While manning a table for the grassroots organization CV Matters at a street festival last year, Michael Kusiak felt like making a point about his adopted hometown of Castro Valley. "Just to be snarky, I would ask random people if they knew where city hall is," Kusiak recalled. Many took the bait and pointed in various directions. But of course, there is no Castro Valley city hall.
Alameda County's largest unincorporated area — with a population of about 61,000 — has minimal elected representation, no city government, no police department, and few if any public employees working on a daily basis for just Castro Valleyans. Although long-time residents seem largely content with the region's county-provided government services, for much of the past decade CV Matters has slowly but painstakingly been laying down the foundation for eventual incorporation — or so it hopes.
Aside from the political symbolism of Castro Valley lacking its own city council, many less-obvious concerns are often raised by residents, such as the action or inaction of county planning and public works departments, and the absence of a centrally located public safety presence. All 140,000 residents of unincorporated parts of Alameda County receive police service from the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. But as many Castro Valley residents point out, the nearest substation is disconnected from their non-city, located on the other side of a natural hillside border with San Leandro.
The sleepy bedroom community nestled between the bayfront East Bay and the Tri-Valley's western hills is a hodge-podge of suburbia and agricultural land. Not much has changed in Castro Valley over the past few decades, except for a BART station, a few large-scale canyon housing developments, and the arrival of a new state-of-the-art county library. Even the partial overhaul of Castro Valley Boulevard, the region's main thoroughfare, serves to highlight the community's separation. Although, the streetscape improvements received positive feedback from the public, they cannot be described as complete. A glossy slurry on the roadway abruptly stops at Redwood Road, a major cross street that leads to Hayward. "Imagine how people in Oakland would react if Libby Schaaf left a major street unfinished," Kusiak griped. "There would be protests."
Castro Valley residents like him have twice sought cityhood, once in 1956 and, more recently in 2002. Each time, voters chose by a wide margin to remain within the cradle of Alameda County's embrace. But a new push for incorporation has bubbled up beneath the surface in recent years, led by a new generation of natives and transplants laying roots in Castro Valley. Yet the murky legislative process for realizing that dream is different than it was two decades ago, and making incorporation pencil out financially would be infinitely more difficult.
Despite the desire of such unincorporated areas to become California cities, the ability to create a self-sustaining municipal government from scratch was greatly diminished during the Great Recession. Incorporation has never been an easy process, but after the state's calamitous budget negotiations in 2011, it became nearly impossible after lawmakers used the Vehicle License Fee to patch holes in their budget.
In a flurry of budget bills that year, SB 89 was approved without any public hearings. The legislation transferred the proceeds of the state's Vehicle License Fee from local control to Sacramento. In previous years, the Vehicle License Fee had served as the seed capital for nascent cities — essentially an early angel investor in a start-up city, accounting for roughly one-fourth of a new city's revenue. Without such revenues, places like Castro Valley, which had demonstrated 11 years earlier that incorporation would be economically feasible, would now be unlikely to achieve that status. And ever since the passage of SB 89, no unincorporated area in California has again achieved cityhood.
"When the state gets in budget trouble they somehow always mess with local finances; that's been happening for decades," said Dan Carigg, a legislative liaison for the League of California Cities. "Right now, these folks don't have much to work with. There is a sense that people are not get what they need from their local government bodies. That they're giving more to their counties than they are receiving."
An assembly bill co-authored by Sacramento Assemblymember Ken Cooley and Hayward Assemblymember Bill Quirk, whose district includes much of unincorporated Alameda County, sought to allow places like Castro Valley to once again "have those conversations again," as Carigg put it. Specifically, AB 818 would seek to offset SB 89 by allowing county treasurers to set aside Vehicle License Fees for areas incorporating after 2012.
Yet according to a legislative analysis, 15 bills similar to AB 818 have been introduced and failed since 2012, including one last year by the same authors. AB 818 breezed through its first assembly committee last March, but slammed into a wall when it arrived at the assembly's Committee on Appropriations, where it was relegated to the legislative purgatory known as the "suspense file."
So aside from armed insurrection, Kusiak acknowledges that there is virtually no path for Castro Valley residents to incorporate without legislators in Sacramento and Alameda County having to perform the heavy lifting. "You have to solve one thing before you solve another problem," Kusiak said. "It's frustrating. But we're not going to stop. At least, I'm not." Thus, the hopes of Castro Valley's backers rest on the same people and entities that have in the past offered something between ambivalence and tacit support for incorporation.
Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley represents areas as disparate as East Oakland and Pleasanton, but he has essentially served as the viceroy of Castro Valley for nearly two decades. As Castro Valley's elected representative on the board of supervisors, Miley essentially serves as its mayor and city council all rolled up into one. It's quite common for area residents, whether they realize they are doing so or not, to reference civic discussion in terms of "what Nate wants."
A de-facto government known as the Castro Valley Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) has existed since 1981. But the seven-member body, which also offers opinions on land-use issues, is fully appointed by Miley. And as the name suggests, it is merely advisory.
Council Chairman Marc Crawford said last month that Miley rarely overrides the council's decisions. But activists question whether this is due to the soundness of those decisions or merely out of a desire to placate the wishes of the person who appointed them to the body.
"As a city, you look inward; how can we make this place better?" said Michael Seaman, a resident of unincorporated Arden Arcade near Sacramento and member of California [un]incorporated, a grassroots organization seeking to make it easier for such communities to create their own governments. "The appearance of a MAC is merely window-dressing for greater representation of unincorporated residents. If they're into real change, what's the point of a MAC, if only to answer to the person who appoints them and who will be mindful of the supervisor?"
Although the buck does not stop with Miley in Castro Valley, but requires support from a majority of the five-person Alameda County Board of Supervisors, its is common practice for the board to defer to Miley's wishes on matters related to his district. In fact, during a 2016 board of supervisors meeting at which Castro Valley residents advocated for better representation through greater control of the Municipal Advisory Council's composition, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty equated criticism of Miley's leadership as an affront to the entire county. Saying he was about to "blow up," Haggerty defended Miley and blasted the group. "I don't know what's going on in Castro Valley," Haggerty fumed. "To come down and say 'better represented,' you're some of the most unappreciative people I've seen in my entire life."
Three years later, a mere mention of that comment to members of CV Matters still elicits either a furrowed brow, steely eyes, balled up fists, or all of the above. "Oh, it still resonates," Kusiak said of Haggerty's comments. "He is my government, whether he likes it or not. But it just crystallizes how undemocratic this all is when you have a supervisor demonstrating that you don't step on another elected official's territory." The incident just served to convince some Castro Valley residents just how dismissive county leaders are of their concerns. Or as Kusiak puts it: "We should be grateful for what we get."
During Miley's 2016 re-election campaign, he challenged voters at a candidate forum to simply vote him out of office if they were unhappy with his work. But in practice, his or any supervisor's level of accountability to Castro Valley voters is quite low. Even if every Castro Valley resident were to vote against Miley, it would be unlikely to make a mark on him in a supervisorial district dominated by Oakland and more than five times as populous as Castro Valley. In fact, that 2016 campaign offered clues that Castro Valley residents are more dissatisfied than other district voters with Miley's leadership. The supervisor registered a 25-percent district-wide victory over the well-financed campaign of Bryan Parker, but Miley's margin of victory in Castro Valley was significantly narrower.
Miley's opponents often grumble that the composition of the Municipal Advisory Council does not reflect the diversity, background, and work experience of Castro Valley. In an interview, Miley said he disagrees with the criticism. "I'm constantly grappling with this issue," he said. "I think we've done a good job of choosing members of the MAC. But there have been some duds and some I wish I could take back." But as a whole, Miley said the council has been successful in registering and moving forward the wishes of Castro Valley residents.
Over the years, the vast majority of council members have shared one thing in common. They are contributors to Miley's political campaigns, including Crawford, a local developer in Castro Valley who has given tens of thousands through various entities to Miley's re-election campaigns. Furthermore, Crawford is one of the most divisive figures on the council's board and, perhaps all of Castro Valley. In many ways, he was the catalyst for CV Matters' push to take away Miley's power to appoint council members and place it in the hands of voters.
This "Elected MAC" movement coalesced smatterings of disenchantment toward Miley in Castro Valley and gained steam after some residents found Crawford's style domineering. Over the years, Crawford has publicly and erroneously accused Kusiak and other rebellious Castro Valley residents of vandalism and hate crimes, raised the specter of various conspiracies against him, and threatened one of his council colleagues with expulsion even though he had no mechanism or specific reason for doing so. Earlier this spring, following a council meeting, Crawford described a recently appointed female member who vaguely spoke out against him as new, saying, "She doesn't know anything yet."
