to greater minds that have already created solutions.
The Union: You live in Alta Sierra. Is fire a concern to you there?
O’Rourke: It’s been a great lesson, to try to run for public office. It just scares you to death that you don’t know everything, and you start doing lots of homework. It’s one thing to briefly peruse The Union, but it’s another thing to talk in front of groups. Literally, I’ve got a lot to learn.
But one of the things I did learn is that fire is a critical issue in our whole community. In some respects, we don’t really recognize it for the importance it should be. It’s not “if” but “when,” as I’ve been told by the fire guys. The 49er Fire was a devastation on the community, and we’ve seen this recently in Southern California.
That brings me also to public safety. I don’t have all the solutions, but at the same time we’re not prioritizing fire and public safety in general the way we should. We don’t see cops in Alta Sierra. If we do, it’s a real rare thing. There aren’t enough of them to get off of 49. I’m not blaming them, per se, but we’ve got some real issues here coming down the track that we need to look very closely at.
I know from the number of people I’ve talked to in District 2 that fire is a very important issue. . . . Correspondence between the Nevada County fire chief and the Board of Supervisors that locked emergency gates are all around the county and that something needs to be done. Their recommendation was to get rid of them. So I started looking around, especially Alta Sierra, and I recognized that we have such limited circulation there. We’ve got to really look out for this. We’ve got to prioritize it better.
The Union: By emergency gates, you mean back ways out in case of wildfire?
O’Rourke: I envision somebody sitting there while there’s a big fire going on, and somebody’s got this big ring of keys and all these people are pushing behind. It is not going to be a good situation.
The Union: You mentioned the lack of patrols in Alta Sierra. Do you perceive a crime problem?
O’Rourke: Well, we just had the home invasion. And all due respect to the Police Blotter, how much activity is happening in our community that we’re not really aware of? I see the vandalism, I see some of these things. We are very fortunate in Alta Sierra that we are in a relatively safe place. But this whole growth thing, it’s not just that you have more people. It’s more taxing on the resources.
The Union: Let’s get into that issue of crime and the recent wave of violence related to methamphetamine use.
O’Rourke: I think back to the column you published. Some guy essentially said that we’ve got this terrible problem in our community and these committees are not solving it. I wish I had some magic wand to solve it.
This is not a localized issue, by any means; it’s a national issue, although we’ve got our own unique twist on it. That’s part of the reason I live here. I keep a real short leash on my household, and I think the majority of the people in the county do. But I don’t have any great solutions – I wish I did.
The Union: You’ve said you see yourself as possibly taking a swing-vote role on the board.
O’Rourke: Someone asked me what’s the perfect board. My opinion is two very conservative members, two very liberal members, and me sitting there in the middle. Because my agenda is very clear. I’ve got a wife, a kid, a dog, and we’re residents of District 2. And I’m not necessarily anti-growth, I’m not necessarily pro-growth. I’m very adamant that I want to take care of the neighborhood, and I want to look out for the issues that are very important to District 2 people.
I know the majority of the people I talked with are very disappointed with the polarized board that we have, with the rubber stamping, with the lack of conciliation we have at that level. . . . There’s so much gray in government, and there’s so much gray in opinions, that we need to really acknowledge that and evaluate it closely.
The super sewer ” we were blindsided in Alta Sierra. It was not something we were asked about. I’ve talked to many of the residents in Alta Sierra, and there is a very tiny percentage of people that want to have anything to do with that. This is not representing the constituency.
I ask people, what has happened in the district, the county, in the last four years? The first thing everybody says is that traffic has gotten worse. Then I say, “How has it improved?” Other than the odd statement here and there, people don’t really have a strong endorsement for Supervisor Horne as the district supervisor that’s taking care of the interests of our district.
For example, and this subject has been discussed ad nauseum over the years, but why don’t we have a park in Alta Sierra? Why is our park and rec so weak there? I don’t think our supervisor has ever really initiated or supported that. The demographics are changing in our area – Alta Sierra was a retired area, and now we’ve got a lot younger families. Forty years ago, being 65 meant one foot in the grave. Now 65-year-olds are ready to outrun me in my 40s. I mean, there is an active community there. And that’s true I think in our whole district.
