Quite possibly, he’s Marin’s most powerful politician
Photo by Tim Porter
As most Marinites know, Al Boro is the mayor of San Rafael. It is Marin’s county seat and largest city (in 2009, est. pop. 55,901). However, many do not realize that San Rafael is the county’s only city that publicly elects its mayor. Nowadays, most mayors are elected by their city councils. Moreover, Mayor Boro has been San Rafael’s mayor for almost 19 years. (Except for the state legislature, term limits don’t apply to Marin’s officeholders.)
And serving as mayor is not Boro’s only power position. “I’m now in my second year as president of the Golden Gate Bridge District’s board of directors,” he says. Chairing that district’s board is no walk in the park. “Our board has 19 members,” Boro adds in his low-key voice. “Nine from the City of San Francisco, four from Marin and six from throughout Northern California—our meetings can get intense.” The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District—the organization’s full title—not only oversees one of the world’s most strategic transportation links; its 800 employees also steer and maintain nearly 300 Bay Area buses and seven ferry vessels, all of which annually transport some nine million passengers.
In addition to the above, Mayor/Chairman Boro also serves on SMART—the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit—12-member board of directors. In this role, he is part of the team working to build a 70-mile commuter rail line and biking/hiking trail from Marin’s Larkspur Landing to Cloverdale in north Sonoma County. “I’ve been on that board since the very beginning,” he says in a voice that’s barely above a whisper. “That’s been what? Almost 10 years now.”
Boro, 75, a registered Republican and married over 50 years, may be a politician—with all the positives and negatives that term suggests—yet he is hardly flamboyant; his charisma doesn’t jump out at you. Rather, his simple and steadfast demeanor fits that of a mid-range executive for a large corporation, which he indeed was. “After 35 years, I retired from Pacific Bell,” he reminisces, “and at age 55, didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do.”
After he’d served 16 years on the then politically tepid San Rafael planning commission, a friend asked if he’d run to fill a vacancy on the city council. “I felt what the heck, I’ve lived in the area since 1960, I love the place and I just knew I could get something done,” Boro recalls. Soon after, he confidently stepped up and ran for mayor.
Almost two decades later, he is still at it—working back-to-back days that start early in the morning and last long into the night. His pay? “As mayor, I get $702 a month,” he says in that soft, confident voice. “And the bridge district pays $50 a day—for the days when we meet. And that’s it.” His other involvements, include not only SMART, but vice-chairman of the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM), chair of the San Rafael Sanitary District board of directors, and active roles with the Marin County Fair and the Marin Sonoma Concours d’ Elegance.
So why does he do it? “I enjoy it,” he says, his eyes brightening and his voice finally lifting. “I really enjoy it.”
Over the past two decades, you have played a role in the redevelopment of downtown San Rafael and Fourth Street; the widening of the 101 freeway; SMART; the Canal’s $9 million Pickleweed Recreation Center; and Northgate’s $75 million renovation. Which accomplishment gives you the greatest satisfaction? You know, San Rafael has dozens of neighborhoods; there’s about 60 different homeowner groups. This is a city where you can walk the precincts—and we do. We try to include the neighborhoods and stay connected and listen carefully so that everything stays local. The big projects are great but, for the most part, they’re not where people live. I think we have a San Rafael community that is proud of what we are and who we are. Sure there is some contentiousness, but every two years we do a customer satisfaction survey and usually the police and fire department, and the city services—even the city council—consistently come up with high scores. That’s what gives me great satisfaction.
On the other hand, what concerns you the most—not only in San Rafael but also throughout Marin? First, we have to realistically look at consolidating some of the county’s numerous governmental agencies. Not just look at them, but begin taking action.
In June, a Marin County grand jury report said we have 130 different governing agencies, in addition to the eleven cities and the board of supervisors, for a county of only 250,000 people. That’s way too much. I believe the role of a public agency is to ensure its fiscal viability so that the services the community expects can be provided. In these difficult economic times, elected officials should review all options including consolidation. Of all the years I have served as mayor, the current economic climate has been both historic and the most severe. In San Rafael we have reduced our workforce through attrition and layoffs. All of our non-safety employees and elected officials have taken a five percent pay cut last year and again in our current fiscal year. Everyone in Marin needs to continue to reinvent how we provide services to our communities in the most cost effective way possible.
My second concern is the problem of immigration. The state and the country are changing. California is already a minority state—meaning there is no majority ethnic group—and it has been projected that the nation will be there by 2035. This can make people fearful and can turn to prejudice and worse if the immigration issue is not addressed. I believe immigration reform and the protection of borders must come from the federal government. State governments must ensure that employers hire people with valid identification. As an example, those immigrants who are already here receive a computerized ID card, one as secure as an ATM card, that would allow them to work. Those immigrants who arrive after a policy of this type is implemented and do not come here legally, will not have access to these cards, and will not be able to work through the enforcement of the employers. By the way, I challenge anyone to do the job the guy standing on a street corner wants to do. Therefore, it’s not a case of someone taking someone else’s job. Let’s be honest, we all need to be more tolerant, understanding and adapt to the changes and challenges that are affecting our cities, states and country.