Kevin Blake remembers a conversation with his children and late father during a ride to Santa Cruz when the idea of running for the Merced City Council came up.
It was a decade ago, and the elder Bill Blake, a former Merced County undersheriff, was finishing up a 4-year term as a City Council member.
Out of the blue, Bill suggested that Kevin should give elected leadership a go.
It was a little spark that grew within Kevin, who had already followed his father’s footsteps with a career in law enforcement.
The younger Blake would end up being elected to the City Council in 2013, and then he was re-elected in 2018, serving for a total of nine years in what was mostly a volunteer position — a labor of love, if you will.
And now it’s time for Kevin Blake to say goodbye to his time in office, and he has a few things to say.
The first of which is about his father.
“I loved and appreciated him,” Blake told the Times in an interview this week. “Without him and his guidance over the years, I would be nothing.”
He also wants to thank the people of Merced.
“I’m extremely grateful to the residents who put their trust in me,” he said. “It’s been an honor of a lifetime to serve them. I think a lot of good has been done over the past nine years.”
Blake’s time in office coincided with a steady rebuilding effort after the Great Recession that grew more healthy city budgets, strengthened reserves in the coffers, brought back needed positions to departments, including Police and Fire, developed public parks and created new recreation opportunities, and encouraged unprecedented development in the downtown area — from the UC Merced Downtown Campus Center to the revitalization of the Hotel Tioga, the El Capitan Hotel and the Mainzer theater.
Blake served on the Downtown Subcommittee to answer calls for improvements in and around Main Street, and he also worked on things like a Fireworks Ordinance after residents complained about holiday activities getting out of hand.
A lot of the Council planning and design work conducted during this period will serve as a foundation as the city continues to grow near the new Campus Parkway development, around the annexation of UC Merced, the downtown core, and the future High Speed Rail station.
“The first six and a half years were great,” Blake said with a brief smile that slowly turned to a frown.
“The rest were rough — from the civil unrest after the George Floyd killing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been very hard.”
Blake is not shy about saying that he won’t miss being an elected leader in the current political climate that is gripping not only the nation, but the local region as well.
He’s been frustrated with “all the drama” regarding the value of investing in public safety. Opposition to ideas, such as extending Measure C, “is discouraging,” he said. Measure C is a half-cent sales tax to support Police and Fire personnel that has been on duty since 2006. It sunsets in 2026, and city efforts to place the measure back on the ballot for voters to decide have been stymied by some of his colleagues who he believes have been swayed by special interest groups who favor defunding public safety efforts as well as radical change to law enforcement norms.
Blake says recent debate and decisions at the council level have created a sense of exigency within ranks of the Police and Fire departments that is affecting retainment of qualified personnel that the city has already invested in.
The councilman says he shakes his head when he thinks about recent “nonsensical” debates on the council dais over things like whether or not to accept free federal funding to supply bullet proof vests to local officers, and whether or not the police force should be involved in traffic enforcement.
“When I first started, serving on the Council was all business. It was all about doing the people’s business. Yes there were a few anomalies. I remember a High Speed Rail fight between Mayor Stan Thurston and supporter Lee Boese that we talked about for months. But there wasn’t the constant drama, or a new conspiracy coming out every week… Now I often find myself mentally preparing for the circus show that is about to come. It’s theater. It’s tiring. It’s exhausting.”
Blake said he and others are witnessing a once, relatively close-knit community with a strong agricultural background going through rapid growth, but also challenged by an overly aggressive political climate.
“People can’t talk anymore. People can’t give their opinions if it’s not part of the narrative, or exactly what the other group wants to hear. They become aggressive and ideas are shouted down…
“I’m very concerned for the future — like many people in Merced are. We need to get back to a place of grace and forgiveness. We need to be able to have decorum at public meetings, and respect for one another. We fell into an environment that’s really negative to where there are community members who feel strongly about the way things are going, but they feel intimidated about going to our meetings and talk because they are afraid they are going to be shouted down, or even afraid for their own physical well-being.”
Blake says he didn’t want to get involved in this year’s election and the local campaigns that involve three seats on the seven-member City Council. He is happy to be stepping down, and to be able to spend more time with his three teen-age kids — Parker, Faith and Kevin.
He only hopes residents are paying attention to city affairs. “Merced needs to wake up and pay attention. If things keep going down the path they are on, we are going to have an environment that’s rampant with crime. We are nearly at 30 homicides for the county so far this year, and there’s more than two months to go. Last year we had 32. I believe most voters want safe neighborhoods, clean shopping areas and good schools.”
Last but not least, Blake says he has served with three mayors, three city managers, a host of city attorneys, and many fellow City Council members.
“I’ve learned something from everybody,” he said. “Thank you.”