GUSTINE -- Voters in this idyllic Westside city affectionately called the county's last "Norman Rockwell" town will go to the polls Tuesday to either keep their mayor or give someone else a chance.
Tuesday's election will rematch incumbent Rich Ford and challenger Mark Melville. Ford defeated Melville by a narrow margin in 2006, the first year the city held a mayoral election.
Both men wield a formidable amount of experience in local city government. Ford, a 50-year-old owner of a Gustine farm supply store, has served on the City Council since 1986, including serving as the appointed mayor of Gustine from 1990 to 1992 and 2000 to 2002.
Melville, a 51-year-old owner of a consulting business, served on the City Council from 2002 to 2006, and previously served as Gustine police chief from 1988 to 1999 and city manager from 1991 to 1999. Melville's name is also familiar because he is vice president of Riverside Motorsports Park, a proposed racing complex that appears to be in limbo, but remains the subject of much public debate.
Issues central to the race include a proposed three-quarter-cent sales tax increase to address the city's budget woes, future growth, public safety and downtown revitalization. Some residents have also asked questions about both candidates' backgrounds -- in the case of Melville, his RMP ties; while Ford continues to receive health benefits from the city.
As a mayor, Ford readily admits that one of his top priorities is to preserve Gustine's small-town character -- the kind of place where personal relationships matter and people know one another by first names.
He lists several recent accomplishments, such as $1 million in road construction projects, acquiring a grant for new bathrooms in Henry Miller Park, a green-friendly zoning ordinance that equips new subdivisions with solar power, a revenue-sharing plan with the county and passing a general plan with an agriculture buffer that borders the city. "We're trying to create an area where people will want to live here over any of the other opportunities that they have," Ford said.
On the other hand, Melville said he decided to run a second time because of what he perceives as a lack of communication between Gustine's local government and its citizens. Melville said he was especially upset when he learned that assessment district fees were being raised for property owners. Other than a notice in a local newspaper, Melville said city government didn't properly notify citizens. "And nobody knew about it," Melville complained.
Underneath their myriad qualifications, however, the candidates' views vary on topics such as the city's economic woes and their approaches toward future growth and development.
One of the issues at the forefront of the election is Measure N, a local three-quarter-cent sales tax geared toward helping the city weather its ongoing financial difficulties. During Gustine's last budget cycle, the city recorded a deficit nearing $400,000, according to City Manager Margaret Silveira.
The measure's supporters say it would help maintain city and safety services, such as police and fire, in addition to repairing streets, roads and other services, according to the Merced County Clerk's Office.
Ford said he backs the measure because the city needs the resources to retain quality employees, especially public safety. For example, while some younger police officers may leave Gustine for other departments once they've gained experience, Ford would like to see more of those officers stay onboard. "In a small community, it's hard to keep our personnel after they're trained, because there's so many opportunities out there, especially in the police department," Ford said. "So we're trying to get our salaries up to where we keep these people here."
Melville, on the other hand, says he opposes Measure N. He would support the measure if it was restricted for funding the police and fire department. But because the money can be used for purposes other than public safety, however, Melville said he's against it.
"These city councils are going to change every couple of years. Who is going to guarantee that it is going to be used for public safety? There is no guarantee," Melville said. Melville also doesn't want to ask residents for money "unless we absolutely" need it. "Government has got to set the limit and stay within," Melville said.
With the economic downturn, Melville said "economic survival," not growth, is the main issue facing Gustine residents during this election.
It's also another reason why he decided to run again for mayor. As a former city manager in both Gustine and Livingston, Melville said he's equipped with the tools to turn around the city's economic situation.
While he credits Ford for strengths on the "political side," Melville said he has the operational experience to get the job done.
"When you actually have to sit there and crunch the numbers, and prepare a budget and submit it to (the city council) for their review and support it, that's where the work comes in," Melville said.
