Local Politics

Wednesday, Nov 21 2012 12:00 PM

Head start: Councilman-elect already embracing his new role

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    City Councilman-elect Bob Smith is at the front of the pack as Jennifer Donlon Wyant of consulting firm Alta Planning + Design leads a bike tour of Bakersfield south on Chester Avenue on Friday.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Bakersfield city staff cross Truxtun Avenue on a tour of the city's bike routes on a beautiful Friday afternoon. City Councilman-elect Bob Smith and Bike Bakersfield have encouraged Bakersfield planners to build more bike lanes.

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BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

On a recent Friday afternoon, about a dozen people, many of them Bakersfield city staff, gathered in the parking garage at the Development Services building with bicycles. They then set off down Chester Avenue and on an eight-mile loop around Bakersfield to see the current state of bike routes in the city.

Bob Smith was at the front of the pack, riding alongside one of the consultants hired by the city to help create a new bike route plan. Smith founded Bike Bakersfield, which promotes bike riding and bike safety, in 2006. Since then, he and other members of the organization have been prodding the city to invest more in bike routes throughout Bakersfield.

That Friday ride was a big step in that process.

It was also an example of how Smith, who won't be sworn in to the Ward 4 Bakersfield City Council seat he recently won easily until next month, has been preparing for the new role. In fact, he started even before the election.

At a community services committee meeting in October, Smith sat at the conference room table with city staff and council members who serve on that panel, rather than in seats against the wall with other members of the public. (Though he said he's done that at past meetings where Bike Bakersfield has played a part).

He's frequently seen in the audience at full Bakersfield City Council meetings, with Councilman David Couch or other members explaining the proceedings to him during breaks.

Smith, who also owns a civil engineering firm, had thought about running for the council "for years." When Couch created an opening by getting elected to the Kern County Board of Supervisors in June, he thought, "Hey, maybe I can get more done from the other side."

Safer streets in general -- not just for bicyclists -- was a major part of Smith's campaign.

"I would always (hear from residents), 'Every week, someone's getting run over and people are concerned about that.' If we can do anything by engineering the streets differently, people want that."

Progress

Smith said the initial response he got from city staffers when he brought them ideas about bike paths was that Bakersfield already had bike lanes and a bike master plan. Smith said that plan is outdated and incomplete. And current bike routes aren't comfortable for riders who don't like to bike too near moving cars.

"I think there's opportunity for a lot more movement for bicycle infrastructure if I'm actually on the council," Smith said.

How successful Smith will be in his goal of getting the city to create wider bike lanes on already-established streets remains to be seen, but he's already seen the city progress, he said.

"There have been significant improvements in knowledge and trying different things and understanding what it takes to get people riding on bikes, and we still have the same plan we had in the '70s," Smith said.

Newer plans will encourage more riding on slower, residential streets rather than focusing mainly on busy streets, he said.

At the urging of Bike Bakersfield and Smith, the city applied for and won a $120,000 grant from the Sierra Club and the Rose Foundation earlier this year to hire a consultant to create a Bicycle Transportation Plan, which the city needs to submit when it applies for funding from Caltrans' Bicycle Transportation Account to implement the ideas.

The Friday bike ride and an earlier presentation that day by the consulting firm, Alta Planning + Design, kicked off defining the current conditions of bike routes and what improvements are needed.

Smith has already also worked with Councilman Russell Johnson -- in Johnson's effort to turn the bank of the canal along H Street south of Brundage Lane into a multi-use trail.

"It's no mistake that residents that have a passion and are involved in city government end up running for city government," Johnson said. "The way he's been engaged with the city gives him some insight that folks that don't understand the inner workings of city government haven't ever experienced."

Bakersfield is the ninth-largest city in the state, Johnson noted.

"A lot of folks would say we're missing the amenities that would make us the ninth biggest," he said. "Bob has the vision -- like bike lanes, bike trails -- the vision to really get those amenities together."

Busy days ahead

Couch said Smith was the obvious frontrunner in the election after oil industry lawyer Harley Pinson stopped campaigning and candidate Daniel Mbagwu made only minimal campaign efforts.

"At that point it was obvious he was going to be the guy," said Couch, who endorsed and walked precincts for Smith.

"I think he'll do very well because not only does he have his private-sector experience and worked with city staff, but he's also been on some boards around town and had to make decisions and set policy in a group setting," Couch said.

Smith is a member of the Bakersfield Christian High School board.

Smith will take his seat on the dais Dec. 11. He said he talked to several council members before the election about their experiences on the council.

What advice did he get?

"Don't bite off too much," Smith said. "You can only do so much. You're going to be very busy."

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