By STEVEN TAVARESON HOSPITAL: 'I HAVE BEEN AHEAD OF THE CURVE'
The mayor's office may be one of most accessible and welcoming city offices anywhere. Bright light enters the room overlooking East 14th Street and the furnishings are classy yet understated. The man sitting before his computer leads the city with a belief in government as a two-way road of polite discourse, but seemingly cannot help backing down from a challenger.
In an hour-long interview last Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Tony Santos acknowledged the city's precarious money problems, jabbed critics who say their leaders have failed to take ownership of the San Leandro Hospital issue and maintained the city has no bargaining power in the equation. Santos also asserted the possibility of another round of hospital musical chairs occurring by saying Kaiser Permanente has shown interest in moving their acute care facility from Ashland to San Leandro Hospital.
He says the city has used $16 million of a once-plentiful reserve fund during the past three years, which after the upcoming fiscal year could be gone. He lamented the grabby hands of the state government "borrowing" funds from the city and pointedly criticized populist ploys such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cutting of the vehicle license fee early in his term.
"If that fee had still been in place during the last five or six years the state would probably not have been as seriously impacted as it now is," Santos said, "As a result the state took approximately $4.1 million from the city."
Well-attended recent council meetings and open forums featuring the hospital situation have recorded a palpable sense among people that their local government is not leading them. It was the only part of the interview where Santos became animated and protested that he has been following the issue for over two years. "I have not been behind the curve, but in front of the curve," he said, "My frustration is that people don't understand the city and the mayor has made every effort to keep this hospital going."
The mayor indicated that Kaiser has made a "cursory inquiry" into moving acute care services out of Ashland to the hospital. He also indicated there were rumors of an additional interested, unknown party. The addition of more options available to the Eden Township board might further gum up the wheels of government rather than help according to Santos as each new proposal takes up precious time to examine. He also predicts the hospital will ultimately lose its emergency room services but will not go unused. "I understand the need is there throughout the county and that will happen. "
Oftentimes, Santos goes out of his way to highlight the need for "respect" among those who might disagree with his policies, but don't peg him as a pushover. Nearly 20 years in local government has toughened his skin quite a bit even if there might be a bit of hypocrisy in his statements. "I believe it becomes counter-productive to have this discussion go back-and-forth. They're blaming us, we're blaming them," he said, "I'm not for that. I wouldn't want them to come to us and tell us to do something." That's not to say, he won't fight back.
For example, he mocked former School Board Trustee Stephen Cassidy, who has been a critic of the mayor's handling of the city's purse strings of late, saying Cassidy was telling him how to balance the budget when he could not achieve the same command of the school board's finances.
When it comes to an issue like the possible loss of San Leandro Hospital and a horrendous national economy, you cannot blame Santos for feeling helpless when surrounded by uncontrollable forces, but he does not seem worried. "What am I going to do?" he said, "People can blame me all they want, but my only defense is that I did my best to keep this hospital open. I couldn't stop it. "