In Search of a Motive

I love a good mystery story. As the detective inevitably points out, the two elements needed to identify the culprit are opportunity and motive. Motive is an interesting thing. Trying to figure out why anyone does what they do—as when a murderer kills his victim in a good whodunnit—is something I think about a lot. I of course always try to figure out the solution to the crime before the fictional detective does, but I also try to figure out why people in real life do the (almost always less unsavory) things that they do.

Why people do what they do applies to me as well, of course. For instance, people often ask me why I write this blog. I have yet to make a dime from it, and it certainly has taken up a great deal of my time over the last four years. Some people figure that I have an axe to grind (consciously, at least, I don’t), or that I’m trying to push someone else’s agenda. But no one directs what I do, which is something I love about my blog: I alone choose the subjects, which are almost always motivated by something I’ve seen and am curious about. I figure that if I’m curious, others are likely to be as well, thus making the subject worthy of a blog post.

Looking back, I’ve written more than 220 blog posts, totaling over 400,000 words, over a span of almost exactly five years. In that time I’ve taken more than 12,000 photographs, all in and around Redwood City (only a fraction of which I’ve actually published, of course). After all that time, even I sometimes wonder why I do it. But I love to read, and have always wanted to be a writer. And because I walk both for exercise and for enjoyment, writing about my walks is a natural. Finally, I have the time, and producing a blog seems like a good way to fill some of it.

From the beginning I understood that I wasn’t just writing a blog. I was also going on a journey—one that was likely to take my life in new directions. As indeed it has. For instance, a couple of years ago The Spectrum Magazine began publishing my blog, something I had never dreamed about when I started out. These days I regularly attend, or at least watch, most City Council and Planning Commission meetings, which is also something that had never occurred to me to do in the first few months of my blog. And of course I’ve met many wonderful people along the way, both in person and online, whom I might never have met except through my blog posts.

I started this blog with no particular aims in mind other than to give me something to write about. Thus, I’ve never promoted it, instead allowing it to grow organically. That is has done, which I find fascinating in itself. I will be the first to admit that in many ways I got lucky: I started this blog in August of 2013, after the Redwood City “boom” had started but before it had shifted into high gear. And because of Redwood City’s size—not too big and not too small—I am not only able to walk to every part of the city, I always seem to find something interesting to write about when I do.

In case you are starting to wonder, I’ll note that I am not ending my blog or anything like that. I probably will be making some tweaks to what I do and how I do it, but I’ll let you know about that in a future post. The recent passing of Spectrum publisher Steve Penna, though, has certainly put me in an introspective frame of mind. It started me thinking about not only what I do, but why I do it, which leads me to thinking about why others do what they do.

I mentioned that I’ve been attending City Council and Planning Commission meetings. Many times I sit in the audience (or at my desk, watching the meeting either live or after the fact) and wonder why anyone would want to be a member of either. At times it can be a thankless job, and council members, for instance, must often wish that they could just get up and walk out of a meeting—or perhaps quit the gig altogether. But someone has to sit up there and make the tough decisions, and so whether or not I agree with the decisions that they ultimately make, I am certainly very grateful that they are there.

I might not be a good choice for a City Council seat, but others certainly feel that they are. While you presumably know that we will be voting to fill three open Council seats this November, you may not know that nominations for those seats are currently open, and will remain so until August 10. If you or someone you know is interested in running for Redwood City’s City Council, now is the time to act! The place to start is on the city’s web page dedicated to the subject:

The three open seats are to replace council members Jeff Gee, John Seybert, and Vice Mayor Diane Howard. Vice Mayor Howard has already signaled her intention to run again, whereas council members Gee and Seybert have both decided that they will not be on the November ballot. As I write this, in addition to Howard there are five or six candidates vying for the three open seats: Rick Hunter, Diana Reddy, Ernie Schmidt, Giselle Hale, and Christina Umhofer, plus Jason Galisatus, it seems—although at this very moment he isn’t yet listed on the city’s official web page. Because we still have about two weeks until the filing period closes, there may be even more by the time the ballots are printed. If you are interested in following this race closely, the city is maintaining a web page that tracks the candidates as they work through the filing process. For the rest of us, between now and November we need to learn all we can about the City Council candidates. And one of the things that I hope to learn is their motive for running.

