The Visalia City Council Candidates and Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) candidates had an opportunity to outline their platforms September 29 at the Visalia Veterans Memorial Building. Each candidate had the chance to explain their goals and then answer questions posed by moderator Paul Hurley.
The forum was sponsored by the American Association of University Women, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, and the Visalia Times-Delta.
Up for election are seats for Visalia City Council District 1 and District 2. District 1 technically has no incumbent, with Tulare County Supervisor Phil Cox facing Visalia City Planning Commission Chair Adam Peck. Cox was on the Visalia City Council from 2001 to 2004. Councilmember Bob Link is defending his seat for District 2 against retired firefighter Adam Arakelian and animal rights activist Susanne Gundy.
Peck started the evening by saying that he loved being a Visalian and loved being on the stage and being able to run for city council. After being on the planning commission for 11 years, Peck felt the city council was the next logical step. Cox said, “My resume and experience prove I am the best candidate.” He pointed out that while Visalia’s downtown is a safe place to go and have a good time that gang activity is on the rise. Last year there were as many gang murders as the three previous years combined, he said.
Gundy started the introduction statements for District 2, saying that she thought Link had done a good job but that the city needs new views and a fresh voice. She had five issues on her platform: update the city’s animal control policies, explore more solar options, improve the services for the homeless, lower the fees for jail bookings, and finally, drag Visalia into the 21st century concerning their attitude towards marijuana.
Link said he had three main issues: the city’s water in terms of dealing with Visalia’s underground aquifer, homeless, and getting Measure N passed – the half-cent sales tax increase.
Arakelian spent 24 years as a Visalia firefighter and is now retired. He was motivated to run for city council because he cares for Visalia and stated, “I have put my life on the line for this city.”
Candidates answer questions
The first question was how each candidate plans on dealing with the homeless situation. Cox said that the city needs to cut through the red tape in order to get rid some of the blighted properties in town that attract homeless and ruin neighborhoods. He also said that Visalia needs to stop being a homeless dumping ground and that he has a plan to put an end to it.
Arakelian said he has been on the front lines of emergency services for 15 years, several times finding himself doing CPR on people who have overdosed in the Oval. He said that he is glad the bathrooms were taken out of the park and that many of the homeless choose this lifestyle. He did research on what other cities do and they all told him, “Don’t make the same mistakes we did,” meaning be careful of the services you provide the homeless, you could get sued.
Gundy has a different take on the homeless and has done her research also. The cities she has looked at provide services such as showers and bathrooms for the homeless. She said that right now Visalia provides no services for the homeless except to give them referrals to the Visalia Rescue Mission.
Next, each candidate was asked about supporting Measure N, the half-cent bond measure on the November ballot. All of the candidates said they were going to vote for Measure N, though Arakelian said “I don’t like taxes. I know it’s frustrating.” Link reminded the audience that 40% of the sales tax will be paid for by outsiders, “but they use our roads and police too, so it’s fair.”
Gundy was all for the half-cent sales tax increase, saying that the police are planning on hiring 30 more officers if it passes. She said she would personally advocate for hiring one more animal control officer with the extra revenue.
Hurley’s next question concerned Visalia’s high rate of poverty and how the candidates plan to diversify the city’s economy. Peck said that Visalia’s economy is much more vibrant and diverse than the county as a whole, where agriculture jobs dominate. He said that keeping our infrastructure in good shape and having shovel- ready parcels will bring jobs to Visalia.
Cox said he would be more aggressive in pursuing economic development and more aggressive about updating Visalia’s zoning. Gundy said that Visalia should be taking advantage of the fact that marijuana will be legal. She advocated for Visalia to change its ordinances to take advantage of business opportunities that can increase the sales tax base. She said Visalia changed its city ordinances for micro breweries and micro wineries, “and alcohol is a lot worse for you than pot.”
Given the fact that Visalia’s air is the worst in the state, Hurley asked what each candidate would do to improve the air quality.
Arakelian said that there isn’t much Visalia could do about the air but advised everyone to ride their bike to work. Link agreed with Arakelian’s assessment and said that the Federal Government sets the standards but does not acknowledge that the Central Valley is a bowl where the dirty air cannot escape, that we are in a five-year drought, and that we are an ag based economy.
