In 2011, when John Gunderson ran for City Council, he had no name recognition, no apparent platform, and no history of public involvement. In interviews, he appeared bewildered by even the simplest questions. To make the race even more of a conundrum, his opponent, Phil Moyer, seemed even less ready for office.
Gunderson won the election in a yawner and took office in time for one the biggest uproars in the history of the council. The city’s proposal to annex Salida and include Wood Colony in the General Plan put Gunderson, Mayor Garrad Marsh, and the rest of the councilmembers in the crosshairs of one of the most spirited public uprisings in the region’s history.
Even after the Salida/Wood Colony tumult cooled from a rolling boil to steady simmer, Gunderson received more than his share of public criticism. He was ripped for everything from his attire during council meetings (mostly Hawaiian shirts) to his frequent Facebook posts.
It didn’t help that during Council meetings early in his term Gunderson sometimes appeared lost and disoriented. Along with the newly-elected Jenny Kenoyer, he seemed far out his depth.
The Salida/Wood Colony brouhaha crescendoed in a recall effort against Kenoyer and fellow Councilmember Dave Cogdill. Meanwhile, Gunderson’s Facebook posts had occasioned such feverish outbursts of vitriol that when he banned certain participants from his wall they proudly formed a group called “Banned by Gundy.” Gunderson says he simply got tired of the spate of “uncivil” comments and felt the recall was unjustified (it ultimately failed for lack of enough signatures).
The group got an energy boost last Fourth of July, when Gunderson was featured in a video of what many claimed was a drunken cavort in his treehouse, complete with fireworks, profanity, and hazardous behavior.
Gunderson himself, however, even through the worst of the attacks on his appearance, his confusion, his supposed violations of safety and public decorum, remained remarkably unflappable.
He also took on a series of issues, including beautification of downtown through public art, clean-up of an ugly fence along Highway 99, and an attempt to raise public awareness of the harm done to our region by the state’s designation of “rural” when it comes to tax splits.
“We don’t get our share of taxes from the state,” says Gunderson. “It really hurts our ability to provide services. Stockton gets a higher percentage of state tax revenue than we do, and Stockton went bankrupt. That should show how hard it is to operate without enough money. I’d like to generate enough interest to have a protest in Sacramento.”
Gunderson seems genuinely amused about some of his critics’ attempts to cast him in the role of clueless buffoon.
“I had a large Belgian Ale on the Fourth, and that was all,” he says. “I’ve had lots of experience with fire, including controlled burns on my own property and for private property owners.” I spoke with the police captain and fire chief before my celebration and took all necessary precautions, including hosing down surrounding shrubbery.”
In a video of the event, Gunderson’s son can be heard talking about someone who has been drinking heavily.
“He’s talking about someone else,” says Gunderson. “But they (his critics) took my video and edited and put it out. It’s really funny,” he says, in apparent good humor.
Gunderson’s tree house isn’t the ordinary variety. It’s made of stout steel bars professionally welded into a very stable structure.
“I did the welding myself,” says Gunderson. “Most of my background is in welding and heavy equipment operation, including seasonal work for the Park Service.
Gunderson is also an occasional substitute teacher and says plenty of experience in the classroom prepared him for the raucous public criticism during council meetings. “It doesn’t bother me as much as it does some of the others,” he says.
One of Gunderson’s latest projects is an ongoing clean-up of brush, fallen trees, and trash along the Tuolumne River near the terminus of 10th and 11th Streets in Modesto. Like many of his efforts, there’s little public recognition and lots of hard work, much of it involving chainsaws, heavy lifting, and honest sweat.
Last Saturday, Gunderson and thirty-five student volunteers form Cal Poly Pomona were joined by three chainsaw-wielding sawyers and a representative from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. They spent several long hours clearing debris from the riverbank, and Gunderson seemed exhilarated by the work. (His “You Tube” video of the event video is here.)
“This is something that’s got to be done,” he said. “When the new courthouse is built, this is going to become a place the city reclaims for public use and it’s going to have to be cleaned up. We don’t have the funds to do it, so the only way is volunteerism.”
Gunderson has made clean-up along the Tuolumne a priority, and schedules regular sessions that always seem to feature a surprising mix of volunteers. Whatever his failings and foibles, he’s put an inimitable stamp on the colorful history of the Modesto City Council.
Call it “Chainsaw Politics.” It’s another chapter in the book of public service, written by a proud working man with a steady commitment to the betterment of his city.