But we’ve inherited all of these old roads, we’ve got no parks – we’ve got one park and a few different things in the works, but it’s never been a priority at the supervisor level. That’s why our perspectives are very different. Instead of supporting developers and these types of things, I’d like to look inward. We go to Penn Valley too often. We go over there, play Frisbee golf, play in the park, it’s a wonderful park. So why can’t we have anything like that in our district? Again, these supervisors have not necessarily prioritized that inward-looking mentality, which I’m advocating.
The Union: Which leads us to a discussion of the fiscal health of the county for the future.
O’Rourke: I guess that thanks to our past CEO, things were in pretty good shape, and I think our present CEO has done a pretty good job for the county. I don’t attribute this to any one supervisor or anything like that, but they work together pretty well as a team to manage this, so I respect them. It’s a tough job.
But at the same time, I still drive around this state and see the quintessential example my grandfather pointed out to me when I was young: Four guys standing around and one guy working the shovel. I don’t necessarily just see that in Nevada County, but I see it statewide. And Arnie’s saying, let’s tighten up the belts, let’s look real closely at the budget, and I still see that. …
The Union: Do you see the turnover of department heads from county government as a cause for concern?
O’Rourke: I have been told there is, yes, by people who are working for the county. I’ve been told there is a lot of micromanagement going on at the supervisor level. I have a very different perspective, in that we’ve got a lot of professionals there. Whenever I’ve dealt with the county, I’ve met a lot of nice people. They are really conscientious and trying to do the best job they can.
Management to me means giving them direction, setting goals and then monitoring that and making sure that is happening. It is not looking over their shoulders and saying dot this it or change this to that. I’ve got a lot of respect for the county employees in general.
The Union: Any thoughts about the issue of damming the Yuba, or the issue of federal Wild and Scenic designation?
O’Rourke: I find it curious the way this has become a litmus test of the community: “Who are you and do you want to dam the Yuba?” I don’t see how we need to dam the Yuba. I have a lot of faith in the intellectual capability of people in general. And I don’t really think that’s going to be a solution we have to resort to.
Now, at the same time – it is a pillar in the community. I go there a lot – I think it brings in a lot of economic activity. It’s a great recreational facility, and as we already identified, we don’t have much of that in South County. So we need to keep that. And as to the federal Wild and scenic designation, there is a lot of logic for it and there’s not that much downside. It is important that we value something like that.
The state designation has taken us pretty far, and I really can’t understand this attack on SYRCL [South Yuba River Citizens League]. I think that’s way out of line. What benefit does it have for us as a county and at the supervisor level to continue on that? That’s being led obviously by one party, but Supervisor Horne by her absence of comments is duly supporting that. It is not a productive use of our time and it’s not going forward anywhere.
I’m very pragmatic in this kind of stuff – let’s take care of county business, let’s look at it closely, let’s take it forward.
The Union: If you are elected, what is the one thing you would wish to accomplish by the end of the four years?
O’Rourke: With all the multitude of tasks one has as a supervisor, I guess I’d like to accomplish the respect of the community and my peers ” to say that I was a conscientious individual and I did a good job, did all my homework, and I made some tough decisions but they were the best ones that represent my constituents, not necessarily my attitude.
On a more personal and maybe narcissistic note, I think it would be to have a park. It’s so hard to accomplish things in government. We all know there’s a lot of handcuffs there and mandates, and just to say we’ve accomplished something here and the community has been enriched a little bit ” that would be something I would be proud to have on my record.
The Union: Couldn’t the Alta Sierra Homeowners’ Association decide on its own to create a park?
O’Rourke: The association actually is going forward and I’m very impressed with their efforts. Just across the street from me, they just put in a two-mile trail on Land Trust land, and I’m thrilled with it because it cost a few thousand dollars and a whole bunch of sweat.
