Thursday, October 15, 1998
Salinas, the largest city in Monterey County, is also the only local city to divide up its city council seats by district. And, while the mayor''s race is getting a lot of attention around the county (see page 12), council seats in Districts 2, 3 and 6 are also being hotly contested. A fourth seat in District 5 will be filled once again by Jan Collins (widow of the late Councilmember Jim Collins), who is running unopposed.
Due to its geographic location, ethnic diversity and heavy ag presence, Salinas candidates mention issues that get shorter shrift in other council races around the county. While the city has grown by an astounding 3 percent a year for more than a decade, council candidates say they''re although unwilling to halt growth per se; most said they would oppose or severely restrict development on prime ag land. Nevertheless, virtually every candidate interviewed for this piece said the city''s infrastructure and public safety needs must keep pace with that growth. Others cited the need to focus on redevelopment of the city''s Oldtown before branching off into the development of other parts of Salinas. Crime, which has skyrocketed over the past decade, also figures prominently on every candidate''s platform, although candidates differed as to whether they would support adding more police personnel to the city''s roster.
Virtually every candidate questioned about it said they supported the council''s controversial decision to ban certain gang members from the Garner/Del Monte neighborhood of Salinas. And, most said they also supported the council''s restrictions on downtown panhandling, despite the fact that portions of that ordinance are being challenged on Constitutional grounds.
Those similarities aside, here is a closer look at the candidates and their positions.
In District 2, which covers East Salinas, five-year incumbent Roberto Ocampo says that as a Hispanic councilmember and East Salinas native, he is well-positioned to represent the interests of his constituency. Abating the district''s crime rate, and encouraging economic revitalization are among his key goals. Ocampo believes the city is making a good start at fighting crime, through programs such as Weed and Seed developed in partnership with other local agencies. He supports a two-pronged approach to crime: prevention, through youth-centered programs, combined with stricter enforcement, such as the recent gang injunction and the new police violence suppression unit.
Ocampo supports city-centered growth, rather than far-flung development projects. "Growth should be contiguous with city boundaries," he says, "and prime agricultural lands to the south must be preserved." He supports development projects such as the 800-plus unit Sconberg Ranch, which will provide 90 "affordable homes" according to the city''s formula mandating that 12 percent of homes in all new development projects be "affordable."
Realistically, Ocampo doesn''t face much of a fight for re-election. Neither of his opponents, Liz Sanchez or Michael Nichols, have been campaigning with any particular energy. Neither Sanchez nor Nichols showed up for their scheduled candidates'' interview at Coast Weekly, neither returned their candidates'' questionnaires by last week''s deadline, and neither have returned CW phone calls. Nichols has so far raised and spent less than $1,000. Sanchez has yet to file campaign disclosure forms.
District 3 has the largest candidates'' field, with four contenders and no incumbent--thanks to the decision of longtime South Salinas Councilmember Steve Ish not to seek re-election. Voters in this more affluent part of Salinas will choose between business owner and county Republican Party Chair Brett Landon, media communications executive and Spanish-language radio personality Rose Juarez Clark, educator Janet Barnes and Stephen Kessler, a field representative for SEIU Local 817.
Janet Barnes is a newcomer to city politics, but not to community involvement, serving presently as a commissioner for both Salinas Parks and Recreation and the Salinas Library. A sixth-grade teacher who also works as an English instructor at Hartnell College, Barnes points to infrastructure improvement and public safety as her two key issues. She would allocate more funding to both those areas, including hiring more police officers.
While not an anti-growth candidate, Barnes says any new development projects must be weighed against the needs of existing residential and business areas. She "would consider" supporting the Sconberg Ranch project, so long as water supplies and public parks in the area are not threatened. Development projects in general should be evaluated in terms of their impact on water, traffic, parks and schools. If elected, Barnes says she would support enforcement of the panhandling ban, install better nighttime lighting and post a patrol officer in the downtown district to encourage bringing Oldtown back to life. Local businesses rather than big-box chains should be favored, she believes, but individual scrutiny of each proposal is needed rather than "a rubber-stamp approach."
Mechanical engineer Brett Landon is no stranger to local politics, having just stepped into his father''s shoes as head of the local Republican Party. On the key issues, his positions mirror those of most other candidates: revitalization of downtown, more money to city infrastructure, more police officers, balancing planned growth with preserving prime ag lands, and encouraging local business rather than large-scale retail operations.
Landon distinguishes himself from the pack by pointing out that he is a "fiscal conservative" who will "spend your tax dollars wisely." Sometimes, he says, councilmembers are baffled by the numbers in staff reports. "I''m good with numbers," he says.
Too much power has been vested in the city manager, he says, leaving the council too weak to provide effective leadership. Yet despite the power concentrated in the city manager''s hands, department managers under him make $100,000 a year. Landon says he would correct both situations, so "the city will be run more like a business," with a "team-oriented" approach. It''s ridiculous, he says, that the city''s 600 employees are paid a whopping $42 million annually. Scale down, he says.
