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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 19th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 29

Tally of two cities: Santa Maria and Lompoc candidates prepare for first district-based city council elections

By Joe Payne

More than 50 senior citizens sat in rows listening intently as candidates presented their platforms, speaking in six-minute chunks with a wood-grain patterned wall and bingo board serving as a backdrop.

The Sept. 10 forum at the Casa Grande Mobile Estates clubhouse in Santa Maria was like many candidates forums of years past, ending with an ice cream social, conversation, and handshakes, but one aspect was wholly new when it was time for Santa Maria City Council candidates to speak.

"We have candidates from two different districts, District 3 and District 4," an event organizer told the crowd during the candidates' introduction. "I won't try to explain all the changes that have occured with the districts."

The Nov. 6 election represents the first in Santa Maria's history with a district-based system for voting on City Council seats, leaving behind the at-large system that's been in place since the city was founded more than a century ago.

Santa Maria was divided into four districts after the city faced a potential lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) after the 2016 election. Citing the failure of Santa Barbara to successfully defend against a similar lawsuit, the Santa Maria City Council decided to move forward and split the city into four districts in 2017, though, according to a current council member, it wasn't their desire to do so.

"I was not in favor of districting the city. In fact, I don't think anyone on the council was in favor of districting the city," Councilmember Dr. Michael Moats told the Sun at the Sept. 10 forum. "The decision to do that was forced on us by a lawsuit that was brought on us by a disgruntled candidate who didn't perform to his expectations, and he thought that was due to racial profiling."

That candidate was Hector Sanchez, who lives in the northern part of Santa Maria. Districts 3 and 4 in the southern part of town are up for election in November, and both incumbents for this years' race, including Moats, are facing challengers who are running largely grassroots campaigns, something that district elections allow by design, Sanchez told the Sun.

"The city had outdated politics, it was clear, and the only way to change that is to have local representation," Sanchez said. "We have that at the congressional level, state Senate level, of course we should have that at the city level. And more and more cities are doing it."

Lompoc faced the same decision in 2017 and divided the city of 40,000-plus residents into districts for the 2018 election.

Each city is facing similar citywide issues: Lack of affordable housing, need for economic development, and the budget crunch due to the fallout from increasing rates from the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS). While candidates all scramble to voice their vision on how to address those needs, the new district configuration sees challengers canvassing their portions of town, hoping to unseat incumbents and change "business as usual" on their respective city councils. 


Not-so-safe seat 

Current Santa Maria City Councilmember Michael Moats was last elected to the City Council in 2016, so he technically has two years left in his term.


District 3

But Moats, who lives in District 3, the city's southwest portion, wouldn't be able to run for re-election until 2022 to coincide with the district's next cycle. He's running now to secure the seat and stay on the council through that time. Even if he loses, Moats told the Sun, he will still get to serve out the remainder if his term, so essentially he has a "safe seat."

"Well, either way I'm going to continue on the City Council," he said. "Of course, one always prefers to win."

Moats is running on a platform familiar to his supporters: fiscal responsibility in Santa Maria.

Moats pointed to the citywide issue of the "budget crisis" spurred by increases in pension costs and voiced his support for the city's proposed Measure U to increase the sales tax to 1 percent in Santa Maria, when asked what issue most affects his district.

"The city has a looming $8 million budget deficit, and it has a structural and non-sustainable problem with CalPERS, which constantly tries to drain more money out of our city coffers for pensions for people who are already retired," he said. "If Measure U gets passed, a lot of these problems will go away. If Measure U doesn't pass, there's going to be significant belt-tightening in the city, and that will affect all four districts."

Other issues are affecting Santa Marians as well, Moats said, such as the lack of "non-subsidized affordable housing." He said the council should "encourage the developers to give us some high-density apartments, mostly apartments."

Moats' seat isn't totally safe, though. He's facing two challengers in the District 3 race.

At the Sept. 10 forum event, after Moats spoke, it was 29-year-old nonprofit administrator and candidate Gloria Soto's turn at the podium.

Soto opened with her background growing up in Santa Maria as the child of immigrant farmworkers. They taught her "hard work and dedication," she said, but they also struggled with issues that many Santa Marians face, like housing and keeping up with the cost of living. She and her family also got support from several organizations in the city, she said, allowing her the "privilege" to run for City Council.

"I take that very, very seriously," she said. "This isn't about having fun. This isn't about seeing if I could get re-elected. This isn't about being part of a social elite club. This is about serving every single constituent and making sure that their voices and their concerns are heard."

In a later interview with the Sun, Soto said she hopes to bring diversity to Santa Maria's City Council, not because she's a young Latina woman, but because of her "lived experience." Her background informs her platform, she said, with a focus on affordable and inclusionary housing, 

"My lived experience, it's the reality of a lot of Santa Marians," she said. "When we think about the future of our city, we have to do better."

Soto is an administrator for Planned Parenthood in Santa Maria, and she has also served on the boards of The Fund for Santa Barbara and the local chapter of the Future Leaders of America. She was involved in the Future Leaders and FFA while a student at Pioneer Valley High School.

