By Mark A. Diaz
The South County Chambers of Commerce recently held a Q&A forum to give Arroyo Grande City Council candidates an opportunity to address public issues. Incumbent Mayor Jim Hill, an engineer, is running for re-election against mayor pro tem Caren Rae, an educator. There are two council seats up for grabs with Terry Fowler-Payne, a retired project coordinator, Jimmy Paulding, a project manager, Coleen Kubel, a contractor and Architectural Review Commission member, John Mack, a planner and member of the City Planning Commission, and Keith Storton, a retired SLO police captain, pursuing the position.
Roughly 130 citizens showed up at the South County Regional Center in Arroyo Grande to watch the candidates civilly battle it out. Each of the seven candidates was allowed opening and closing remarks and allotted one minute per question brought forth by the public.
The first question the candidates fielded concerned the growth of the city in the face of lacking resources to support such things as water and emergency services.
All of the candidates expressed a need to grow city revenue through business development with some expressing a need to recruit outside businesses. Payne however disagreed and stated that she does not want to see more big chain stores coming into the area or more of what she called “hit and run” developers that come into the area, do a large development and then leave.
“I would just like to see our city maintained the way it has been for the last hundred years,” said Payne and pointed out that she is a third generation citizen of Arroyo Grande.
John Mack said that A.G. should focus on the development of commercial properties for business and not fill it with residential housing, while Keith Storton advised the city should expand grant searches and pursue collaborative efforts like in the case of the Five Cities Fire Authority to cut down on service costs. Hill informed the room that all of the city’s property taxes from residential areas doesn’t even cover the full amount needed to run the police department. Kubel showed a desire to “streamline” city staff but was against any terminations.
Another hot topic focused on money was the firing of several city staff members, while others received raises.
Rae commended the staff, who she said had voluntarily passed on receiving contractual raises during the Great Recession, and said, “We’re doing a little bit of catchup now to get people back up to speed.” However, she did not comment on why people were laid off.
Payne said that the some of the salary situations are “out of control” and believed that the city should have found others areas to trim down the budget rather than force people into retirement or unemployment. Kubel echoed Payne’s sentiments by saying the city council could have relinquished their benefits and believes that the money saved by cutting that cost would have been enough for people to keep their jobs. Mack also agreed that people should not be getting raises during what he referred to as “a time of crisis.”
“In my opinion,” said Kubel, “that would have been a much better way to handle it, and we would still have our city staff.”
Hill pointed out that he does not receive benefits and suggested that other council members may want to lead by example. He also made it clear that raises paid to staff (and not the council, who only earn $400 a month) were in line with cost of living inflation.
Storton broached the subject by saying the city needs to be competitive when paying staff in order to attract the best people for the given position rather than employing someone at a lower rate who is not qualified.
The issue of water and development reared its head and the candidates took turns taking shots at the beast.
Both Mack and Kubel agreed that there should be no development until the issue of water, and the lack thereof, is sufficiently addressed.
“One of the things I want to do when I get elected is to create a city water management plan to manage that resource,” said Mack.
Hill stated that there has been an imbalance development with more residential than commercial and reiterated a definite need for more businesses to generate revenue.
Paulding guided his response to a call for a need of more community interaction concerning development and planning and said that he would strive to find various avenues to encourage public participation. Storton echoed Paulding’s sentiments and said input from citizens to provide “thoughts and solutions” to the council to ensure that A.G. grows but still keeps it small town charm. Rae also expressed a need for the public to voice its opinions and added the need for the city to create another general plan, something she said has not been done since 2000.
Things did get a little heated towards the end of the forum when Rae said that people should vote for her because, “We’ve got to have a change at the Sanitation District, because the mayor is not effective there anymore, not for lack of trying to do the right thing but because for whatever reason, it’s just not working…”
In his closing statement Hill said that he was proud of his record at the Sanitation District and “clearing up the corruption that was there.”