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Merced's mayoral candidates seldom disagree on issues

This fall, Merced will see a rematch between mayoral candidates Rick Osorio and Ellie Wooten -- rivals who broke fundraising records when they faced off in 2005. But when voters mark their ballots on Nov. 6, what will they really be choosing between?

A look at Wooten's and Osorio's voting records shows the two campaign competitors fostered little discord in the City Council chambers. In fact, of the 442 matters that Osorio and Wooten have voted on since the '05 election, the two split with each other only 18 times.

Like most of their council colleagues, Osorio and Wooten see eye-to-eye on development questions, usually voting yes on new building projects.

Sounds like harmony, but the points at which Wooten and Osorio differ offer some insight into differences between the candidates. District elections, council compensation and the controversial appointment of Councilman Carl Pollard are some of the issues that saw Osorio and Wooten butt heads.

Most recently the two parted ways over whether the city should consider forming voting districts. Right now, council members are elected on a citywide system; they don't represent any particular part of town. Some say that means impoverished South Merced -- home to only one council member since 1987 -- gets short shrift. Twice this year, Wooten voted against plans to let voters decide whether Merced should be separated into districts. She said at the time that Merced wasn't big enough for districts and that partitioning the city could create unhealthy divisions.

Osorio thought the matter should go before voters. His view won out in July, when the council OK'd a plan to let voters decide on district elections on the February 2008 ballot.

Councilman Bill Spriggs called Osorio's stance on district elections an example of Osorio's "populist" tendencies. Wooten takes more of an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" approach to her decisions, said Spriggs.

That was Wooten's thinking on another touchy subject: council pay. Right now council members earn $20 a month plus $50 for serving on the city's Redevelopment Agency Board. (The City Council is the Redevelopment Agency Board.) Spriggs thinks the council's pay should be higher. He wants Merced to peg council pay to the city's population. Under that system, Merced's council would earn about $600 a month.

In July, the council voted on whether to let citizens decide the pay issue on the November ballot. Osorio voted to put the decision on the ballot; Wooten voted to keep it off. She said at the time, "I wouldn't have a problem with being paid $600 a month obviously," but serving on the council should be more about "doing a good job for something you believe in" than a paycheck.

Wooten and Osorio's thorniest clash came in December 2005, when the council battled at a marathon meeting over how to fill the seat left vacant when Wooten became mayor. Osorio made four motions calling for Carl Pollard's appointment; Wooten voted against all of them. As discussion grew more heated, Wooten called for a five-minute break, then returned to the dais and broke the deadlock. The meeting marked the most contentious moment of Wooten's reign as mayor. Since then, the council has clashed only a handful of times; most votes are unanimous.

That apparent lack of debate drew criticism recently from Adam Cox, a Merced College student who was considering a run for council. Cox said too many unanimous votes meant too little discussion among local leaders.

But most of what the council votes on is fairly mundane paperwork, said Spriggs, so counting votes isn't necessarily a valid way to take a council's political temperature. He noted that the council sometimes arrives at a unanimous decision after a lot of back-and-forth on the dais.

Both Wooten and Osorio said even though their voting records reveal little difference between them, voters face a real choice in November.

Osorio considers himself an advocate for the little guy. "Because of my background of poverty and being in foster homes, I'm always looking for how do we help people to get where they want to go," he proclaimed.

The stakes are higher for Osorio in this election -- he's at the end of his council term, so if he doesn't win the mayor's seat, he's off the council. But he's not interested in bad-mouthing his opponent. "What I hope (voters) would choose is that they want to see someone who's willing to listen to everyone and make the best decision for the community. I'm not talking about the current mayor, I'm talking about what I would do," he said.

Wooten said she wants voters to judge her on her actions in office, not necessarily on her votes. "I think you have to measure on what the person's done over their tenure in office," said Wooten. "I fought for the air space, I fought for the railroad (crossing on G Street), I fought for the post office. I'm there every day and I try to show up to all the functions that I'm asked to attend. I think I've been a pretty good mayor," said Wooten.

Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 209-385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.

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