Now I contrast that with a three-tenths-of-a mile-trail the Board of Supervisors have planned on Combie Road. That one is going to cost $250,000 – it’s got jogging shoulders, it’s a landing strip, it’s beautiful. But this is three-tenths of a mile for $250,000. I think this epitomizes the difference of opinion we have. I don’t mind a little rough trail. Let’s get out there, get the shovels and get some blisters. That’s the kind of thing I think we need more of in our community and in our country in general. Three-tenths of a mile and $250,000 for a trail might be gorgeous, but at the same time it’s not a very good use of my tax dollars.
The Union: When you were talking with your constituents, what are their major issues besides traffic?
O’Rourke: Fire is popular. One of the things I’m finding is that for a large part, we ‘re not the best-educated about our community here. And I speak for myself, too. Reading The Union is a good start. But until you start going to the Board of Supervisors’ meetings, really seeing the agendas and finding out what’s happening before this little one-day meeting and start digging closely, you don’t know.
So part of my function has been to educate a lot of these people. They don’t know about Wolf Creek Ranch Estates, for example. They don’t know about some of these super sewers. And I try to be as fair as I can in giving them the situation. What are we looking at, why are we looking at these things, and help us all to come to some good conclusions that are good for all of us.
And the response I’m getting is that people don’t feel there is a drastic improvement in District 2; all they see is more growth. They don’t really feel that we are looking out for the residents, looking out for the neighborhood, so to speak. There is a very large group of quasi-quiet people that are very happy living there.
I’ve talked to people who’ve been there six months, and people who have been there 25 years, and we all have similar attitudes about why we moved to Nevada County, and why we’re in the south district. We like it. We think it’s a great area. And we’d like to see it great in future generations. And super sewers, and these big developments, and just slamming it with blacktop – we’re not being good stewards of the neighborhood.
You know, the majority of people, at least in my district, have moved here from somewhere else. And they probably moved here for similar reasons. We left the sprawl. We left the strip-mall growth. We left the blacktop. And out of thousands of people I’ve talked to, there’s been two of them – I remember them distinctly – who said, “We need more big box stores up here.” It’s like the people that buy underneath the airport and they go, “Oh, wow, these airplanes are loud.” This is a great place to be because we’ve got all these goods and services and some of the greatest cities in the world at arm’s length, but at the same time it’s not necessarily in my back yard.
The Union: But all the new proposed developments have retail components that could be in your backyard.
O’Rourke: And that’s something that I think we need to look at very closely. The retail components are good for the community, it brings in taxes. But I am looking at this from some other angles and I’d like to see more small businesses. I’d like to see more – a term I read – economic gardening.
It’s always been a topic of discussion that our kids have to leave to get jobs. Do they have to? I’m not so sure I believe in that. I’ve got a very entrepreneurial background, though, and I’m a small business guy, and grew up in a small business, so I think maybe we can address these issues. We’ve got an incredible wealth of talent in these retired folks.
The Union: Would you encourage more home-based businesses here?
O’Rourke: I’ve got no problem with home-based business as long as you are being a good neighbor. Let’s not have a home-based nuclear waste dump or something like that. But we’ve got a lot of talent here. We’ve got the human resources, we’re educated, we’re motivated. These kids are going to some of the best schools in the state. And are we doing to give them an opportunity? I’m not enthusiastic about more big national chain stores that supply low-paying jobs, that don’t really give a great future for the young people in our community.
The Union: What about high-tech jobs?
O’Rourke: It’s a good type of business, unquestionably. It’s evolving over the years, though. And the county should support the chambers, it should support the ERC, we should work with them as much as we can.
There is economic hunting, too, suggesting that, for example, you go to Silicon Valley and you say, we’ve got a great lifestyle up here, we’ve got great kids, great schools, great libraries. Well, Arizona is saying we’ve got this, and Nevada is saying we’ve got no taxes. We’ve got, we’ve got. So attracting high-tech, although I think we should always try to do everything we can to do it, it shouldn’t necessarily be the one be-all and end-all, because it is very hard to differentiate yourself in that marketplace.
