As Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth prepares to give his fourth state of the city address on July 12, the self-described infrastructure mayor sat down with the Journal to talk about the city’s budget, upcoming road projects, recent strife on the council dais and his decision to publicly acknowledge that he is gay.
Q. It’s been three and half years since you became the City of Turlock’s 22nd mayor. During your 2014 campaign, you promised to secure a safe and reliable source of drinking water, improve roadways and do a line-by-line review of the City’s budget. Do you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?
A. We’ve definitely accomplished what we set out to do and more.
When it comes to water, we’ve secured 9 billion gallons of water per year for 50 years, which is exactly what we said we’d do. That’s a heavy lift and we talked with the ratepayers and said that we’d work with them. We are going to invest their money wisely into a surface water treatment plant that will serve the city for generations. At the same time, I’ve worked really hard to keep that price tag down and that’s why we worked with the water bond and Assembly member Heath Flora and Gov. [Jerry] Brown to secure $30 million for the City of Turlock and City of Ceres. So now that that’s passed this past June we can pass it along to ratepayers and [the cost of the project paid for by ratepayers] will go down by $30 million.
Regarding roads: On July 9 we’re going to be spending $7 million of Measure L funds [the countywide roads tax] on West Main, which is a long overdue project. We secured federal dollars for Monte Vista [Avenue], from the Denair border to Geer Road, and that’s going to start this year. We’re spending $6 million from SB1 funds on the Fulkerth Road interchange — that’s a huge investment and we’re the only city in the entire county to receive those funds. We also fought up in Sacramento to get from the California Transportation Commission the $3 million included in the $6 million for a $12 million project. So half the funds for the Fulkerth Road interchange are coming from outside the city.
We’re also reallocating money for the intersection at N. Olive and Wayside. There’s been a lot of pedestrian versus vehicle collisions there so we decided that we needed to put a lighted intersection there for safety. We also repaved Geer Road from Monte Vista to Taylor, which was another big expenditure. Again, these are all investments we are making in our roads and we will continue to do that for years to come.
For our budget, when I came in we were hovering around $6 million in reserves, but through a lot of aggressive moves, through paying down debt and putting in money from a building sale, we increased our reserves to $11 million in three years. But I’m not going to be the mayor that hoards that money in reserves when our departments are struggling to keep their personnel. So we are going to reinvest that money into our departments, whether it be police, fire, facilities and maintenance crews, we are going to reinvest that because I firmly believe that the taxpayers of today should receive services today and we shouldn’t be hoarding that.
It doesn’t mean we are going to be fiscally irresponsible, it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to save and look for other means of revenue sources. It means we need to make sure we’re providing services to our residents today.
We have become the most veteran friendly city in the entire Central Valley. It’s my belief that we are working really hard to make sure our veterans and active duty personnel feel welcomed, feel appreciated here in the City of Turlock. We’ve become a Vietnam Commemoration City, so specifically we’re honoring our Vietnam veterans as they approach their 50-year anniversary.
We’ve also made sure we’ve had 1,000 flags flying over the city. That seems symbolic and some people have written that off as fluff, I don’t believe that at all. I believe it is very important to show that we can unify under one symbol — Democrat or Republican, conservatives and liberals, that we can all come together and unite under one symbol.
We’ve never had a stronger relationship with Stanislaus State. From our Inclusivity Summit to address hatred to our Warrior Wednesdays which was bringing some students downtown and the scholarships we created where we had students address public policy issues, we really made sure that Stanislaus State is part of our community.
We’ve been investing in our youth. I visit dozens of schools every year…we instituted our Million Acts of Kindness, which is still thriving in our afterschool programs. It’s teaching kids, especially at-risk youth, to think outside of themselves, think of their neighbors, think of their community, what they can do to improve the quality of life here in Turlock. We brought back the Mayor’s Youth Conference, which has brought over 300 students to City Hall for a day-long civics engagement course at City Hall that looks at the ins and outs of city government. Hopefully, we have some future city managers, future city department heads, future mayors with those at the conferences.
Look at our thriving downtown. We have one percent vacancy; we have new restaurants coming in; we have people coming from all over the county and the state to visit. We’re doing a great job of building on the legacy of previous mayors who have really made sure we invested in our downtown instead of neglecting it. I’m proud we continue to carry on that tradition of making sure our older sections of town stay strong and vital.
