GUSTINE - To say that Joe Oliveira was a reluctant applicant for appointment to the Gustine City Council in 1999 may be an understatement.
His initial reaction when approached about throwing his hat into the ring for consideration, Oliveira recalled, was an emphatic “no.”
He followed what was going on with the city, Oliveira recalled, but had no issues with the council leadership and had never given serious consideration to seeking office.
But those encouraging him to apply for appointment to a vacant council seat persisted, and Oliveira eventually relented.
He was appointed.....and went on to serve more than two decades on the city’s governing body before declining to seek re-election this year.
His tenure is about to come to a close, as new council members Jim Bonta and Dennis Brazil will be seated at the Dec. 1 meeting.
When he first joined the council, Oliveira said, he never envisioned staying on the council for as long as he has.
During his tenure, Oliveira and the council worked through lean budget times, high turnover of key staff positions and other challenges.
“It really bothered me,” he said of the tough times. “I worried about how we were going to get through.”
But now, Oliveira said, he is confident that he is leaving the council with the city in a good position and making positive strides.
“For a lot of years we were stagnant. Downtown might have been a little better off, but as far as everything else we were trying to keep pace instead of looking to the future. Now we are dealing with things better and more quickly, which is due a lot to city staff,” he stated. “I like the direction that we are going right now. People don’t realize the amount of time that you put into researching and talking and having meetings before you can actually get a project moving.”
One of the city’s primary accomplishments during his time on the council, Oliveira said, has been moving City Hall to its downtown location.
City offices used to share a building with the Police Department, he noted, with the council chambers between the two wings. Not only was there little room for staff, Oliveira said, but there were times when those showing up for a council meeting would find a handcuffed prisoner seated on a chair outside the meeting room or hear a ruckus through the wall if somebody became belligerent.
Moving City Hall downtown alleviated those issues, gave the Police Department more room and set a new tone for local government.
“When we got the new City Hall, we got more aggressive over the years trying for money to improve the town,” Oliveira remarked.
He has also enjoyed the work he has done as a member of the Merced County Association of Governments (MCAG). Oliveira has served on that agency’s governing board through most of his time on the council.
“When I got on MCAG I don’t think there was the greatest relationship between the county and city,” he commented. “I think I helped make a dent in that. It is not all me....it is staff and everyone else. I think everybody has worked better with them. The city became more involved with the county.
As a councilman, Oliveira joined the MCAG “One Voice” trip to Washington, D.C., on three or four occasions. Reaching out to make contacts in D.C. helped Gustine secure grant money for a variety of projects, Oliveira said.
What he most enjoyed, though, was working with other council members on the local level.
“We don’t agree on everything, but we always got along and when it was over it was over,” Oliveira reflected. “When the vote was taken we got on board and tried to make it work.”
The public is often quick to blame the city manager if upset at something, Oliveira pointed out, but in reality “if something goes wrong it is usually the council’s fault. They tell the city manager what to do.”
Oliveira said he always tried to get back to constituents with answers to their questions, even if it was not the one they had hoped for.
He also said he made a point to listen to public input and the thoughts of other council members when issues were at hand.
“There were times my mind was made up, but then in discussion points came up that I had not thought of,” Oliveira explained. “You have five council members. Somebody else might have a better opinion.”
While not every decision worked out as hoped, Oliveira said, none come to mind as a decision he would like to have over.
“I can’t think of anything I ever regretted,” he said. “I always felt that I made the best decision that I could with the information I had.”