Robert Brownstone was elected to the Half Moon Bay City Council in 2018 and this year will serve as the city’s new mayor. It’s the culmination of an ascendence that began with participation in the city’s four-week Network, Engage and Transform program that introduced citizens to the inner workings of local government.
“It was fantastic. I just soaked it up,” he said.
We asked him about his fascination with local government in the years since moving to Half Moon Bay to be with family and for his plans to move the city forward in this extraordinary year. This interview with staff writer Vanessa Ochavillo has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the top projects you envision tackling as mayor this year?
“COVID is No. 1, because it's all part of protecting the health and safety of the community and our financial foundation.
“Second, economic recovery and rejuvenation. In the past, we've always talked about, ‘How do we rejuvenate our downtown, make it more attractive to help businesses?’ That challenge is different now. Now we call it economic recovery. We don't just have to spruce up downtown and paint a few walls and attract a few more businesses; we first have to recover from this devastating downturn. Starting this week, we're working on our Economic Recovery Task Force.
“Third, affordable housing. I think we're trying to reimagine that a little bit. God knows we have a need here for workforce housing. So, we're trying to think out of the box. How can we get different kinds of funding to build this housing?
“Finally, public safety. That includes two major areas: one is emergency planning and the other involves policing. We will continue with our Public Safety Subcommittee. The most important thing is to figure out what exactly those issues are before we jump to the right solutions. Better community outreach, perhaps? Do we need better training? How do we get the sheriff enough support on how to de-escalate a situation?”
Last year wrapped up with the creation of the county’s new shelter program at the Coastside Inn. How do you plan to protect vulnerable populations and at the same time feel like you're bringing along the rest of the city?
“I don't think anyone would disagree that this didn't evolve in the best way possible. And the county was the first to admit it. So how can we work with the county to make sure this thing works for them and us? To me, it feels like an opportunity for Half Moon Bay to be a terrific case study about how a small town can handle homeless issues within its own borders without jeopardizing safety of the community.
“I think the most powerful thought that kept me going, kept me up at night, was — and I am convinced — we are saving lives with this facility.”
It seems like saving lives is really where every leader’s mind is these days. So what are your priorities as far as the pandemic is concerned to make sure we get through what might be another year of it?
“First and foremost, I don't think we can let our guard down. I think the best way to do that is just give people as much information and by over-communicating at every council meeting, ‘OK, here's what's going on. Here's what we said at the last two council meetings.’ We might need to bring in an expert at every council meeting, which we have access to here. Let's hear from our doctors and medical leaders.”
What would you say is the biggest influence on the way you lead?
“When I was back working in government, I started out with the Department of Labor. We had these huge manuals on how to do our compliance reviews. You can imagine a huge binder with all these guidelines all written by lawyers where each sentence goes on for 20 lines.
“Sometimes there's a way a leader or a manager can make you feel small. And I heard a lot of managers say, ‘You should know how to do this already. Didn't you ask me that same thing last week?’
“There was this one particular guy; he was a natural leader. He would say, ‘Yeah, you know what? You're right. That part of the manual could be very ambiguous. Why don't we sit down and take a look at it together and try and figure it out?’ I could just see people's body language: their shoulders would relax and their ears would open up. And they were very willing to receive his suggestions.”
What do you think the mayor's role is in leading the city? And what do you hope to bring to the position?
“I think the difference for the mayor is to model all those leadership behaviors that I mentioned. I think the mayor has to listen even more, because following proper protocols, we’re the last one to give our input. As a mayor, it's my role to synthesize all the information in the room and listen really carefully. What are the common themes that people are bringing up?
"That's a role I've learned over the years as important. And in order to do that, I had to really shut down that extrovert New Yorker in me that wants to talk, and realize I offer a lot more value by listening.”