Santa Maria City Council candidates answered questions on topics of economic development, gangs and public safety and dealing with developers early Wednesday morning during a forum at the Fairpark.

The forum -- sponsored by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Committee to Improve North County, COLAB, Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, the Santa Maria Valley Contractors Association, MEGA 97.1 and the Santa Maria Times -- brought together the six candidates, or their representatives, for a question-and-answer session.

Trent Benedetti, former chamber president, was the forum’s moderator. He posed questions submitted from audience members who gathered for the event.

The first question related to jobs.

“For over 100 years, the city of Santa Maria and the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce have had a public-private partnership to support and retain existing businesses as well as attract new businesses to our city. What ideas do you have for the retention and creation of jobs?” Benedetti asked.

Candidate Mike Cordero said, “I think good communication.”

He suggested starting a dialogue with local stakeholders to come up with plans to attract and retain businesses. Cordero said he recently talked with officials at Hancock College to see if they have the ability to train a workforce needed to attract business to Santa Maria. Cordero said the college does.

He also suggested promoting Santa Maria’s access to the railroad and focusing on supporting its local small business.

Candidate Ed Hernandez could not attend the forum due to a previous scheduled work commitment, but his wife, Mary Hernandez, was there in his stead.

“I think there is so much potential here and on the Central Coast where we live,” Hernandez said, speaking for her husband. “I think we need to bring in businesses that have higher-paying jobs.”

Candidate Dr. Michael Moats said state mandates hinder the city’s ability to bring and keep jobs here.

“I think Santa Maria starts out at a disadvantage with other communities across the country because we live in the state of California. The state of California fundamentally does not encourage business like other states that surround us. We constantly lose companies to low-tax, low-regulation states like Arizona, Nevada, Texas. We have to go above and beyond to attract business,” Moats said.

Hector Sanchez said the city of Santa Maria’s current partnership with the chamber is adequate to tend to the current crop of business here, but the city needs to create a more aggressive strategy to attract new business.

“The strategy in sales is you have to be a farmer or a hunter. Someone who farms existing business and gets them to grow, that is ideal for the chamber of commerce. Where I differ … I think we need to generate a marketing strategy to go after companies in Northern California, specifically technology companies,” Sanchez said.

Incumbent City Council Candidate Terri Zuniga said the city has to be more supportive and creative.

“We have a vibrant small business community here. I think we need to do more to support that. We need to do more to be innovative. A prime example of that would be the Business Development Center, formerly MIYB Spaces. That is an out-of-the-box thinking, innovative small business. It’s providing opportunities for other small businesses to be co-located,” Zuniga said.

Zuniga added that to attract new businesses, the city has to focus on infrastructure, including amenities and quality-of-life issues.

Candidate John Childers Jr. said he’d like to attract manufacturing jobs to Santa Maria.

“It is proven that they provide more long-term employment and they pay above average than general salaries,” he said.

He also suggested that the city should update its zoning laws to make it easier for small businesses to expand and to help local businesses have more access to money.

Next, members of the audience wanted to know about the candidates' ideas about gang suppression and public safety, in general.

Each candidate praised the Santa Maria Police Department’s work during Operation Matador, where it nabbed members of the gang, MS-13, in connection to a series of attacks and murders that escalated in 2015. Each candidate also said the issue of gang violence should be a community effort, not just a police department problem. The group also supported creating more youth programs to provide alternatives to joining gangs.

Cordero, a former Santa Maria Police lieutenant, added that much of Santa Maria’s gang problem is generational.

“There are gang members in our community that don’t know why they are in a gang. All they know is they were born in this area and are supposed to be a member of this gang,” he said.

He agreed that youth programs are needed but may not be enough.

“You need to get into that person’s family. You need to get to the moms, the dads, the aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers and try and change their lifestyle,” Cordero said.

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When asked about Santa Maria’s water resources, the candidates all agreed that thanks to Santa Maria City Council action taken many years ago to purchase state water, combined with the Santa Maria River Valley’s large aquifer, the city is in good shape.

After water, the candidates were asked about revitalizing the city’s downtown district.

The group generally agreed that the effort is important and expressed dissatisfaction with direction of the Town Center mall.

The last topic the candidates had to face was about how the city deals with developers.

“Some state mandates offer no flexibility, such as most of the building code," Benedetti said. "Then there are designations such as low-income housing and other land use designations that offer flexibility. What are your thoughts of giving developers flexibility in their development rules?”

Zuniga said the council should think about the future when debating about changing the “patchwork quilt” that is the city’s zoning map.

“Our mall is a good example. The mall seemed like a good idea right then. The council then made the best decision they believed at the time. Now looking back, we know that it is not,” Zuniga said.

Childers said the city’s zoning laws should be easier and that he would consider zoning changes to bring in business.

Cordero said zoning changes are inevitable.

“The decisions to set these homes up, some of them were made 20 or 30 years ago," he said. "The environment around them changes. That being said, I don’t think you should put a steel company next to an elementary school. That is certainly going to take away from the learning environment.”

Moats said simply, “I support flexibility.”

He added, “I think it is in the best interest of Santa Maria that if some developer comes in or project comes in that the city tries to work with them to create jobs.”

Sanchez said if a developer’s project can boost the local economy, they should be handled differently.

He added that when it comes to housing, the council should ensure that affordable housing be part of developers' projects.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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City Government Reporter