Mike Hilber is a classic outsider candidate, a populist that rails against both taxes and the outsized influence of money in politics — though “rails” is perhaps too strong a word for the reticent and soft-spoken Hilber, who is an engineer by training and temperament.
Hilber has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from UC Davis and a master’s in electrical engineering from Stanford. He worked in the defense industry in Southern California, before moving back to Sonoma County in the late 1990s to care for his ailing mother. He now lives in the house he grew up in in Roseland.
Hilber said he’s running against 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins because, among other things, he said she’s been endorsed by the Sonoma County Alliance, a local pro-business organization. (Hopkins last opponent, Noreen Evans, leveled the same charge against her.)
“The Sonoma County Alliance is the most powerful political organization in the county, and it’s composed of wealthy business interests and wealthy individuals,” Hilber said. “And the way I look at it is what they really want is government by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy, and it plays out in all kinds of decision-making if you look for it — but you have to look for it.”
This sounds like a leftish argument, and some readers might be surprised by someone trying to outflank Lynda Hopkins from the left.
Like most populists, however, Hilber rejects the traditional political categories of right or left.
“I don’t fit in any of those categories,” he said.
And indeed, he doesn’t. When asked about previous political involvement, he said his only political involvement before now was with “anti-tax groups.”
“Government is always after money,” he said. “And that’s one thing about the incumbents, it seems like everything — every issue — is another excuse for a tax increase. I don’t think that benefits the ordinary working person, because they're mostly regressive taxes. They’re bonds or parcel taxes or sales taxes, which are regressive. You find yourself paying for stuff that really doesn’t provide the value to the person that’s paying the tax. People just get bled for money year after year.”
Asked what personal characteristics he’d bring to the position of supervisor, Hilber said, “Fairness and fiscal restraint. I would really be a whole lot more tight-fisted with the money.”
Three top priorities
Homelessness and affordable housing
Hilber said his first priority as a supervisor would be dealing with homelessness. Living in Roseland, he’s dealt firsthand with the problems caused by the former homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, which was cleared at the end of January.
“That camp along the bike trail became a disaster,” Hilber said, noting that people in his neighborhood were afraid to patronize the local stores and cafes because of aggressive panhandling and the presence of obviously inebriated or drug-addled individuals.
Hilber feels Roseland, an already poor neighborhood, has been unfairly singled out as the place to house the homeless in the county.
“We’ve got the Sam Jones homeless shelter, which we were told was going to be limited to 60, but it kept getting increased and now it’s up to 200 capacity,” he said. “It’s the county’s only major homeless shelter.”
And then the encampment on the Joe Rodota trail happened, boosting the number of homeless people in his neighborhood to over 400.
Hilber is skeptical of the county’s current $11.6 million plan for dealing with the homeless from the Joe Rodota Trail.
Regarding Lynda Hopkins’ role in the encampment, he said, “I think she’d still be sitting on her hands as far as that encampment if it wasn’t for those guys drawing some attention to it,” he said, referring to the recall efforts of Stuart Kiehl and others from the neighborhood near the trail.
“This debacle with the homeless is an example of how money is being allocated and wasted,” he said. “There’s really a lack of a sensible approach.”
He worries, for example, that the temporary “sanctioned encampment” at Los Guillicos, which he pointed out is costing the county $2.2 million, isn’t really sustainable.
“I really don’t know how long those cottage things are going to last,” he said, noting that he’s also concerned about the expense of heating the thin structures with electricity and the expense of the temporary bathrooms.
Hilber said he’d prefer to house the homeless in some of the large empty commercial buildings along the southern end of Santa Rosa Avenue, saying the space could be divided up with separate sections for men and women, for those who had pets and those who didn’t.
“There’d be indoor plumbing and showers,” he said.
Hilber said creating a better, more permanent shelter for the homeless would then “empower the police to say that ‘We have a space for you indoors. You can’t just set up a tent wherever you want,’” he said, referring to the legal decision Martin v Boise, which found that cities couldn’t move people off public land unless they offered them an alternative form of shelter.
Hilber is also in favor of taking a more aggressive approach toward building affordable housing, noting that the kind of housing that gets built in Sonoma County — large single-family homes that sell for prices most people can’t afford — is simply another reflection of the way the county is run for the benefit of the wealthy.
Regarding the homeless and the poor, Hilber said, “The feeling is you put it far out to the southwest so it’s as far away as possible from the northeast (of Santa Rosa) and their world.”
“I’d like to see affordable housing distributed throughout the districts,” he said, “and an inclusionary policy so that every large multi-family development, has to include some affordable housing.” He also called for the building of many more studio apartments and ADUs.
Hilber also feels that the board of supervisors shouldn’t be turning decisions about how to deal with the homeless over to local nonprofits.
“I’m offended by all these RFPs they’ve been putting out, “ he said, referring to requests for proposals for plans for housing the homeless. “The five supervisors are paid to think about what the best solutions are. They should come to a decision in their own minds about that and not just be asking for ideas from nonprofits,” which, he said, “smell easy money.”
Repairing the roads
Hilber’s second priority would be improving the local roads.
“I don’t think they’re allocating enough funding for roads,” Hilber said. “And I'd like to see more go to local roads, because they’re prioritizing the collectors at this point. They also prioritize — and people don’t know this — but there’s a policy about which roads should be a priority and there’s a priority for the roads that serve the tourist industry, which disadvantages a lot of us that aren’t in the wine areas. Some of my neighbors haven’t seen their roads improved in like 40 years,” he said, except for occasional pothole patching.
Finally, Hilber said, “I’d be a lot more conservative with the money,” including paying off the county’s pension debt at a much faster rate of about $10 million a year.
“I would like to pay down the pension deficit a lot faster because it has the effect of draining $50 million a year from the general fund,” he said.
Hilber also opposes Lynda Hopkins’ support for signing the county up for Sonoma Clean Power’s Evergreen program, which supplies power from 100% local and renewable sources but is considerably more expensive.
“It looks like smoke and mirrors to me because all the power comes from the same wires,” he said, where it’s intermixed in the grid with electricity produced by hydropower, coal and nuclear power.
In his spare time
What does Mike Hilber do in his spare time when he’s not being political?
“I like gardening, and I’ve got an old car I’m working on: a ’67 Alpha Romeo.”
There will be a 5th District Candidates Forum featuring Lynda Hopkins and Mike Hilber on Wednesday, Feb. 12, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Roseland Library, 779 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa.
(NOTE: The original version of this articledescribed the recall efforts against Lynda Hopkins as "start and stop." We have removed this descriptor because after talking with the Registrar of Voters, we confirmed that after a bumpy start, the recall effort has never "stopped" since Stuart Kiehl served Lynda Hopkins with a letter of intention to petition to recall.)