Melville said the city will have to go back and "really trim the budget" in order to close the deficit. "The unknown question is, we don't know what the fallout is truly going to be from Sacramento," Melville said. "So you really have got to go back and you've got to trim a whole lot. And I think that's where my experience comes in, in that I have had to do that."
Ford is meeting with city officials to discuss cuts that will need to be made in order to fix the city deficit. Fortunately, Ford said, Gustine's total reserves are relatively strong at about $1.7 million, although he admits the city can't keep dipping into its reserves as a temporary fix.
"We're going to have to cut into some of the things were doing," Ford said. He plans on meeting with the city manager and finance director to make those cuts. That could mean cutting back on hours at city hall or making adjustments on to how the city spends money on programs such as tree trimming.
"A lot of miscellaneous stuff that adds up to a lot of dollars," Ford said. "But you can trim out some of the things, that we can probably do without for a couple of years, until the economy turns around and gets going again."
On the topic of future growth, Ford said he isn't opposed to new development. He does advocate a cautious, slower but "good" growth program that won't sacrifice the small-town qualities that give Gustine character, while keeping the city appealing to families with development that "pays for itself."
Melville, on the other hand, said a "balanced growth" solution is the key for helping Gustine thrive, with a mix of residential, industrial and commercial development.
Ford said the city should control the scope and speed of growth by pacing the amount of permits issued to developers, or a citywide referendum that limits permits. "I think the community itself needs to control how much growth they want," Ford said. "They don't let the developers come in and say, 'Build like crazy for five years while the boom is going on, and then we'll try to plan around what's there when we get done.'"
Melville agrees that it's important to protect the city's "Mayberry" character, but he also sees a city that has hardly grown at all since he left the city manager's seat in 1999. Melville said he'd like to approach businesses, engineers, contractors and others to talk about how they can improve Gustine, particularly the downtown area. "I'm not going let them come in and run roughshod all over us so that we lose our small-town heritage. It just won't happen," Melville insisted. "But you have to have some growth to help support your business community and your industrial areas. People need jobs."
While Ford admits not everyone is a fan of his slow-grow approaches toward development, he said most of the council members he served with agree with them. Ford said he wants to keep Gustine as a place where the people who move into town "actually become part of the community, and participate in little league, youth football, the schools and that type of thing," Ford said. "You continue to build your community -- not a bunch of people that don't even know each other.
Still, Ford said he's interested in revitalizing the city's downtown, saying the city is in the midst of establishing a downtown redevelopment agency. The agency's planned area should be completed by next fall, Ford said.
Although Ford acknowledges that it could take several years to fund the agency, he said bonds or money set aside in general capital reserves could be used to jump-start some of the projects. For starters, Ford said he would like to focus on items such as improving storm drainage, water systems for planters and trees and curb improvements. Ford also said there are available areas that can be converted into commercial development. "Probably that initial step is going to be the biggest expense of the project," Ford said.
While Melville said he isn't against establishing a redevelopment agency "when times are good," he doesn't think now is the right time, suggesting the money could go toward other uses. He also said believes in talking to the business community about options such as creating a business improvement district or pursuing grants to improve downtown.
"Right now, they are putting $160,000 into getting this redevelopment agency off the ground. How long is it going to take to get that money back, to where you can start using it? That's my concern," Melville said. "We have a lot of very talented engineers and contractors in this community. There are some renderings that have been done of what the downtown could look like. Let's get these guys together and say, 'OK, let's do what it takes.' Let's go block by block and see what we can do."
Melville and RMP
Melville acknowledged that he's still involved in Riverside Motorsports Park as vice president. First proposed more than five years ago, the RMP project is still far from breaking ground.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors approved RMP's proposal in December 2006. But a judge threw out those approvals earlier this year when she ruled against RMP in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and the Merced County Farm Bureau.
The Sun-Star reported earlier this year that RMP had been on shaky financial footing for many months and had problems paying its bills. After the company failed for months to make more than $150,000 in delinquent payments to the county, the Board of Supervisors voted to require RMP to pay up front for future permitting and legal services.
