The Merced College Los Banos Campus forum for school board and City Council candidates Thursday featured a mix of policy and personality questions from a crowd of about 50 people.
Three Los Banos Unified School District candidates, four City Council candidates and Mayor Mike Villalta, who is running for re-election uncontested, introduced themselves and answered questions from the public.
Three school district candidates declined the invitation to speak, and one City Council candidate, Erasmo Viveros, did not attend because of a family emergency, according to organizers.
Each candidate had 15 minutes to address the public. No more than five minutes were allotted to an opening speech, with the rest of the time dedicated to answering questions from the public.
Mike Villalta, Los Banos mayor
Q: Years ago, the state took money allocated toward Los Banos projects to fund the state during the recession. Can they take our $8 million in reserve?
A: No, they can’t take our reserve money. The funds the state took years ago was redevelopment money that would have helped fund projects of the city and school district. I’m sad for the districts that were allocated those funds. Gov. Jerry Brown took it away because he wanted to balance the budget.
Q: You sent out your own survey to the residents of Los Banos. What were your conclusions, and was there anything unexpected?
A: Nothing unexpected, but everyone seems to want a community pool. I have some ideas for that.
Other things residents liked in the survey include recreation facilities, youth programs, a dog park, animal shelter improvements and a Highway 152 bypass.
Also, 66 percent of residents said they are satisfied with city services. I’d like to see that number higher.
Megan Goin-Soares, LBUSD Area 2
Q: How would you address helping teachers deal with children with special needs, or children who require extra attention?
A: I would be a proponent for education and training for teachers. It’s important to help them understand where these kids are coming from.
Q: What do you think are the main issues facing the school district as a whole?
A: The main challenge is facilities. When I was in high school, I sat on a couch in English class. It showed the need for another high school. We need to make sure there is sufficient areas for teachers to teach.
I also see finding a permanent superintendent high on the priority list. We need a captain, a permanent captain, for our ship. We need a visionary.
Dominic Falasco, LBUSD Area 4
Q: What is the most important problem facing the school board?
A: The most pressing is the crowding situation. The most important thing is to reduce classroom sizes. Hopefully if Proposition 51 passes, we can get some money back to build more classrooms.
Q: What makes you so passionate?
A: I have two daughters in the school district and another two who have graduated. I’m invested in seeing my kids, and all the kids, do their best with the educational opportunities we give them.
Q: What new programs would you be willing to introduce?
A: I’d like to see more computer-oriented vocational programs. One example is video game programming. People laugh at that, but that’s a big position out there with many jobs created. We need more tech-related programs like that.
Marg Benton, LBUSD Area 6
Q: How would you like to expand programs like the ROP?
A: We currently do have the FFA and mechanics programs, and now culinary. I would like to see more programs related to computer skills, coding, repair and programming.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the school district?
A: I think we need to give our teachers the tools they need by building more facilities. We should work on finishing up another wing on Pacheco High, and maybe build another school. That’s going to be a huge challenge.
Q: What would you do to bring unity to the school board?
A: I would lead by example. I believe if we can change some of the members of the board, we can be more cohesive.
Q: Amid all the negativity surrounding the school board, what do you think we have going for us?
A: We have amazing teachers. We have a pretty good school board, and well, half of them are wonderful. The kids are amazing, too. They deserve to have a quality education.
Palmer McCoy, City Council District 4
Q: You are a veteran. We have a homeless veterans problem in Los Banos right now. If elected, how could you help?
A: We have more than $3 million of unrestricted reserves. We should be asking the public what we want and how it can get done. We can find programs to address the issue. It’s not because we don’t have the funds, but we don’t have the will to go do it.
Q: Crime is, in part, related to joblessness. How would you help promote development in the city to reduce joblessness?
A: I’ve learned we’re not funding or have the staff to focus on economic development. If that was important to us right now, we’d have a fully staffed economic development department. For me, that’s important.
I also think we need to provide the police and fire departments with the latest tools and technology to do the job.
Q: What will be your biggest focus?
A: It would be transparency. I do a lot of research on everything before it comes to the Planning Commission. We’re a small city – if I only looked at people in my district, I think that would be an injustice to the city.
Q: How would you interact with the school district to address future growth in the city and how it impacts schools?
A: We have good growth, but we’re lacking the infrastructure to make it happen, including schools. I don’t feel the City Council and school board work very well together. I would help get that done.
Deborah Lewis, City Council District 4
Q: As an incumbent, what have you done in the last four years for community safety?
A: We, as a council, were able to save a lot of police officer jobs by reallocating money set aside for a new police station and fire department enhancements to invest in them. As housing and the economy picks up, we may be able to afford staffing more officers. We try to do everything to support our police and fire departments.
Q: What’s your vision for job development?
A: I think we can marry the agriculture community with the technology community as we move forward. I’d like to open up the city to more incubator businesses and entrepreneurs.
I’d also like to continue working on the business park planned along Interstate 5, and moving the airport.
Q: Would you be open to waiving fees for large corporations, like Kagome, as an incentive to move or expand in Los Banos?
A: I know people have been concerned about waiving these fees. We have to be careful and evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, we need to make a sacrifice to get a company to come down here. And we’ll make it up in tax revenue. I’m not totally against it.
Daronica Santos, City Council District 1
Q: How would you address the homeless veterans situation in Los Banos?
A: My husband is a veteran, so this is dear to my heart. In Merced, they have a successful program as well. We can join this program for a fee and share in the grant money.
Q: What would you do for the younger people in town?
A: Being a younger candidate for the City Council, I’d help work to bring more jobs. Also, I think attracting music festivals and other activities for people to do in Los Banos would help a whole town come together and unwind.
Q: What’s the biggest single issue facing the city?
A: Managing growth while keeping our small-town feel is something we need to work with. Within the first six months, I want to be aggressive and push it. I want to keep talking to the city manager and City Council, letting them know I’m here, and help solve those issues.
Q: What specific skills would you bring to the City Council?
A: My most valuable skill is working with people. I think I would bring cohesion to the City Council.
Q: What, in your view, is the biggest success of the city in the past few years? What is its biggest struggle?
A: I’m a big fan of the community center. I’d like to see it used more. As for the city’s struggle, I’d say I believe there is too much finger-pointing and not enough things being done.
Q: What is your take on small businesses?
A: We definitely don’t want to forget about the small-business community. If we were to have larger companies come in, I think we should definitely acknowledge our smaller businesses. I would want to walk around, talk to small businesses and hear how they feel about companies coming in.
Brian Ring, City Council District 1
Q: What are your three most important concerns?
A: No. 1 is public safety. I’m a big proponent for the fire and police departments. I feel they are very understaffed. For the population we have, we need a lot of help.
The second thing, I would like to bring more jobs to town and give more opportunities for businesses to keep jobs in town. I would also like to keep people and activities in town.
Q: What skills do you think you would bring to the City Council?
A: Listening is a very important skill I have. It’s the same idea as customer service, but the City Council is on a much grander scale.
Q: What is your take on small businesses?
A: We can’t just be about corporate business. I want to promote small businesses and bring more in.
Q: What can you bring to the youth?
A: Aqua Entertainment is a good start. We have to sit down with youth and families to share ideas on what they want. We need to be open about it.
Q: How are you involved in the community?
A: I’m involved with the Los Banos Chamber of Commerce on behalf of my employer, Terminix. I go to mixers and events, and I talk with the business community.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562