By Tim Hunt
Recollections of a leader and a friendUploaded: Jan 16, 2014
During my years in the newspaper industry, I dealt with many politicians and other leaders. With some, I built lasting relationships. Ken Mercer was one of those people. We spent lots of breakfasts together at Jim's discussing the city and the region. His influence spread well beyond Pleasanton, but he never forgot Pleasanton's interests.
The memorial service for Ken will be on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 1 p.m. at the Senior Center. The next day at 2 p.m., the memorial service for his council colleague Karin Mohr will be held. She died last fall after falling from a ladder while cleaning the rain gutters at her home.
Meeting Ken was always an adventure for me because, in my newspapering days, I was not particularly good at being on time for meetings. Ken was always five minutes early and he gave you 10 minutes of grace. If you weren't there, he was on to the next appointment. I learned to be prompt.
Former City Councilwoman Becky Dennis and former Councilman Bob Butler, who was Ken's colleague during the 1980s and early 1990s. both wrote about how he encouraged citizen involvement and discussion. That extended to appointing fervent Hacienda Business Park opponent Ben Tarver to the Planning Commission, a platform that helped him eventually win a council seat and then become mayor.
Bob wrote, "Another important aspect of Ken's leadership was the importance he placed on hearing the opinions of the ordinary citizens who would live with the results of a new proposal. He often organized ad hoc committees to review and comment on a project. He believed that all opinions are important and need to be heard."
During the fractious political battles with Tarver and others who shared his viewpoint, I think the comment that hurt Ken the most was that he was giving away the store to the developers. They missed it entirely. Talk to Joe Callahan and the Hacienda Business Park developers about how Ken ensured that the city would benefit and the developers would mitigate their impacts. Consider what Hacienda paid--improvements or new interchanges at four freeway connections, taking neighborhoods out of the flood zone, greatly improved fire fighting capabilities with new water tanks, fire trucks and a station to name just a few. By contrast, the 585-acre Bishop Ranch developers had almost a free pass with the state sharing the cost of the one interchange with the park developers (lobbying clout does pay off).
Dale Turner, mayor of Livermore at the same time, wrote, "Ken had a strong personality and always put Pleasanton first. We had many disagreements but it never tarnished our relationship."
One way Ken put the community first was how he encouraged business newcomers to town to participate in the non-profit life of the city. One Hacienda principal told me that after meeting Ken, he wanted to get together for lunch to chat. Lunchtimes were not available, but he could see him at this non-profit event or that non-profit event. What Ken thought was important in Pleasanton became readily apparent and the developer stepped up and supported them.
Ken always was one to get things done –"move the meter" as I like say. One way he did this was to rally people to causes and then serve. Ken was certainly comfortable in front of a crowd, but he was equally at home serving them. When you went to barbeques or other events, you would find Ken on the cooking crew—serving the folks—instead of presiding over the event. Of course, he could have organized it as well.
That characteristic carried through when he took over the leadership of the ValleyCare Health System Foundation. I remember one of its Christmas Tree Lane events where Ken was suffering with a hernia that needed surgery. Nonetheless, he was there helping his team execute the event, even as he had one of the emergency room docs help him out by pushing things back into place while he laid down on a table in the back room.
His leadership at ValleyCare was notable. The foundation had raised $402,000 the year before Ken joined the hospital as foundation president and vice-president for marketing and government affairs. During his 10-year tenure, more than $1 million was raised annually and the total for his time was $15 million.
That helped fund the completion of the west wing ValleyCare Medical Center in Pleasanton as well as refurbishing the existing Valley Memorial facilities in Livermore and building new ones; expanding the emergency room in Pleasanton; building the neonatal intensive care unit and the pediatric unit in Pleasanton.
Ken and I participated in the meeting with the Livermore Rotarian Foundation where Ken suggested the mobile health van as a Rotary project. A group that grew out of Project Roadrunner at Marilyn Avenue School in Livermore had been discussing the van for a few years, but Ken's push, coupled with ValleyCare's willingness to operate it, provided the impetus for the unit that serves the valley today.
