Tuesday marks Mayor Gary Soiseth’s 100th day in office, but he has yet to have his official photo taken to hang in the Yosemite Board Room where the Turlock City Council convenes. While Soiseth stated he is more focused on policy than having his photograph taken, he said it will eventually happen, though perhaps when he is less tired.
For the past 100 days Soiseth has been, in one word, busy.
His office, though newly painted pewter gray, is not fully decorated either. He does have an abstract piece of art hanging on the wall by an artist Morgan Andre, the daughter of former mayor Curt Andre who held the same office as Soiseth for 17 years. While there is space for more furnishings, Soiseth said he has four years to make the office his own. In the meantime, he is focused on becoming accustomed to his new normal: little sleep.
“I’m quite tired,” laughed Soiseth.
Although he was sworn-in in December, Soiseth considers his 100 days to have launched in January as a furlough period in December kept City staff from work, rendering the mayor somewhat static after a whirlwind campaign.
When he is not busy with mayoral duties Soiseth works for Modesto Irrigation District. As a water and energy regulatory administrator, his expertise in water has come at a valued time for Turlock as it faces the unprecedented drought and stricter regulations affecting communities across the state.
“We’ve never had the pressure on us as a city to get an alternate source of water like we have right now. The drought has made things totally different,” said Soiseth.
In his State of the City address, Soiseth said the City of Turlock would be focused on not only water conservation, but finding infrastructure solutions as well. He has since negotiated on behalf of the City, which has been in talks with the Turlock Irrigation District over the precious resource. The City of Turlock is interested in obtaining drinking water for its residents from the Tuolumne River and TID needs more recycled water for their growers. The future North Valley Regional Recycled Water Project, which would sell recycled water from cities like Modesto, Turlock and Ceres to the water deprived Del Puerto Water District, has been at the center of the conversation as TID would like access to this water for its growers as well. While the cities and districts may not always see eye to eye, Soiseth said mutual respect has governed the communications between the City and TID.
“When you’re dealing with two bodies that are controlled by five elected individuals each, there are a lot of personalities there, but there has been fundamental respect on both sides and I am confident that we are going to have a productive conversation over the next year,” said Soiseth.
While talking about water has been nothing new for Soiseth, he has enjoyed getting to know the City of Turlock staff over his first 100 days. He’s dropped in for spaghetti dinners at the Station 2 Fire Department and swung by Crane Park to see how City of Turlock Parks Department staff is doing.
“I get a different perspective than I would here at City Hall,” explained Soiseth.
When he is at City Hall, however, the odds are he is keeping one of his campaign promises: reviewing the budget line by line. Soiseth has served on the budget subcommittee alongside Council member Steven Nascimento where members have spent as long as eight consecutive hours reviewing the City of Turlock budget. With the goal of spending money more efficiently, Soiseth said the committee has already found a significant amount of money hidden in the budget. For instance, there is $300,000 in the Fire Department budget available for front line equipment use and $600,000 earmarked for Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades for specific intersections in town.
“It’s is a very exciting prospect,” said Soiseth.
While Soiseth’s past 100 days have been filled with long hours and lengthy discussions, it hasn’t been all work and no play. He has joined students in classrooms across town where he has taught them the basics of the democratic process, participated in career days, and even planted a tree at Brown Elementary on Wednesday.
“It’s technically named the Awesome Mayor Tree. The kids named, it not me,” laughed Soiseth.
As a Turlock native, interfacing with the youth has been a pleasure for Soiseth who served as the founding leader of the Teen Advisory Council, an organization of 7 to 12 graders who provide activities for youth in the community. However, he has had to iron out some misconceptions among the younger crowd.
“The kids think I drive a limousine and live in a mayor’s mansion,” laughed Soiseth.
However, this is not the case a Soiseth receives no compensation for his mayoral duties. Instead, he has taken his salary from the City of Turlock and started a Mayor’s Scholarship Fund. This fall will mark the inaugural year of the scholarship which, operated through the CSUS Political Science and Public Administration Department, allows students to write an essay in which they address a public policy issue. A committee will then judge the essays and award several scholarships in varying amounts at a dinner to which participants are invited to enjoy with local legislators and business leaders.
“If any student is fired up enough to create a public policy proposal, they are going to want to sit at the table with the people who can actually get those ideas into action. So I wanted to make sure they would have that opportunity,” said Soiseth.
Soiseth hopes to receive additional donations from private donors so that a total of $10,000 to $15,000 will be available for student scholarships.
While Soiseth’s days have proven more stressful than they were 100 days ago, he said they have also become richer in other ways.
“It’s not about the paycheck; it’s about seeing the face of that five year old in the supermarket that recognizes me from his classroom and wants to say hi and talk. It’s an honor and privilege to serve as the Mayor of Turlock and it's moments like that that are my reward,” said Soiseth.