Cox said that even if Visalia took all the cars off the roads, trucks off the highways, stopped farming, and killed all our cows, we still would not be able to comply with the federal air standards.
“People in Washington DC need to take their heads out of their rear ends and realize that we don’t have sea breezes cleaning our air like the Central Coast.”
The last question was what the candidates planned on doing about Visalia’s traffic congestion. Gundy said that she was raised and lived in Los Angeles and the Bay Area so she is thrilled that she can drive from one end of town to the other in 10 minutes. All of the candidates agreed that the north to south arteries in the city are deficient and that the intersection at Lovers Lane and Highway 198 is a nightmare no matter what time of day.
Peck said that traffic congestion and roads come up every time Visalia gets a new budget. He said that when the planners approve developments on the edge of town, they don’t stay the edge of town for very long and the roads soon become inadequate. A good example of that is Goshen and Demaree.
Cox ended the forum by saying that the piece of the puzzle that no one is willing to address is that when Visalia gets its share of Measure R money, approximately $2.5 million, the city spends it all on bike paths.
“I would take all that money and put it into roads and improving intersections,” said Cox.
Visalia Unified School Candidates Debate the Issues
Visalia Unified School District candidates took the stage after the city council to introduce themselves and answer questions.
Up for election are seats representing Trustee Areas 5, 6 and 7. The three candidates for Area 5 are: Resource Management Agency’s Planning Director, Mike Washam, retired postman and former trustee, Niessen Foster, and Visalia teacher Patricia Griswold. The incumbent for Area 5, Donna Martin, is not running.
Incumbents Lucia Vazquez and William Fulmer are running unopposed for the Trustee Area 6 and 7 seats, respectively.
Washam said that owning a small business and working for the county gives him the skills and experience to serve on the board, especially when it comes to the responsible stewardship of the district’s financial resources. He has two boys attending Visalia schools.
Griswold said that education is her passion and she knows what the district needs to survive in the 21st century. She has 20 years experience in the classroom and three children who attended Visalia schools. She wants to see more collaboration between the parents, teachers and students.
Foster has had children, grandchildren and now a great grandchild in Visalia schools. His three goals, if elected, will be to reduce classroom size, address the shortage of teachers, and reduce the truancy rate. He added that he is very assessable to his constituents and that he has the most support and endorsements in the community.
The first question Hurley posed to the candidates concerned school safety and discipline. All three agreed that fenced in schools need two secure points of entry. Foster said that he would advocate for more surveillance cameras in combination with more councilors to work with the students. Griswold wants more police officers on the campuses saying that all the middle schools share one officer.
Washam said he would like the district to work on the suspension rate that stands at 6% while it is only 4.5% statewide. He also pointed out that VUSD’s expulsion rate is twice the statewide rate. Washam supported an in-school suspension system so Visalia youth were not getting a “get out of school free ticket.” He felt that rewarding students for being at school and trying to increase their participation in school activities might work in reducing suspensions.
Foster said that the campuses should make more use of their social workers and campus life chaplains to help reduce expulsions and suspensions.
Hurley’s next question concerned Common Core testing. Griswold said that the testing makes it easier to measure progress, especially in the liberal arts portion of the test. She said that the math portion does not accurately assess the students as, “one size doesn’t fit all” in that test subject.
Foster said that we need more teaching and less tracking. He said that 75% of VUSD students do not go to college, so the district should focus more on vocational education. Washam said he would like to put more focus on career programs liked Linked Learning where students are introduced into a profession before graduating.
The last question concerned what the candidates plan on doing about the anticipated teacher shortage. Foster said that at almost every VUSD meeting the personnel director addresses issuing emergency credentials. He said it doesn’t have to be like that and VUSD could build relationships with colleges such as the University of California system. “It doesn’t always have to be just Fresno State and Cal State Bakersfield.”
Washam said that VUSD needs to pay their teachers better so the district is not used as a stepping stone to better paying areas. He added that the district needs to reduce class size and reduce the amount of money teachers have to take out of their pocket for their classroom to make VUSD more attractive.
Griswold said that there is an anticipated of 20,000 shortage of teachers and that VUSD needs to start recruiting in the fall and not wait until the spring to recruit teachers.
The election for local and federal offices is November 8.