November 1, 2013

Key decisions on Tuesday’s ballot in Merced

A rundown of what will be on the ballot in Merced on Election Day. Voters will get to choose the holders of four Merced City Council seats, and whether to align local elections with the general election.

Registered voters have a few decisions to make before they go to the polls Tuesday.

The Election Day ballots will ask the electorate to pick a mayor and three people for Merced City Council, as choose whether the city charter should align local elections with presidential and gubernatorial election years.

The mayoral candidates, incumbent Mayor Stan Thurston and Mayor Pro Tem Noah Lor, have served together on the City Council since 2011. Thurston was first elected in 2011 and Lor in 2007.

Both candidates have touted the city’s ability to cut developer fees by 55 percent, adding nearly 300 jobs and six new businesses. They also agree that attracting business development would be a key to remedying Merced’s ills.

Thurston, 68, said the city could go further in attracting business. Some of his ideas include delayed fees on water and sewer hookups, or putting developers on payment plans.

Thurston, the co-owner of Gemini Flight Support, said mastering the budget could help add police and firefighters to the city’s payroll and increase the city’s nestegg.

Lor, 49, said the city should maximize its approval of development in town.

A clinician for the Merced County Department of Mental Health, Lor said it’s important that Merced uses any federal or state funding it can to develop the infrastructure it needs to grow, pointing to what he said were successes such as the high-speed rail stop planned for Merced and the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Lor has outdone Thurston in raising campaign money by more than $33,000. As of the latest statements on Oct. 19, Lor has $57,101 to Thurston’s $23,632.

The race for the mayor’s seat created some controversy late in the campaign.

This week, Thurston released a volunteer member of his campaign committee after the man admitted sending an email message that attempted to use Lor’s ethnicity to drum up voter support for the incumbent. Thurston condemned the rhetoric about Lor, who is Hmong.

Also this week, Lor defended using his time as a sworn Merced policeman in campaign literature. Lor, whose website shows a photo of him in a police uniform and next to a cruiser, quit his job as a patrolman after less than five months, when he left for his current job with the county Health Department.

Eight candidates are competing for three other openings on the City Council.

Retiree Michael Belluomini, 63, has more than 30 years of experience with city and school planning. Belluomini said he served six years as a planner for the Merced County Planning Department, four years as the community development director for the city of Tracy and 23 as director of facilities planning for the Merced Union High School District.

Kevin Blake, a Merced County sheriff’s sergeant, said he has some ideas on ways Merced can confront crime in the city and in turn attract development.

The 33-year-old said the city will need to work with what it has, starting with the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, and perhaps forming a “quick-response nuisance team” with officers already on the payroll. In high-crime areas, the nuisance team would perform targeted enforcement of offenses such as drug crime, metal theft and burglary.

Alex Gallardo Jr., 37, said he is an educator in Stockton. Early in the campaign, he stayed largely out of the public eye and didn’t participate in major debates such as the League of Women Voters forum on Oct. 3. Gallardo reappeared Oct. 22, when he participated in a youth forum. He said he was motivated to run after his daughter asked him to two years ago.

Jana Mowrer, 26, said Merced could take advantage of its agricultural roots and tap into tourism dollars to boost the local economy. She works as a home health care manager for Lamerson Landy Care, a family business.

Merced County is one of the top five producers in the nation for a slew of crops and other farm products. Merced could promote itself as a destination for tourists, she said.

State Farm Insurance agent Peter Padilla, 64, said Merced needs to create more opportunities for business to grow, he said, which means the land should be properly zoned and otherwise prepared.

He said Merced could learn a lesson from the Amazon fulfillment center’s relatively smooth road into Patterson, compared with the rocky road the Wal-Mart distribution center has had into Merced.

Incumbent Josh Pedrozo, 30, said developing Campus Parkway, the long-awaited expressway that will connect Highway 99 to UC Merced, should be a focus of the city.

The social studies teacher also touted what he called improved development in Merced during his time as a councilman.

Chris Ramirez, a UC Merced lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program, said he could be the link between UC Merced and the city. The 39-year-old said the growth of the university is key to creating more jobs in town.

He said the city could also work with Merced College and a number of vocational schools in Merced to better educate residents.

The ballot measure in Tuesday’s election would amend the city charter.

Under the current charter, Merced holds local elections in odd-numbered years and picks up the entire bill.

In 2011, the city paid more than $113,000 to elect officials to the mayoral and council seats.

A vote “Yes” on the ballot measure would align local elections with the general election and allow the city to share the costs with other jurisdictions on the ballot. A “No” vote would not change the charter.

Experts say that an amendment to align local elections would also drive up voter turnout, and recent numbers back that up.

According to numbers from the Merced County Registrar of Voters office, 51 percent of Merced’s registered voters cast ballots in 2010, an even-yeared ballot that carried county and state elections.

That’s compared with the 12 percent who voted in 2011, when only local elections were on the ballot. The following year, during the presidential election of 2012, 64 percent of registered voters marked their ballots in the voting booth.

The polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

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