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The first face-off between the two candidates for 4th District Santa Barbara County supervisor remained mostly cordial Wednesday, because on many issues incumbent Joni Gray and challenger John Sterling agreed.

The two candidates discussed topics ranging from how to fix the depleted county budget to commercial development and water rights in Orcutt to protecting the North County's thriving agricultural industry.

The noontime forum at the La Purisima Church Hall in Lompoc, sponsored by the Committee to Improve North County, provided Gray and Sterling an opportunity to say why each would be the best representative of the 4th District, which includes Guadalupe, Orcutt, Lompoc and Casmalia.

Answers from the candidates in the June 3 election focused mainly on generating revenue to bolster the county's dwindling budget, bringing more job opportunities and attracting affordable housing.

Sterling, a former Santa Maria police chief and former city

administrator for Ridgecrest, said county fees and time-consuming procedures have kept what could be profitable businesses from getting off the ground.

He repeated throughout the session that he would get things done, deal with them efficiently and move on. In his first two years, he said, he would Bget the things done that have already been studied.C

BSo many things have been hanging on for years,C Sterling said after the debate. BAnd they need to get done.C

Gray, who was elected to the supervisor position after being appointed in 1998, proposed shoring up the county budget with large revenue projects such as oil drilling, building hotels, and bringing in more high-tech jobs.

BThe county lost potentially ,5 million a year when Tranquillon Ridge drilling was denied,C Gray said, referring to previous bids to take oil from beneath the ocean in state waters near Point Pedernales off Lompoc.

Both candidates agreed that the county should vote to declare that the Santa Maria Valley's groundwater is not in overdraft and that therefore the unincorporated community of Orcutt should be allowed to begin developing commercial properties.

BWe can't let projects leave the revenue stream and go to other cities,C Sterling said.

He later added, BThe board of supervisors is the only representation Orcutt has to work for them. I would stand up and represent them in community planning.C

BThe board needs three votes to say there is no overdraft,C Gray said. BMy vote is there, but we need two more.C

Gray and Sterling expressed similar opinions on the incorporation of Orcutt as a city. Gray said as a community with a population of 34,000, the area ought to think about being in charge of its own public services and choosing a leader.

Sterling said if Orcutt wanted to erect a fence that would protect it from annexation, he would be there to help.

One of about a hundred audience members questioned how the candidates would protect the county's ,1 billion agricultural industry, and Sterling said he would treat farmers and ranchers as partners who should be protected. Gray proposed creating regulations that would make it easier for farmers to have coolers and processing plants closer to their fields.

Sterling said numerous times that he would treat the position as a Bfull-time job,C implying that Gray has not given the position her full attention.

But Gray responded after the forum that she has treated the elected position as a full-time job and that her law degree has helped her protect and fight for her district.

Gray also said in the debate that she is on three state committees, which has brought Santa Barbara County closer to a large source of funding.

BI've gotten you in line for that money,C Gray said in response to an audience question on why she should be re-elected.

Sterling said it is his newcomer status that he believes will draw supporters.

BI'm not here to poke her in the eye or throw her under the bus,C Sterling told the audience. BI'm here to offer an alternative and give change and leadership.C

On April 30, the two candidates are scheduled to attend a forum co-sponsored by the Citizens Planning Foundation and the Lompoc/Vandenberg branch of the American Association of University Women.

That session will be at 7 p.m. at the Grossman Gallery in the Lompoc Public Library, 501 E. North Ave.

Sam Womack can be reached at 739-2218 or swomack@santa mariatimes.com.

April 17, 2008

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