Thursday, October 28, 2004
Salinas is a city at a crossroads, and a city of contradictions. The county’s most populous city, Salinas holds on to an image of itself as a small town. Wide, tree-lined streets lined with turn-of-the-century mansions; the classic architecture of Salinas High; the sweet smells of panaderias and the old mainstays like Gino’s; parades and museums; the marquee of the old Fox Theater. It’s a small, quiet place rich in diversity where locals are happy to raise children. And, of course, people want to live here.
And then there’s Salinas’ evil mirror image—a city with the exact same boundaries. The scary, bedraggled twin looks more like this: a current deficit hovering around $6 million, with a projected deficit for the next fiscal year of $9.2 million. Crime rates that shove a violent reality into residents’ faces: This year one out of every 125 residents will be the victim of a violent crime, and yet there are fewer cops per capita than in recorded history. The words “affordable housing” feel like an oxymoron; the city council has just voted to close all three of the city’s libraries; recreation centers are gone; and earlier this year the city stopped funding school crossing guards.
But for those who are holding on to the still-living idea of Salinas’ small-town charm, who refuse to give up their stake, who bank their retirement and kids’ college funds on a housing market that’s the least affordable in the nation, their immediate future lies in the hands of the next city council.
Like a thing from America’s small-town past, a seat on the Salinas City Council pays volunteer wages. It’s a $600-a-month job with tremendous responsibility. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that there is no contest for two of the council’s four open seats.
Given the compilation of all of the city’s current shortcomings and imminent crises, the question may be why the six candidates who are running want the job to begin with.
“Because I disagree with everything you’ve just said,” Mayor Anna Caballero replies, after hearing an abbreviated list that read like this: “a violent place, no money, no affordable housing.”
Caballero, who’s been Salinas’ mayor since 1998, spent seven years on the city council immediately preceding that.
“We’re the only community doing affordable housing,” Caballero says of the city’s commendable record of inclusionary housing. “We’ve completed our obligation to build affordable housing to the year 2007, and there isn’t one other community in the area that’s done that. And yet, we’re not rewarded for that. I want to change that.”
There is no mea culpa in Caballero’s tone on pretty much any issue. Instead, she says, the city is doing everything it possibly can, given its severe financial constraints.
“It’s complicated,” Caballero says. “We live in a community that depends on labor to change the beds on the Peninsula, clean the toilets, wash the dishes. We depend on the same immigrants to mow the lawns on Highway 68 and the same labor to pick the produce. And we get nothing in return.
“We’re housing Monterey’s workforce, and yet where [Monterey] gets $1,440 from the state per capita, we get $413.”
This disparity has been a theme of her administration for years, and Caballero says in the next budget year, that number may fall to below $400 per capita.
“The economic downturn has been the killer to this community,” she says, pointing to the city’s well-chronicled gang problem as yet another victim of poverty.
“The short-term solution [to gang violence] is a traditional suppression response: put as many resources as possible out on the streets.” But Caballero says that will be difficult to accomplish considering that to achieve a budget balance for next year, police and fire are the next likely cuts.
“It’s not a spending problem the city has,” Caballero concludes, “it’s a revenue problem. Sales tax has been flat. The downward trend is flabbergasting.”
Caballero says the state dipping into city funds is the common denominator in program cuts, staggering crime, and economic tumult. “When [the state] should have raised taxes, they were chicken and came in and took local revenue. Then they forced us into a position where we have to raise taxes.”
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Caballero’s only opponent is a political newcomer named Jose Castañeda, whose long-shot candidacy took a big hit last week with revelations that he has been convicted of domestic violence. Nevertheless, he is articulate in laying out the challenges the city faces.
“Revenue isn’t going anywhere until we fix the gang problem,” Castañeda says. “Businesses are leaving the city on a constant basis. Who’d want to stay? It’s urban terrorism out there, and being addressed backwards. We’re losing money every day when residents go somewhere else for entertainment or just dinner.
“They don’t want to be here. But this is their home. This is where I want them to feel safe and spend their money.”
