Paso council race almost seems civilized
October 31, 2014
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
In a campaign season drenched in vitriol, the contest for two vacant city council seats in Paso Robles appears quite sanguine. And the mayor’s job there will be filled by default; former council member Steve Martin will assume the four-year post unopposed.
Five candidates seek a pair of council seats.
Jim Reed, a computer draftsman with his own business, came within a whisker last election of unseating inveterate council member Fred Strong. Reed is an outspoken critic of Paso Robles’ city management, and was one of the founders of a group called Change Paso Robles Now 2012.
While his opponents claim they will “get in there and fix this and control that,” said Reed, “all I see happening is the continued growth of government’s boot on all our necks.”
Reed is the only candidate to directly criticize City Manager Jim App, who has been in his position for 16 years.
“The council has absolutely no control over App,” said Reed. “People say it will cost too much to get rid of him. I say it will cost us all too much to keep him.”
Reed also is not reluctant to mention several of Paso Robles’ more embarrassing public situations, like the $250,000 city payoff to former police chief Lisa Solomon-Chitty after she was accused by fellow officers of sexual improprieties. Reed also cites a lawsuit settled by city officials to avoid a public civil trial with a former police officer who was charging the department with establishing unlawful ticket quotas and other department irregularities under Solomon-Chitty’s reign.
Reed is critical of an $800,000 expenditure by city planners to provide a partial grant match for renovating 21st Street while many of the city’s downtown streets are falling into disrepair.
“Staff apply for all these grants, and then the council tells the citizens they have no choice” but to match funds for projects “that we don’t need. The council is five pinheads buying into bigger problems.”
He cited crumbling infrastructure and neglected maintenance at the city’s airport and parks.
She’s economic development director for the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce, experience which Pam Avila says will help the city “continue attracting visitors as well as new business to the area.”
Avila shares the concern about the condition of city streets. Paso citizens deserve to feel the city is taking proper care of our resources and infrastructure,” she said, adding that new city revenues should soon be available “to bring our streets up to an acceptable level. The process has already begun but there is still a long way to go.”
Avila wants to hear more from residents about the area’s water needs before she weighs in on the controversial issue.
“I want to weigh all of the information from everyone affected — general agriculture, wineries, small property owners and yes, the cities of North County — before I reach conclusions about what I believe to be reasonable solutions for both the short and long term,” she said.
Avila also hints that she might be open to a management change in Paso Robles.
“I worked in Silicon Valley for more than 20 years,” she said, “and saw numerous businesses start up, grow, and then hit a barrier. In most cases, the talent and expertise required of the executives when the company was small, were not the same talent and expertise required to grow that business past a certain level. I believe that Paso is in a similar situation. The leadership has done a good job of getting us to where we are today; but we are at a point where new talent, expertise and experience are needed to move Paso into the future while safeguarding its heritage and lifestyle.”
A “careful strategy for future growth and development” would ensure “a more diversified economy,” she suggested.
And she is not concerned about a possible conflict of interest with her Chamber job.
“That would only arise when the council is voting on funding matters relating directly to the Chamber. There are already numerous precedents for council members recusing themselves in similar situations,” she noted.
Steve Gregory, a city planning commissioner, wants a return of city services to previous levels after years of budgetary cutbacks. He also views the condition of city streets to be a major problem, and has a plan to augment funds for needed repairs.
Gregory, if elected, said he would immediately propose “a budgeted line item to put money into maintaining our roads. These funds can come from the increase in sales tax revenue and our Transient Occupancy Tax. We are seeing strong growth in both of these taxes and we can adequately fund a substantial budgeted line item for road maintenance.”
He said the 21st Street project was intended to “fix the continuing drainage problems” but has not. “The design and issues resulting from that road repair are a concern.We are being forced by the state to deal with the water run-off in a manner that doesn’t seem practical.”
According to Gregory, the city’s residents have reduced overall water use by 40 percent since 2009, and that the city’s intention is to “continue to use less and less of the ground water wells as we get the Nacimiento water treatment plant working and fully implemented into our water system.”
Gregory said manager App “has done a decent job of keeping our city working through a very difficult financial time.”
But Gregory said the council “needs stronger leadership to direct App and staff. I believe the discontent of our citizens is because our Council needs to get back to managing our city and directing our City Manager.”
Duane Picanco, a familiar political face who has most recently served as mayor, said he believes city streets are no worse than that of “other cities in the county.”
He repeats the contention of the sitting council that local road repair was hampered by reductions in state funding.
“ When the state took away gas tax money in the early 1990’s ,” he said, “cities and county roads and streets began to deteriorate because lack of funding. Paso Robles residents passed sales tax increased to be spent only on street repair. Now two years later, other cities are trying to pass sales tax increase.”
Picanco said the 21st Street project was the result of “a combination of things. First the street had greatly deteriorated and storm runoff was creating problems. Most people think that the median is landscaping, which it is not. It’s designed control storm water run-off and retention.”
Picanco said he believes that city management “has done an excellent job managing our financial resources during the recession. And he sees new revenue increases that will “slowly restore maintenance and services. I don’t think we are out of the woods concerning the recession.”
And, he adds, referring to his long tenure, “There isn’t anything like experience.”
JOHN HAMON Jr.
John Hamon has been a city council member since 2006. He, too, is anxious to return city services to an earlier, higher level. He was the only member of the current council, he points out, who voted against city employee raises this year, contending that city streets and other infrastructure needs funding more than employees need raises.
He cites his “conservative voting record” and vows to see that rising city funds are spent “in the most resourceful way possible.”
Hamon is an advocate of “working together” with other council members: “I strive to always work collaboratively with my other colleagues to arrive upon a mutual agreement that is beneficial to all concerned.”
Hamon’s concerns about street repair are more moderated than his opponents.
“The lion’s share of our streets are in fair condition,” he contends, saying the recession prompted the council to “focus on the basics, police, fire, and sewer and water.”
But he said the current sales tax increase on one-half cent is being used “as promised” for street repair and maintenance.
He expressed some dismay with design elements of the 21st Street project, but said he is satisfied with manager App’s performance.
App “has his faults as do we all, but on the whole he is effective, communicates well with the council and his managers,” Hamon said. “For the most part I am satisfied with his performance to date.”
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