Editor's Note: Who are the movers and shakers in Los Gatos? Those who lead by example, change things around and make us better by challenging the status quo and having integrity? This is the fourth installment in our Names in the News Q&A feature, formerly called Most Influential.
Former Los Gatos Mayor Joanne Benjamin and husband Jim moved to Los Gatos in 1970 after she received her teaching credential from UC Berkeley and was hired as a teacher at
She quickly became immersed in community activities and volunteered for several local organizations, including the Live Oak Nutrition Center, the Junior League of San Jose, and the parent/teacher organizations for her children’s schools.
Her three children, Julia, Jeff and Carrie, attended Van Meter, Raymond J. Fisher Middle and Los Gatos High schools.
At Fisher, Benjamin and husband served as co-presidents of the Home and School Club. She also chaired several parcel tax campaigns for the
As and educator, she was awarded “mentor teacher” honors at the high school, and was also selected by the National Council on Economics to visit Russia and train local educators in methods for teaching free market economics.
Even in retirement, Benjamin stays involved with economics and continues to serve as a board member of the California Association of School Economics Teachers and attends Stanford University’s Institute for Economics Teachers at each summer.
Benjamin was elected to the Los Gatos Town Council in 1982, 1986, 1990, and 1994. She served four times as mayor and also represented the town on the Santa Clara County Congestion Management Agency, Santa Clara County Water Commission, West Valley Sanitation District Board, League of California Cities, and was president of the Cities Association of Santa Clara County.
After serving on the Council for 16 years, Benjamin was honored in 1999 by receiving the California State Assembly’s “Woman of the Year” Award, and, after retiring from teaching in 2005, she received the “Adam Smith Award” for her contributions in advancing economic education literacy in California, and a second resolution from the California State Assembly.
Los Gatos Patch: What is your biggest contribution to the Town of Los Gatos?
Joanne Benjamin: Prior to being elected to the Council, I served on a General Plan Committee, which was composed of a cross section of town residents. Together we developed the vision for preserving and enhancing our town’s historic districts, downtown, hillsides, residential neighborhoods and commercial areas. We also addressed matters that affect the quality of life such as traffic congestion, recreation, safety, noise, etc. Throughout my years on the Council, I continued to focus on that vision of preserving Los Gatos and keeping it a unique and wonderful place to live and work. I was mayor when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. Property damage was extensive and many of our brick buildings in the downtown were severely damaged and many beautiful older homes slid off their foundations. Fortunately there were few injuries, but many residents and business were displaced, and were “economically distressed.” It was a difficult time, and there was enormous pressure by property owners to tear down and replace older buildings with modern concrete and glass structures. However, we didn’t allow that to happen. Instead the Council quickly implemented programs and policies to have the historic downtown rebuilt using modern materials and techniques that would ensure seismic safety, yet preserve the buildings’ original look and character. We also worked with residents to “fast track” the approval process and building regulations so they could rebuild their homes quickly and economically. I am most proud of working with residents, business owners, Council members, and town staff at that time to quickly understand the issues and various viewpoints and then reach consensus and work together to achieve our goals. It’s extremely gratifying today to see the results of that effort and then contrast it with what happened in other earthquake damaged communities. Although I identify this as my “greatest contribution,” the result was really achieved due to the compromise, consensus building, dedication, and determination of my fellow council members and the greater Los Gatos community.
Patch: What is the area of most influence in your profession?
Benjamin: I am probably most influenced by my parents who taught me to respect others, play fair, be tolerant, investigate and confirm information, and keep an open mind.
Patch: How do you challenge those who work with you to become better?
Benjamin: I try to show others that much can be accomplished by assuming responsibility, taking risk, and working hard. Also, that you can often accomplish much more than you realize by simply stepping outside your comfort zone, trying new things, and following through to completion.
Sometimes students and community members are afraid to speak up and state their opinions. If you aren’t heard, then decisions can be made without your consideration. When I first moved to my neighborhood, the town wanted to build a parking lot and formal play ground in the area now preserved as Worcester Park. The neighbors were opposed as everyone appreciated the natural state of the land, and felt that urban style improvements wouldn’t be utilized by the community and would lessen the peacefulness and serenity of the area. We had a neighborhood meeting and reached consensus on the matter, but no one was willing to approach the Town with their concerns. Finally, I agreed to “carry the torch” and to talk with the town and the Parks Commission about the matter. That was my first involvement with local government. After many discussions, the town agreed that Worcester Park should remain “rural.” In fact, this was the beginning of the towns’ policy to promote both urban and rural style parks. After seeing the results, several of my neighbors became more involved and active in the community.
Patch: How do you inspire them?
Benjamin: I honestly believe that each and every day is a gift, so I focus on the positive aspects of life. I care about people and try to always respond to them in a positive manner and bring out the best in each person. I praise others for their achievements, and when I feel that there is room for improvement, I try to respond gently with positive comments on how to continue to improve.
Patch: How are you a “transformative leader”?
Benjamin: With my children, I try to set an example, and hope that they will emulate what they have seen me do. And, so far, I am very pleased. All my children, who all live in Los Gatos, are “civically engaged,” donate their time and money to charitable causes, and usually behave in a responsible and adult manner. Also, I am proud that my two daughters are very active in community volunteer work, and that my son has coached several youth sports teams.
With students, I try to understand their interests, strengths, and self-identity, and then motivate them gently to perform.
With constituents, I try to listen to each person, engage them into a discussion and ask questions so I thoroughly understand their issue. Prior to making a decision, I try to have all involved see the different sides of the issue so that they understand the full complexity and tradeoffs of the various options. People have said “Government is the art of compromise” and coming to a consensus involves understanding the pros and cons of a situation. I always look for “win-win” situations, and when that’s not possible, choose the option that offers the greatest good.