Former Fullerton Mayor sits down with The Fullertonian to discuss state politics and its local effects.
In a stunning upset last November, former Fullerton mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva defeated incumbent State Assembly Member Chris Norby in his quest for a second full term. Her victory helped the Democratic Party win a supermajority in the Assembly and also gave Orange County Democrats more clout. Currently, she serves on the Transportation, Higher Education, Accountability and Administrative Review and Housing and Community Development committees.
Before her move to the Assembly, Quirk-Silva had served on the Fullerton City Council for two terms beginning in 2004. During her final two years on the Council, she presided over a City faced with budget cuts and grappling with the beating death of a homeless man named Kelly Thomas at the hands of Fullerton Police officers in July 2011. She, along with current Mayor Bruce Whitaker pushed for the officers’ removal from patrol and more police oversight when the then-Council majority of then-Mayor Dick Jones and Council Members Pat McKinley and Don Bankhead brushed off residents’ concerns in the aftermath of Thomas’ death. Voters recalled the three men in a June 2012 election.
Although she has traded her position at City Hall for a more important position in Sacramento, the freshman Assembly member frequently goes home to the 65th district to meet with her constituents not only in Fullerton, but in other cities in the district like Anaheim, Buena Park, Cypress and La Palma.
The Fullertonian spent some time in Quirk-Silva’s Sacramento office talking about her current projects in the State Assembly affecting Fullertonians, her first bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown and how’s she adjusting as a state politician.
You recently celebrated the fact that the Governor signed your first bill, AB 221, which makes it easier for businesses to recycle concrete. Tell us more about it.
Sharon Quirk-Silva: It isn’t glorious or social justice or big things like that, but it’s actually a win-win for business in a sense that we had one of my first weeks up here [in Sacramento] some of the cement concrete guys come in and say this is something we can look forward to and with my work with the Southern California Association of Governments on reducing greenhouse emissions, it’s kind of a fit because if they don’t use the concrete that’s in the trucks, it goes to the landfill. They have to bring it back to do some sorting but much of it goes straight back to the landfills so this would allow them to have a radius and put up in essence a notice for vendors that they’re going to be doing this job and if you have smaller jobs – but they say the concrete recipe would have to be under oversight – you just couldn’t use one concrete for any type of job.
For example, if they were doing a job that might be curbs and that was their project, there’s a certain strength of concrete that they would have. And if there were vendors in that vicinity that would need leftovers, they could have some type of site, and bid for it, and in essence reuse it. You couldn’t have a lower-grade type of project like a curb and use that same type of concrete for a bridge. They’re different strengths. Those would be the regulation parts of it.
How does your first bill signed into law fit into your first year as a legislator?
One of the biggest things under the umbrella of legislation is whether you think there’s too much legislation or flawed legislation or whether we should actually reverse legislation. The truth is there’s much more of a process in deciding bills than I or the public knew. You remember back in school when a bill becomes a bill, whether it’s an idea presented or someone else brings up an idea then it has to go through several vetting processes and legal analyses. I would say there are a good ten stages before it goes to the floor, then it goes to the State Senate and back to the Assembly.
There’s a lot of opportunity for a bill to be killed, for your colleagues to say it’s a bad idea and in any stage it can die. There’s still people that say well anyone can go up to Sacramento and make any law they want. We do have thousands of laws.
This specific freshman class has presented what I understand from a Los Angeles Times article 33 percent less legislation than even last year. I think we’re being more thoughtful and as a class, willing to, in committee, say no. There had been times where freshman members themselves – Republican or Democrat – support something or say no to something, which is, I think, more unusual. They call that up here “rolling the chair” – which is something I’ve never heard of before. You get something presented to the Higher Education committee and the chair says “I support this.” Typically in the past that would mean that the members would support that out of collegiality or protocol. This year, there’s been much more discussion, putting bills on hold, asking for amendments and saying “no.” I think the freshmen of the Assembly have been much more process-oriented.
Speaking of higher education, you are part of the Higher Education Committee in the Assembly. What are some bills you are working on that would affect college and university students in the 65th district?
We have had a lot of online education bills come our way and the Governor is very interested in that. A lot of the bills that came were looking at fine tuning online education – how much should be allowed? A full degree? A hybrid? Can a student who can’t be enrolled at Cal State Fullerton be allowed to take that class online at another Cal State. That moved forward.
Other bills we’ve considered include ways to improve access to education. How can we take what we know that we have a shortage of, which is going to be millions of college students ready to join the workforce, and get them through? Moving them through at a faster pace – we’ve just moved forward two college transfer bills from committee.
I think you will see first-hand that students, although they have had to wait for the last five years, will have more opportunities to have the choices that they haven’t had and also the Middle Class Scholarship, which was an investment that will really take the price tag down. I have a 20-year-old son who’s enrolled in Fullerton College – that impact that we’ve seen in the last five years will lessen. It doesn’t mean we still have a lot of work to do, but you’ll see in the next few weeks an additional $22 million going to higher education.
Could you explain the Middle Class Scholarship that would include a rainy day reserve?
It would reduce student fees by up to 40 percent for families making up to $100,000 and 10 percent for families earning to up $150,000. The rainy day debt fund or reserve—I was very excited to support that because, again, in Fullerton, even with the dramatic downturn that we’ve all been through, [the City of Fullerton was] able to keep that 10 percent reserve and that was one thing--Republican, Libertarian, or Democrat—we really didn’t have an issue on Council in Fullerton.
