ELECTION PROFILE:
Mayor’s vision is to solidify Merced as regional leader

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
October 4, 2018

Mayor Mike Murphy needs only to walk around the corner from his office at the Civic Center to see clear signs that Merced is becoming a new-and-improved destination city.

Just past the recently opened UC Merced Campus Center, construction is changing the urban landscape around the historic Tioga and El Capitan hotels, and the art deco Mainzer Theater on Main Street.

Murphy points out that soon residents and visitors from out of town will be able to enjoy live stage performances from four incredible venues — all within a four-block radius of downtown. They include the Mainzer, the Multicultural Arts Center, Playhouse Merced and the iconic Merced Theatre.

And that’s not mentioning, the years-long, secret renovations going on inside the Partisan Tavern which Times sources say will open soon and rival any trendy music club in the Bay Area.

The Tioga is being restored to its former glory, with 70 market-rate apartments aimed at young professionals or retirees who want to enjoy living in a vibrant downtown district. The ‘El Cap,’ as it is known, will feature 114 guest rooms, a cafe, and a restaurant.

These days, Murphy has been extra busy touring growth sites such as these, and attending conferences to promote and advance Merced’s standing in the region.

Recently he helped lead a discussion with the Bay Area Council about improving connectivity and infrastructure between the Bay Area and the “Merced Area.”

“I view Merced as a region leader in the Central Valley,” Murphy says. “Our position is only going to increase in prominence as the years go forward. I think it is important for us to be thinking strategically about who we are, and who we will be going forward.”

Murphy is running for re-election to secure a second and final term as the city’s top elected leader. He is being challenged by Monica Villa, a homeless advocate, in the citywide vote that will extend to Election Day on Nov. 6.

Candidate Murphy was first elected to the Merced City Council in 2011 and served a 5-year extended term. He followed that up by winning the mayor election in 2016.

Within a few months, he gave the first-ever “State of the City” address at the Merced Theatre. In his speech, Murphy cast away the lingering negativity from the Great Recession and declared that Merced was a “city on the rise.”

It was a big moment for the Merced native who seemingly hasn’t missed a benchmark in a career and family life that continues to be both successful and remarkable.

Murphy was the senior class president and captain of the wrestling team at Golden Valley High School. He lived abroad as a missionary in Tahiti. He graduated form Georgetown Law School, and practiced law in Silicon Valley representing tech companies.

He married, started a family, and returned to Merced by choice to raise the children.

And while the City Council, and his job as mayor, take up a considerable amount of time in his daily work regimen, Murphy has managed to build and grow the local Murphy & Brawley law firm.

For their first office building, they restored a 1937 Craftsman-style home on Canal Street in downtown Merced. This year, those offices will be expanding to a larger, more modern location just around the corner.

Consider all of these solid accomplishments, happening one after the other, along with the fact that Murphy is only 39 years old.

Indeed, he’s still young enough to have been listed in this year’s “20 Under 40” class of local leaders who are poised to play key roles in the future of the community.

Vision To Invest

“For Merced to prosper, we need a number of things to continue to happen,” Murphy says. “It’s things like the renaissance in the downtown core. We are really concentrating on having downtown as a destination for the arts in their various forms. That’s one piece of it. …

“The definition of success economically is to have good paying jobs for our residents who don’t have to leave to find those jobs. With the presence of UC Merced that will be a reality. We will have tech companies that call Merced home. We need to make investments that plan for that, and all the while recognize that agriculture is our largest industry, and will continue to be. We need to make sure all of these industries find success together. …

“We have seen a lot of success over the last two years, but I think Merced’s best days are still in front of us. We can be the city that we all want, and it just takes a deliberate effort, action and vision.

“I have a vision for Merced, and that vision includes us as a regional leader — when it comes to employment, when it comes to roads, when it comes to arts and entertainment, and when it comes to education. …

“If we can execute on those things, there is no stopping us,” Murphy says confidently.

The mayor foresees the next City Council making a number of decisions that are going to impact the city for a generation or more. One of those decisions includes how they expand the city limits to the north and around the university.

“There is a demand for growth,” Murphy says. “We want to make sure there is enough space for that demand, along with the ability to maintain municipal sewer and water service. It is important that our city limits be expanded to accommodate the growth that will occur, but at the same time we need to be mindful not to create [urban] sprawl.”

“We are studying at this point,” he says, “and understanding what our options are.”

The mayor is quick to point out that the city is experiencing a tight housing market right now, and one that might not let up in the next few years.

“Our population is going to continue to increase,” Murphy says. “The answer is to increase the supply of available housing — single family residences, as well as multifamily options, and that’s what we are doing.”

Over the past two years, Merced has witnessed a surge in building permits. This year, the city is on track to surpass pre-2008 levels, and leave them in the dust. There are more than 10 subdivisions under construction, and at least 800 apartment units that are entitled. Many of the apartments are targeted to meet the needs of an increased student population scheduled to attend UC Merced by 2020.

Also this year, the city hired a new police chief – Chief Chris Goodwin — a 21-year veteran of the department. They announced the new City Attorney — Phaedra Norton — this week, and a new Parks and Recreation director is also expected in the days to come.

“I’m confident in our City Hall team,” Murphy says. “We have 500 employees, and they are all dedicated to the success of Merced. I feel really good about the next couple of years. … I not only say Merced is a ‘city on the rise,’ I believe it. And it’s not because of UC Merced, or Campus Parkway, or the ACE train coming to town, or the Hotel Tioga renovation. These projects are only the physical manifestation of the dedication of Mercedians, and the opportunities that exist here. It’s because of the people. It’s the people who call Merced home that make it the special place that it is. … I would put Merced up against any other city in our region, against any metric. I would make the case that Merced is a great place to call home.”