In addition to voting for three City Council candidates, we will also be voting for or against a half-cent (per dollar spent) local sales tax. This tax is intended to help deal with a rather serious upcoming budget issue. All Redwood City households should have received a cardboard mailer titled An Update on Safety and Essential Services in Redwood City that tries to explain the issue and make a case for the sales tax. If for some reason you tossed it without giving it more than a glance, I urge you to research the issue and try to understand the real motives behind this new tax. One place you can read about our budget issues is in this city blog post. If you instead would prefer to watch a presentation on the subject, one such was presented to the City Council at last Monday’s meeting. You can watch it by clicking here and then, in the web page that appears, clicking on item 8A in the scrolling agenda beneath the video window. Finally, if after all that the issue still isn’t clear, the city will likely be making a big push to get the message out between now and November. Watch your mailbox, your inbox, your Twitter feed, NextDoor, or wherever you normally hear from the city for more information. From what I’ve seen this is a very serious issue that shouldn’t be treated lightly; do what you can to become informed so that you can cast a meaningful vote. Pass or fail, this tax has major implications for the future of our city.

At Monday’s extremely packed City Council meeting (for the first time in a long time, there was a completely full overflow seating section in the City Hall lobby) the council not only dealt with the contentious issue of whether or not to put a sales tax measure on the November ballot, they also held a “study session” on the so-called Neighborhood Compatibility and Design Review Process for Major Additions and New Single-Family Homes & Potential Mount (Mt.) Carmel Historic District.

When the council schedules a study session, it signals that they are not going to be making any decisions but merely will be hearing a presentation from city staff, taking public comment, and then publicly mulling over the issue. In this case, they heard a lot of public comment. By my count, some 32 members of the public spoke on various aspects of the topic (even more people intended to speak, but a handful had left by the time they were called). Somewhat to the council’s surprise, it seems, those speakers who directly addressed the idea of making some or all of the Mt. Carmel neighborhood into a historic district were evenly split: just as many spoke against the idea as spoke for it. Their motives for supporting or opposing the creation of a district were pretty clear, and to my mind there were compelling arguments on both sides. But what also became clear was that the underlying problem—that the character of the neighborhood was being diluted after some homes were either being significantly remodeled or were being entirely replaced by much larger ones—needed a quicker solution. (The creation of a historic district would likely take years.) The council realized that the issue could likely be dealt with simply by making changes to zoning and to design guidelines.

The council also realized that this problem was not unique to the Mt. Carmel neighborhood, but in fact was city-wide; that changing zoning and guidelines would potentially address the problem throughout the city, which is something that a neighborhood historic district wouldn’t do. So whereas there is still a possibility that some or all of the Mt. Carmel neighborhood will eventually be designated as a historic district, it likely won’t happen for some time to come, if it happens at all. In the mean time, the city is working on adjusting its policies for home remodels and replacements in all parts of town.

People are curious creatures, motivated by all kinds of unseen forces. Prestige, power, money, security—all are motives for why people do what they do. Discerning those motives and then using that understanding to predict how a person might act on any given issue is a handy skill, one that we as voters are periodically asked to do. One of the greatest powers we have as citizens is our power to vote. Whereas you may wonder what power that has on a national level, when an individual vote is so greatly diluted, on a local level such as in a City Council race that power can be significant. Especially if you become passionate about a particular candidate or issue and choose to amplify your vote by actively participating in the campaign. However you feel about the transformations and issues that are happening to Redwood City, now is the time to make sure you understand how things will affect the city and your life in it, so that you’ll be properly motivated to cast an informed ballot come November.

5 thoughts on “In Search of a Motive

  1. Hi Greg,

    I’ve been crazy busy and am just now catching up on my person email, and after reading your comments about why you do what you, I just wanted to let your blog is fantastic. You have kept me well informed of all the goings on in our little part of the world. You are my “feet on the street” answering all of my questions of whenever I see something and ask “what’s that…and what’s that?? You always deliver the information in a timely manner.
    I’m glad to hear that you are now contributing to the San Mateo Daily Journal which is another must read in my life. Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for you work. Stay curious! Cheers Nicole

  2. Could you tell me exactly where they mount Carmell district is? Being a new redwood city resident I have no clue.

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