Turlock City Council candidates vying for seats in Districts 2 and 4 in the city's first ever by-district election were asked on Wednesday to give their viewpoints on a number of issues — some that have recently divided the current council and the residents of Turlock — during a forum hosted by the Stanislaus County League of Women Voters.
The candidates seeking to represent District 4 (made up of the northeast area of Turlock) include two incumbent council members Amy Bublak and Steven Nascimento, along with challenger Donald Babadalir.
The two candidates vying to represent District 2 (southwest Turlock), Jaime Franco and Gil Esquer, are both new to the city government scene.
While questions posed to the candidates included issues such as growth, water resources and economic development, the differences between the candidates (especially in District 4) became clear when they were asked to talk about recent controversial decisions made by the current City Council.
In June, the City Council adopted (with a split 3-2 vote) adopted Turlock's first campaign finance regulation. The ordinance, proposed by Mayor Gary Soiseth and Council member Bill DeHart, includes a voluntary campaign contribution limit of $1,000 per donor per election cycle, disclosure of contributions of $1 or more, disclosure of the top 10 maximum donors to be placed on every Council agenda and a Pledge to Comply with the City's Code of Fair Campaign Practices.
Among the current candidates, Bublak, Nascimento and Franco each signed the voluntary contribution limit pledge, while Babadalir and Esquer did not.
Bublak said that she was the deciding vote on the adoption of the ordinance.
"It's just another level of transparency and accountability that the public wants and they got it from me. It was a voluntary signature, but I believed in it. I waited until the campaign finance reform was decided before I actually started getting money, so all my contributions are above level for what we decided on," she said.
As of Sept. 24, Bublak has received over $33,751 in campaign contributions with the following donors giving the maximum of $1,000: Samran & Sons Farming, Richard Swanson, Andrea Swanson, Matthew Swanson, Maria Swanson, Romina Kiryakous, Linda Yousef Mikha, Mark Hall, Savannah Swanson, Michael Clancy, Richard Clancy, Jennifer Kiryakous, William McLaughlin, Mark Swanson, Jim Vieira, Rebecca Soderstrom, Corrine Machado, Ansley Swanson, Michael Swanson, Megan Kiryakous, Peter Cipponeri, Maia Cipponeri, Frank Borges Dairy, My Global Realty and Turlock Recycling Company.
Nascimento signed the pledge, although he voted against its adoption. He proposed a "TIN CUP" (The Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics) ordinance in 2014 that would have prohibited members of the City Council from voting on issues that could financially benefit large campaign contributors — a motion that failed on a 3-2 vote.
"Today in the City of Turlock, you can contribute $20,000 to someone's campaign and they can vote on your issue the very next day. There's no prohibition against that; I think that's a significant problem," said Nascimento during the forum.
"I did ultimately sign the pledge...I have not accepted contributions over $1,000 since signing that pledge," he continued.
As of Sept. 24, Nascimento has received over $27,429 in monetary and nonmonetary campaign contributions with the following donors giving the maximum of $1,000: Manuel Vieira, Stephen Smith ($1,500), Marc and LeeAnn Dias ($1,200), Alan Marchant and the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.
Franco, who also signed the pledge, has received over $1,026 in campaign contributions as of Sept. 24, with a maximum limit donor of the Law Offices of Nelson Gomez.
When talking about campaign contributions, Franco said his vote and community were "not for sale."
Babadalir said he didn't sign the pledge because: "I think it is ridiculous. An individual winds up signing this form making a pledge to say or do something and then turn around and actually do the opposite."
He has not yet submitted a Campaign Disclosure Statement to the City Clerk's office.
Esquer said he read the campaign finance resolution several times, but decided not to sign it.
"The actual part where it says we would voluntarily disclose, to me the way it was written I think it was haphazard. I think it was put together quickly. I don't think it was really thought through. I think there were a lot of better plans out there that would have worked better for us. When someone tells me they're going to force me to volunteer to do something, I get a little suspicious," he said.
As of Sept. 24, Esquer has received over $6,734 in monetary and nonmonetary contributions with one donor (Linda Murphy-Lopes) giving $1,000 and all others reported as under $1,000.
When asked if they would support increasing the City's reserve fund to prepare for the next recession, answers centered around the current City Council's adoption of a budget that included deficit spending.