Her platform includes the housing focus; an "active transportation plan" for the city, making it more walkable and bike-friendly; and more mixed-use development, especially downtown. She said she doesn't want to see the city "grow out, out, out."

Raymond Acosta has lived in Santa Maria since he was a kid and has worked as a retail service manager at FoodMaxx in town for nearly 30 years. He decided to run for City Council after talking to hundreds of Santa Marians at his job.

"I just think we need to kind of go in a different direction," he said. "I think a lot of the concerns that have been raised haven't been dealt with seriously enough."

Acosta said he supports many of the concerns at the front of other candidates' minds, like affordable housing and funding for public safety. But Acosta questioned where that funding should come from.

"It's the taxation that we're bringing to our residents," he said. "There's a lot of unnecessary things that we've been paying for that we shouldn't be paying for."

Local officials need to "take a stand" over the taxation, he said, adding that the city needs to be "more affordable." Acosta said he may support Measure U, but only because public safety is important for Santa Maria.

Acosta said that he doesn't want to see the city enter into unnecessary bond measures, he wants to see property taxes lowered, and moves like those could help locals who are struggling to make ends meet.

"You got a family, I got a family, we got a budget, and I know how to manage my budget and keep my people taken care of," he said. "The people that are running this stuff, they've got to do a better job of it." 


District 4 showdown

Santa Maria's Carriage District includes some of the city's most historic homes, including those of current and former government employees and representatives. Blue and red signs punctuate the neighborhood's streets–blue for current Councilmember Etta Waterfield and red for her challenger, Rafael Gutierrez.


District 4

Waterfield and Gutierrez are battling it out for a district that encompasses affluent Santa Maria neighborhoods, the downtown portion that includes the mall, and new development off the freeway. They've crafted disparate campaigns that focus on their respective visions for the city.

For Waterfield, who grew up in a law enforcement family and founded the Santa Maria Police Council, public safety comes first.

"You just want to make sure that you've got a safe community," Waterfield told the Sun. "Every community has its dark side, not just Santa Maria, but every community, and you've got to clean that up as much as you can."

It's important that Measure U passes, Waterfield argued, so that the Santa Maria Police Department and other city agencies get needed funding. Without Measure U in its current iteration, the police department wouldn't have had resources necessary for Operation Matador, which arrested several members of MS-13 for a spate of homicides in Santa Maria across 2015 and 2016.

Waterfield also said Santa Maria needs more affordable housing but pointed to a cost of a project slated for Main and Depot streets as a concern. She said the project will include around 60 units, but will cost $37 million to build.

"It costs $37 million to build affordable housing," she said. "Now is that an oxymoron or what?"

She said the high cost was due to state mandates the city can't avoid. That was the same reason the city moved forward with an ordinance on accessory dwelling units earlier this year, which has the potential to adversely impact neighborhoods, she said.

"You have to know who you're voting for," she said. "We get yelled at, but we have to become creative in how we build ordinances to make sure that we're not breaking any laws, state or federal."

For Gutierrez, a local attorney, his focus is on the economic development of Santa Maria, specifically in the downtown area.

Gutierrez said he'd like to see downtown redevelop with a focus on mixed-use housing, being more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, and becoming the "heart" of Santa Maria. A focus on the downtown will help the local business owners there while attracting companies to town that offer higher-wage jobs, he argued.

Projects like Enos Ranch have helped attract shoppers and revenue, Gutierrez said, but they also pull focus away from the downtown and all the locally owned businesses there.

"The rents over there are not affordable enough for the local business owner, so what are we doing?" he said. "The backbone of a city's economy is always going to be the small businesses, the locally owned businesses."

Santa Maria is in need of change, Gutierrez said, and has "potential." He said he'd like to see the police department focus on community policing, a four-year university come to town, and council members who hold regular office hours to speak with city residents.

"I'm not running because I want that on my resume, like some people. I'm not running because I have a lot of time on my hands," he said. "I'm a small-business owner, a professional, and I have to keep a balance. The reason I can run this time around is because I have the ability to have a flexible schedule and dedicate time between my practice and my duties as a City Council member." 


Segmented small town

Lompoc's first district-based election also includes challengers to current Councilmembers Victor Vega and Dirk Starbuck, who represent District 2 and District 3, respectively.


Lompoc: District 2

For Robert Cuthbert, who is challenging Starbuck for District 3, the prospect of district elections was part of what spurred him to run for Lompoc City Council this year. He has run for the office before and sat on the city's Public Safety Commission for 10 years, but he said that district elections may give him a better chance to win a seat on the council.

"Creating districts throughout California means working-class people, minorities, and people who normally wouldn't have the money to spend for an entire city in the open citywide election [can run]," Cuthbert said. "I've got 75 percent less people I have to contact, I can have more quality interactions with the voters, and it's contendable."

Cuthbert is frustrated with the current City Council, which he said needs to focus more on economic development. He said that Councilmembers Vega, Starbuck, and Jim Mosby "seem to vote as a cohort," and questioned some of their decisions, but added that he knows Starbuck and "appreciate[s] him as a person."