Miley is well aware of Crawford's critics. "Before I appointed him, he was a thorn in my side," Miley noted, adding, "he has caused some concerns." Yet while acknowledging that Crawford's behavior can be off-putting, Miley has routinely re-nominated him as chairman of the council. In the future, though, Miley plans have council leadership rotate among its members every year.
But Miley does not favor electing members to the council, although he has remained publicly neutral on the issue. "Philosophically, I am with them," he said of those who want an elected body. "But I think many residents don't see the practicality in it. There's the added costs of elections. In the end, it's still advisory."
When Miley was first elected to the Board Supervisor in 2000, the tenor of the incorporation movement was similar, though farther along. Many Castro Valley residents believed their former representative, Supervisor Mary King, was dismissive of the issue. Miley, while taking no position on the issue, helped get the incorporation vote on the ballot. Yet voters' will was clear. The initiative was soundly defeated by a four-to-one margin. It's a trouncing that has since dissuaded any further attempts, even without the roadblocks that Sacramento has since erected.
Miley said he supports incorporation, and believes that his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors also would. "It would benefit the county and quite frankly, it would take a lot off my plate," he said. "I don't see us as an obstacle. I'm 99 percent positive the Board of Supervisors would not oppose incorporation." He also realizes that new residents may be shifting the prevailing wisdom regarding incorporation. "There's new people moving in," he said. "Opinions change. But I also believe people are happy with the services they receive from the county."
The supervisor has offered his unofficial endorsement for incorporation many times in the past. But it rings hollow with some Castro Valley residents, who doubt that he or any county supervisor would willingly give up control of the unincorporated areas. "It's all about power," said Kusiak. "For us, it's how do you take power? You build power."
The process of incorporation is a time-consuming and complex endeavor. Not only would Castro Valley voters need to finally approve it at the ballot box, but a maddening number of public committees would have to be convened and regulatory hurdles cleared. What would be the city's borders? Should the city continue to contract with the county for police and fire services or create its own departments? And then there is the issue of the "alimony payments" that Castro Valley might have to agree to pay the county to make it whole for any loss of revenue.
Of course, unincorporated Alameda County is larger than just Castro Valley. Similar questions of self-determination exist in adjacent Ashland, Cherryland, Fairview, and San Lorenzo — areas notable for their lack of economic vitality and poverty, an appearance that suggests to them that they are afterthoughts in the minds of county officials.
Ashland resident Barisha Spriggs is also a community activist, although the description of community is used loosely, since many in her area don't even know whether they live in Ashland, Cherryland, Fairview, or even San Leandro or Hayward, she noted. A county survey illustrated this sobering observation three years ago and the findings set off a number of concerns, but for Spriggs, it begs the question: How can we advocate for our community when we don't even know what community that is?
"Those of us who are not civic-minded don't know they live in the unincorporated areas," Spriggs said during a caravan to Sacramento last March to support AB 818. "It makes us invisible." Further confusing residents is the assumptions of many Cherryland and Fairview residents that they live in Hayward because their children go to schools in the Hayward Unified School District, while Ashland kids attend schools in the San Lorenzo Unified School District.
Miley has heard such concerns in the other parts of the unincorporated areas that he represents. His Eden Area Livability Initiative has sought to give incorporated residents a chance to offer a vision for the area. In late 2017, Fairview received its own Municipal Advisory Council. The move triggered demands from other areas for their own councils and underscored inherent rivalries among unincorporated residents, particularly toward Castro Valley, which has always been the largest and most economically stable of all these areas.
Kusiak believes the appearance of sibling rivalries among the incorporated areas suits county leaders fine. "The strategy is to have us fighting with each other in hopes that we're distracted," he said. "Then they don't have to deal with us."
Although they remain undaunted by the losses, for Kusiak and the Castro Valley rebels the frustration is palpable. "When you see the legislative process you really realize we are wrapped up in this complex system that doesn't care for my community's concerns," Kusiak said in the weeks after yet another legislative defeat. "In the times we're in today, I'm surprised more people don't appreciate a group of people who want democracy to work. We have no clear path for resolving issues in our community. There's no seat for us at the table when it comes to the county budget process. Structurally, it's not working for us. It's so ineffective."