On the other hand, Landon says police captains in Salinas are underpaid and overworked. He''d hire six new police officers, and have them walk the beat in the downtown business district during business hours, to enhance public safety. Road building and maintenance also need more funding: In 1987, the city spent $3 million on roads, whereas last year, with 50 percent more roads than ten years ago, the city spent just $500,000. "We''re not keeping up," he charges.
Rose Clark, a well-known radio personality in this heavily Spanish-speaking city, prides herself on walking the district regularly to speak personally with residents. She''s served on a plethora of local committees, including the Women''s Crisis Center, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce Education Committee and the Salinas Union High School District.
Clark comes from the well-connected Juarez restaurant family, who are long-time Salinas residents, but has chosen not to run under her maiden name, saying she wants to be elected "on the issues, not because of my Mexican heritage." As a former 911 operator, she champions the needs of the city''s emergency services, saying the fire departments need more vehicles to cut down on emergency response time, and police need more up-to-date equipment. Clark also supports more funding for road signs and road repairs. Rather than using money from the $8 million the city will gain from sale of the Crazy Horse landfill to install new carpets in city libraries, which she says some councilmembers favor, she''d put the money towards city roads. Clark also focuses on protecting ag land and water resources. She pledges to bring a "can-do, work together" attitude to the council.
Stephen Kessler is probably the least well-known candidate in the district, although he serves on the Laurel Middle School committee and is a mediator with the Conflict Resolution and Mediation Center. He says he''s running because he''s "tired of being ignored at City Council meetings," and chides the council for "only looking five minutes into the future." Accountability is his motto in this campaign--he says he''ll attend all meetings, and be available to constituents. Kessler''s priorities are also public safety and responsible growth, with an emphasis on creating youth-oriented programs and activities. "We need things to get the kids off the streets for good," he says, mentioning "recreational activities" like a new gym, and programs operating "at the times kids want them." He''d like to push for a hotel downtown, and maybe something like mini-golf, so travelers with kids would choose to stay in Salinas rather than the Peninsula.
District 6, in northeast Salinas, which includes the new Harden Ranch and Creekbridge developments, is filling up with young families with children. The three candidates duking it out for the district''s council seat are focusing on issues of concern to this constituency: public safety, infrastructure, schools and the need to attract higher-paying jobs to the area.
Businessman Jeff Denham, a unit manager for Menasha Corporation and a U.S. Air Force veteran of Desert Storm, says he''ll push for carefully planned growth "that favors residents rather than developers," and will work to cultivate a "family-friendly" attitude on the City Council. He favors developing the Oldtown business area before giving the green light to new residential projects, and supports policies that would attract high-paying jobs to the city before allowing in more chain stores with their minimum-wage jobs.
Citing his years of business experience, including a stint as national products manager for Fresh Express, Denham says the city "needs to be run more like a business." He''d cut the fat from city salaries, and put more of the money into infrastructure, he says. Denham has Realtors, builders and the Salinas Chamber of Commerce backing him.
Perennial candidate J.T. James has thrown his name in the hat again after previous unsuccessful efforts to unseat District 1 Supervisor Simon Salinas in ''94 and ''96. James'' pet peeve is crime, and he''s willing to take tough steps to combat it. "I''m the only candidate with a proven record on reducing crime," he says, pointing to his years as a sheriff''s deputy. He served on the city''s gang task force form ''79 to ''85, and he''d like to see it reinstituted. He thinks the city needs to "go to the young people, with police, not recreation centers," to give kids positive role models in junior high and elementary school. By high school, he says, it''s "too late."
James would devote a larger percentage of the city budget to police and firefighters, and to buying more paramedic vans. "We could increase our budget for police if we''d give less to the Steinbeck Center and the auto mall," he suggests.
Rounding out the District 6 race is Jyl Lutes, a fifth-grade teacher in the Santa Rita school district who, as an elected trustee in the Alisal school district, helped balance a $35 million budget. Lutes is an articulate, impassioned advocate for city-centered growth, notably the "urban village" concept of mixed-use residential and commercial development to revitalize the downtown area. She''d like to see growth move towards the foothills and away from ag land, and would focus more incentives on revitalizing downtown--"city infill" rather than annexation of new lands.
But Lutes'' number-one concern is improving city services, which are the first victims of poorly planned growth. "Development has been the city''s priority," she states. "Now priority needs to shift to residential community needs." She cites schools, a senior center, new fire stations, better libraries, parks, traffic safety and general infrastructure improvement as issues the City Council must address with more forcefulness. On similar grounds, she would encourage more small, locally owned businesses in the downtown area. "they provide goods and services the big businesses don''t always provide," she notes. "We see that happening in downtown Monterey."