On top of things

The mayor says he’s keenly aware that the decisions they make at City Hall impact people’s lives — whether it’s how police and fire crews respond to emergencies or things that people don’t often think about such as sewer service.

“We haven’t had any problems with our sewer division, in fact, they have won statewide awards over the past two years. We also have clean water in Merced. People expect that, but other cities don’t have clean water. We get these things right.”

At the start of the year, the mayor promised to improve the maintenance of pot holes on city streets. In a matter of months, the Merced Connect online application was mobilized so that residents can report pot holes in need of fixing, with the promise that city crews would respond in 48 hours or less.

“We are trying to restore people’s faith in government that someone is listening and responding,” Murphy says. “Restoring faith in government is a valuable thing.”

The city is also keeping true to a promise of hiring three to five police officers every year, while also weaning off public safety funding from Measure C — a public safety tax measure passed in 2006. The measure was a lifesaver during the economic downturn, but it sunsets in 2026.

“Our plan is to reduce staffing that is funded by the measure, and spend some on equipment and projects,” the mayor says. “So in 2026, the City Council can report to residents about the sales tax and see if they want to re-up for another 20 years, and have even better service. If they don’t, the plan is in place so they will not see a drop in service.”

In a second term, the mayor also plans to push forward a parcel tax to help fund a much-needed new police station and a heavy maintenance yard the city needs to improve.

The challenges

While it’s always nice to look at positive change, Mayor Murphy points out that he is not overlooking the complex challenges the city faces.

“As mayor, I’m acutely aware of those,” he says. “My phone rings at all times of the day and night.”

The most prominent one, according to the mayor, is the city’s homeless situation and the need for proactive solutions.

“We have to do better, and we will,” Murphy says.

The mayor says the city has made real and rapid progress in respect to homeless veterans. When Murphy became mayor, there were 88 homeless veterans listed in a census count as living on the streets in the Merced area. The mayor made it a point to completely end homelessness among veterans within a year. Currently, there are some still out there, but the mayor says the latest information indicates the number is fluctuating in the single digits.

“We need to pick the next group [to focus on],” Murphy says, “and that’s probably unaccompanied women and minors. We have to keep pressing forward. … It’s not going to be an answer that just comes from City Hall, or the county administration. It has to be an all encompassing, developed approach. We are not going to arrest our way out of homelessness, nor are we going to find a solution that only involves giving out more benefits and more handouts.”

The mayor said he is very encouraged by work that is happening “in a number of places,” including the new Restore Merced effort that is providing work experience and life skills training. The program was modeled in part from the Doe Fund in Harlem, New York. Mayor Murphy visited representatives of the program during his trip to the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year.

Then and now

Mayor Murphy has spent a good amount of time making contacts and promoting Merced in Sacramento, Washington D.C., and beyond. Late last year, at his own expense, he traveled to Merced’s sister city in Nicaragua on a goodwill mission to see the progress that’s going on there. In August, the mayor was on the steps of the State Capitol addressing hundreds of people gathered to protest a state plan to divert critical water flows away from the valley.

“The mayor needs to be making the connections with decision makers in Washington and Sacramento, and our voice needs to be heard. I spend a lot of time making sure Merced is on people’s minds.”

He says he can work with anybody, especially those who have the betterment of Merced in their heart.

“As mayor, I rely on consensus in my colleagues,” Murphy says. “I think that we have a good council in that regard. We agree on the important things. We share our points of views well, and we work together as a team. My only hope is that this continues. I hope we don’t have some of the challenges that other city councils experience. We are not a split council. We have seven people with seven different life experiences and opinions, and that’s healthy and that’s good. There is a lot of congeniality. … We all agree that we are serving to help lift up the community that we love.”

The mayor says he’s improving in his role every day and he’s not taking anything for granted.

“It’s a very humbling thing to be chosen by friends and neighbors to be the mayor of your hometown — where you grew up and where you are raising your kids. … This is just a small portion of my life. I’ve had one two-year term, and hopefully one more, and then the voters of Merced will pass the baton to someone else. I recognize I have a special responsibility. ...

I honestly feel I’m living the first line of my obituary today. When I pass away — and I hope it’s a long time from now — and if the County Times ever writes my obituary, it will because I was the former mayor. … I want to be the best mayor I can be for the residents of Merced. I don’t want to look back at these two or four years of my life, and have any regrets. I don’t want to leave anything undone that could have been done. To use a sports analogy, I want to leave it all on the field.”

Last but not least …

While they are mentioned at the end of this profile, Mike Murphy’s family members are his top priority, of course.

Mike is married to Heather, and he’s “super proud” of her.

“She did what I couldn’t have done,” the mayor says. “She went back to school as a full-time parent and earned a degree from Merced College last year.”

Their oldest son, Walker, is almost 16, and he just earned the prestigious Eagle Scout rank in the Boy Scouts of America.

“Walker is an inspiration to me,” the mayor says. “He faces physical challenges due to muscular dystrophy. For me, getting up in the morning is easy. For him, getting out of bed can be hard on some days. But he doesn’t let anything slow him down for long.”

Mike and Heather also have 13-year-old twins, Abigale and Maxwell.

And then there’s 6-year-old Nash, who was born during his father’s long run as an elected leader in Merced. For Nash, Dad's always been the mayor.

Says Mike Murphy: “I love being mayor, but it was a real decision that Heather and I had to make. It takes a special relationship. First and foremost, I am a dad and a husband. Any success I might enjoy as mayor pales in comparison to the importance of family. … There are a number of people in Merced who could be mayor and be successful, but my kids have only one Dad. … Family is paramount.”


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