Student shadow: Going behind City Hall doors as a vice mayor

April 25, 2017 — by Alexandra Li

Sophomore recounts experience shadowing vice mayor. 

I read over the email that vice mayor Mary-Lynne Bernald had sent, debating what was considered “nice but not formal clothing.” But when I looked at the clock and realized it was barely 10 minutes to 11 a.m., I bolted out the door and drove to City Hall, a set of buildings I had never entered before.

At a first glance, the buildings next to the senior center on Fruitvale Avenue next to the Redwood parking lot were nothing special: They were brown and circled a courtyard. As I walked through the pillar-lined opening, the Japanese maple trees sheltered the few benches in the enclosed area.

When I arrived, barely 3 minutes before the 11 a.m. meeting on April 5, I admired the scenery until Bernald walked out of the building and greeted me, shaking my hand and speaking as if we were long-time acquaintances. I was struck by her charismatic spirit, but I guess that kind of personality comes with her career choice, as she is always meeting new people.

After spending 20 minutes in the office of city manager James Lindsay, reviewing all the events that they were to cover that night including affirming Phase I of the Village Policy Update Process, Bernald asked me how I felt about downtown. Her curiosity surprised me, but she later told me that keeping in touch with the community was what drew her into local politics.

What I love about my job is getting to meet so many people and see what’s important to them, what they value,” Bernald said. “It’s so wonderful that I have a job where I can try and make things better.”

Following the meeting, Bernald took me on a tour of City Hall’s departments, such as the Planning Commission, Finances and Information Technology. She addressed each member by name and held a genuine conversation with each of them, discussing their projects because she, as vice mayor, had to be aware of all of them. Every meeting maintained a formal, yet familiar and respectful environment.  

As we continued through the building, she began to describe the relationships between each commission’s roles. For example, the Heritage Preservation Commission manages possible modifications to historical landmarks, so they often work with the Planning Commission, which approves citizen housing plans and oversees city conditions.

“There’s so many different areas that you could get into and ways to combine them,” Bernald said.

Bernald has experienced many of the different areas as she first worked for the Planning Commission after majoring in political science and spending a few years in advocacy work, teaching people how to campaign for their causes.

She then decided to continue her journey by running for one of the three open council spots in 2014, along with one of the incumbents, Emily Lo. Because Lo and Bernald were the top two candidates vote-wise, they were eligible to become mayor or vice mayor. Lo became vice mayor under Manny Cappello, and in December, took the position of mayor with Bernald as her vice mayor. On the council, each person is allowed to serve two 4-year terms.

The pay for this position is almost nonexistent. Both the vice mayor and mayor have a salary of $3000 a year for around 25 hours a week. The job also comes with some other benefits, including reimbursements for travelling, training seminars and dinners at meeting, but I learned that Bernald didn’t go into politics for the high pay, instead acting out of “love and dedication to the community.

When I arrived at 6 p.m. for the meeting with the sheriff's department, the formal room setup was intimidating, complete with a long oval table and deputies in full uniform. However, as Bernald shook hands with everyone she met, she introduced me as her shadow for the day, and not one person made me feel out of place.

When mayor Lo gathered everyone’s attention and called them to eat, the conversation in the room quieted. I could tell that everyone was welcoming and open-minded, as they were all comfortable having strangers in their mix, including myself and a reporter for the Saratoga News.

At the start of the meeting, the deputies presented their experience from previous uses of body cameras and their plans of future use.

As we moved on to the City Council Public Hearing, I opted to sit in the audience as the two present council members, the vice mayor, mayor, city manager, city attorney and city clerk sat onstage, each behind their respective nameplate.

The first topic of the night was the schedule for the annual Tree Lighting ceremony. Traditionally, it had been held the Friday after Thanksgiving, but since the date excluded certain religions, the council had moved it to Saturday a couple years back in hopes of creating a more inclusive event. However, downtown merchants had relied on the usual date to bring business, and as a result, they saw a decrease in customers, so the council decided to restore the festival to its original Friday date.

Each member knew an immense amount about the history of the event and could quickly build up an argument for what they wanted to see happen.

“While you’re a council member, you get to learn about all sorts of things, and each year you’re on the council, you learn that there’s more to learn,” Bernald said. “It can be the exciting part, but also can be overwhelming.”

During long discussions, it was apparent that most of the time the council members talked down the line they sat in, taking turns in an attempt to keep the meeting moving.

While much of the work done by members of the council concerns Saratoga, they do take on problems with a wider scope, such as one that Bernald participated in regarding the rerouting of commercial airlines that caused lower and louder flights.

After being chosen to work with 17 others, the team decided on changes to recommend to Congress members, who then appealed to the Federal Aviation Administration. Bernald loved the chance it gave her to meet new people and work on a big project.

There are opportunities that are bigger than just worrying about a pothole in the street that affect a lot of citizens lives, and I think those are the most exciting parts of my job,” Bernald said.

When I finally returned home at 11 p.m. and reflected over my 12-hour day shadowing a city council member, I realized that the greatest thing that had struck me was the way that all the departments worked together and how crucial each part was.

“All the parts of the building and all the people in it play into what we do,” Bernald said. “Saratoga is the way that Saratoga is, and it has such wonderful values for the community and ideas for what it wants to maintain to keep the community special.”

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