.Rocket science: Sausalito’s mayor designed missiles for the Army—the good kind

In preparation for the Pacific Sun’s spotlight on Sausalito this week, I jotted down a list of captivating people to profile. Well-known musicians, writers, artists and restaurateurs who live and work in the picturesque village quickly came to mind.

Then my thoughts turned to Sausalito’s new mayor, Ian Sobieski, who began his tenure on the City Council three years ago, after winning his seat by just two votes. Indeed, it would be interesting to get to know a bit about the lone man on the five-member council.

The mayor shares the dais with four exceedingly accomplished women—Joan Cox, Jill Hoffman and Janelle Kellman are successful attorneys, while Melissa Blaustein, an avid swimmer who swam the English Channel, heads up a global alliance of startup organizations.

Sobieski is no slouch either, serving as the chairperson of Band of Angels—America’s first high-tech angel investment group—which currently has more than 165 members investing in and mentoring early-stage startups. Joining Band of Angels in 1997, soon after it launched, Sobieski also spent years as the group’s managing director.

Although entrepreneurial investing has worked out quite well for Sobieski, it wasn’t what he dreamed of as a kid. The son of a NASA rocket scientist, he had similar aspirations. After graduating with a philosophy degree from Virginia Tech, he worked on designing missiles for the Army.

“The good kind of missile, by the way—the kind that shoots down other missiles,” Sobieski said.

He even went on to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford in the 1990s. However, that placed Sobieski in the heart of Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, and it changed his career trajectory.

“The drama of entrepreneurship in the startup world caught my imagination and fit my skill set, sitting astride the technical and the interpersonal,” Sobieski said. “But I still have a passion for space and am a lifetime member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.”

Another passion, boating, led Sobieski to frequently visit Sausalito, which he calls “the best maritime community in the Bay Area.” His affair with sailing and motor boating began in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, where he spent every summer day on the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2011, Sobieski bought a home in Sausalito. When he’s not conducting business on behalf of Band of Angels or tending to the city’s politics, Sausalitans might spot him on Richardson Bay aboard one of his several watercraft.

“I love getting out on the water in my 17-foot Boston Whaler, but my favorite is pushing a paddleboard off the Sausalito Cruising Club dock,” Sobieski said.

The former triathlete also sails, kayaks and mountain bikes. These days, he partakes just for fun, too busy for rigorous training.

Nevertheless, Sobieski finds time to enjoy wandering around Sausalito, which he says packs a lot of flavor into its two square miles. Much as I tried, I couldn’t get the mayor to share his preferred haunts, although he admits to eating lunch in the same restaurant almost every day.

Of course, he’s very open to talking about local politics. Sobieski’s motivation to participate in government came from a desire to serve his community.

“I thought that my background and perspective might be useful,” he said. “A healthy board has a variety of perspectives. I’m an engineer, have a philosophy degree and work in private enterprise. I don’t think I have all the answers, but I’m adding a different voice to the deliberations.”

For a small city with only 7,000 residents, Sausalito faces some big challenges, according to the mayor. The top three include an aging infrastructure, the effects of climate change and uncertain future expenses. Fortunately, the City Council is trying to address the issues, but there are no quick and easy fixes.

Like many municipalities, Sausalito neglected its infrastructure through years of underinvestment. Last year, the city passed Measure L, a tax that will bring in $24 million over eight years for infrastructure improvements.

The elements that make scenic Sausalito a destination for tourists from around the world—the rolling hills overlooking the bay—present their own set of problems, including the risk of flooding, fire and landslides.

“Climate change affects our waterfront and hillsides in different but profound ways,” Sobieski said. “We have a comprehensive study of our waterfront underway to assess subsidence and sea level rise, and we are doing a comprehensive assessment of our city-owned properties.”

Finally, he expressed concern that the volatility of pension costs for city employees makes financial planning difficult.

“Our finance team is building a model to project out our finances—not for two years, but 10 years,” Sobieski said. “It will be imperfect, but better than nothing at all.”

Sobieski spends more than 40 hours a week on his mayoral duties. And that’s on top of his day job’s responsibilities. It sounds particularly demanding, yet he maintains that he’s no different than his colleagues on the City Council—or anyone, for that matter.

“Everyone is busy in their lives with kids and jobs and family and health obligations,” he said. “I juggle my challenges the same way everybody else juggles theirs: imperfectly.”

Perhaps trying to keep all those balls in the air is the reason Sobieski hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for the council again when his four-year term expires in December. And it appears that he may have some interest in checking out other locales.

When I asked Sobieski where he would choose to live if Sausalito didn’t exist, he didn’t hesitate to throw out some ideas.

“Well, a ski mountain would have been my answer for the last several years, but increasingly a catamaran in the tropics has been on my mind,” Sobieski said.

Until then, there’s still work to do in Sausalito. And the mayor invites its residents to help. While the city appoints volunteers to official boards and commissions, Sobieski believes the main way for folks to get involved is by joining community groups such as Sausalito Beautiful, Age Friendly Sausalito, the Rotary Club, the Sausalito Working Waterfront Coalition, the Lions Club and Sausalito Village.

“If we all engage earnestly, and with humility, I think we will get to better collective answers,” Sobieski said.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

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