He was instrumental in ValleyCare obtaining Measure A funds from Alameda County when the supervisors brought forward an additional half-cent sales tax to pay for the county medical center and other medical services.
As others have said and written, Ken enjoyed a good time. One of his mayoral colleagues who always was good for a laugh was Dave Smith, whom I dubbed "Mayor for Life Smith" after he served for more than 33 years as mayor of Newark. Back in the early 1980s, both Ken and Dave were proud of their new shopping centers—Stoneridge for Ken and Newpark for Dave.
One of the standing jokes at the monthly meetings of the county mayors' conference was Ken's fondness for desserts. I can remember Dave—dressed in tie and jacket as all of the politicians did in those times—draping a napkin over his arm and "waiting on Ken" as he delivered his dessert to Ken. It was good for a hearty laugh all around.
When Pleasanton voters approved directly electing the mayor instead of rotating the title among council members, it allowed Ken to increase his influence at the mayors' conference which appoints people to key regional board such as the air board, the waste board and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Those boards control millions of dollars and, as we saw with 20-plus days of no-burn days with the air board, can impose both regulations and fines to enforce them.
I have received many comments about Ken. What follows is some of them in no particular order. (Blogs online are great—no space constraints of newsprint) Feel free to add your comments or memories about a remarkable community leader.
Bob Butler, City Council colleague and former mayor.
"Ken was a good friend, an organizer, a leader who always had the best interests of his city at heart. He was also a family man, and a strong supporter of their schools, athletics, and interests.
We often commented to each other that the hard work of planning had been done by those who put the first general plans together long before we were involved. Our job was to review projects in the light of that planning, and Ken excelled at doing that. But more than making good decisions, he was a tireless supporter of those that he felt would really make a difference for the future of the city. Early examples of that were the Stoneridge Mall, and later the Hacienda Business Park. In each case there were some who were strongly opposed whom Ken would try to reason with. But no matter the outcome, once he was in agreement with a project, that support would never waver.
Another important aspect of Ken's leadership was the importance he placed on hearing the opinions of the ordinary citizens who would live with the results of a new proposal. He often organized ad hoc committees to review and comment on a project. He believed that all opinions are important and need to be heard.
Finally, Ken was truly a "people person". He really enjoyed meeting and talking with folks about almost any subject. He valued friendship and camaraderie very much. I always felt Ken was a special friend, and was blessed to have known him well for a long time."
Jim Krause, founder of Children's Theater Workshop and Tri-Valley Community Foundation, Pleasanton native, living in Los Angeles for many years.
"What a sad day for Pleasanton. I wish Ken could have lived to be the wise old man, a character who walked up and down Main Street having coffee with his buddies and visiting with everyone who walked by.
Ken was never a board member to any of the organizations I was involved in. He gave the same sideline coaching to AJ (Andy Jorgensen, founder of Children's Theater Workshop) and me as he gave to you and me for TVCF (Tri-Valley Community Foundation). He was always a source of important information.
Ken was a genuine leader. His attitude was always positive and his energy limitless. He made everything fun and he energized everyone with whom he came in contact. He was straightforward. He was the least political of all of our elected officials. If he disagreed with you he would say so. If you kept pushing he would shrug his shoulders and say, OK if that's how you see it? It was seldom personal with Ken even when the other party was trying to make it personal.
Ken was a back-channel kind of politician; not "back room" as in 'smoke filled,' but back-channel in that he quietly supported community leaders, connected the right people, built consensus by allowing community advocates to surface, lead and succeed. He gave me back-channel advice that often led to a successful meeting with someone whose support I needed. He didn't have to push himself onto the medals platform. He presented the trophies, he let others bask in the light of victory. He was already standing on the dais; as mayor he knew that the people would always give him credit for those victories anyway. Ken Mercer had an innate understanding of people. As a consequence, he got things done.
Mr. Mercer was one of the few politicians I have known who never lost his idealism. He remained true to his belief that he was a servant of the people. He actually knew what the term "public servant" meant. I once thanked Ken for his leadership style. His response was, "The higher up the social/political hierarchy you are, the greater the obligation to empower and support those at the bottom." How could you not like this guy?