The Union: What’s your profession?
O’Rourke: I’m self- employed, have been since the mid-’90s. I’ve had my own company where I organize marketing programs for high-tech clients, mostly internationally. So I’ve kind of put that on hold obviously for these efforts.
You’ve got hundreds of people you have to coordinate in putting a program together, with – with a multimillion-dollar budget. I’ve got to manage all these people and all these resources, and yet have no authority. And at the same time I’ve got tens if not hundreds of vendors that have to do everything for me and for my client. Dealing with these vendors, you’ve got to be just a brutal negotiator, but then they’ve got to deliver services.
So professionally, I think it’s very similar to a supervisor’s position. You know – plenty of authority, yet none, and plenty of employees, yet not many direct reports. You’ve got to deal with all these different vendors, be they unions, whatever, but at the same time be a brutal negotiator. I enjoy getting in there and arm-wrestling and making sure we’re getting the most value we can. But at the same time you’ve got to make sure it’s a win-win at the end of the day.
The Union: What can a board do – what would you do – to try to run the county in these uncertain financial times?
O’Rourke: We don’t know what’s going to be coming down. Governor Schwarzenegger, with all due respect, has got a very difficult task in front of him. How do we really cooperate with Sacramento and at the same time look after our interests?
One of the things I question is all the mandates we’ve got. We get a very small percentage of the money we have that we get to spend. We’re told what to do with it. I question this.
Orange County, San Francisco, Butte, Nevada County, Placer – we’re such different animals. Can they really blanket us and say we’ll all have to be doing this thing or that thing and come down with this big umbrella that says this is a one-size-fits-all solution? Maybe we might be able to talk to Sacramento a little bit about those issues.
For example, we’ve got the big pollution thing. It is now being implied that we are the polluters. We do create, I was told, 20 to 25 percent of that air pollution internally, but that means that 75 plus percent is coming in from down the road. We need to look very closely at how we can talk to our neighbors and let’s discuss this.
The Union: There was a time here when the board, once or twice a year, would have a meeting in Truckee. That was before the south county started to grow. Could such a session in south county focus on south county agenda items?
O’Rourke: I’d like to take it even more to an outreach, like a town hall meeting. Let’s go to the schools, let’s invite the schools and students up to the Board of Supervisors meetings. People don’t know what’s happening there.
I can talk, and many people can tell me all about what’s happening at the federal level, and I’ve got a pretty good idea about what’s happening at the state level. But a lot of people don’t know who their supervisor is. They just don’t know. So that outreach goes beyond just the town hall meetings.
People have told me that Supervisor Horne, when she was running for office, when she came in in her carpetbagging efforts or whatever happened there, she was very anxious to go around the whole neighborhood and do the door-knocking. But nobody’s seen her since. I’d like to really change that profile a lot ” a concerned politician that is serving the people, as opposed to somebody who is a professional politician who raises tons of money, cares about you every four years.
I’m disenfranchised by government in many respects. I don’t really feel that the small-businessman, family guy is being looked after in Washington or in Sacramento, but I think he can make an impact here on the local level, and that’s part of the reason we’re even having this discussion.
The Union: What haven’t we asked you about that you think it’s important for our readers to know?
O’Rourke: You’ve been pretty thorough in covering the big picture. Fundamentally, I just want to reiterate that some of these solutions that Supervisor Horne is addressing are just not the ones that I think are looking after the residents of south county. And she has a very clear agenda, very professional politician, very strong economic backing from a very select group of very interested parties that are going to benefit a lot from her.
My agenda, as I said, very simple: Kid, wife, dog – I’m not sure which order that’s in – residents of District 2. And how do we look after this area and be good stewards for generations ” not just for the next three to five years ” to blacktop and fill out all the corners as quick as we can.
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From all the residents of Grass Valley Senior Apartments, thank you to the firefighters, police department air support and everyone who responded to the Bennett Fire. God bless you all. You are all heroes.