Andrew Scheiner/Daily Journal
San Carlos Mayor Omar Ahmad died of a heart attack Tuesday.
San Carlos Mayor Omar Ahmad, known for his humor and long history with Silicon Valley ventures as much as his civic duty, died early Tuesday morning of a heart attack at age 46.
The news left City Hall shocked, with the flag immediately lowered to half staff and officials struggling to reconcile the news with the smiling man they saw at a council meeting the previous night.
When the council broke from its closed session around 10:30 p.m. and headed to their vehicles, Ahmad was his typical "high-energy, upbeat self," said Assistant City Manager Brian Moura.
"We were just saying, see ya tomorrow," Moura said.
Ahmad called 911 himself after feeling ill around 7 a.m. yesterday. Belmont-San Carlos firefighters arrived at his Geranium Lane home at 7:13 a.m. He was pronounced dead at 8:01 a.m. on arrival at Sequoia Hospital, said Coroner Robert Foucrault.
Details of Ahmad's cardiac health were not disclosed but he had enough of a history that his death was declared natural without need of an autopsy, Foucrault said.
Ahmad, who would have been 47 next month, is survived by his parents in Florida, two sisters and a brother. Ahmad was elected to the City Council in 2007 and took the gavel in December, making him one of the nation's few Muslim mayors.
"I'm proud that the voters chose someone with the name Omar to the City Council and more proud of how he took the challenge. He was one of the best councilmembers and mayors we've had," said Councilman Randy Royce who joined the council at the same time.
Ahmad was aware of the reaction his name could draw from those who confused him with those bearing the same moniker and addressed it directly on his website. If anyone had questions about him or his beliefs, he said, just ask.
He was outspoken on several city issues, including the decade-long battle to install artificial turf, but most recently took front and center in the move to outsource police services to the Sheriff's Office and create a new fire department.
In fact, the fire issue was one of Ahmad's last pieces of city business Monday night when the council adopted a salary and benefits package for its new hybrid department.
Ahmad's passion and drive for all matters, including fire, will be among his legacy, said Vice Mayor Andy Klein.
"He was beloved at City Hall. This is a shock," Klein said.
Ahmad was equally zealous about transportation, sitting as a representative to high-speed rail, Caltrain and the SamTrans Board of Directors.
"He was a three-dimensional thinker and able to see an issue on multiple levels," said Mark Simon, SamTrans executive officer for Public Affairs.
As hard as Ahmad worked, he was also incredibly good-humored about himself and reveled being in the public arena, Simon said.
"He didn't shy away from a fight and at times sought them out," Simon said.
Ahmad injected a heavy dose of creativity into his presentations and Royce said "his metaphors made my head spin every time we were together."
At the State of the City Address in March, he offered cocktails and grabbed attention by using Santa Claus to illustrate the city's financial changes. At a SamTrans board meeting, he similarly waved a roll of toilet paper to talk about how chain of events lead to a specific moment, Simon remembered.
"One of the things he really worked hard on was the desire of a lot of people to know right now how things are going to turn out. But he wanted to show them things don't get to where they are all at once," Simon said.
Ahmad's passing is "a kick in the stomach, a loss that cannot be fully described," said Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.
Ahmad served as vice chair and was "everything anyone could want in a human being, a public servant and a friend," Elsbernd said.
In April, Ahmad took a detour from ending the city's budget deficit and other weighty matters to find a way to honor residents. Ahmad suggested a commemorative city coin -- even donating one month's salary toward the cost along with Councilman Randy Royce -- as a reminder of gratitude.
In the future, he was weighing a plastic bag ban and Moura said he was looking forward to revisiting shelved plans because the city finally balanced its budget.
"He said wow, now we actually have money to spend," Moura said.
Getting San Carlos' financial house in order and finding efficiencies were primary goals of Ahmad, motivating his support of the city's innovate outsourcing. He asked San Mateo County leaders to consider a fire contract with the city but, once denied, didn't shy away from meeting a final time in mediation with Belmont Councilwoman Christine Wozniak and a retired judge.
