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Well-known personalities vying for open seat on Merced County Board of Supervisors

Jim Sanders and Hub Walsh portrayed themselves during a supervisor candidate forum Thursday as careful public stewards at a time when every penny must be carefully counted and wisely spent.

Their similarities, down to the blue suit they each sported, outnumbered the ways they differed during discussions, which touched on health care, the economy, water supplies, low-income housing and foreclosure aid.

The forum at the Board of Supervisors chamber was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the local NAACP chapter and the Merced County Chamber of Commerce. It also featured the candidates for Assembly, Republican Jack Mobley and incumbent Democrat Cathleen Galgiani.

Just as it's been a centerpiece in the national dialogue, the economy and its reach into every function of government was a constant theme in the supervisors forum.

District 2 Supervisor Kathleen Crookham decided not to seek another term. The district covers much of Merced, along with its rural areas to the east and south.

Walsh and Sanders both have ties to city government. Walsh served two terms on the Merced City Council and two terms as mayor. Sanders is half-way through his second term on the City Council.

They're both campaigning as county government reformers bent on bringing economic prosperity in the face of a local recession.

Walsh said his top priorities in office would be restoring confidence in county government and improving the local economy by bringing in more employers.

He explained that he'd win the public's trust by opening the doors of government, allowing for more public input, even on critical tasks such as writing the yearly budget.

With about a quarter of residents receiving public aid, bringing in more and better-paying jobs must be at the forefront, he said.

From the beginning, Walsh said there are problems with the county's system. He said it's unclear whether employers should go speak with officials at the Merced County Economic Development Corp., a separate nonprofit organization, or with John Fowler, the county's economic development director.

Sanders frequently referred back to his core plan if elected supervisor to look at what the county does, how much it costs and look at how it's funded.

"You can't expect to provide the same level of service with shrinking revenue," he said.

He didn't specify what services could be scaled back.

His other priority, like Walsh, is economic development. Merced County's growth used to be tied to the railroads, but that's changed, he said.

The county, Sanders said,needs to rethink its marketing and develop a better online presence to lure employers. "We need to work on improving our economy," he said. "It'll solve a lot of our problems."

Perhaps one of the most nuanced questions of the night asked, "Who do you represent?"

Walsh said as supervisor he'd speak up for all the residents who live on county and city land. "We represent everyone in our community," he said.

Sanders answered similarly, and then emphasized that he wants to change county government. "The perception is that the Board (of Supervisors) takes care of the people who work for the county," he said. "People think their decisions appear self-centered."

No matter who's elected, county government will be different after Election Day.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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