Mayor’s vision is to solidify Merced as regional leader
By JONATHAN WHITAKER
October 4, 2018
Mayor Mike Murphy needs only to walk around
the corner from his office at the Civic Center to see clear
signs that Merced is becoming a new-and-improved destination
Just past the recently opened UC Merced
Campus Center, construction is changing the urban landscape
around the historic Tioga and El Capitan hotels, and the
art deco Mainzer Theater on Main Street.
Murphy points out that soon residents and
visitors from out of town will be able to enjoy live stage
performances from four incredible venues — all within
a four-block radius of downtown. They include the Mainzer,
the Multicultural Arts Center, Playhouse Merced and the
iconic Merced Theatre.
And that’s not mentioning, the years-long,
secret renovations going on inside the Partisan Tavern which
Times sources say will open soon and rival any trendy music
club in the Bay Area.
The Tioga is being restored to its former
glory, with 70 market-rate apartments aimed at young professionals
or retirees who want to enjoy living in a vibrant downtown
district. The ‘El Cap,’ as it is known, will
feature 114 guest rooms, a cafe, and a restaurant.
These days, Murphy has been extra busy
touring growth sites such as these, and attending conferences
to promote and advance Merced’s standing in the region.
Recently he helped lead a discussion with
the Bay Area Council about improving connectivity and infrastructure
between the Bay Area and the “Merced Area.”
“I view Merced as a region leader
in the Central Valley,” Murphy says. “Our position
is only going to increase in prominence as the years go
forward. I think it is important for us to be thinking strategically
about who we are, and who we will be going forward.”
Murphy is running for re-election to secure
a second and final term as the city’s top elected
leader. He is being challenged by Monica Villa, a homeless
advocate, in the citywide vote that will extend to Election
Day on Nov. 6.
Candidate Murphy was first elected to the
Merced City Council in 2011 and served a 5-year extended
term. He followed that up by winning the mayor election
Within a few months, he gave the first-ever
“State of the City” address at the Merced Theatre.
In his speech, Murphy cast away the lingering negativity
from the Great Recession and declared that Merced was a
“city on the rise.”
It was a big moment for the Merced native
who seemingly hasn’t missed a benchmark in a career
and family life that continues to be both successful and
Murphy was the senior class president and
captain of the wrestling team at Golden Valley High School.
He lived abroad as a missionary in Tahiti. He graduated
form Georgetown Law School, and practiced law in Silicon
Valley representing tech companies.
He married, started a family, and returned
to Merced by choice to raise the children.
And while the City Council, and his job
as mayor, take up a considerable amount of time in his daily
work regimen, Murphy has managed to build and grow the local
Murphy & Brawley law firm.
For their first office building, they restored
a 1937 Craftsman-style home on Canal Street in downtown
Merced. This year, those offices will be expanding to a
larger, more modern location just around the corner.
Consider all of these solid accomplishments,
happening one after the other, along with the fact that
Murphy is only 39 years old.
Indeed, he’s still young enough to
have been listed in this year’s “20 Under 40”
class of local leaders who are poised to play key roles
in the future of the community.
Vision To Invest
“For Merced to prosper, we need a
number of things to continue to happen,” Murphy says.
“It’s things like the renaissance in the downtown
core. We are really concentrating on having downtown as
a destination for the arts in their various forms. That’s
one piece of it. …
“The definition of success economically
is to have good paying jobs for our residents who don’t
have to leave to find those jobs. With the presence of UC
Merced that will be a reality. We will have tech companies
that call Merced home. We need to make investments that
plan for that, and all the while recognize that agriculture
is our largest industry, and will continue to be. We need
to make sure all of these industries find success together.
“We have seen a lot of success over
the last two years, but I think Merced’s best days
are still in front of us. We can be the city that we all
want, and it just takes a deliberate effort, action and
“I have a vision for Merced, and
that vision includes us as a regional leader — when
it comes to employment, when it comes to roads, when it
comes to arts and entertainment, and when it comes to education.
