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Soiseth talks campaign, inclusivity at Stan State
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Mayor Gary Soiseth answers questions during Stanislaus States One on One with the Mayor event Tuesday night. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Mayor Gary Soiseth visited Stanislaus State Tuesday evening for a special “One on One with the Mayor,” where he shared his campaign priorities and handled a myriad of questions from students.

The event was the third of its kind, where in the past the mayor has taken a more direct approach to answering questions about issues currently taking place within the city, like the farmers’ market debate, the return of fireworks to the university and other topics. This year’s Q & A session questioned the City Manager selection process and the continued bridging of the town-gown divide.

The first question of the night for Soiseth was, unsurprisingly, about the upcoming mayoral election. What would some of the mayor’s top campaign issues be? To answer the question, Soiseth went back to his first election.

“The first time I ran, I kind of turned campaigning on its head here in Turlock,” said Soiseth, who was one of the first Turlock politicians to utilize social media during a campaign. “We’re ready to turn it on its head again.”

When he was first elected in 2014, Soiseth campaigned on Facebook, garnering support and donations through a grassroots method. This year he hopes to do the same thing, but even more so, jumping over to more relevant platforms like Twitter and Instagram to keep voters engaged.

His main initiatives during this election year will be to continue what he has already started as mayor, he said, such as seeing the city’s water treatment plant completed and ensuring that Turlock’s Measure L projects go off without a hitch. Soiseth hopes to continue adding to the City of Turlock’s reserves as well if reelected, and pointed out that the city had $6.9 million in reserves when he was elected. It now has $11 million.

“It’s all about what you do with those reserves,” said Soiseth. Turlock will enter into salary negotiations with the city’s public safety departments soon, he said, and the reserve money will be put to good use there.

The student housing complex The Vista was brought up by students as well, which has seen its fair share of controversy since it’s construction last summer. The complex leased to non-students — a violation of its City permits — and neighbors have complained about noise and nightly disruptions. Most recently, a group of young adults broke a pipe and flooded a stairway, causing felony damage.

The students asked Soiseth his thoughts on the apartment complex and if it was good for the community.

“There are a lot of people that love this project, including myself,” said Soiseth. “As a city, we’ve always planned on building up, not out. Four stories is a huge thing to do in the Central Valley, but it’s frustrating when we execute that process and people get mad.”

A hot topic city-wide was also a concern to the students: Why is the search for a City Manager taking so long? The hunt for someone to replace former City Manager Gary Hampton began in 2017 to no avail, and was restarted in January.

“We went through the process, and we didn’t find the right fit. This is a multimillion dollar investment we’re making,” said Soiseth. “If you don’t have the right fit, it’s worth going back out and recasting that net. We’re looking coast to coast, or even right in our own backyard.”

Soiseth anticipates the City appointing a City Manager by the first or second week of May, he said.

Racism and intolerance has been at the forefront of many conversations for Turlockers in recent weeks, especially those that attend Stanislaus State. After student Nathan Damigo littered the campus with white supremacist propaganda posters last year, they popped up again recently, and other insensitive stickers have been found around town as well.

Students asked Soiseth what could be done to make Turlock more inclusive, and he referred to the Leadership Summit on Inclusivity that was hosted last month along with the university, as well as a public art program that is in the works which will include racially diverse murals.

“There are people in the community that spread hate, like homophobia or other divisive rhetoric, just to stir the pot,” said Soiseth. “We have to put our foot down.”

One area where Turlock has excelled in inclusivity is in welcoming refugees from Syria. Soiseth became one of the first politicians in the country to open up a government building to refugees when he hosted a Refugee Civics Day at City Hall, and has held two such events so far, teaching them about the city and how to navigate it.

“I sometimes get in trouble with my own political party because I’m very much about including refugees in our community,” he said. “This all started in Afghanistan when I saw how corrupt things could be and I saw people fear their government. I was able to talk with them and show them no, we are your leaders and we’re here to help you.”

Soiseth also touched on the effort that the city has made in recent years to better connect with Stanislaus State, but left the students with some things he feels will make the connection even better.

“You guys have been great neighbors,” he said. “I think the best thing you can do is be proud of Stan State – wear your gear around town, own the downtown. It helps incorporate the university with the town.

“This is a great university, so be very proud. Put those license plate covers on your cars, invite community members on campus. Stuff like that will help make the campus an even better part of the community.”