In Tulare County, what better way to signal that a candidates’ speaking time is up than with a cow bell?
That was the setting at the Tulare Chamber of Commerce sponsored (and co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters) Tulare City Council Forum on October 4. Candidates for district 4, Dennis Mederos and Chris Harrell, and for District 2, Alex Gutierrez and Terry Sayre, spent an uplifting evening discussing how they planned on solving problems and improving the lives of Tulareans.
All four candidates have lived in Tulare all or most of their lives, are heavily involved in the community, and have a long list of organizations with which they have been involved which can be accessed on their Facebook pages.
Similar goals – diverse backgrounds
Besides their community activism they each bring a unique set of qualifications to Tulare City Council.
As a lawyer most of his life, Mederos looked out into the crowd and said he had represented many of the people in the room that night. He pointed out that not only have his peers chosen him for leadership positions, but they also have chosen him for their legal representation.
Mederos said he would bring to the city his legal expertise to get the city’s many legal issues resolved, his experience as a businessman to balance the budget, and his upbringing on a farm to smooth the relations between the farming community and the city government.
“I love this community and the time has come for me to step up and to provide what I have to offer,” said Mederos.
Harrell’s background in the military as a first responder in the Military Police taught him how to bring people together and get things done.
“I did not come home after serving eight years around the world to see greed and bullying and intimidation and uncivil behavior.”
Harrell said that is why about a year ago he started speaking in front of the city council voicing his concerns.
“The reaction I got from so many of the residents is what made me decide to run for city council. It was a conviction that I felt it wasn’t alright to sit back and watch how things were going from bad to worse.”
That sentiment was echoed by the other candidates. Mederos said that Tulareans want to have a “city council that isn’t squabbling with each other, that is not going in different directions, worrying about themselves instead of what is in the best interest of our community.”
Gutierrez felt that there is a sense of complacency because of a disconnect between the residents and the city government.
“I want to inspire the residents to be active so this doesn’t happen again with the city council. When you have an attentive and engaged population you are much less likely to get away with what the current city council is doing.”
Gutierrez is 27 years old and says he brings a unique perspective to the council with his youth and being the son of immigrants. He especially wants to concentrate on cleaning the allies on the West side and reconnecting the police and fire department with the young people of Tulare.
“My plan is simple,” he said, “bring in new businesses, bring in new industry and continue to improve the city’s infrastructure.”
Gutierrez wanted to be a politician since grade school. When asked why he said, “I was drawn to this by a fiery sense of patriotism.” He was in the sixth grade when 9/11 happened and has wanted to serve his community ever since.
Sayre, who seemed to be enjoying herself the most during the evening, beamed, “I feel very honored to be sitting at the table with these amazing gentlemen. They have wonderful concepts and strategies that will help us as a city to heal. To have a city council lead and set the example to be open, to listen, to be able to bring respect back to the organization that is the voice of Tulare.”
Sayre believes it was a calling for her to run for city council.
“I believe in my faith, and my faith said quit complaining and get out there and do something about it. I felt like I was lead by the spirit to do this.”
She believes that her 40-year experience in teaching has prepared her well for the job as a city council member. “I think I can shed my fear and see if I can continue to grow as a human being and be able to bring my expertise to the council.”
“So it starts with us. It starts with the city council. It starts with us becoming a unit to work together that can commit to listen to our constituents,” said Sayre.
Does the Tulare City Council need a Civility Clause?
The level of dysfunction of the current city council hit a crescendo when an audience member asked if Tulare should institute a civility policy on its council members.
The fact that Tulare needs to heal was a recurring theme throughout the evening. Jose Sigala was the only city council member to physically attend the forum, but the unseen presence of council member Carlton Jones, and to a lesser extent Greg Nunley, loomed large over the event.
Sayre said it was a pretty sad day when you would have to have a policy to ensure civility among adults.”Sometimes I leave a city council meeting and think, ‘Did I just go to high school?’ If they acted like that in my class room I would have them pull a card or sit in the goodbye chair.”
Harrell thought it was a great idea to have a civility policy, and wanted a policy with teeth in it, to ensure “that nothing that has happened in the recent past ever happens again.”
Mederos burst everyone’s balloon saying, “As a practical matter, each member is elected to their seat and they can act in whatever fashion they so desire. To put it very simply, if they want to be an ass they can be an ass.” He said that the bad behavior in Tulare is also happening on a national level and is starting to become acceptable.
Raising red flags
Hiring a new city manager, city attorney, and police chief were the top concerns of the candidates.
“As I walked door to door in my district,” said Sayre, “I discovered the lack of residents’ knowledge that we didn’t have a police chief that wasn’t an interim, that we didn’t have a city manager that wasn’t an interim, and that we don’t have a city attorney that is not an interim.”
The candidates were asked what they thought about the current city council going ahead with the hiring a new city manager. They all agreed it raised a lot of red flags.
“We went before the city council last week to present our collective concern on this very matter,” said Sayre.
