Cannella at helm for Ceres transition

CERES -- Ceres is on the brink of evolving from a small town into a medium-sized city. But how does a city make that leap without losing its small-town feel?

Mayor Anthony Cannella is leading the effort to solve that riddle.

He's all but been elected to a second term as mayor, running unopposed in next week's election. The new four-year term makes Cannella the city's leader for what promises to be an eventful period for Ceres and its residents.

The City Council has set its sights on improving economic development, an engine that increases the tax base, especially sales tax, and generates more jobs to match the rooftops popping up on the city's east, west and south sides. The council must decide what types of businesses to bring into town -- a Wal-Mart Supercenter? -- and how to attract them.

But with more people moving in, city officials have to combat crime and traffic congestion as well as build infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines, that hasn't kept up with growth.

Known for his no-nonsense handling of City Council meetings, Cannella likes to get things done -- immediately. "He's very visionary but very practical at the same time," said Jim Applegate, a friend and construction colleague. "He can see clearly what needs to be done with the fewest steps."

Like father, like son

The Cannella clan has experience with government. Anthony's dad, Sal, spent decades as a Ceres councilman and mayor, Stanislaus County supervisor and state assemblyman.

After growing up with a well-connected politician father, Cannella said he had no desire to join the league of elected officials.

"In 1999, there was an advertisement for the planning commission. I thought, 'They aren't really political and I'm an engineer, so I understand land-use issues,' " he said.

Cannella, owner of NorthStar Engineering in Modesto, was appointed to the commission. After four years, he said, he began to get "frustrated about what I could and could not do. We looked at site plans, but we didn't really shape policy."

Cannella considered running for City Council because it wasn't "too political." Even today, he says, he hasn't faced too much political pressure as mayor. But he acknowledged that deciding within the next year whether to approve Wal-Mart's plans for a supercenter may polarize residents.

Cannella's first test as mayor came before he was sworn in. Sharon Burch and other advocates for controlling rent increases at mobile home parks wanted Cannella to take up the issue. Cannella doesn't support mobile home rent control, but he has worked with Burch on a solution.

City staff is researching a rent-control ordinance or a memo of understanding with park owners similar to what Modesto has, Burch said.

Mayor has grown on the job

Though Cannella and Burch have had their moments over the years, such as when Can- nella threw Burch out of a City Council meeting for speaking out of turn, she said Cannella has grown into his own as mayor.

"I didn't think he'd make a good mayor at first," she said. "He was young and seemed to be overcautious. But he's since got a grip on it, a handle on what it means to be a mayor."

Cannella, 38, grew up in Ceres, graduating from Ceres High School in 1987. He was a self- described "average student," played football and baseball and ran track. He earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Davis in 1993.

"I didn't know what an engineer did, but a mentor inspired me. I wanted to do what he did," Cannella said.

After college, Cannella came back to work for that mentor, Bill Hysell, the father of a childhood friend.

He met his wife, Julie, on a blind date in the late 1990s. She's a stay-at-home mom raising the couple's three children.

Having a well-known dad didn't really affect Cannella's childhood, he said.

"There was pressure to not get arrested," he joked. "You can be certain we could not do anything without our dad finding out about it."

Some Ceres insiders see a Cannella legacy brewing. After Sal Cannella's years in government, the stage is set for the younger Cannella. Sal Cannella said his son is a good politician because he entered office without a beef with the city, without an agenda and without any plans to become a career politician.

Cannella said he spends about 20 to 25 hours a week on city business, meeting with staff, returning phone calls or e-mails from the community, attending council and committee meetings, and leafing through agendas.

To fit work, family and the City Council into his schedule, Cannella's typical weekday starts at 4 a.m. He hits the gym then has breakfast with his wife. Around 6:30 a.m., he heads to work.

Lunch is around 11:30 a.m., when he might work on city activities. Cannella is back to work at 1:30 p.m., then heads home by 5 p.m. If need be, he'll go through more city work, then usually spends time with his family from 7 to 9 p.m. He's in bed by 10:30 p.m.

Weekends are devoted to bi- cycling, yardwork, family and some city activities, he said.

Connecting with community

Cannella tries to maintain accessibility by mingling with people at city events and his son's sports games, but he said he could do better at seeing Ceres life through the average resident's eyes.

"People are so busy with their own lives, they're so focused on that, I don't want to be in their faces," Cannella said. "It's a priority of the council to reach out, do a better job."

Maintaining that connection with the community is increasingly important as Ceres grows. Residents in the city of 42,000 want to keep the small-town feel, but they also expect a variety of services and entertainment.

To attract retailers and other businesses while competing with Turlock and Modesto, Ceres must make land ready for companies to set up shop immediately, Cannella said.

To keep water, sewer and other city services in line with the growing population, residents might have to pay more, Can- nella said.

And to maintain quality of life for residents, city officials need to figure out a funding source for police and fire to combat rising crime and emergency medical calls, he said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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