Shortly after El Dorado Hills’ voters elected John Knight to his District 1 seat on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors in 2008 this reporter predicted his vehicle, a tired 1984 Mercedes that looked every bit of its 335,000 odometer reading, wouldn’t survive his first term.
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The suspension and upholstery had sagged to the point that Knight’s wife Georgi couldn’t see over the steering wheel.
She requested its retirement but he hesitated, explaining that the old diesel made a statement: “No one who drives a car like this would ever be frivolous with taxpayer money.”
That first term is now winding down and Knight has proven us wrong. The repainted and overhauled Mercedes still lumbers up and down the hills between El Dorado Hills and the government center in Placerville most days, a rolling symbol of Knight’s frugality.
He’s put another 40,000 miles on it since. None of those miles ever made it onto an expense report. He’s never filed one, and also takes no medical benefits from the county, he said.
Knight, 64, called his first term “challenging and stimulating.” On top of the routine budget, land-use and departmental matters that dominate most board agendas, his board faced a mixed bag of complex and often divisive issues — redistricting, a courthouse relocation, an expensive animal shelter and a bitterly factious historical rail right of way.
They’ve also undertaken a multifaceted and long-overdue zoning ordinance update that prior boards kicked down the road.
Knight took the lead in what ultimately became the board’s highest profile story — the seemingly innocuous replacement of 36 headstones in the Mormon Island Relocation cemetery. Because they contained a certain racial epitaph, the story got legs, eventually landing on the pages of the New York Times.
Through it all, Knight said his board maintained a healthy working relationship. He cited mutual respect, hard work and a shared sense of mission as the group’s defining characteristics, and the key to its success.
Shrinking tax revenues forced the board to cut services, slash budgets and reduce the county workforce by a third over the last four years, he said.
The board also reined in employee benefits, which will save the millions of dollars long-term, he said.
“We delivered balanced budgets each year without reducing critical county services to the vast majority of residents who need them,” Knight said. “And we have no debt.”
A job and a half
For most of his career Knight mixed either banking or commercial real estate with public service. That changed in 2008; the demands of his board seat, plus 15 time-consuming boards and commissions, commanded his full attention and then some, he said.
He estimates his average work week at 60 hours, which includes about one hour of preparation for every hour in a board or commission meeting.
His assistant, Loretta Featherston, manages a calendar filled with meetings of the Sacramento Area Council of Government , Capitol Southwest Connector Joint Powers Authority, El Dorado Water and Power Authority, El Dorado County Transportation Commission and the Sacramento Commerce and Trade Organization, among many others.
Supervisors earn $76,862 annually but Knight fought for, and finally won, the right to reduce his own salary. He promptly dinged himself 5 percent.
“I had to ask people to hold the line, or in some cases take a cut,” he said. “I had to set an example.”
Knight describes himself as a strict fiscal conservative with strong beliefs in the free market and property rights.
He’s a past president of both the El Dorado Hills Rotary and Chamber of Commerce, and said networking with local business people and members of other agencies is not only enjoyable, but helps him stay in touch with his constituency.
It’s also essential in building the trust to broker public-private partnerships that help keep government at the local level, which he considers a core value.
El Dorado Hills is growing. Residential and commercial projects are planned south of Highway 50, with several projects proposed on the Green Valley corridor. The challenge, he said, is making his constituents understand that the General Plan calls for growth in designated areas, including District 1.
“We put our interchanges, sewer, water, reclaimed water, shopping, schools, fire protection and roads here,” Knight said. “To spend hundreds of millions on infrastructure and not have your density here is a waste of public dollars.”
Gesturing to the ridge southeast of Town Center, he continued “The same General Plan protects those green hills because they’re too steep.”
But many of the flat spots, especially those in prime locations, will eventually be developed. “People have heard rumors about a project on the golf course,” he said. “But what better place to put a residential project, where you could walk to Raley’s, Walgreens and Town Center?”
The General Plan update currently in the approval process contains provisions to stem the flow of retail sales over the county line, the phenomenon called “sales tax leakage.”
“It’s going to take more than just putting big boxes in El Dorado Hills,” he said.
Knight supports current proposals for retail projects near Diamond Springs and Placerville.
The General Plan update also includes provisions that reduce barriers to jobs creation. The county’s steep traffic fees are often cited as a huge obstacle for any business considering relocating here. His board recently reduced those fees 15 percent.
Knight gets personally involved in higher profile business openings, including Pottery World and solar energy entrepreneurs Bloo Solar, which recently set up shop in the El Dorado Hills Business Park.
“I had to promise them a building permit within five days, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “They’re talking about 500 to 700 employees here eventually.”
To win his seat Knight defeated El Dorado Hills icons Bob Dorr and Harry Norris in a contentious 2008 campaign.
Knight’s campaign strategy is simple. “I’m running on my record.”
Campaign filings indicate that Knight has outstanding debt from the 2008 race, owing $10,000 to himself, $25,000 to a family trust and $30,000 to Helen Baumann’s aborted 2008 state Assembly campaign.
Notable 2011 individual campaign contributions include: Serrano Associates: $2,500, Thomas Winn: $1,000, EDH Investors/Town Center East: $500, Mike McDougal: $500 and Kevin Nagle: $1,000.
Contributions in 2012 include: Doug Veerkamp: $500, Thomas Winn: $1,000, Serranno Associates: $1,000 and CEMO Commercial: $500.
Knight said he loves where he lives. “The neat thing about El Dorado Hills is that everyone came from somewhere else,” he said. “We’re all here trying to build a community with its own identity. I’m proud to be part of it.”