November 10, 2011

Merced mayor's race still undecided

With about 500 ballots left to count, Merced is still not sure who will be its next mayor. Stan Thurston held a 168-vote lead over Bill Blake after all ballots were counted Tuesday night, but there are hundreds of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots that could make all the difference.

The final count may not be known until this afternoon, according to the Merced County elections office. Blake admitted some frustration Wednesday.

"It's still mathematically possible. I don't know what's going to happen. It's a horse race," he said.

"It's a little bit frustrating. I was expecting it to wrap up last night. I'd like to have it over, but democracy takes time."

If Blake gains votes and wins the election, it will create a vacancy on the City Council, which means council members would have to decide whether to appoint someone to fill the seat or hold a special election.

Registrar of Voters Karen Adams said Merced's city charter requires the council to appoint the next highest vote-getter in the council campaign, which in this case would be Richard Cervantes.

If the council decides to hold a special election, it could cost $25,000 to $40,000, Adams said. When faced with vacancies in recent years, the council has chosen the more fiscally prudent route, appointing candidates such as Carl Pollard and Rick Osorio, Adams said.

The new council

A date hasn't been set for Mike Murphy, Tony Dossetti, Noah Lor and the new mayor to assume their new positions on the council. After the votes are counted, they will be sent to the city clerk for certification by the council. When confirmation is received from the county, a date can be set for a transitional meeting.

Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling said she is looking forward to working with her new colleagues. She had some advice for them, such as talking to many people in the community and keeping an open mind about what's coming before the council even though the council may have talked about the issue for a long time.

"Things change," she said.

Budget is first challenge

City Manager John Bramble said the new blood on the council will first have to deal with the budget. "That drives everything else. The budget is built around the priorities and projects the council members want to deal with," Bramble said.

With the three new faces, he said the council will have to figure out its priorities for the budget. That will happen in early January, Bramble said.

Rawling also echoed the issues revolving around the budget.

"Those concerns and issues and problems aren't going to go away anytime soon. We've kind of known that, it's been a long road to get there, a long road to get out," she said.

Bramble said the council probably will take up the issue of development impact fees.

Blake, who has two years left on his council term, agreed that development fees are one of the most pressing issues facing the new council.

"It's one thing (Thurston) and I agreed strongly on," Blake said.

"We need to look at the fees and drop them as an incentive for businesses to come to Merced. We need to understand we're in a crisis mode fiscally, and next year our revenues are not only picking up less than anticipated, the expected deficit is climbing slowly but surely. We're not coming out of the recession, we're getting even deeper into it. We need to do everything we can to bring jobs here."

Another important issue, Bramble said, is Assembly Bill 341, a state recycling bill that requires apartment complexes and businesses to recycle.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 and online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464.

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