Fifty Santa Maria residents connected with seven candidates running for mayor and City Council seats in this year's general election during a digital forum held on Thursday evening over Zoom.
Mayoral candidates Alice Patino, the incumbent, and challengers Alberto Ugalde and Will Smith were present along with four candidates for the 1st District seat — Carlos Escobedo, Brian Billones, Chris Diaz and Osvaldo Sotelo.
Councilman Mike Cordero, who is running unopposed for the 2nd District seat, was not present at the forum.
The Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce hosted the forum, with President and CEO Glenn Morris facilitating an introduction period for each of the candidates viewed by all the participants. Attendees then were divided into private breakout rooms of six to seven people, with each candidate cycling through the rooms for questions and discussion.
Unlike in-person forums held in the past, attendees were not able to hear all the questions and discussions with candidates but were limited to the conversations within their own breakout room.
Job opportunities and education were popular points of discussion, with candidates bringing different ideas to the table.
Sotelo, a nonprofit professional whose City Council platform focuses on affordable housing, living wages and opportunities for youth, said there is a dire need for local internships, apprenticeships and professional development opportunities for local youth.
"Growing up here and living here, one of the things I didn’t really have was that educational pathway," he said. "That’s one of the things we really need, is to give them an opportunity to do an internship in the city, not only to help them get to know the city but to help them understand how it works."
Health-care manager Billones, on the other hand, discussed the need to diversify the job market by bringing in more engineering, aerospace and science industries, and continuing to grow the city to help it reach its full potential.
"This city will continue to grow no matter if jobs are there or housing is there. But if we have jobs here … the students are the ones that can come back to our city and really get our jobs," he said, noting that programs like REACH can help to build a regional and self-serving economy.
In their discussions, both Billones and Patino said they would be in favor of bringing another university to Santa Maria in order to expand educational opportunities.
"I would like to figure out some kind of conduit we could put together with Hancock so we can have some kind of higher education. I am an eternal optimist, so I think we can get there," Patino said.
While many attendees knew Patino, several were eager to hear the ideas and viewpoints of the new candidates.
Diaz, a current music professor at Hancock College, highlighted the overall need to keep residents in the area by expanding not only jobs but recreational attractions for residents and visitors to enjoy.
"I think we have to exploit our most valuable natural resource, and that is being between all these huge California cities. Why not use our size and build a big soccer stadium? I think we really need to promote ourselves more," he said.
One way he proposed to fund these projects was through opening up Santa Maria to the cannabis market, something the City Council has staunchly opposed in the past, in order to produce more tax revenue.
Diaz, along with Escobedo, also discussed the need to listen more closely to the needs of people in District 1, who they said have long been overlooked.
Escobedo, the creator of Santa Maria's Open Streets celebration and a volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club, said he wants to focus on promoting unity rather than focusing on differences.
"There are differences, but I believe that we should be more focused on what unites us than what divides us. We either learn to live together and focus on what we can improve, or we end up splitting and the community is all spread out and the problems end up worse," he said.
When faced with the question of whether or not he would have voted in favor of the ICE facility in the city, which was approved by the council on a 3-2 vote in 2015, he simply said that he represents the people.
Another proud born-and-raised Santa Marian was Ugalde, mayoral candidate and owner of Landmark Barbers Shaving Parlor and Lounge. When asked whether he has the qualifications to fill the role, he highlighted his experience volunteering and his deep connections with the community.
"I really enjoy getting involved in my community," he said. "Yeah, I might be the youngest candidate, and the others have a better track record than I have, but I have the willingness to do the right thing for our community."
Smith, who ran against Patino as the only challenger in 2016, said he will focus mainly on beautification of the city if elected. He also talked about his experience as a board member for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, where he said he was not afraid to have differing opinions from his peers.
"I’m very different because I like to think outside of the box," he said, adding that he was the first African-American elected to public office in the city. "My slogan is 'the possibility of us.' You can never know what you can do until you try."