With the city’s marred streets and the people’s confidence in city government deteriorating, the candidates in Paso Robles’ election for City Council face steep obstacles this November.
Three seats are open — two for City Council and one for mayor — bringing voters a chance to shift the majority on the five-member board.
The city’s newly seated leaders will be tasked with pulling the community out of the aftermath of a controversial $250,000 payout to Paso Robles’ former police chief — a move that has caused widespread consternation.
The coming term also presents city leaders with the chance to hire a new police chief, the likelihood of making new cuts to further ride out the recession, and the possibility of finding ways to fund fixes to the city’s aging streets if a pair of much-discussed ballot measures to raise Paso Robles’ sales tax don’t pass.
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Measure E-12 asks voters whether they want to approve a half-cent general sales tax increase to fill the general fund coffers.
The hike would bring nearly $3 million each year for 12 years to the city, which has imposed across-the-board cuts since 2009.
The condition of Paso Robles’ roads has been at the forefront of local candidate debates, with forum-goers distrustful that a general sales tax increase would fund road repairs.
But because a specific-use tax requires a two-thirds vote rather than a general-use tax’s standard of 50 percent plus one vote, the standing council went with the option it said brought the best chance for more revenue.
In a maneuver to help buttress public trust, council members added a second ballot measure. If passed, Measure F-12 would guide future councils to use the tax revenue money specifically on roads.
There’s also Measure G-12, which asks voters whether they want to extend the city’s mayoral term to four years from two starting in 2014.
The mayoral race
In the mayoral race, two people are opposing Mayor Duane Picanco. They are Gary Nemeth, a retired police officer and former councilman from 2000 to 2008, and Jeff Rougeot, car audio business owner and local youth sports coach.
Nemeth and Rougeot are write-in candidates. They both said they chose write-in status because they wanted to see who else was running before joining the race.
Picanco, a retired shoe shop owner, has worked to balance the budget and support small business.
As mayor for the past two terms, he said he’s “helped steer our city through the toughest economic times in years.” He’s also helped avoid deficit spending.
Picanco has made repairing the roads and increasing business and jobs in the community priority issues in his campaign.
Nemeth has said he would support firing City Manager Jim App and City Attorney Iris Yang because of their part in closed-door discussions with the council on the payout to former police Chief Lisa Solomon.
Solomon resigned with a $250,000 payout after a former officer accused her of sexual harassment and another claimed officers were required to meet illegal ticket quotas. An internal investigation into the sexual harassment claim was suspended when Solomon’s resignation went into effect.
“It was handled in the worst possible way that these things are handled,” Nemeth said at a recent candidate forum.
He aims to win back the public’s confidence in city government, he said.
Rougeot is largely an issue-based candidate, running with no political background. His main motivation for running is to help local youths.
Rougeot recently said he wanted to “get involved a little bit more and see if there’s something I can do.”
The City Council race
On the City Council, two four-year seats are open. Councilmen Fred Strong and Nick Gilman are challenged by Jerry Jones, a retired industrial gas professional, Jim Reed, a computer draftsman, and Steve Martin, a self-employed businessman who was on the City Council from 1987 to 1996.
Strong, on the council since 2004, said his positions with the League of California Cities’ policy committees help him lobby for the city on a more regional level. Strong has worked on issues such as transportation, energy and economic development, making him “uniquely positioned to bring even more economic development and jobs to Paso Robles in the next few years,” he said.
He has also helped the council balance the budget and lobbied the state for more road money.
Gilman, on the council since 2008, is a working architect who has pledged to continue restoring Paso Robles’ general fund reserve and find money to fix the streets. At recent candidate debate, Gilman said the city has to “be aggressive about gang activity, particularly about drugs and violence.”
He’s aware that some want to wipe the council of incumbents and start anew, but he said previous cuts were made with budget sustainability in mind.
“People felt the pinch, but it’s worked,” he’s said.
Jones said he chose to run because of his distaste for recent council decisions, including voting to put the general sales tax measure on the ballot, as well as how the Solomon ordeal was handled.
“I have a real opinion on that. … It just made me furious,” Jones has said.
The longtime Paso Robles resident and write-in candidate wants to pick through the city budget to see where more money can be saved. He also said he believes that a specific tax for road repairs would be better, saying that he and his constituents don’t trust Measure E-12.
“What if the next council decides it wants to fund a feel-good project?” he said.
Reed, another businessman with no previous political experience, said he’s running to better his community. He also wants to help people who run into obstacles when trying to do business in town.
“Every time you turn around, there’s more reasons we can’t do something … the city is losing its luster for me,” he’s said. Reed has lived in town 25 years and finds the current condition of the city “just unacceptable,” he said.
Martin wants to bridge the divide between the public and government. A longtime Paso Robles resident and former director of tourism for the city of Atascadero, Martin pledges to work for government accountability, improved public safety, infrastructure repair and maintenance and economic development.
He’s said that he’d support funding a separate special election for a specific tax on road repair, adding the council’s doubt that the public would pass a specific tax and the public’s doubt that a general tax would be spent on streets has created “a situation of mutual distrust.”