Leonard Shepherd is a rare breed of citizen.
When you see this fixture at Ceres City Council meetings, he'll have an opinion to share or a question to ask. For someone who isn't an elected official, "Shep" sure does a lot of probing of actions, asks for plenty of explanations of simple consent agenda items, and is sure to share his no-nonsense and often politically incorrect opinions.
Interest in city affairs is rare. I've appreciated his level of involvement while at times eyes have rolled in the audience, as if to say, "Oh, no, not him again." I'm sure he's made enemies by saying things that no member of the council could get away with saying even though they were thinking his thoughts.
You can't knock Shep's invariable support of Ceres firefighters - calling them the best in the county - and leading cheers for others to show up at meetings for better government. He is also quick to share praises, often telling the council they do a good job and steer clear of political scandal.
Shepherd's attendance at council meetings began well over a decade ago when he and Steve Breckenridge - who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2007 - tag teamed against tax increases, the hiring of consultants, the seizing of citizen rights and questioning the wisdom of city actions generally accepted as common practice in other cities. While Breckenridge has disappeared from council meetings in recent years, Shep is there, barring an illness of vacation on the second and fourth Mondays.
While he certainly adds more to this reporter's time in the chair during meetings, there is something refreshing and entertaining about his candor and honesty that stands out in a sea of complacency. He understands that spending hours watching local officials - who have more direct impact on a person's life than the president - make decisions is an investment and responsibility. It would be easier to stay home to watch Monday night football but he understands that a citizenship not watching its government will ultimately be its victim. It's a better alternative than waking up to find actions have been made in a vacuum by five with zero citizen input.
I've watched old fashioned Shep challenge conventional wisdom as I tried to contain a chuckle that might be read as "right on, Len, right on." At times I've been embarrassed for his boldness, knowing the council will outright reject his ideas, including calls for a building moratorium until the city can afford to hire more police and firefighters.
In 2012 Shep challenged the council in approving a $5,000 team building workshop led by a consultant. Shepherd, you should to know, was with the California Department of Forestry (now CalFire) for decades and endured his fair share of mamby pamby team building workshops. His pure horse sense came out with his earthy quip: "You're a team already. You don't need a consultant to help you do business - you've been doing it." He then offered to facilitate a workshop at no charge. However, then Vice Mayor Ken Lane defended the workshop as something needed for the new council.
If anything, Shep reminds the council not to get too drunk on power and trampling on personal freedoms. He vehemently protested the ban of alcohol consumption in Ceres parks, saying responsible citizens ought to be able to enjoy an innocent glass of wine at a park picnic. I agree with his summation that bad apples spoil it for the rest: "it seems to me like we're just getting down to the point where we're not allowing people to do things because two or three people complain so we gotta have an ordinance for this and an ordinance for that."
They chewed on his words - perhaps - but supported the ban anyway.
In 2008 Shepherd put in his two cents about the council micromanaging a citizen's ability to own pigeons in their backyard. Then Mayor Anthony Cannella and Councilman Bret Durosette were opposed to allowing pigeons. Shep honestly pointed out: "I see pigeons flying all around and they're not somebody's pigeons. They're wild." He added: "I think if people want to have pigeons, let them have pigeons and ... don't be sticking the city's nose into telling them they can't."
Shep offers a clarion call for frugality with taxpayers' money. In 2012 he implored the council to not pay for daily clean uniforms for public works employees - at a cost of $10,809 per year - saying employees can clean their own uniforms at home. I hadn't even thought about it, but he was probably right. City staff argued that public works workers have a harder time with cleanliness than Shep did as a firefighter.
The council supported the uniform expense anyway.
In rare times, however, Shep has advocated deferring frugality to doing the right thing. When Glenn Gebhardt was given double duty as director of public works and city engineer without a severance package, Shep chimed in that the council should at least offer Gebhardt a months' pay if terminated, noting "you've asked the man to do double duty."
I revere his occasional irreverence. In 2009 he opined that the council should "go tell the state to take a hike" when Sacramento passed on the mandate for water meters on all homes without passing along the bucks to pay for it. I guess every council inwardly has a fantasy of telling Brown and others to go straight to hell without facing punitive actions like the loss of certain revenues.
And later that year he gave the council grief for making Kevin Oxford tear down his $6,000 non-compliant wall saying the city had no business telling Oxford what to do on his property.
Often politically incorrect, you could sense he found an audience when in 2010 he decried Ceres having an "epidemic of low-lifes coming into the Valley" when one resident complained about speeding motorists on Rose Way.
He balked at the Ceres Redevelopment Agency spending $2.5 million to rehabilitate Casa Grande Apartments, saying, "That place over there is a mess and in my opinion needs to be removed. There's a whole lot of criminals living there." He said any rehabilitation would be "like putting a dress on a pig - you've still got a pig."
Shep protested grandiose plans to revitalize downtown Ceres, saying "What will happen to the old buildings ... when you make this into another downtown Santa Cruz?" "I"d like to see something a little less ‘yuppified.' It's a quaint little town - I kind of like the way it is."
It's good that there is someone who questions why garbage contracts weren't put out to bid, or why the city finds it necessary to hire consultants, or excoriate elected officials for restricting personal liberties. He helps keep the power system in check and certainly offers nuggets of wisdom and plenty of food for thought.
It would be nice, for a change, if the council actually digested his sage words, and maybe, just maybe, let it influence their course of action.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org