San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Jim Patterson explained to a political forum how he and his colleagues pulled the county government through a crippling recession, while Patterson’s challenger in the June primary, Debbie Arnold, said county regulations and overspending have damaged business and it is time for a change.
The rivals squared off Thursday night in front of an overflow crowd of more than 100 people at the Carlton Hotel in Atascadero. The Latino Outreach Council sponsored the forum, one of the few held this campaign season, and moderators Jim Brescia, Biz Steinberg and Heather Young filtered the questions, reframing some of them to keep the discussion civil.
Moderators kept the debate focused on the issues, and the same general themes that have dominated the race emerged once more.
Arnold returned repeatedly to her argument that the county has created thousand of pages of new regulations, raised fees and interfered with the free market, all of this working to the detriment of both individuals who deal with the government and the economy at large.
If you unleash free-market forces, she said, the economy will get healthy, and that will help everyone. “Create more prosperity in the county, and that will solve a lot of these problems,” she said.
Obstacles to market forces she cited in particular are the county’s Climate Action Plan, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and which she said represents government overreach; and smart-growth principles, of which one goal is to move development toward settled areas and cut down on long-distance commutes and their attendant automobile emissions.
Patterson defended both and said people in individual communities are working with the county on finding the right way to grow. “It’s not mandated,” he said.
Patterson said the current board has done much of what Arnold said she wants done. He cited numerous efforts by the Board of Supervisors to work with the private sector, including its collaboration with the Economic Vitality Corp., and he cited endeavors he said are designed to ease the permit process for applicants.
After hearing Arnold’s wish list for government, Patterson quipped “I’m her man. I have done what she said needs to be done,” including reducing the county workforce by 10 percent without anyone being fired or laid off, and instituting a two-tier pension system.
He said the county has come through “the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression,” and he wants to continue to work toward creating jobs, enhancing the tourist industry and addressing the county’s water problems.
“I’ve done what I said I would do,” Patterson said. When he took office in January 2005, “nobody knew the economy was going to fall off the cliff.”
The first questions came from the sponsoring Latino Outreach Council, an organization that spokesman C.R. Lara said has been around for 20 years with a goal of “facilitating the participation of Latinos into the life of San Luis Obispo County.”
Asked what the Board of Supervisors has done or would do toward that same goal, Patterson said the county works with the Latino council, and noted his support of Vision Unida, which trains Latinos and Latinas for leadership.
Arnold said she has “not to date been involved with the Latino Outreach Council,” but noted she and her family have a long history in agriculture and ranching. Referring to Patterson’s involvement, she said “many of these opportunities have not been afforded to me because I have not held elected office.”
Both stressed the need for affordable housing for those who work in lower-paying jobs. Arnold said the county’s regulatory policies are keeping the building industry from providing those homes.
On other issues:
Education: Patterson noted that the schools do not fall under the purview of the Board of Supervisors, but said the county should continue to find ways to “partner” with the schools. Arnold said the way to fix schools is to “jump-start the economy. A vibrant economy is the best way to restore funding for our public school system(s).”
Health care: Patterson said the county must by law “take care of all citizens who are unable to take care of themselves.” He cited such county efforts as partial funding for the Community Health Centers of the Central Coast (CHS); and supporting the Clinica de Tolosa, which provides children’s dental care; the First 5 Commission, which deals with health issues of children from birth through age 5; and the Commission on the Status of Women and the Health Commission, which give citizens a chance to get involved.
Arnold said the county must focus on revitalizing the economy, adding that citizens don’t participate in some commissions because they are busy or may not know about them.
Plastic bags: Patterson forcefully defended the 8-5 vote of the Integrated Waste Management board of directors to ban plastic shopping bags in most stores in the county. Patterson said the grocery industry, recyclers, and businesses supported the ban, which had been in the works locally since 2006. He said millions of such bags are used in the county every year.
Arnold said she had “not heard about the ordinance until it was being enacted” and considers it part of an alarming trend of government intrusion and an example of important decisions being made by obscure boards such as the waste board.
Each of the county’s seven incorporated cities gets a vote on the waste board, as do each of the five county supervisors and one board member representing community services districts.