In recent weeks, he faced strong opposition from local firefighters and fellow councilmen to affirm dissolution of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department and create a new hybrid with Redwood City.
Councilman Matt Grocott, who was one of those who disagreed, said he was also shocked by his colleague's death and expressed sorrow for Ahmad's family.
Ed Hawkins, president of the county firefighter union Local 2400, echoed the sentiment. Ahmad was "charismatic and highly intelligent" and his death is a terrible loss for his loved ones and the city, Hawkins said.
Even when he sparred with others, his heart was in the right place, said Realtor Bob Bredel who met Ahmad during his council bid and during contentious face-offs over artificial turf.
"He and I did not agree on all of the issues but I thought every vote he made was him trying to make the city a better place," Bredel said.
Ahmad was born in Ohio and raised in a small Northern Central California town. He remained committed to his alma mater, the University of Florida where he majored in material science engineering, and often spent weekends wearing Gator T-shirts and talking football.
Ahmad spent several years in Washington, D.C. at the Discovery Channel and a gunman's invasion of his former office building left him shaken and suggesting an emergency text messaging system for San Carlos.
In 1998, he moved to California and began a string of Silicon Valley ventures including time with @Home, Netscape and Napster. He more recently co-founded SynCH Energy Corp, which converts greenhouse gas to high octane gasoline, and previously founded start ups TrustedID and Logictier.
"He was a serial entrepreneur," Moura said.
Ahmad also co-founded Webmonsters, served on the board of advisors for the National Youth Science Camp Alumni Association and the technical advisory board for Palatial.com.
In his spare time, he was an avid photographer, pilot and mountaineer who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Elbrus.
After winning a council seat in November 2007, Ahmad wanted to ensure he was always reachable to constituents. Besides becoming a staple at community events like Hot Harvest Nights, he established an easy-to-remember phone number. The last four digits spelled out "OMAR."
"He had extreme dedication to the job," Klein said.
He was also a big fan of social media, updating a personal website and sending out Tweets as recently as Sunday when he wished a happy day to "all the wonderful moms out there" and lauded the San Francisco Giants for the ninth inning sacrifice fly for the win.
"I love taking Caltrain to the Giants game! Yes, I was asked to show my ticket!" he wrote.
He wasn't above urging the city had to "cowboy up" or bringing candy to meetings anticipated to run long. At a recent hearing on fire service, Ahmad referenced his own experience as an EMT.
Although he loved the jobs, Ahmad also recognized the challenge.
"He once told me being on the City Council is like being at a party and we are the pinata," Moura said.
City officials are meeting with City Attorney Greg Rubens to discuss the next steps. Klein now steps up as mayor and the council will likely name a new vice mayor at its next meeting. Ahmad's term expired in November so the city must decide whether to appoint an interim member or leave the seat vacant until the regular election.
Services have yet to be scheduled.
In the meantime, the city has lowered its flags to half staff as has the San Mateo County Transit District. Those at the district said they will remember Ahmad as more than a colleague. Those fortunate enough to know him "will say with pride that Omar Ahmad was our friend and this statement will be a credit to us all," said Mike Scanlon, SamTrans CEO and Caltrain executive director.
The Board of Supervisors, which received word just before its meeting Tuesday morning, adjourned in his memory, said President Carole Groom who served with Ahmad on SamTrans.
"He was just as bright as could be and what a presence," she said.
The state Senate and Assembly will adjourn in Ahmad's honor Thursday. State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, said he was saddened by the news.
"In his years in the technology industry and in public service he distinguished himself as an intelligent and capable leader. Omar's commitment to our community will be sorely missed," Yee said.
Ahmad's smile and attitude will also be missed, say those who knew him.
"The most important thing is that at every meeting he reminded [us of] the importance of laughter," Royce said. "He always ended with laughter."
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.