“If we can execute on those things,
there is no stopping us,” Murphy says confidently.
The mayor foresees the next City Council
making a number of decisions that are going to impact the
city for a generation or more. One of those decisions includes
how they expand the city limits to the north and around
“There is a demand for growth,”
Murphy says. “We want to make sure there is enough
space for that demand, along with the ability to maintain
municipal sewer and water service. It is important that
our city limits be expanded to accommodate the growth that
will occur, but at the same time we need to be mindful not
to create [urban] sprawl.”
“We are studying at this point,”
he says, “and understanding what our options are.”
The mayor is quick to point out that the
city is experiencing a tight housing market right now, and
one that might not let up in the next few years.
“Our population is going to continue
to increase,” Murphy says. “The answer is to
increase the supply of available housing — single
family residences, as well as multifamily options, and that’s
what we are doing.”
Over the past two years, Merced has witnessed
a surge in building permits. This year, the city is on track
to surpass pre-2008 levels, and leave them in the dust.
There are more than 10 subdivisions under construction,
and at least 800 apartment units that are entitled. Many
of the apartments are targeted to meet the needs of an increased
student population scheduled to attend UC Merced by 2020.
Also this year, the city hired a new police
chief – Chief Chris Goodwin — a 21-year veteran
of the department. They announced the new City Attorney
— Phaedra Norton — this week, and a new Parks
and Recreation director is also expected in the days to
“I’m confident in our City
Hall team,” Murphy says. “We have 500 employees,
and they are all dedicated to the success of Merced. I feel
really good about the next couple of years. … I not
only say Merced is a ‘city on the rise,’ I believe
it. And it’s not because of UC Merced, or Campus Parkway,
or the ACE train coming to town, or the Hotel Tioga renovation.
These projects are only the physical manifestation of the
dedication of Mercedians, and the opportunities that exist
here. It’s because of the people. It’s the people
who call Merced home that make it the special place that
it is. … I would put Merced up against any other city
in our region, against any metric. I would make the case
that Merced is a great place to call home.”
On top of things
The mayor says he’s keenly aware
that the decisions they make at City Hall impact people’s
lives — whether it’s how police and fire crews
respond to emergencies or things that people don’t
often think about such as sewer service.
“We haven’t had any problems
with our sewer division, in fact, they have won statewide
awards over the past two years. We also have clean water
in Merced. People expect that, but other cities don’t
have clean water. We get these things right.”
At the start of the year, the mayor promised
to improve the maintenance of pot holes on city streets.
In a matter of months, the Merced Connect online application
was mobilized so that residents can report pot holes in
need of fixing, with the promise that city crews would respond
in 48 hours or less.
“We are trying to restore people’s
faith in government that someone is listening and responding,”
Murphy says. “Restoring faith in government is a valuable
The city is also keeping true to a promise
of hiring three to five police officers every year, while
also weaning off public safety funding from Measure C —
a public safety tax measure passed in 2006. The measure
was a lifesaver during the economic downturn, but it sunsets
“Our plan is to reduce staffing that
is funded by the measure, and spend some on equipment and
projects,” the mayor says. “So in 2026, the
City Council can report to residents about the sales tax
and see if they want to re-up for another 20 years, and
have even better service. If they don’t, the plan
is in place so they will not see a drop in service.”
In a second term, the mayor also plans
to push forward a parcel tax to help fund a much-needed
new police station and a heavy maintenance yard the city
needs to improve.
While it’s always nice to look at
positive change, Mayor Murphy points out that he is not
overlooking the complex challenges the city faces.
“As mayor, I’m acutely aware
of those,” he says. “My phone rings at all times
of the day and night.”
The most prominent one, according to the
mayor, is the city’s homeless situation and the need
for proactive solutions.
“We have to do better, and we will,”
The mayor says the city has made real and
rapid progress in respect to homeless veterans. When Murphy
became mayor, there were 88 homeless veterans listed in
a census count as living on the streets in the Merced area.