Q. How would you describe the state of Turlock’s public safety departments?
A. Our police department is one of the finest around. These are dedicated officers, animal control officers, volunteers, records keepers and dispatchers that have all been working hard to get Turlock’s crime rates to fall by five percent over the last three years. But it’s no secret that we’ve been in ongoing negotiations for the last few years with our police officers. I’ve offered repeatedly to meet with anyone that has concerns, some have refused but others have joined me for productive conversations. It’s my hope that moving forward they are able to sit with me to discuss not only any issues they might have, but also their solutions.
I’ve been a huge supporter of our police department. From restoring our K9 units or bringing back proactive policing, I’m proud of building back the department. We created an incentive program of $11,000 to new lateral police officers and dispatchers at the start of a five-year commitment to Turlock, with an additional $5,000 bonus at the beginning of year five. And yes, we brought our police officers back from their pre-Recession salary levels and, if approved by the Council in July, we will be making their compensation one of the most attractive in the entire Central Valley. Unfortunately, I can’t speak about details just yet. I know all police departments across the state are having difficulty recruiting qualified officers, yet Turlock still added new officer positions that will be filled with those that see an attractive compensation package of free health care, aggressive salaries and a high quality of life. I hope the officers feel that the Council has taken their concerns seriously and see that we’ve invested in them because I know I’m thankful for all that they do to keep us safe.
With the fire department: We built a burn building for training. We brought in two new engines and new equipment, the self-contained breathing apparatus, one for each firefighter. We’ve increased our new positions to help stem the overtime, which is helping with morale and fatigue in the department. One thing I’m really proud of is the Office of Emergency Services engine…we’ve taken that so we can use it here in Turlock but it allows our firefighters to go in other communities and help with wildfires. I think it’s really important that we don’t just stay here in Turlock, but we help protect other communities as well.
Q. In recent months, you have been accused of being a bully. How do you respond to that characterization?
A. I’m no bully. Along with the Council, I hold staff accountable to make sure they are doing their job and serving Turlock’s residents to the best of their ability. Any claims of bad behavior—whether it’s a staff member or a member of the Council or even Mayor—will always be taken seriously at City Hall and will be investigated; the allegations against me were treated no differently and I’m glad we looked into them. Unfortunately, I can’t say more, but in general, wild accusations have been made over the last two years that have confused me where no facts have ever been presented to substantiate them. As mayor, I have been likened to a convicted State Senator who was found guilty of gun-running for terrorists in the Philippines; I have been labeled a sexist because I disagreed with the conduct of a Councilmember; and I have been called a “liar, stupid, and retarded” by a political blogger.
I have been followed to my place of work and even to my home by some of these people and my family has been targeted on social media. While I believe criticism of policy positions is fair, the harassment I’ve experienced can sometimes make it seem like the sacrifices of the office aren’t worth it, but then I realize that we have been able to make real changes every single day. Turlock is the gold standard of cities in the Central Valley. We might have our internal differences, but we are a city that has been and will continue to be a thriving community.
Q. There was an accusation that the Council is sexist and that you don’t support women in positions of authority. Can you explain your position?
A. I think this claim is the most puzzling to me and it undermines real claims of sexism in the workplace. I’ve appointed or nominated three women to our Planning Commission; four women to our Parks, Arts, and Recreation Commission, making it a majority female commission; I appointed a woman to Vice Mayor for two consecutive years; I publicly endorsed a female Councilmember over her male counterpart in last year’s District 4 Council race; I endorsed Kristin Olsen over a crowded field of male Assembly candidates; and I voted for a woman to be the first female City Manager in Turlock’s history. My campaign team has several women in leading roles who guide my policy creation, who organize my campaign and who serve as the backbone for my reelection.
I believe these claims are politically motivated and that’s unfortunate, but I also think it’s extremely unfair to women who truly struggle to gain equal treatment in the workplace to make these baseless claims about me or my male colleagues on the Council.
Q. On the Opinion page of today’s Journal is an op-ed written by you where you announce that you’re gay. How do you anticipate this announcement will affect your working relationships at City Hall and with your city council colleagues?
A. Even though I generally believe the details of my personal life don’t belong to anyone other than myself and those I’ve chosen to share it with, as Mayor I feel I do have additional responsibilities to talk about this aspect of my life. Over the last four years we’ve established a great record of accomplishments in Turlock and that work stands on its own; no whisper campaign should detract from it and I hope that we will now see those whispers stop. I’ve chosen not to dwell on negativity because I believe the majority of this city is one of inclusion and acceptance. I’m lucky to be the mayor of such a great city.