Melville said while he was "an employee" on RMP, he never had any control "of the purse strings" or recruiting for investors.
"My job was to get it though the government process, get it thought the entitlement process," Melville said.
While Melville admits that his detractors continue to throw the controversy surrounding RMP "in his face," he said it's all about "economic development" and "trying to put people to work."
"RMP is a regional recreational project (that would put) $180 million estimated into the local economy. If you want to fault me for trying to do that, then fault me. Because that's what I was trying to do," Melville said.
As for whether he has business ties with Ranchwood Homes and its owner Greg Hostetler, Melville described Hostetler as "a friend," but said his dealings don't go much further than that. Would his friendship with Hostetler influence his leadership of the city? Melville said it wouldn't. "Greg is a friend of mine. OK? I don't work for Greg, I have never worked for Greg. As small as I am, there is no way that I am going to ever be able to enhance his pocketbook. Especially in Gustine," Melville said. "I have nothing to do with his business or his business interests. He's not going to get any favoritism. Nobody is going to get any favoritism."
Melville is not the only candidate whose background has been the subject of some criticism. An article published on WestsideConnect.com, the Web site for the Westside Index and the Gustine Press-Standard, stated that some community members expressed concerns about the fact that Ford receives city-paid health insurance.
Years ago, the council eliminated the benefits, and new members no longer qualify.
Ford explained that all city council members had city-paid medical insurance when he first joined the council 22 years ago -- and his benefits are a holdover from that policy. "I just happen to be still on the council, still getting elected," Ford says.
He said the issue of his health benefits has been well-known in the community for quite some time. "Obviously, it's a concern for a few people, and it's an issue that they are trying to make a political issue," Ford said.
Both candidates have voiced concern about public safety. While Melville said Gustine's budget is the city's biggest challenge, however, Ford said the influence of gangs in the community, mostly with older gang members recruiting younger kids, is the city's biggest challenge.
The city's sole homicide this year was gang-related (the primary suspect was arrested earlier this month).
While Ford credits the Gustine Police Department's current anti-gang efforts, he believes more can be done. Ultimately, if Measure N does pass, Ford said he would like to hire one or two more police officers to help increase the focus on keeping gangs away from Gustine.
"We have to put some heat on them so that they don't like living in Gustine," Ford said. "They don't like the attention, and in bigger cities they can kind of hide in the darkness, and a lot of people won't even notice they're there. But around here I think we can put the pressure on them."
As opposed to using dollars from a sales tax initiative to help solve Gustine's public safety needs, Melville said the city should work on strengthening alliances and communication with neighboring police agencies, such as the Newman Police Department.
Melville also said his background as a police chief in Gustine has prepared him to understand the public safety needs of the community. He believes his background will also be helpful when the city hires a new police chief, which is expected to happen by the beginning of next year.
"Who knows better? I was a police chief for 11 years," Melville said. "It's not like the police department is new to me. But I can work with the new chief to talk about issues and concerns in this community, and be more helpful in that regard."
Ford is a registered Republican who's married and has one daughter. Born in La Grange, he moved to Gustine with his family in 1971.
Melville is a registered Democrat who is divorced and has a son and a daughter. He was born in the Bay Area, and moved to Gustine in 1988.
With Ford, one thing is certain -- he says he'll do everything he can to keep Gustine as a "Norman Rockwell" town. "Once that's gone, you can't get it back," Ford said.
While Melville said he wants Gustine to stay that way, he also wants to give people a few more reasons to visit, even if he has to "beat down their doors" as mayor to do it. "I think we need to find some folks, bring them here, and tell them that they need to invest in our community," Melville said.
Even though the race is expected to be a tight, both candidates say they share a friendly relationship, one that likely will not change after the election.
Regardless of whether they're friends, however, there can only be one mayor.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or email@example.com.