A Thursday night debate among five Board of Supervisor candidates revealed few differences among their positions on broad issues like homelessness and public safety, but exposed a divide on specifics like the Riverside Motorsports Park project and the proposal to build a Wal-Mart distribution center in Merced.
It was the first debate among the candidates vying to fill Merced County's District 2 Board of Supervisors seat, which represents most of the city of Merced.
Of the five men running, four attended the debate. One, John Alexander, sent a representative in his place.
Audience-submitted questions touched on a range of subjects and the candidates remained cordial throughout the hour-and-a-half debate.
On the topics of protecting the county's ground water supply, revamping the its mental health department, addressing homelessness and fixing roads, the candidates all said the issues were important ones, though none was able to offer concrete plans in the minute they were given to answer.
Here is how they responded to some of the questions:
What would you do to improve public safety?
John Alexander's representative, Robert Mansfield: Education and community-based crime prevention programs.
Hub Walsh: More resources for law enforcement, prevention measures, especially for gangs.
John Price: More resources for all county law enforcement departments, including the District Attorney's Office and probation.
Jim Sanders: Move the District Attorney's Office into one building so it can function more effectively.
Casey Steed: Stop the early release of inmates from jails.
How would you protect the county's farmland?
Alexander's representative: More building up and less building out,
Walsh: Through smart planning and a comprehensive general plan.
Price: Protect and incentivize farming, but remember the importance of individual property rights.
Sanders: More in-fill development, more building up and less building out.
Steed: Through smart development. We also must look at smart transportation planning.
If you had to make a decision today, how would you vote on the Riverside Motorsports Park project?
Steed and Alexander's representative said they would deny the project. Walsh said he'd need more information on the project's potential environmental impacts, especially traffic. Sanders said he also needed more information. Price said he questioned the project's location and its financing.
If it was your decision, how would you vote on the proposal to build a Wal-Mart distribution center in Merced?
Price said he'd approve it. Steed said he'd like more information, but leans toward approving it. Walsh said it would depend on the project's environmental reviews. Sanders and Alexander's representative declined to answer.
"They covered all the topics I wanted to hear about," said Mary Ann Reynolds, a retired teacher who attended the debate. "But with the exception of Steed, I felt a lot of them weren't coming out and saying where they stood on some things." Reynolds said she still hasn't decided who she'll vote for.
Rich Gipson was also undecided after the debate though he said he's leaning toward Sanders or Walsh. "I think they have the most experience," he said.
Teresa Haley, a security systems operator at the Merced County Jail, said she now plans to vote for Steed. "He seemed to have done his homework," she said.
Merced City Councilman John Carlisle said the debate left him leaning toward one candidate, but he declined to say who. "I think they all had a number of good answers on some of the issues, but they all seemed to lack information on others," Carlisle said. "I think it's going to be a tough campaign."
Alexander missed the debate because he is in Washington, D.C., this week with the Merced County Association of Governments' One Voice delegation, a group of local community and business leaders that lobbies state and federal legislators on the county's behalf.
Alexander is executive Director of the Merced County Health Care Consortium. Price is a building contractor and former dairy farmer. Sanders now sits on the Merced City Council. Steed is an electrical contractor. Walsh is the director of Madera County's social services department.
The debate was sponsored by the Merced Associated Democrats.
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.