Ken once told me that he liked me because I never asked him for anything. He appreciated the fact that there were many in Pleasanton who would author an issue, take responsibility for it, and make it happen. He always supported those people.
Well, this was a bit longer than I (and probably you) expected. I do most of my thinking through my finger-tips and your note to me got me thinking about what I loved so much about this wonderful man.
Jan Batcheller, owner of Gift Source
Ken Mercer was first a proud, loving father and grandfather. Ken's impact on the City of Pleasanton is immeasurable. Ken was instrumental in the development of the Pleasanton Youth Sports Park, Stoneridge Mall, and Hacienda Business Park to name but a few projects that Ken was involved with. Ken's leadership skills were obvious to all. Ken was a visionary whose passion for Pleasanton led his actions. Ken was a genuine, loyal and generous friend. He will be sorely missed by all who knew and cared for him.
Brad Hirst, Equity Enterprises, chair of Pleasanton Centennial Celebration (appointed by Ken).
Ken was a True ALL-STAR. He made Pleasanton a better place to live, work, and do business. More importantly he made everyone around him a better person. He was obviously a very skilled and competent leader of people. Ken was the most organized person I ever met. He was a master delegator.
Ken knew change was inevitable. He embraced it and made it work well for the entire community. Of all his accomplishments his most cherished was Youth Sports Park.
Ken was truly a caring and generous person to everyone .No matter if you were a State Official, CEO, food service worker, or Floor assistant at ClubSport- Ken was Ken and all were treated with respect.
Obviously he will be greatly missed. The challenge to all of us is continue his legacy of generosity, consideration, and vision. Most important to Ken was his love of family, especially his grandchildren.
Ken was presented with the Ed Kinney award (another good friend who died way too soon) in 2009 by the Fourth of July Celebration Planning Team and the Ed Kinney Community Patriot Awards Nominating Committee, They wrote:
"Few people have had as much influence on the destiny of Pleasanton as Ken Mercer. He served as a city council member from 1976-92, including ten years as our mayor. (Can you imagine how many hours he spent in meetings during those 16 years, and how many more reading through thick agenda packets?!) It was during Ken's term in city government that Pleasanton developed three of our largest assets: Stoneridge Shopping Center, Hacienda Business Park, and Pleasanton Sports Park. The first two improved forever our city's revenue stream. Hacienda Business Park also eliminated a flood plain in the northern part of our community, grading the land to change the pattern of water drainage. Mature trees from the business park site were moved – at Ken's suggestion – to the sports park, thereby transforming the donated land "instantly" into a place of beauty for athletes and other community members to enjoy.
The list of civic service Ken has performed is impressive, extending well beyond our city boundaries as other jurisdictions sought his advice. He has provided leadership on boards dealing with regional water quality, traffic congestion, solid waste management, adult education, and economic development. Beyond these many organizations, Ken has consistently been the kind of person who does the right thing, and inspires other to do so. With two weeks' notice, he can pull together a golf tournament or a barbecue to raise funds for a worthy cause. Neighbors helping neighbors – that is what Ken thinks it should be all about, and there are many families in town who have benefited from his compassion – and his connection to a wide circle of generous friends and business associates.
Both of Ken's parents died of cancer before he completed high school. Starting at age 18, he worked for Pac Bell, "retiring" while still in his 40's. Ken's next career was with a title company. Eight years ago, he was recruited to take on the role of president of the ValleyCare Hospital Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the local non-profit hospital. No patient is turned away, regardless of ability to pay. So far this year, the hospital has provided $14 million worth of charity medical care.
Many years ago, Ken was part of a group of civic leaders who conducted "train robberies" to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Donning cowboy bandit outfits, they would board the passenger trains that in those days stopped downtown, and ask that the passengers donate "ransom for cancer." While his fundraising methods may have changed, Ken still knows how to combine having a lot of fun with helping out worthwhile causes. He is indeed, a community patriot, and one who valued the friendship of his former neighbor, Ed Kinney.