"The Council recently in our last budget voted to spend a significant portion of our reserves, which is something I voted against specifically for the reason that it required us to dip below our emergency reserve level of $6.5 million. In 2008, the City had a reserve of $18 million, now it's down to just over $7 million. It's a serious problem and it's part of the reason I voted against that budget that included all that deficit spending and spent down our reserves," said Nascimento.
He added that he felt the rest of the Council treated the $6.5 million emergency reserve level as an arbitrary number, something he felt put the City in a bad position.
Bublak defended her vote and the Council's adoption of the budget, making the case for spending money now to reap benefits later.
"The vote that we had was a $5.4 million debt that we needed to start paying off and that actually will save us within the decade $6 million. That's what's called accountability. It was for a few days that...our reserve was actually under (the $6.5 million emergency level) and it was back up to where it was normally just because the sales tax has been amazing here in this town compared to any other city in the county," she said.
"I think we definitely need to be fiscally minded. I don't ever want to experience what I did in my first meeting where I actually had to be a part of a vote for 23 people to be laid off. I am absolutely committed to fiscal responsibility and sometimes that means you're going to have to pay off some debt so it doesn't incur an even higher amount at the other end," Bublak continued.
Babadalir said he also believes in fiscal responsibility and government accountability.
"One thing that is disturbing, not just in this city but in politics, we are reactionary. There is not a lot of proactive movement to try and prevent some of these issues from coming up. This vote that was alluded to was one of those. It was a good decision, but in general I think we need to look toward the future and not make decisions that are pleasing to us in the brief interim and really just move forward in that way," he said.
Esquer said that the City needs to budget better and "make sure we don't count on the money before it comes in" while opponent Franco said he would leave the budgeting up to the experts at the City.
When it came to a question regarding the downtown farmers market, answers from the candidates were just as divided as public response to the issue has been since the City Council's decision in December 2015 to change the process in which a farmers’ market operator is selected.
"It was poorly done...I don't support a profit company coming in and competing against a nonprofit company," said Esquer.
"These people worked so hard and it was just given away to a profit," said Franco about the for-profit Golden State Farmers Market Association being selected by the City Council to run the downtown market, which had been operated for the previous six years by the nonprofit Turlock Certified Farmers Market Association.
Nascimento called the farmers’ market decision "very unfortunate for our community and completely unnecessary." He went to say that the Council decision and following controversy has had a very negative impact on the downtown businesses.
Bublak said that as policy makers, Council members are supposed to be fair and not advocates. She also brought up that the TCFM pulled out of the Request for Proposals process for the farmers’ market operation the day before the Council voted.
Babadalir said he is not taking sides on the farmers’ market issue and that it was not about one side or another, but about policy making.
On a few issues, the candidates voiced similar positions.
All five candidates believe in smart, planned growth, want to protect Turlock's valuable agricultural land and the water resources needed for the town to prosper.
Both Franco and Esquer said that bad road and sidewalk conditions and public safety were the top issues in District 2.
"There are places where there are no sidewalks. Can you imagine being the person that goes to somebody's parent and says, 'sorry, but your child just got hit by a car because they had to walk around a mud puddle because there was no sidewalk,'" said Esquer.
For District 4, Nascimento cited crime, specifically auto thefts and auto burglaries, and a "patchwork" network of bike lanes and crosswalks that make it hard for some children to get to school.
Bublak said the railroad crossing at Monte Vista Avenue and Golden State Boulevard and lack of lighting on one side of Pitman High School as top issues in her district, along with crime.
Lack of follow through in government accountability and public safety were the two issues that Babadalir said were the most important to District 4.
The League of Women Voters are holding four more pre-election forums:
Oct. 10 - Understanding the Propositions - starts at 6:30 p.m. at MJC - East Campus in the Center for Advanced Technologies Building, Room 218.Oct. 13 - Yosemite Community College District Board’s Forum - 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Forum building - East Campus MJC Room 110Oct. 18 - Understanding the Propositions - starts at 6:30 p.m. at CSUS in the Mary Stuart Rogers Building, Room 130. Oct. 19 - Member of State Assembly representing District 12 Forum - Candidates Ken Vogel and Heath Flora - 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the City of Modesto / County of Stanislaus’ Chambers located in the basement of the building at 1010 Tenth Street. Please enter through Tenth Street entrance.