Politics & Government

Taxes and tourism discussed at Atascadero candidates' forum

About 100 people attended the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce’s election forum, held at the City Administration Building.
About 100 people attended the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce’s election forum, held at the City Administration Building. tstrickland@thetribunenews.com

Tourism promotions and whether Atascadero’s proposed sales tax increase would be used to build two roundabouts related to the Wal-Mart project were among the issues tackled at an election forum Wednesday night.

While the discourse remained civil, controversy began brewing before the meeting, when a candidate tried to get the event televised, as well as at the close of the discussion, when another candidate tried to address his troubled past.

About 100 people attended the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce’s event, held at the City Administration Building.

All six candidates attended.

The mayoral candidates are incumbent Tom O’Malley and challenger Charles Scovell, a certified arborist. Council candidates are incumbents Brian Sturtevant and Heather Moreno; Len Colamarino, an Atascadero planning commissioner and business attorney; and Chuck Ward, a former Atascadero planning commissioner.

Support for sales tax

Atascadero voters will be asked Nov. 4 whether they want to raise their city’s sales tax by a half percent — bringing it up to 8 percent from the state’s base rate of 7.5 percent — and use the new revenue source to pave roads in town.

Measure F is a general sales tax measure that requires a majority of voters to approve it; revenues would go into the general fund. That’s in contrast to a specific tax measure, which restricts the funds to a specific use and requires a two-thirds approval for passage.

Measure F is paired with an advisory Measure E that doesn’t legally bind the city to spend the new revenue on roads, leading some opponents to say the money could be used elsewhere.

All six candidates said they support the tax increase.

“I would have liked for it to be a supermajority, so it would be mandated that it be spent on roads,” Scovell said.

Incumbents O’Malley, Moreno and Sturtevant all said they had committed to using the new funds toward fixing roads when they voted to put the measures on the ballot.

“The council made this very clear that this will not go to anything else but local roads,” O’Malley said.

Colamarino, noting the city’s increased roadwork costs related to the Wal-Mart project plus another shopping center at Del Rio Road and El Camino Real, said he pledges to use the tax money only on road repairs.

“I think it will be very tempting, to solve their problem, to use some of this funding,” Colamarino said of the city. “I will be vigilant that it does not.”

Ward said that he, too, wouldn’t stand for the money being used for anything but repaving, adding: “I’ll make damn sure there’s no Mickey-Mousing around with this fund.”

On branding the city

The candidates disagreed on whether the city needed a branding consultant (which it currently has). The incumbents all supported their past decision to hire a marketing firm to do the job, while Colamarino, Scovell and Ward said they don’t support paying for outside help.

“I was shocked how much the city was spending on focus groups trying to figure out how to brand ourselves,” Ward said. “We just need to look around and say, ‘How are we different?’ ”

Ward said he would spend more time promoting the city as patriotic, specifically pointing to projects he himself helped create, such as the Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial at Atascadero Lake Park.

Moreno said the consultant’s work is helpful because, as a councilwoman, it was her job to facilitate discussion.

“I’m not the creator of the vision, but the keeper of the vision,” she said.

Scovell’s past

During closing comments, each candidate was given two minutes to summarize their platform. Scovell was cut off in the middle of his statement as he addressed what he characterized as “a vicious attack” over his past, which includes multiple misdemeanor run-ins with the law.

Scovell’s criminal record at San Luis Obispo Superior Court shows a series of minor offenses in his late teens and early 20s — Scovell is now 35 — ranging from possessing alcohol as a minor in 1998 to reckless driving in 2000. Some of the offenses were dismissed or have since been expunged from his record.

“I dropped out of school and got involved in drugs. My life spiraled out of control,” he said of that time, noting that one reason he’s running for mayor is to increase positive activities available to kids in town.

Records also show a more serious charge in 1999 that accused Scovell, then 20, of having sex with a 14-year-old who got pregnant and had the baby at age 15. The initial felony case was reduced to a misdemeanor after Scovell pleaded no contest.

In his closing comments at the forum, Scovell said, “Even in national politics … there is an unwritten rule, and that is you do not attack a candidate’s children, but my opponent and his supporters have chosen to do so.”

He later told The Tribune that he was trying to address an issue brought up at a September meeting of the Atascadero Republican Women Federated.

At Wednesday’s election forum, the moderator stopped Scovell because he said the topic didn’t follow the rules for closing comments.

Scovell’s two minutes were then restarted so he could recap his plans to increase community events and bring new businesses to the city’s empty storefronts.

Scovell told The Tribune that he doesn’t regret the relationship in question and is angry it’s been brought up this election season.

“There’s a 15-year-old kid that people need to think about,” he said of his son. Scovell said he shares custody of the boy and pays child support.

“He’s not a mistake, and if people keep jumping on my past, people are going to say, ‘Here’s this guy that messed up.’ But it wasn’t a mess-up. I love my son.”

Scovell said his son’s birth changed his life for the better.

“If you’ve ever held a baby in your hands, and you have that feeling — that will turn you right around,” he said.

In 2000, Scovell started his own tree service. Two years ago, he enrolled at Cuesta College to study political science so he could learn how to run for office this year and served as Cuesta’s student body president in 2013.

A search on the other five Atascadero City Council candidates showed one other court record in San Luis Obispo County, a 2011 driving-under-the-influence conviction for Colamarino.

Colamarino told The Tribune on Thursday that it was his first and only DUI and that he regrets it happened.

TV coverage sought

The issue that brewed controversy before Wednesday’s forum was a request by Colamarino to have the event televised.

Chamber chief executive Linda Hendy told The Tribune that while she is open to the idea in the future, Colamarino made his request the day before the forum. She said she felt it was “unfair to change the setup of our event” at the last minute.

Email exchanges between Colamarino and Hendy show that she and the chamber’s legislative committee were open to the idea of televising if all the candidates gave their consent and paid the $600 fee for the video service. Scovell, Ward and Colamarino all agreed to pay, but Sturtevant said he couldn’t afford it.

Colamarino said Moreno and O’Malley never replied to the emails.