Experienced candidates vie for Atwater council seats

ATWATER -- Atwater's City Council race looks a lot like a rerun. To anyone who has paid attention to city government for the past decade, these faces won't be new.

Atwater’s two open seats are being fought over by a group of former or current City Council members. But whoever is elected in November will have to shepherd the city through rough economic times.

Lesa Rasmussen, an incumbent appointed in 2006, has many years of government service behind her.

Before coming to the City Council, she worked for 10 years as a senior legislative staffer in the Assembly and was on the Planning Commission for eight years. She was also the executive director of the United Way of Merced.

Rasmussen said her two priorities, if elected, are preparing for economic turmoil and the state budget crisis.“I think the major issue confronting Atwater is the same confronting every city in the state,” she said. In other words, how will the city prepare for lost tax dollars due to an economic slowdown?

She said her record on the council, especially as a member of the Public Safety Committee, speaks for her commitment to Atwater.

Rasmussen has raised $7,072. Congressman Dennis Cardoza gave her $1,000. She got another $1,000 from the Merced-Mariposa Central Labor Council and another $1,000 from the California Department of Forestry Fire Fighters.

Gary Frago, Atwater’s first paid firefighter, is the other incumbent running. Frago, a local businessman, was elected in 2000 to his first term on the City Council. On the council he has been skeptical about turning the fire department over to Cal Fire and wary of money spent by the city on a master plan for parks and recreation.

Frago sees economic development as the first and most important task for Atwater. He would like to bring new businesses to the area so the high unemployment rates can be reversed.

“I have the experience of being on the council for eight years. I’ve lived here for 62 years, so I know the people; I know what the area needs,” said Frago.

As of Sept. 30, he had raised $4,438, according to financial filings. Besides the $1,000 he got from Kristine Frago, his wife, several other donors aided him. Andy Krotik, a local real estate agent with Gonella Realty, gave $500, and Michael Gallo, who owns Joseph Farms, gave another $500. Frago also got $3,000 from HRP Inc., a chain of 11 grocery stores in the Valley.

Challenger Eileen Duddy was on the City Council from 1996 to 2000 and has been a certified public accountant since 1981. She sat on the Joint Powers Authority for Castle Air Force Base’s redevelopment. She runs her own accounting business.

She says that when she was first elected to the City Council, it looked as if Atwater was going to have to raise utility rates to make up for lost revenues. But after she was elected, the books were brought into the black and additional funds were found.

Duddy’s main concerns are fiscal responsibility and accountability. She is concerned, for example, that the current budget will break the city’s bank. “I’ve audited cities and county agencies,” she said, pointing out her financial acumen.

Duddy said she isn’t taking donations and hasn’t filed with the city.

Challenger number two is Joe Rivero, also a former member of the City Council from 1998 to 2002. He’s the son of current Councilman Joe Rivera.

The younger Rivero has been an elementary school teacher for 19 years. During his time on the council, he said a dozen police were hired and more funds were poured into infrastructure projects.

Rivero’s priority, if elected, is to make city government more accountable to the voters. “Right now we need to bring the voice of the people back to the council, which I see as lacking,” he said. “Elected officials are there to oversee the wishes of the people and not the desires of management.”

Rivero has raised $1,500 from two sources, according to filings. G & G Construction of Atwater gave $500, and Christopher Tyler gave $1,000. Tyler worked for Pacific Union Homes, a developer who built roughly 200 homes in Atwater, and still owns 14 acres.

Gregory B. Wellman, Atwater’s city manager, said that for whoever is elected in November, tough times lie ahead. “Obviously the No. 1 issue nationally, statewide and locally is the deteriorating state of the economy,” said Wellman. “There are some very unpopular decisions that are going to have to be made.”

And those won’t be a rerun.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or at jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.