Russ Cremer, Mayor of Clearlake, sits at Tequila’s Mexican Restaurant in Clearlake. He finishes off the last of his taco salad, then moves forward with the conversation.
“I went to high school in Lower Lake, graduating in the class of 1966,” he continues. “I came back after college for a year, and my mother decided I needed a real job. So, I went to work for Bank of America in 1971, then spent eight or nine years in Chico in the appraisal department until 1980, when I started managing agricultural properties. In 1990 I left the bank, but we remained in Sacramento, where I stayed until 2003 when I retired. I convinced my wife to retire a little bit early, and we moved back to Lake County. Then I went back to work with the bank in 2006, and worked out of my house. I finally retired for good in 2014.
“Interestingly enough, when we got back here after being gone for 33 years, I realized that I had missed an entire generation. Leaving made me more appreciative when I returned, so I started to get involved. I had an opportunity to do some work fundraising for the Lower Lake High School sports program. After that, I was on the fire board for a little more than four years. I put my name in when an opening came on the planning commission. I didn’t make it the first time, but the second time there was an opening, I made it. Then when an opening came for city council, I applied and ended up getting appointed.
“For years,” he continues, “The city had been just treading water and didn’t have a common vision. By the time I was appointed, the city council had started pulling together.” He pauses. “Now the council is really going in the same direction. We may not agree on everything, but we agree to disagree, and when the meeting is over, we remain friends. That’s the real difference. When I first came back in ’03, I used to go to city council meetings for the entertainment value. It was a wild ride. Unfortunately, not much was accomplished. We don’t do that. We’re very boring now. Our mission is a cleaner, safer Clearlake, and we work toward that end.”
The waiter comes to clear the table, and the conversation stops for a minute while Russ collects his thoughts, then continues. “In the past, the city had tried three different times to get a road tax and failed for several reasons. We didn’t want the money to go into the general fund; we wanted it to go into the roads. The third time that we tried, it passed because we focused on the roads. That required a 2/3 vote, and it was close.” He chuckles at the thought.
“It’s been three years since it went into effect. Before that, our average road repair maintenance budget was approximately $200,000 annually. In the last two years, we’ve spent $2.5 million each year. And we did that. We, the people of Clearlake, did that. We’re proud of that.” Russ smiles. “And because we are a self-help city, we qualify for additional funds.
“I think one other thing that helped the city was moving from a city administrator system to a city manager system. A city manager runs the city’s day-to-day operations. The city council’s function is to be the visionaries for the city. They tell the city manager, and the manager does what he is trained to do, which is to implement the vision. That’s when we really started making great strides forward. We’re on our second city manager now, and Alan Flora is tremendous. Alan came from outside the county, where he was working in Mendocino County, and it worked out. I’m very glad we did.
“Another great thing is that we went outside the county for the hiring of the police chief. We thought that we needed a change, so we interviewed two people who weren’t from Lake County. From the first minute that we interviewed Andrew White, we knew he was the one. He’s innovative; he doesn’t say it can’t be done. He looks for ways to solve a problem.
“We also beefed up our code enforcement and enforced universal garbage pickup. Last year we enacted a vegetation management ordinance. At the time, I thought it was too harsh, but now I think it may have been not stringent enough. We’re starting to look at brush removal as well.”
Russ stops for a second. “We had a consultant do a study of retail economic growth for Lake County. Their study found that there is as much as $600,000,000 annual leakage from the county. Granted, some of that leakage comes from online shopping. That’s a pretty important number to know. We make sure that any potential developers know that when they look at opening a business in Clearlake.
“We’re planning to focus our big retail shopping near where the airport used to be. Presently we’ve got a developer who’s working with a couple of potential anchor stores. Additionally, Starbucks is going to be putting in a store next to Carl’s Jr. They’re also putting in some space for a few retail stores. And there’s been a lot of interest at the corner of Old Highway 53 and the new Highway 53. That would be a service station, with a convenience store and maybe another coffee shop.”
Russ takes a second to think. “It’s challenging working with Lakeshore Drive. Lakeport’s Main Street is straight and encapsulated. Kelseyville, Upper Lake, and Lower Lake all are similar. Lakeshore Drive is two miles long, and bends and curves.” His eyes brighten. “My vision is to start with Austin Park. The park is being redone. We’re spending over $2,000,000 on it. And we want it to work well. We’re going to have an amphitheater there. We plan on having a concert series with live music initially at least once a monthy in summer. Adventist Health donated $100,000 for playground equipment; we’re making the dog park larger and easier to use; we’ll have walking paths. Most importantly, we’ll have grass, not weeds. And we’re offering sponsorships for benches and shade structures.
“The city owns a property right across from city hall, an 8.5-acre site. At one point, it was Austin’s Resort. It had a marina that had room for something like fifty boats. In the past, there were buildings all along there; There were at least six restaurants and bars during that time.” Russ thinks of the potential. “The second phase of development for Austin Park will have a pier. That will cost close to a million dollars. I’d love to see the pier go in, have a hotel there, and a restaurant.”
He pauses, coming back to the reality of the situation. “But it’s going to take time. People aren’t going to do it just because I want to do it. The one thing is that it’s not happening as fast as we wanted.” He has a look of determination about him. “It’s frustrating. But if you think something’s wrong, then work to change it. Don’t complain about it.
“We’ve got one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. We’ve got a growing wine industry. We need to re-emphasize water-skiing and sailing to complement the fishing. We’ve got other great outdoors options like hiking and biking. And our sunsets are breathtaking here. We need to bring all of these things together.”
Did you miss part 1 of Russ Cremer’s Interview? You can find it here.
If you would like to visit Clearlake’s City council meetings to see what’s going on, they meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at 6pm at City Hall in Clearlake.