I imagine this could have an impact on our city and I hope that it is for the better. It could spark conversations around dinner tables or in donut shops or in houses of worship. I want to use this as an opportunity for everyone to see that differences don’t have to divide us, they indeed strengthen us. In my discussions so far, I’ve been met with love and acceptance. I have a comfort in who I am and I believe this makes me a better, more empathetic leader. While this new element about me might surprise some, I want to be known for my character, my hard work, and the results that I’m able to accomplish on behalf of the residents.
I’m proud of who I am—a Christian, a farmer and a mayor. I also happen to be gay. I felt it was important to be open about the full picture of who I am so that anyone who might be struggling with his or her identity to realize he or she can also realize dreams and live a full, happy life right here in Turlock.
Q: You claim to be a fiscal conservative yet a social moderate. How do you reconcile these two identities?
A. Ever since I was a student at Berkeley, I’ve enjoyed listening to contrary points of view. Still today I like to hear the opinions of others, which often strengthens my own position or causes me to become a more empathetic listener. More and more people are coming to realize that their beliefs on taxes, international security and trade do not have to be tied to their views on social issues or fall within a rigidly defined category. I look at role models in the conservative world who have held positions in the Bush administration, served as aides on the Mitt Romney campaign, and continue to serve in top government positions around the world--all while being gay or supporting the gay community. Their ability to lead on issues like global peacekeeping operations, nuclear policies and the War on Terror is not inconsistent with who they are in their personal lives. I think in the coming years you’ll see a shift in thought that allows for these conservative world views that are consistent with a belief in personal liberty.
Q. Turlock is having a more visible experience with homeless in our parks and public spaces. What are your thoughts on how to combat this issue?
A. I agree with the residents and business-owners that there is more that needs to be done. This is not purely a law enforcement issue to be solved by our police officers. We need to rethink our parks, a few ordinances, and our partnership with service providers. At the State of the City on July 12, I am going to roll out a robust set of solutions that will not only address the needs of our homeless population, but also our residents and businesses. I don’t want to burden our police officers with the requirements of enforcement but seek to explore options of a multi-pronged solution involving other city departments. We need to establish alternatives for our homeless to securely store their belongings throughout the day. We need to provide the option to re-unite those that are homeless with families in their own hometown, and we need to place an emphasis on the “rule of law” when it comes to using strollers and shopping carts to transport belongings.
Coupled with the robust services by our local Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, WeCare and others, the city can play a renewed role that helps the least, the lost, and the lonely, but also makes sure our public spaces remain open and safe for all residents and visitors to enjoy.
Q. You have two people running against you for mayor at this moment. What are your thoughts on them?
A. I don’t make a habit of commenting on my opponents. As we did in 2014, my supporters and I will remain positive, put forward a clear vision of Turlock’s future, and work hard to spread that message door-to-door. I hate negative campaigns that attack each other—I would rather lose in November with a campaign that I’m proud of than to win and know I stooped to the level of baseless attacks. I am the only candidate in the race so far that hasn’t run for higher office and I hope this shows my commitment to the residents of Turlock, not to myself. Our young people are watching how we conduct ourselves as candidates and it’s our responsibility to demonstrate to them that we are worthy of the offices we seek.
Q. What are your priorities for the City of Turlock for the rest of 2018?
A. In the next six months, we will be aggressively addressing homelessness. There are increasing challenges with folks who are loitering in our public spaces who are not from here, who have proven to be a challenge for our local residents and businesses. I want to make sure all those public spaces are open and accessible to local residents and visitors, but that they follow all the ordinances that are on the books.
With roads, it’s not just about allocating money…it’s about making sure they are efficiently and effectively executed. We are actually making sure we are minimizing the impacts to local residents and businesses.
I’m going to make sure we are not derailed on the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority surface water plant. We need to continue with the construction of it…there have been some protests, but I’m very optimistic we will continue down that road and break ground in August.
We need to look at reworking the Building and Engineering Department, with an eye to customer service.
I’m committed to making Turlock a stronger leader in the region through my position with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I’m now on the advisory board, I’m going to make sure our voice is heard. I’m also going to focus on looking to the Stanislaus Council of Governments, where I’m the vice chair, and make sure we’re allocating those transportation dollars effectively throughout the region.