Eddie Valero, incumbent Tulare County Supervisor for District 4, sat alongside his challengers Kelly Culver, Melvin Gong and Scott Harness at a candidates’ forum held by the The League of Women Voters on May 3.
About 100 constituents sat in the Woodlake Memorial Building enjoying free sandwiches and cookies as they listened intently to the four candidates discuss wildfires, the drought, pandemic and their passions for the region. The Dolores Huerta Foundation provided translation services, video streaming, and paid for the refreshments.
Although one of the few contested local races, it was a collegial evening as the candidates pitched themselves to voters.
Dinuba is the largest incorporated town in District 4 and coincidently from where all candidates hail. The forum started with each candidate making an opening statement.
Kelly Culver has been a teacher for 25 years and has seen firsthand the struggles families and their children face. She said that she didn’t follow politics until after the shutdown due to the pandemic.
“I’m ready to protect our freedom. Wearing a mask or getting a shot should be a personal choice – not the government’s.”
Melvin Gong told the crowd that friends ask him why he is running for supervisor and that he doesn’t have a direct answer except that he “wants to see things done right and what benefits the county.”
“My experience speaks for itself,” he said. Gong was Cutler-Orosi’s Man of the Year, 2003 SCICON Volunteer of the Year, 2001 Tulare County Sheriff Volunteer of the Year and in 2022 State Senator Melissa Hurtado selected Gong as the Veteran of the Year. Gong has 10 years active duty in the military and 20 years in the reserve.
“I have a lot of experience to draw from to make this a better county.”
Scott Harness said he was proud of his business and public service background. He said his family has farmed here for five generations, and that at a young age, it was instilled in him to give back. In his early 20’s he joined the Dinuba Chamber of Commerce and was on the Dinuba City Council from 2010 to 2018, serving as mayor and vice- mayor for several years.
Eddie Valero is the incumbent and says he always runs as if he is the underdog. Valero grew up in a household where his parents “toiled in the fields to provide a better life for themselves and their children.”
“That inspired me to do well academically and enter a position of leadership where the voice of the people is always front and center.”
Valero said that he actually left the valley for several years to pursue an Ivey League education but that as a man of faith “I realized there was something here that I needed to do and I took that challenge and came back to the Central Valley. And now my heart is here and I am going to dream big, work hard, and give back 110%.”
Responding to the drought
The first question concerned the drought and asked the candidates what communities are in danger of losing their wells what they would do about it.
Culver said that she has personal experience as her domestic well went dry during the last drought. She said when she first moved into her home the water level was at 15 feet. Now it is at 300 feet and it cost $30,000 to drill a new well.
“We have to conserve water and build more dams. It’s tricky,” She said.
Harness gained experience dealing with municipal water issues while on the Dinuba City Council.
The council worked with Alta Irrigation District to create the Regional Water Treatment Facility that ensures clean drinking water for Cutler-Orosi, East Orosi, Monson and Seville. He said they worked very hard to get $25 million of Proposition 1 money so these rural communities would get the clean water they deserved.
Harness believes it is a man-made drought because the state had not put the necessary money into the water infrastructure nor built more dams.
Valero said he made it a priority to communicate with the State Water Board and that he sits on the Kings River East Groundwater Sustainability Agency. “I’ve been a strong advocate for East Orosi water challenges. Imagine kids only knowing that water comes from a bottle and not from their own tap.”
Broadband and the pandemic
Access to high speed internet has always been a challenge for rural residents, which was made worse by remote learning. Culver spent a year teaching on Zoom and her frustration was evident.
“Before any money is spent do your research.”
She said that Dinuba School District spent a prodigious sum of money on hot spots that were not compatible with the area’s infrastructure so did not work. Those kids that did not have access to high speed internet missed four to six weeks of class.
Concerning each candidates’ opinion on how the county handled the pandemic, Harness said, “It’s very easy to be an armchair quarterback not being elected at that time.”
