A transparent and inclusive government is one of incumbent Mayor Stan Thurston’s goals, and a reason he wanted the job in the first place, he said.
“After all, most (residents) are the ones that pay the taxes, they ought to have some input on how it’s spent,” the 68-year-old said. “To me, that’s a huge deal.”
Since Thurston took office, he extended the public comment time at city meetings and workshops from three to five minutes. He also began allowing questions throughout the workshops, and started town hall meetings.
Thurston was a councilman from 1995 to 2003 and left thinking he’d done his part, he said.
In 2011, the sitting Merced City Council was talking about raising the local sales tax. Thurston said it appeared the council was avoiding making tough decisions on where to trim the budget.
“Frankly, the council seemed adrift,” he said. “They didn’t seem to be able to do much of anything.”
That year, Thurston won election for the mayoral seat. He said he’s delivered on his campaign promises, such as bringing jobs to Merced.
Since the city cut developer fees by about 55percent, there’s been an increase of 289 jobs, Thurston said. Also, the city has added six businesses since the cut in fees.
“They went into effect in February, so they’re showing excellent results,” he said.
Thurston said the city could go further in attracting business. Some ideas include delayed fees on water and sewer hookups, or putting developers on payment plans, he said.
Under his tenure, the city was able to balance the budget without raising taxes or losing public safety officers, he said.
Born in Merced, Thurston grew up in Reedley and Stockton. He’s a former Marine who studied law at Pepperdine University. He practiced law for 25 years, including a decade in Huntington Beach before he came back to Merced.
He retired from practicing law in 1999 and is co-owner of aviation business Gemini Flight Support.
Thurston said mastering the budget will play a large role in Merced’s well-being. The budget is key to adding police and firefighters to the city’s payroll, he said.
“If we have a perception of a crime-riddled city, we aren’t going to get anywhere,” he said. “We have to get more officers.”
While neighborhood watch and other programs are helpful, he said, the police department needs to solve crimes at a higher rate.
“We have to have more police officers to do investigations,” he said. “Right now, there’s too many unsolved crimes.”
UC Merced is expecting to grow in the near future. Officials there have proposed moving much of their staff off of the campus.
“All the administration and everybody has to get off site somewhere, and there isn’t any somewhere to go right now,” he said. “So I’m working with a couple of developers to bring a proposal forward to build an office space for those people.”
Opponents of Thurston question his commitment to growth in the city. They hold up two examples in his 2012 voting record; the first was his “no” vote on an application for high-speed rail land use.
Thurston said his objection was to the high-speed rail planning document, which he called “a mess,” and not the $600,000 grant. The measure passed despite his dissenting vote.
“I always supported the grant, I still support the grant,” he said. “I wanted staff to take the document back to the next meeting, so that the council had a complete and accurate submittal to look at.”
The other example opponents hold up is his “no” vote on the plans for a 117,800-square-foot, four-building office complex on the south side of Mercy Avenue.
Thurston said dozens of residents in the area opposed the project. It moved on after a 4-2 vote while one member of council was absent.
“I promised these people, as long as I was mayor, I would do what I could to protect their property rights,” he said. “I wasn’t about to ignore that promise.”
Thurston said he sees growth in Merced’s future, as more UC Merced faculty and staff move to town. Growth of the campus will also bring more business to town.
To accommodate new residents, he said, the city should encourage in-fill housing projects, and encourage banks to put some foreclosed homes back on the market. He said homeownership is the best thing for the city, because the owners take care of their property.
Thurston said retailers will come as the population grows – and if the city makes busy corners available to them.
Thurston said he’ll continue to take the lead in approaching developers.
“I’m very active,” he said. “I don’t just sit back and expect someone else to do the work.”