Los Banos state of city address brings up lofty goals

dwitte@losbanosenterprise.comJuly 3, 2014 

Mayor Mike Villalta presented some big ideas in his first State of the City address since taking office in 2010.

The 25-minute speech was delivered at the end of Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Villalta hit on a number of subjects, such as the beautification of downtown, water issues, planned construction of a new courthouse and the Wal-Mart expansion he said is bringing 85 new jobs to Los Banos.

“I am happy to report that we are on the road, I want to say we’ve achieved it but I think the business department would be a little upset, so I’m going to say we are on the road to recovery, well to recovery,” Villalta said.

He also brought out some lofty plans, starting with a 1,500-acre industrial park southwest of the city that would include relocating the airport from its 3,800-foot runway near Pacheco Boulevard and West I Street to one with a 9,000-foot runway at the industrial park near Interstate 5 and Highway 165. The project would start a domino effect of other projects, which include plans for a regional medical center where the airport currently sits and a 16-field soccer complex.

“This is kind of the brainchild of the city of Los Banos, and we brought it to the county and we haven’t heard any negative remarks at this point,” Villalta said. “So we’re bringing it forward to another meeting, and we are going to have more study sessions to make sure that we are on the right track.”

The speech presented some big ideas for future growth, and the man whose shoulders that growth will fall upon is city manager Steve Carrigan.

“We spent a few months looking at jobs, and how do we attract jobs,” Carrigan said. “We have two small industrial parks, and we chose not to chase a business at a time. We felt we wouldn’t get anywhere, and it would take years to have an effect. We looked at business parks in Tracy and Patterson, so it was pretty easy for me to look at this and go Tracy, Patterson, Los Banos.”

The project is in the early planning stages.

“For a long time, we couldn’t even talk about doing things like this. We were talking about reduction,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove said later. “So it’s awesome to be able to talk about the possibility of an industrial park, bringing livable-wage jobs to the community, something this community desperately needs.”

The only part of Villalta’s address that gave Stonegrove pause was the part about removing the population of homeless people living where the courthouse will be built. Villalta talked about how the city, instead of ousting the homeless on trespassing charges, offered help via county services and sponsored a homeless connect day at Bethel Community Church.

“We need to have a council that’s committed to fixing that, and we don’t right now,” Stonegrove said. “I’ve been frustrated for three years, when we stopped paying into the Continuum of Care. It’s frustrating to hear a leader of our city say one thing and not wholeheartedly support it. I think our city manager worked really hard to do the right thing in that situation, and there’s a lot of credit that’s being taken for the way the issue was resolved. It hasn’t been resolved at all, in my opinion.”

Redistricting maps

Before Villalta’s address, the City Council heard comments on the four districting maps offered up for public consideration a week ago to switch Los Banos from at-large to by-district elections. The city has until Aug. 8 to choose a map to submit for the November ballot.

The public comments, though, focused more on whether splitting the city into districts is a good idea.

“I hope in our next couple of meetings we have that we can turn our attention and our focus to the actual draft plans, and what is best for our community,” Stonegrove said. “I was hoping that was going to happen tonight. Unfortunately it didn’t.”

While some comments focused on the lack of Hispanic representation on the council, others asked why the change was needed in the first place.

“State law says we need to do this,” said Councilman Tom Faria in addressing naysayers. “So we’re going to do it.”

Spurred by complaints by the Community Advocacy Coalition, the Los Banos Unified School District switched to by-area elections two years ago. Attorney Chris Skinnell, the city’s counsel on the issue, said school districts and cities operate by different rules on the issue.

“Both of them are technically required to put this to voters – the district under the education code, and the city under the Voter Rights Act,” Skinnell said. “Schools have unique mechanism where they go to state board of education to get a waiver, which a bunch of districts have done throughout the state.”

Cities have no such loophole and, as a general-law city, the issue must be put before voters. If Los Banos voters reject by-area elections, the city is left open to a lawsuit that, even if the city wins, will cost about $1 million.

Skinnell said there has been talk about adopting an ordinance and circumventing the requirement to take it to the voters, but that would violate government code.

“The city can’t be in a position of intentionally violating the law,” he said.

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