She said that the candidates were united in the belief that hiring a city manager should be put off until after the election and they became very suspicious when the current city council now appeared to be in a hurry.
“With the feeling right now of mistrust with the city council it is more important than ever to seek out the very best candidate who has the best interests of our city at heart,” she said.
Exasperated, Maderos responded to the audience’s question by asking, “I don’t have 10 minutes I have two, is that correct?” To which the moderator said, “no you have 90 seconds.”
“The plan was to wait until the new council came in,” said Mederos. “Suddenly something changed and that raised everyone’s suspicions…We have a $35 million budget and you are going to want to hire the best possible candidate. The current pool of candidates they are selecting from applied in May and many have gotten other jobs. I want to hire a professional search team to get the best candidate possible.”
Gutierrez said, “I don’t know what is going on behind closed doors as to why they are moving forward.” No matter who wins, he said, two new city council members will be elected and their platforms need to be considered when choosing a new manager.
“But we have no control,” said Gutierrez.
All the candidates agreed that hiring a new police chief brings the subject back to hiring a competent city manager. The city council hires the city manager and the city attorney, not the police chief.
The question of the police chief reminded the audience that, in March, Police Chief Wes Hensley was fired by then City Manager Joe Carlini. A few hours later Carlini was fired by the city council.
Mederos said there are several resulting lawsuits that could have easily been avoided pending against the city, one of which involves the former Police Chief. It is best to get those lawsuits resolved, he said, because they are a drain on Tulare’s General Fund.
Harrell said that the city council should hold the city manager accountable, the city attorney accountable and ultimately hold themselves accountable. “That’s unfortunately not what happened and we need to get back to that…and allow the most competent people to be brought on board. We don’t ever want to have a situation that we have already been through.”
“We need to put this all behind us,” said Sayre, “so we can be the Tulare that I know and love.”
The deficit and Tulare’s downtown
The candidates were also asked how they planned to balance the city’s budget.
Maderos said, “not to be facetious, but the best way to stay within budget is not to spend more than you bring in. If you do that you have a balanced budget.”
He said the April 17th budget projected a $1.3 million deficit that will grow to $2.2 million in 2020, $2.3 million in 2021 and $2,5 million in 2022.
“We can’t continue to do that,” said Maderos. ” Our reserves are for unexpected losses and lawsuits, ironically,” referring to the fact that the current city council has suggested dipping into the reserves to solve the deficit.
“To think we can keep picking at the reserves is just not sustainable.”
Sayre said, “The increasing deficit is disconcerting and just makes me think of the lack of integrity of the current city council members. To have an efficient and effective government you need to have a balanced budget.”
When the staff brings you a budget we should listen,” she said.
Besides listening to the staff, Gutierrez said that the city needs to figure out how to get more long-term tax revenue. “We need a stable tax revenue flow without raising taxes on our citizens.”
Gutierrez is part of the Tulare Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Tulare County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is in tune with the needs of local businesses. Gutierrez says we can’t attract more businesses until the city improves its infrastructure and much of that money can come from state and federal grants.
During the discussion of Tulare’s downtown Sayre took the audience on a trip down memory lane.
“When I first moved to Tulare as a young teacher, downtown was an amazing and viable shopping area. My salary was $5000 a year and I had enough money to go buy a new dress every month and a new car. That’s how much the economics have changed over time.”
Sayre said that downtown can regain its vibrancy but it is not going to be the retail hub it once was because of the competition and the fact that Tulare does not have the economic base to support it. “We can have an active, viable downtown but it might look very different from what people might think it should look like.”
Gutierrez’ vision for downtown involves new restaurants, businesses, and a beautification project. He said when he spoke to property and business owners that there were too many hoops to jump through to get all the necessary paperwork to expand or open a business.
“To be competitive we need to be business-friendly,” he said.
Gutierrez felt that restaurants have the best defense against internet shopping. “You can’t buy restaurant food on line. It doesn’t provide the ambiance, it doesn’t provide the night life. Let’s look at San Diego or the coastal cities and see what works and bring it here.”
Gutierrez pointed out that his work with Citizens for Hospital Accountability on electing a new hospital board and opening the hospital will ultimately help downtown. The hospital, not located directly downtown, could still be considered an anchor as new hospital employees start work this month.
Harrell seemed to sum up the candidates’ feelings in his closing statement. “This is home, and for future generations of Tulareans I want to be able to provide that same inspiration, that same feeling, that they want to come home after being gone for a few years at college, or the military, or to experience the rest of the world.
“Tulare has so much untapped potential and the way we can tap into that is to go back to the basics of working together. We have to listen to each other, we have to work together despite our differences and achieve our goals.
“Before we can accomplish anything, no matter how grand, you have to listen to build back that trust, that credibility. It goes both ways between citizen and government.”
As Sayre stepped down from the stage after the forum she said, “Wouldn’t the four of us make a great city council?” To which everyone around her agreed.