That meant that we had to cut, and it means reduced services like library hours. At the state level, we’re taking it seriously and putting this reserve. In addition we are investing in paying down the debt and we still have more to do as well as have a balanced budget on time. I think that although there’s more to do, we’re taking what the voters want us to do seriously—the reserve, pay down the debt and balance the budget.
In exchange for increasing higher education funding, what are you cutting?
Over the last few years, education was on the top of the list. Education was slashed, many services for not only the mentally ill were slashed, dental care was slashed. Every category there were cuts, preschool had cuts, child care had cuts.
This year isn’t so much that there haven’t been cuts, there’s been investments back into education. You also have more money back into adult dental care. There’s been $53 million put back into mental health, which sounds like a lot of money, but think about the counties across California. That’s $3 million per county. That’s a pretty minimal investment and we see first hand when those cuts have happened, all you have to do is look at Fullerton for example. We’ve always had a homeless population, but I don’t think there could be a big argument about whether we have more homeless. You can see that with the County, there has been a big discussion about a homeless shelter, but again, those funds directly come from the state. As those cuts are made, there’s less investment made in those areas.
Fullerton recently had a dispute with Orange County over a proposed homeless shelter, which ended up with the Council rejecting an agreement with the County. Lately, homelessness has been an issue in Fullerton with Fullerton Police issuing tickets to homeless residents for “overnight camping.” What is your take on the situation?
That is one of the most complex issues any city would face. Even in Sacramento, you don’t have to walk down too far, even around [the Capitol Building], to see homeless people. You’re going to see mentally ill people. Every city grapples with it, every county grapples with it. They have “No Homeless By 2020” plans that have been extended by decades. As a local council member and now as a state assembly member, you have a different lens you’re looking through things but the goal for me not only personally but as a city council member or as a state assembly member is not that we can fix everything, not that we have the Band-Aid for everything, but what can we do with resources we have?
After the Kelly Thomas situation that happened in Fullerton, there were three lenses to look at. There was the police brutality, but there was also the mental health and homeless lens. I got some critical reviews that at one point I wanted to see what we can do not only as council members but also as constituents to solve that. We did start the Homeless Task Force through the City and you have critics on one side who say that was a waste of time because it’s people who are do-gooders who can’t do anything or I got comments like “Quirk asked for socks. What does she know about that?”
The truth is every little bit helps. Whether you’re a Girl Scout troop and you put together lotions and water bottles for the homeless or you’re in Council and ask “Could we have a homeless shelter here?” You may say yes or no but at least you’re visiting the issue. Or you’re Shawn Nelson, who’s a Supervisor and former City Council member who says “Hey, I really want to look at this and we have resources.”
There’s a lot of roles to play and the easiest one is being a critic. The truth is if you’re walking down the street and you give somebody a fresh pair of socks or if you have a 211 card where it gives information on services, those things do make a difference.
How should government solve the issue with homelessness?
Can we at the state level or the county level or the global level just diminish homelessness? I’m not going to say we can because for decades, we’ve seen that it hasn’t been alleviated. Can we do better? I think we can. When homeless people get ticketed [for illegal camping], they have to go through a whole court system. Now they have to go to court, now their belongings have been taken, their bus pass their ID. All these unintended consequences come from that ticket.
Some people now say they don’t want them here. People don’t get what they’re doing and many times that impact goes on the most vulnerable, which is the homeless person? How are they going to the DMV with no money for an ID and then how can they improve who they are if their records are gone? This one stop-center proposed by the County is at least a place for them so they don’t have to take 10 buses to do what they have to do.
I do commend [Supervisor] Shawn Nelson for his idea. Now where some of the disconnect came was the County could do things the City couldn’t do and move forward, and yet the City has all the public noticing and all of that. A better methodology would have been for Nelson to host some town hall meetings and possibly taking people to some other sites. Either way, what I will say in his defense is, in support of the idea of the shelter, is you’ve got to do something. If you do nothing, we will still have the same problem. I do think there will be a site where people will be more accepting and I hope that happens. The situation is not getting any better.
Overall, how are you adjusting to life in Sacramento?
I’m adjusting. I would say it’s a pretty dramatic change not only from local city council but also leaving for Sacramento four days a week. The first three months was a very big transition. As you’re up here longer, you get more comfortable with what you’re doing.
The biggest adjustment is, when you serve in Council, you work with one city. I grew up in Fullerton, I was raised there and my kids were raised there, so it’s just very familiar. You go to Farmer’s Market, Boys and Girls Club auction and you know many, many people. Now as an Assembly Member, I represent five cities. I don’t know people there and yet it’s part of my job to represent them. When I come back to Fullerton, I’m not always in Fullerton. I’m at the Cypress Chamber of Commerce or whatever. It’s definitely a lot of work. There’s talk about whether the State Assembly should be a part-time position, but it’s a huge amount of work. I thought I was busy in Fullerton going through that crisis, and as a teacher, but it’s a lot of work and we take seriously the work in the district. We’re out there doing everything from senior events on housing to working for cash for college under FAFSA. We can’t fix everything but if we can help somebody move through a college application, we’re going to do that. We don’t provide the service, but we’ll get somebody to do that.