The Road to Incorporation

By Vera Kochan – Excerpt from Newsletter 2024 Q3

First Town Council 1984 and surviving members 2024 Sue McNulty and Barry Gross

No doubt every resident in the Town of Moraga, as well as those passing through, are aware that we are celebrating our 50th Anniversary thanks to the colorful banners hanging at strategic intersections. While Nov 12, 1974 was the official incorporation date, plans were in the works many years before. However, the wheels of change were slow to turn and often met with resistance.

In the 1950s, when Moraga was just beginning to see subdivisions popping up, any land development decisions were made by visiting the county seat in Martinez with the power of the newly formed Moraga Community Association (MCA) working on behalf of the citizens. A county planning commissioner was so upset with Moraga’s slow process that he referred to it as “the Moraga mentality”. He told residents that if they didn’t like the way county government handled things, they should form their own city. That was the proverbial “shot heard round the world”. From that point on, Moragans rebelled against “the Martinez mentality”.

Moraga Revolt against Martinez Mentality

The MCA created a Committee for the Study of Incorporation in 1963. It’s chairman, Ted Gilles, asked MCA members to respond to him with answers to the questions “Should Moraga be thinking about incorporation?” and “What’s good or bad about incorporation for our area?”

According to a 1984 Contra Costa Sun article, which was written to celebrate the town’s tenth anniversary, the advantages had included: local control over important government services, such as police protection, planning and zoning; improved level of services, such as increasing the amount of police protection or providing for the local issuance of building permits; placement of important functions in government which would be closer to and more responsive to local needs and problems; retain taxes generated within the area and make them available for local government; promote local identity and provide a forum and organization for solution of local problems; more conveniently located than Martinez; and insure against absorption of the area by other incorporated areas in the future.

The same article listed disadvantages which included: imposition of another level of government, possibly increasing property taxes (pre-Proposition 13); loss of county resources in many areas of government; assumption of a great public liability because of the reduction of the government unit; a tendency to look at problems from a provincial or parochial point of view; a more limited budget which might restrict the degree of city administration; and more susceptibility to local pressure groups.

Through the 1960s, there was talk about incorporation, but the wheels of progress never moved forward until 1972, when MCA urged the Committee for the Study of Incorporation to look into and update the results of the initial survey. The preliminary report stated, “The formation of a City of Moraga must be considered feasible,” while noting that many of California’s cities had an assessed valuation less than Moraga’s which was $31.4 million. The first census count in 1970 was 11,000, and the committee estimated the 1972 population was approximately 15,000. The total anticipated expenditure was projected to be $635,980. A city tax of 56 cents per $100 assessed valuation would yield the necessary $193,569.60 to balance Moraga’s budget, with one cent yielding $3,456.

It was estimated that completing the nine steps towards an incorporation election would take between 9 – 12 months. However, it took more than 1½ years longer than projected. According to the Sun’s article, the steps needed to occur in chronological order: 1) The initial step was for 25 to 50 people, Moraga landowners, to act as proponents for the petition to incorporate; 2) The petitioning body had to determine the precise bounds of the proposed city and then formulate the petition, including various criteria; 3) The petition had to go before the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) which held public hearings prior to making a decision. LAFCO is a state mandated local agency that oversees boundary changes to cities and special districts, the formation of new agencies including incorporation of new cities, and the consolidation of existing agencies; 4) After receipt of LAFCO’s approval, the proponents had to submit to the county board of supervisors a notice of their intention to circulate the petition; 5) The petition had to be signed by at least 25 percent of the qualified signers representing at least 25 percent of the value of land within the proposed city limits; 6) The county clerk had to verify the signatures; 7) The supervisors held a hearing to determine if 51 percent of the landowners protested; 8) The board published a notice of election, as required by law, and required arguments for and against incorporation to be included in the ballot; and 9) The board canvassed the ballots on the Monday after the election. A copy of this order was then to be filed with the Secretary of State for certification.

Although the 1974 election came on the heels of governmental mistrust thanks to Watergate, three-fourths of the residents turned out to vote either for or against Measure M (incorporation). The Nov. 5 general election sealed the deal for Moraga’s future with 3,686 votes in favor and 2,546 against. On Nov.12, 1974, Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed the certificate granting Moraga’s incorporation.

Slate of 13 Candidates running for First Town Council

You can’t have a town without elected officials, and 13 residents stepped up to the plate to run for council. The first five town council members were Michael T. Cory, William G. Combs, Merle D. Gilliland, Susan H. McNulty, and Barry R. Gross, all of whom favored incorporation. Of the five, only McNulty (now known as Rainey) and Gross are still with us.

Moraga Historical Society President Susan Sperry and Publicity/Program Chair Vera Kochan met with Rainey and Gross at the History Center to discuss their recollections of the incorporation process and their part in it.

Like many residents today, both Rainey and Gross moved to Moraga for the schools, but they quickly became involved with local organizations, and in doing so decided to use the experience to run for public office. “I was on the advisory board to the county for the MCA,” stated Rainey. “While volunteering as a membership chair, I learned how to campaign.”

“I was on the Campolindo Homeowners Association, and that made me want to run,” said Gross. “I walked all over Moraga, knocking on every door. I also sent out a mailer. It’s important to get your message across before the mailer reaches the garbage can.”

Both former mayors agreed that it was the idea of local control, rather than having the county determine Moraga’s fate, that was the driving force of incorporation.

Rainey and Gross were asked what some of the toughest barriers were to overcome towards incorporation. “Viability was an issue — could Moraga survive as an entity on its own? The roads were also an argument. The county was responsible for fixing the roads for a couple of years. Moraga eventually modeled road repair strategies from Lafayette, which became a city in 1968. The cost was the most important prohibition for the campaign to become an incorporated town — to convince people that taxes wouldn’t be exorbitant. The naysayers said that we’d need to raise property taxes really high, because there’s no industry in town. Later the county came in with a lower tax rate — so it was a win/win.”

Vote for Town Measure M

Two additional, important obstacles were to get enough signatures on the ballot in order to call it Measure M, and in the long run, raising enough enthusiasm about incorporation in order to get people to vote in favor of it.

Why is Moraga a town and not a city? “Because we felt that if we asked to become a town, the path would be easier to achieve, as opposed to wanting to become a city,” explained Rainey.

A Town is Born

On Nov. 5, 1974, with election results pouring in, “those that won met at the bowling alley to watch the election returns,” Gross said. “When it passed, we all broke out into ‘Happy Birthday’, then someone said, ‘What do we do now?’”

1974 Town Certification