As Election Day approaches, one of the most controversial and at times ugly races has been the November runoff for the District 1 supervisorial seat between Merced County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Pacheco and incumbent Supervisor John Pedrozo.
The two have clashed on everything from public safety to the economy and use of discretionary funds. The political attacks escalated to anonymous mailer ads in June and press releases blasting each other's political and personal decisions.
Pacheco recently took aim at Pedrozo's decision to add a public affairs position for the county, which would cost taxpayers $100,000.
"I think the county needs more police officers on the street, and we could have foregone the public affairs officer to put more deputies on the street," Pacheco said, claiming Pedrozo cut four deputy positions. "I think the money would be better spent on law enforcement than on press affairs. We can always use more policemen on the street."
Pedrozo called Pacheco's claims "totally untrue," insisting that no cuts were made to the number of deputies on the street and that the four eliminated positions were vacant. He said streamlining allowed the addition of the public affairs position.
"We combined some positions on the third floor in the CEO's department, so we had a vacant spot," Pedrozo said, adding that the number of clerks went from 10 to seven. "This position will be an eighth person, but it's still a cost saving to the county of over $25,000. As far as actually taking deputies off the street, I can tell you, and I'll tell anybody, that we've never done that."
Still, many have questioned the need for a public affairs officer when the supervisors, who get paid upward of $90,000 a year, could handle media and press inquiries themselves. But Pedrozo responded that most California counties have a public affairs person and whoever fills the position would do more than handle phone calls from reporters.
"This person is an outreach person for the county, not just for the Board of Supervisors." Pedrozo said, noting the position existed before budget cuts. "We need someone at the county that can outreach and go to Sacramento." Pacheco rebutted by saying "As a supervisor, that's your job -- to do outreach and meet with other officials."
Agreement on priorities
The candidates may never see eye to eye on the public affairs position, but they identified the same issues as top priorities this election season: public safety and jobs.
Pacheco, who works in law enforcement, said not enough focus is placed on getting gangs off the streets of Merced. "Our biggest problem right now is gang violence," he said. "I live in Le Grand and I hear the gunshots and see the gang members in the park. In District 1, this is our biggest problem right now."
Pedrozo responded Thursday, saying, "Drugs are still No. 1. I'm not saying gangs aren't No. 1, but drugs and gangs go together." He added that judges at the courthouse say more than 80 percent of their trials are drug-related. "I know there's an issue with gangs," Pedrozo said, "but it's not just District 1."
The issue of jobs has created a big rift between the two candidates, especially when it comes to the Wal-Mart distribution center and the high-speed rail project, both of which mean potential jobs for the county.
Pacheco said Pedrozo is against the Wal-Mart distribution center because he's not been "vocal and engaged" in his support. Pedrozo denied that, and said Pacheco is against the high-speed rail project, which he said would create jobs and help "get our economy in Merced back to where it was."
Pacheco didn't deny being against the project. "I don't think the project is being planned properly, and the jobs will come from out of the area and will leave after the project ends," he said. "It will be detrimental to agriculture and will cost jobs in the agriculture industry."
Both candidates said they support making the county more business-friendly and engaged in outreach to recruit new businesses.
Pedrozo said the county's planning department has been consolidated to streamline permits, building, fire, and environmental health under one roof.
"We're starting to see businesses come to Merced," Pedrozo said, referencing a Kansas-based company that's using Castle to build cranes. "With that, we're going to put people to work and start building up this economy." He admitted to layoffs of county workers, but said most of them were rehired when positions become vacant.
Discretionary fund is a sore spot
Balancing the budget and saving money is something both candidates said they can do.
Pacheco said he would look at each department to make sure tax dollars are spent efficiently; Pedrozo said he would continue streamlining and focus on job creation.
One thing Pedrozo said he wouldn't do is eliminate his $40,000 discretionary funds, because he uses that money to support various youth projects that couldn't be funded through the county, including food banks and the Boys & Girls Club.
"We need to look at this discretionary fund and how it's being used," Pacheco said, adding that he would forgo the money if he is elected. "I don't think it's being used properly, and we can find other ways to fund these projects,"
He added that Pedrozo contributed $5,000 from that discretionary fund to the high-speed rail project, which some tax payers may not support.
During a four-way primary election in June, Pedrozo garnered 48.3 percent of the vote, followed by Pacheco at 32.4 percent. Because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two -- Pedrozo and Pacheco -- will face each other in a runoff.
Both candidates have faced personal difficulties over the past year of campaigning -- Pedrozo's father died, and Pacheco battled pancreatitis.
During the campaign, Pedrozo has criticized Pacheco for his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence last year, and then trying to collect $100,000 from the state's victim compensation fund because of the arrest.
"I wasn't driving under the influence that night and it will all be resolved in the court process," Pacheco responded. "Also, I wasn't asking for money from a victim's fund. I wanted to preserve a timeline for a court date for civil action, if needed. I've decided not to pursue anything, so that's all done."
Both candidates have contributed time to volunteer efforts: Pacheco is the leader of a 4-H club in Le Grand, and Pedrozo adopted six preschools and reads to youngsters there three times a year.
Both candidates said their campaigns are going strong and are not giving up until the end.
"I'm committed to bettering Merced county, and I can bring a new perspective that is needed in local government," Pacheco said. "I've lived in the county all my life and have family here; I'm trying to make things better for Merced county."
"I have the experience. I've done it. I've been on the board for eight years," Pedrozo said. "I love this job and I love the county. I'm approachable and I take pride in District 1."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAREER: Farmer, Supervisor
EDUCATION: Merced College and Merced High
FAMILY: Married, three grown children, four grandsons.
PRIORITIES: Public safety, job creation, early childhood development.
KEY POSITIONS: Supports creating new businesses and jobs in Merced County. Promotes transparency in government and advocates for well-paying jobs.
ENDORSEMENTS: Deputy Sheriff's Association, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Merced City Fire
HOMETOWN: Le Grand
CAREER: Sheriff Sergeant, Law Enforcement
EDUCATION: Modesto Police Academy, Atwater High School
FAMILY: Married, three grown children, one 12-year-old
PRIORITIES: Safety in neighborhoods, job creation, agriculture.
KEY POSITIONS: Supports economic growth and advocates suppressing gang violence.
ENDORSEMENTS: Farm Bureau, Merced Sun-Star