Ron Stearn: Dean of California City Council MembersSep 15th, 2009 | By Robert Dorroh | Category: Community
He is the only four-time mayor in the City of Sonora’s 158-year history, a former National Guard master sergeant, 50-year Freemason, trombonist, Sonora United Methodist Church trustee, Sonora Rotary Club member, 2000 Mother Lode Roundup Parade grand marshal, and longtime member of E Clampus Vitus.
With 45 years of service, he is the longest-tenured city council member in the state, according to the League of California Cities. The late Talmadge Burke holds the state record for serving on the Alhambra City Council for 51 years, until 2003.
Most of all, Sonora Mayor Ron Stearn, 81, is known as “Mr. Mundorf’s.” For 47 years he worked in and managed the Washington Street hardware store, which opened in 1859 and closed in 1995. Known for his frugality and staying power, Stearn drives a 1962 GMC pickup he bought in 1975 for $300, and has lived in his 1919-built house on Gold Street for 58 years.
“Everything is paid off,” he says, jovially adding, “My son thinks I’m tight. I inherited my spending habits from my grandfather. He didn’t waste much.”
Stearn’s love for the city is obvious. He was elected to the Sonora City Council in 1964 and is in his 12th four-year term, which ends in 2012. His popularity with voters is a testament to his popularity, knowledge, evenhanded manner and fiscal conservatism. One may as well call him “Mr. Sonora” for his love of the city, especially downtown. Four shopping centers and nearly 600 parking spaces have been added to the city since he was first elected.
“I am a parking-space advocate and I consider the extra parking as my greatest accomplishment,” he says. “It may not sound like much, but it is.”
Although he’s voted for shopping centers on Mono Way and welcomes the tax revenue they bring, “My heart has always been on Main Street,” Stearn admits. There he got his first job as a delivery boy for Mallard’s Washington Street grocery store in the 1940s – giving him an endless supply of early Sonora stories. But as a council member, he’s always looking ahead.
“I like it because it keeps you going and current with what’s happening,” he says. “I’ve always liked the looks and the feeling of it. There’s nothing static.”
Sonora City Administrator Greg Applegate says Stearn is the “salt of the earth,” someone who is open and honest, utterly devoid of pretension.
“He is the last of a dying breed,” Applegate says. “He has absolutely no agenda. He just runs on his love for the city. It’s a blessing to have someone who has a good grasp of the community. You know what you get with Stearn.
“He’s the cog that turns the wheel here. The integrity, respect and honor he brings to the office set the tone for anyone else who sits on the council.”
When he joined the city council in 1964, Stearn recalls, the starting wage for a policeman was $485 a month – $5,820 a year compared to today’s starting salary of about $45,000. The city budget was about $180,000 in 1964 compared to about $5 million today.
Sonora was first incorporated in 1851. Since Stearn assumed office, the lower Save Mart, Sonora Plaza, Timberhills and Crossroads shopping centers have been built, changing Sonora from a quiet town to a growing city. The best government is one that focuses on the basics, he says. “Good fire and police departments, sidewalks you can get around on, and good city officials.”
Over-regulation is the most aggravating aspect of city government, Stearn says, noting that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), environmental impact reports, and a bevy of other regulations make it hard to get things done.
“The state has regulations that redefine the definition of definition,” he says. “They try to get things down to a gnat’s eyelash … They want to know how many square feet you take up at your job, or how many times you cross a yellow line driving from Sonora to Tuolumne.”
Stearn has haggled with environmentalists, no-growth and slow-growth advocates over so-called “big box” projects, including the most controversial development of his 45-year tenure: a Lowe’s home improvement center proposed for 10.7 acres off Old Wards Ferry Road.
Permit issues and lawsuits have dogged the project for four years. A citizens’ group sued the city over the Lowe’s store and proposed realignment of Old Wards Ferry Road, citing among other things traffic impacts and lack of parking spaces and, ultimately, forcing revision of the environmental report.
“It’s like walking on glue there’s so many regulations,” Stearn says, adding that he voted for the shopping centers due to the needed sales-tax revenue. He notes that sales-tax receipts from Walmart net the city about $300,000 a year.
Stearn was born in Oakland in 1928. Two months earlier, his father left his mother, Rosalie, a Portugese-American. Mother and son moved to Rosalie’s father’s house in Pleasanton where she worked in a laundry. She married her second husband, Charlie Raboli, in 1930. The family moved to San Francisco where Raboli bought a house for $4,600 in 1935. The couple divorced in 1942, and Rosalie and Stearn moved into a Sonora apartment behind the present Old Town commercial center at Lyons and Shepherd streets in late 1943.
“I had asthma really bad, and talked my mother into moving to Sonora,” Stearn recalls. In the 1930s they used to visit his mother’s uncle, Manuel Vierra, at his Shaws Flat Road home. Manuel’s daughter, Catherine Vierra Ghiorso, taught school in Tuttletown for 47 years.
“There were nine bars, only three highway patrolmen, and two hardware stores on (Washington Street) when we moved here,” Stearn says. Rosalie had a job at the venerable Europa coffee shop on Washington Street to help make ends meet. Stearn borrowed a 1925 Packard from the Sugg brothers, the town’s only African-Americans, to take his driver’s test when he was 15 years old during World War II.
In 1946, he went to work for Mallard’s Grocery, then part of the Mundorf’s Hardware building. Stearn recalls delivering groceries to Madame Hydron’s brothel, upstairs in the Washington Street brick building that now houses Umpqua Bank.
“She would release six locks to open the door,” he says. “They ordered quality stuff like artichoke hearts and stuffed olives.”
In 1946, Stearn graduated from Sonora High School, where he was a sprinter in track. He recalls working 13-hour days, seven days a week for 68 cents an hour at Carl Comstock’s gas station (where Bank of Stockton is now located), saving money to attend Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo.
When money ran short in the spring of 1947, he quit college and returned to his Mallard’s job. Then Mundorf’s co-owner, Florence Holman, told him of an opening on the hardware side. He worked at Mundorf’s from June 17, 1948 to June 17, 1995 – “exactly 47 years to a day,” he says, adding that this job led to his popularity with the voters. Creative Learning Aids and Sonora Music currently occup
y the former Mundorf’s and Mallard’s stores.
“I liked the mechanics of working at the hardware store,” he says. “I got to see people all of the time and liked helping them
with their problems. I didn’t get paid much – the most I made was $34,000 my last year there, and that included lots of overtime.”
Stearn has a philosophy of hard work, personal responsibility, thrift, and living within your means.
“I’ve always believed you should stand on your own two feet,” he says. He recalls taking a second job, working nights and Sundays at a gas station, to pay off a hospital bill for the birth of his daughter, Martha, in 1952. Stearn and his late wife, Lorraine, have three children: Ken, 58, Martha, 54, Laura, 43, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Stearn plans to stay on the city council “as long as my health holds up and I keep getting elected,” he says. “And as long as I still have my marbles and enough sense to know what’s going on.”