Though he felt the county did the best they could, he still was angered that code enforcement would come by to shut businesses down instead of working on solutions on how they could stay open.
Culver was decidedly not happy with how the county handled the pandemic. “They shut down businesses run by single moms just trying to make an honest living.”
She also did not approve of what she called propaganda disseminated by the county. Kaweah Health is offering antibody treatments, she said. “That should be promoted, not get your shots and wear masks.”
Valero worked hard to make sure his district got their fair share of the vaccine because in the beginning the area was being passed over. He helped organize vaccine and testing clinics in Woodlake and Ivanhoe’s Memorial Halls and got the state to give the communities compensation for using their buildings.
Gong said it was “a learn as you go situation.”
He had just signed a lease with a second hand store then two months later everything was shut down. He thought it could have been handled better, considering Walmart was able to sell clothes but mom and pop shops were closed.
What about the unincorporated areas getting their fair share of county funding?
An Ivanhoe resident asked the candidates how they would ensure that the little communities such as Ivanhoe get their fair share of county funds.
Harness said that was one of the main reasons he was running for supervisor: to represent Cutler-Orosi, Ivanhoe, Goshen and New London.
One of the first things Harness plans to do if elected is to put a commission together to see if incorporating Cutler-Orosi is feasible. This would free up funds for the remaining unincorporated communities.
“We all pay taxes and places like Monson-Sultana deserve infrastructure such as sidewalks, street lights, in addition to code enforcement and animal control. They have my promise: that’s why I am here on day 1,” he said.
“I am the product of the unincorporated town of Orosi,” Valero said.
While he was on the Orosi school board he said he worked with the superintendent to secure an $18 million dollar bond that resulted in a water sports park, a sports complex, and renovated their football stadium. The school district is in the process of installing solar panels and building an auditorium as a result of the work he did while on the board.
As a Tulare County Supervisor, Valero has been going to Ivanhoe community meetings where he has helped work on getting crosswalks, sidewalks and a safety lane on one of the busy intersections.
Redistricting brought Three Rivers into District 4
Three Rivers has now been incorporated into District 4 and a resident of the foothill community wanted to know what services the candidates felt should be provided during wildfires. Three River residents had to evacuate during the summers of 2020 and 2021.
Gong and Harness didn’t think there was much more the county could have done. Culver expressed concern about getting the senior citizens out safely.
Valero thought the county did a good job but admitted they could have done better.
“We have learned lessons,” he said.
The county needed more senior services, he said, and there was an issue with the Red Cross providing relocation housing in Porterville that was too far away for Three River residents to check on their livestock.
Each candidate’s top issues
Another audience member asked the candidates’ what their top two or three issues were.
Valero said public safety and listed a few of his accomplishments in the last three years such as a new fire station, two airplanes for the sheriff’s department and a new Motorola Communications System that centralized communication throughout the county.
Homelessness was second and regional transportation was next. Valero said that the county is creating a new transportation system similar to Ubber that will pick up and drop you ff at your door.
Gong said farming was his top issue and that the advances in technology in agriculture could make Tulare County an even more important center for agriculture than it is now. He felt that with Ukraine ag productivity stalled because of the war, Tulare County could offset the losses mainly in grains.
His other two issues were water and public safety.
Agriculture was also Culver’s top issue. “We are all connected to ag in one way or another and if that goes so does the valley.” Farmers are over regulated and Culver wanted to find a way, at the county level, to stop any new regulations.
Her second was people dumping on county roads, but her highest priority is to make sure that businesses are never shut down again.
Crime and safety was at the top of Harness’ list saying that there are not enough sheriff deputies to patrol the unincorporated areas. He also said the county needs more mental health workers to free up deputies from responding to mental health public service calls.
Vote June 7
Mail in ballots should be arriving May 9 and the final day to vote is Jun7. The top two vote getters in District 4 will advance to the November 8 General Election.