The economy, crime and leadership philosophy were high on the list of concerns for voters at a forum for Santa Maria City Council and Mayor candidates at the Betteravia Government Center Wednesday night.
Five candidates for two open city council seats and the two contenders for the Mayor’s job answered questions for a crowd of about 75 people at the forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley and co-hosted by the Santa Maria Times.
The newspaper lived-streamed the event and will post a video of the forum in its entirety on its website, www.SantaMariaTimes.com.
Candidates for city council included Mike Cordero, Ed Hernandez, Michael Moats, Hector Sanchez, and Terri Zuniga. Council candidate John Childers Jr. was unable to attend, League officials said.
Incumbent Mayor Alice Patino and challenger Will Smith joined the rest of the group vying for leadership roles in Santa Maria’s city government.
Candidates introduced themselves to the crowd before a 10 minute break, given so audience members could submit questions to the candidates.
The first question posed by voters Wednesday evening asked candidates what style of management they would bring to the council if elected.
Mayoral candidate Smith said his management style would incorporate the strengths of the other members of the city council.
“I would make it open, where we bring up the issues, speak about them and come to some kind of consensus. It is sort of hands off. Letting everyone do, basically, what they feel is right for the community,” he said.
When it comes to managing the city’s departments, he said he would be more hands on.
“As an individual and Mayor, I would like to go out into the community and see what the departments are doing on a constant basis. To keep up, to see what we are doing and whether the council’s ordinances and so forth are being followed,” Smith said.
Incumbent Mayor Patino started her answer by explaining how the city is structured.
“Our structure is a Council/Manager form of government. The City Council hires the City Manager and the City Attorney. We do not go out and micromanage any departments. We are a policy body. We have to respect that. And also respect that fact that we are all elected,” she said.
Patino said she takes her management cues from the community.
“When we make a decision, it is so vitally important that we listen to public comments when we are making that decision. Just because we are sitting up there, doesn’t mean we are smart. It means we got more votes. So we have to be able to listen to everyone that speaks to the City Council to make that decision. With the information we have, we each try to make the best decision we can,” Patino said.
Another question posed to the candidates involved their ideas on how to bring business and high-paying jobs to Santa Maria.
Candidate Hernandez, who owns two local businesses and also works for a national chemical firm, said he would talk to companies, especially technology corporations, about Santa Maria’s strengths.
“I would appeal to them about the availability that we have here,” he said.
Hernandez offered up the example of the city of San Jose, a tech-based business center, as a model. He said San Jose approached the businesses they wanted to be a part of their community and offered incentives.
He said he would not seek to attract industry that would be in conflict with the already established agricultural firms in Santa Maria.
“I am very pro farming. I would not want to bring in any industry that would put that in any jeopardy,” Hernandez said.
Candidate Sanchez, who worked in the technology and software sector and said Wednesday that he can speak to the kinds of companies Hernandez and other candidates said they’d like to attract to the city because of his background, would be aggressive in his approach with technology firms but would have a slightly different focus.
“Santa Maria won’t be the high tech, C Plus Plus, first-level programmers, but we are able to support the back office operations for tech companies,” he said.
Sanchez’ strategy would not focus on the technology developers, but the customer service, shipping, accounting and other support systems that those companies need to do business and could be located here more affordably away from their development centers in places like Silicon Valley.
Cordero’s plan involves bringing all the city’s stake holders together to tell Santa Maria’s story. Key parts of that story involve the city’s relationship with Allan Hancock College and its access to transportation.
“We have our own railroad. I am not a transportation expert, but I understand it is one of the cheapest ways to transport large items. It is right here in our community. There are not many cities in the country that have their own railroad,” Cordero said.
Incumbent Zuniga said the city is currently, “pounding the pavement,” looking to bring big business here with its economic development efforts and partnerships with the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, and the city should focus on supporting small business and quality of life issues that will further work to attract businesses to move to Santa Maria and have their employees live in the city.
“We sometimes lose sight of the opportunities we have here with small businesses. Small businesses can help to be the back bone of our community,” she said.
Zuniga said the city’s current downtown revitalization effort will go a long way to attract businesses to the city.
“If I am an executive and I am driving my family through Santa Maria and I am thinking about relocating my business here, what do I see that is going to attract me here? What do I see in terms of amenities my families are going to enjoy here,” she said.
Candidate Moats, a dermatologist who considers his practice a small business, said that small businesses are “the way to go,” in terms of economic development.
“Medium sized and large businesses can choose to locate wherever they want,” he said. “We have high taxes, we have lots of regulations. Now we are going to have a higher minimum wage so the cost of doing business is going to be higher.”
He added that the city has a lot of space that is currently vacant or underutilized that could be used to attract new firms.