Merced City Council candidates gave their pitch on how they would be best suited to serve their districts during a forum Tuesday at City Hall.
Candidates in the southeastern sector, District 1, and downtown District 3 took part in the forum. For the first time in Merced, the city has gone to a system using districts for council members. A forum last month introduced voters to the candidates for District 5.
Sonia Fernanda Alshami, a candidate in District 1, said public safety and access to healthy foods topped her list of priorities for the southern district.
A logistics expert at her family’s business, Lino’s and Sons Trucking, she said children in the district walk on unfinished sidewalks and unsafe streets. She said speed bumps need to be installed near schools.
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“Every day, when I leave my court to drop my daughter off, it feels like I’m playing a game of chicken,” she said.
Fernanda Alshami also noted the lack of a grocery store in south Merced. “We deserve more than tire shops and liquor stores,” she said. “We deserve to have retail locations.”
Another candidate for the district, Lakisha Jenkins, echoed the need for access to healthy foods. “When people’s basic needs are failing to be met, it creates a unique situation to where you’re making life-altering decisions every day,” the CEO of the Kiona Foundation said.
Facing difficult choices such as how to pay rent or where to get the next meal, she said, can push people toward crime. “There’s so many things that can be addressed if we just take care of one’s basic needs,” she said.
Jenkins went on to say she’s involved with a recently started community garden in south Merced, which could provide healthy food to area residents.
Weaver Middle School teacher Anthony Martinez, who also is running in District 1, said he would represent the residents who feel underserved and undervalued. “This perception, whether intentional or unintentional, has created poor morale,” he said. “It’s that poor morale that causes apathy, causes hopelessness and gets passed down to kids.”
He said south Merced needs a leader to re-instill a sense of pride and ownership.
“You have to make people feel appreciated. You have to make sure that people’s voices matter,” he said.
Young people should be Merced’s top priority, according to candidate Jesse Ornelas. “We have to invest in youth, and that includes safe passages to school,” he said.
Some children, including his own, he said, have to cross busy streets or walk on soft shoulders to get to the other side of Highway 99 on the way to Golden Valley High.
Ornelas went on to say he would support putting a recreation center in each district, which could provide young people with something to do to stay out of trouble. “We have a very high youth offender rate and a very high youth homicide rate, and that’s sad,” he said. “It means our youth are suffering.”
District 3’s candidates were also asked their priorities for the downtown district.
Candidate Daniel Kazakos, the chief financial officer of Horizons Unlimited Health Care in Merced, said Merced’s downtown needs improvements to lighting, roads and “possibly” alleyways. “The biggest issue for me is revitalization of the city’s core,” he said.
Cleaning downtown groundwater also is an important issue in Merced, he said, noting the city should look for federal funding for assistance. “That’s a big issue with some of the dry cleaning that we used to have here back in the early 1900s,” he said.
Jill McLeod, a candidate for District 3, also pointed to revitalization of downtown business, but added the downtown neighborhoods to that list of needs. “Safety’s a large issue and I would like to see our residents be able to use the downtown securely and really enjoy it,” the nurse said.
She said all of the candidates have good ideas, but she has the traits to carry them out. “What we really need, though, is a philosophical, nimble, optimistic leader who can identify and articulate what the philosophy and values are that all of these ideas feed into,” she said.
Homeless advocate Monica K. Villa, who lists her home address at the Merced County Rescue Mission, noted District 3 extends beyond Main Street. “It’s not just downtown. It goes to (Highway) 59 … and then it goes all the way to Cherry (Avenue),” she said. “All these people in this big, diverse area are about road safety.”
She said leaders should focus on safety around the schools in the district. “I think our police should be doing more policing as far as road safety,” Villa said.
Candidate Chris Ramirez, a UC Merced professor who led an unsuccessful run for office in 2013, did not participate in the forum.