Castañeda is an Alisal High School graduate and now a trustee for the Alisal School District. In addition, he’s an after school program director for Barrios Unidos, and was recently appointed to the Community Restorative Justice Commission. He also serves as parent president for about a dozen preschools in the community.
Castañeda’s lone council endorsement came from Sergio Sanchez, East Salinas’ District 1 council member whose seat is up for grabs. Sanchez has no opponent.
“I’d like to think I’m running unopposed because I’m doing a good job,” he says. “I can’t believe that an entire district of residents is apathetic.”
Sanchez is often the stand-alone member of the Council, recently the only hold-out when he didn’t vote along with the other councilmembers in their controversial decision to close city libraries.
“I learned to speak English in a library,” says Sanchez, who became a US citizen mere months before he was first elected to his district’s seat in 2001.
“It always comes down to principle for me,” Sanchez says. “In principle, I just couldn’t vote for it.”
Jyl Lutes, North Salinas’ District 6 councilmember who is also running unopposed, agrees that policymaking in Salinas’ current economic climate isn’t a job for the weary.
“It’s wonderful to be a councilmember when there’s money,” she says. “When there’s no money, it’s simply horrible. I really wonder why anyone would want the job when we’ll be spending the next year cutting and cutting and cutting.
“But I’m proud of and love what we’ve done with the General Plan. I feel passionate about it. And I’m sticking around to make sure our long-range goals get implemented. I believe in it, in what we do, in this community. It’s exciting, like being part of a birth process.”
“I admire our mayor,” says the fifth-grade teacher, who first won her seat in 1998. “I think she’s doing the absolute best job in the absolute worst of circumstances. I look at the way she approaches the city, and I want to be part of that.”
Lutes is just as fierce a supporter of Central Salinas’ District 4 councilmember Gloria de la Rosa, who’s defending the seat she’s held off and on since 1993. Her opponent is Angie Morfin Vargas.
De la Rosa announced earlier this year that she wouldn’t be seeking re-election, but changed her mind, according to Aurelio Salazar, her campaign manager, “because she felt like she had a lot of unfinished business.”
“She’s a believer in the grass roots, the community organizer when there’s a crisis,” he says. “Gloria steps up to the plate to meet the needs of the district, helping people acculturate and become part of the community.”
That philosophy seems to be in direct conflict with her opponent, cashier Angie Morfin Vargas. Whether or not Vargas is actually a viable candidate, her stands on any issues, or opinions on the city’s direction, are anyone’s guess. Vargas didn’t return any of the Weekly’s phone calls and, didn’t respond to e-mails. She also didn’t bother to show up for last week’s roundtable discussion among all of the other council hopefuls at Salinas’ Steinbeck Center.
But Vargas’ letters to editors across the state speak volumes. She’s against gay marriage and she supported the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis.
But her pet cause is anti-immigration. She’s spoken out against driver’s licenses for immigrants, and helped defeat a bill that would have allowed them. She testified before Congress about what she called the destruction of society by illegal immigrants.
Vargas wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle late last year that “Many of our hospitals are bankrupt because they have to deliver the babies of illegal Mexican women free of charge.”
“She’s beyond just anti-immigration,” Salazar says, “she’s anti-Mexican. It’s where culture comes into politics. She’s fighting against the very issues the residents of her district are fighting for. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Salazar says de la Rosa is a true advocate.
“I still have her first campaign button from ’93,” he says. “It says ‘A Woman in Action.’ She’s still that very grassroots woman in action.”
The city will need action. Decisions that affect not only Salinas’ residents but ultimately the residents in every city in the county will be on their plates. Fortunately, as constituted—and no change is really expected in its make-up come November—it’s a competent, productive council that’s not deeply divided. But there are tumultuous times in major cuts and tax increases, and a whole slew of policymaking on the horizon that won’t win any member a whole lot of friends.
But as diverse as they are, they seem to each individually hold true to the notion that while Salinas is a place in crisis, it’s not a place incapable of recovery. And each one of them seems to hold the vision of the good city in their sights.