Lompoc: District 3

Councilmembers Starbuck and Vega did not reply to the Sun's interview requests for this story.

"The city is going downhill and we need to move forward," Cuthbert said. "Really, look at that budget in the sense of what we are paying for and what is the value of it? And this is the same City Council that wanted to open a drag strip here in town, and that's a $100 million or $200 million project in the city of Lompoc."

Vega's challenger, Shirley Sherman, is running for City Council for the very first time. She became a U.S. citizen in March of this year, and "was pretty pumped about that," and decided Lompoc was her home for good.

  "It just felt like I have a civic duty to make things better for people because our community needs a lot of help," Sherman said. "I don't have a political agenda in the sense that I've been in office before, but I think I'm as capable as anybody on this Earth."

  Sherman, who was born in the U.K., grew up in Canada, and moved to the U.S. in 2003, said that Lompoc "has a lot of potential."

  She has spent a good amount of time walking District 2 in Lompoc campaigning, she said, and the district has some specific issues. The roads need work, she said, and there are a number of "absentee landlords." 

"We're seeing broken windows, we're seeing dirt where there should be grass; kids shouldn't play on dirt, kids should play on grass," she said. "Things like that. We have issues with safety in our neighborhood. ... We have a lack of police that are able to do their duty effectively. We're six positions short right now, and that doesn't help the issues facing our community right now."

Running for office and listening to constituents has "been an eye-opener," Sherman said.

Sherman admitted she "has a lot to learn" about the City Council and Lompoc, but "got bit by the bug" to run after seeing issues that affect her and her neighbors. And after watching the current City Council, she said it's in need of "more voices."

"God bless Mayor Bob Lingl; he's tried to promote certain things and it's three people that rule this city and that gridlock needs to disappear," she said. "There needs to be a fresh face, a new opinion, common sense–that's what I am." 


Match for the mayorship

The entirety of Lompoc does get to vote on one City Council seat this year, that of mayor.

After Mayor Bob Lingl announced that he wouldn't run for re-election earlier this year, current Councilmember Jim Mosby announced his bid for the office. Later, Councilmember Jenelle Osborne announced she would run as well. Both have council terms that run through 2020, so whoever loses will still continue on the council.

When asked by the Sun, Mosby responded directly to the criticism that he and Councilmembers Vega and Starbuck act as a "cohort." He said his experience as a business owner informs many decisions, which detractors don't fully comprehend.

"I understand what it is to pull a permit, ... have gone through the process and truly understand what it takes to open a door," Mosby said. "It's not just about talking about it. And that's the problem we have, we have a lot of people who just talk about it and have it on the tip of their tongue, but truly, truly don't understand the difficulty and complexity."

Osborne didn't plan to run for mayor, saying she wanted to make good on her promise of serving out her full term on the council, but she was compelled to run after being asked by several Lompoc residents.

She said she's running for mayor to continue bringing her unique voice and vision on the council to the city's leadership role.

"There seems to be no one on council who necessarily had long-term, vision-style leadership," she said. "It seemed the be a lot of management-style leadership, where they want to get into the details and micromanage and spend a lot of time on what the city manager and the staff are designed to do."

The budget discussions that continued four months past deadline last year are one example Osborne pointed to of where Mosby's leadership style doesn't help the city. The council is "first and foremost a policy-making body," she said, and the staff has its role managing the resources the council grants.

Councilmember Mosby said he doesn't mind digging into the details, and that his perspective has helped the city save money amid a budget crisis spurred by increasing CalPERS rates.

He said that the City Council needs to be practical when it comes to developing the city. That's one bone of contention he's had with Mayor Lingl, he said.

"I think it's important when we're doing these processes and discussing them that we be truthful," Mosby said. "The current mayor, many times says he's supportive of new housing but he wants infill. Well, they've been talking about infill for 10 years. If it's not working, why are we still talking about it? Your solution can't be something that's not working."

The city should be "mindful" when weighing increases that affect residents' pocketbooks, like utility rates or adding new taxes, he said.


Lompoc Mayor Race

Mosby also argued that recent increases in wages to Lompoc's public safety sector will help retain police officers and firefighters, adding that "a lot of people don't realize how deep we've dug."

"I believe Lompoc needs to continue moving forward," he said. "Lompoc has made a lot of progress over the last several years, and I think it's important that the person in the front seat understands what's going on with Lompoc."

But Osborne pointed to Mosby's and others' decision to allow the recreational cannabis industry in town, which she supported, and then decide not to tax it initially as an example of a frustrating back-and-forth that can happen on the current council.

Ethics, accountability, and responsibility are central to her philosophy as a council member, along with being clear about the council's role. It's what she will bring to council's top seat as mayor, she said, as well as a focus on community pride. There's been a lot of "negative self-talk" in Lompoc by city residents, and she wants to make it a place locals are proud of.

"I really feel like Lompoc keeps just hanging right down the precipice of greatness because of the fact that there's nobody really saying, 'Here's where we want Lompoc to go,'" she said. "And to do that we need to make investments in ourselves and really rally to the idea that we're a great community." 


Managing Editor Joe Payne can be reached at jpayne@santamariasun.com.




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