The mayor made it a point to completely end homelessness
among veterans within a year. Currently, there are some
still out there, but the mayor says the latest information
indicates the number is fluctuating in the single digits.
“We need to pick the next group [to
focus on],” Murphy says, “and that’s probably
unaccompanied women and minors. We have to keep pressing
forward. … It’s not going to be an answer that
just comes from City Hall, or the county administration.
It has to be an all encompassing, developed approach. We
are not going to arrest our way out of homelessness, nor
are we going to find a solution that only involves giving
out more benefits and more handouts.”
The mayor said he is very encouraged by
work that is happening “in a number of places,”
including the new Restore Merced effort that is providing
work experience and life skills training. The program was
modeled in part from the Doe Fund in Harlem, New York. Mayor
Murphy visited representatives of the program during his
trip to the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year.
Then and now
Mayor Murphy has spent a good amount of
time making contacts and promoting Merced in Sacramento,
Washington D.C., and beyond. Late last year, at his own
expense, he traveled to Merced’s sister city in Nicaragua
on a goodwill mission to see the progress that’s going
on there. In August, the mayor was on the steps of the State
Capitol addressing hundreds of people gathered to protest
a state plan to divert critical water flows away from the
“The mayor needs to be making the
connections with decision makers in Washington and Sacramento,
and our voice needs to be heard. I spend a lot of time making
sure Merced is on people’s minds.”
He says he can work with anybody, especially
those who have the betterment of Merced in their heart.
“As mayor, I rely on consensus in
my colleagues,” Murphy says. “I think that we
have a good council in that regard. We agree on the important
things. We share our points of views well, and we work together
as a team. My only hope is that this continues. I hope we
don’t have some of the challenges that other city
councils experience. We are not a split council. We have
seven people with seven different life experiences and opinions,
and that’s healthy and that’s good. There is
a lot of congeniality. … We all agree that we are
serving to help lift up the community that we love.”
The mayor says he’s improving in
his role every day and he’s not taking anything for
“It’s a very humbling thing
to be chosen by friends and neighbors to be the mayor of
your hometown — where you grew up and where you are
raising your kids. … This is just a small portion
of my life. I’ve had one two-year term, and hopefully
one more, and then the voters of Merced will pass the baton
to someone else. I recognize I have a special responsibility.
I honestly feel I’m living the first
line of my obituary today. When I pass away — and
I hope it’s a long time from now — and if the
County Times ever writes my obituary, it will because I
was the former mayor. … I want to be the best mayor
I can be for the residents of Merced. I don’t want
to look back at these two or four years of my life, and
have any regrets. I don’t want to leave anything undone
that could have been done. To use a sports analogy, I want
to leave it all on the field.”
Last but not least …
While they are mentioned at the end of
this profile, Mike Murphy’s family members are his
top priority, of course.
Mike is married to Heather, and he’s
“super proud” of her.
“She did what I couldn’t have
done,” the mayor says. “She went back to school
as a full-time parent and earned a degree from Merced College
Their oldest son, Walker, is almost 16,
and he just earned the prestigious Eagle Scout rank in the
Boy Scouts of America.
“Walker is an inspiration to me,”
the mayor says. “He faces physical challenges due
to muscular dystrophy. For me, getting up in the morning
is easy. For him, getting out of bed can be hard on some
days. But he doesn’t let anything slow him down for
Mike and Heather also have 13-year-old
twins, Abigale and Maxwell.
And then there’s 6-year-old Nash,
who was born during his father’s long run as an elected
leader in Merced. For Nash, Dad's always been the mayor.
Says Mike Murphy: “I love being mayor,
but it was a real decision that Heather and I had to make.
It takes a special relationship. First and foremost, I am
a dad and a husband. Any success I might enjoy as mayor
pales in comparison to the importance of family. …
There are a number of people in Merced who could be mayor
and be successful, but my kids have only one Dad. …
Family is paramount.”