Santa Paula Times

Left to right are Santa Paula City Council Candidates: Ralph Fernandez, Rick Cook, Rita Stafford, Duane Ashby, and Bob Gonzales.

Part 1: Council candidates address low-income housing at Forum

October 08, 2010
Santa Paula City Council

Santa Paula voters had a chance to meet the City Council candidates at a League of Women Voters Ventura County Forum held Tuesday evening at the Community Center. Chapter President Jennifer Matos welcomed the crowd, and noted the forum encourages voters to “get down to the nitty gritty” with questions on issues they find most important in the race.

“I love coming to Santa Paula,” noted Moderator David Maron of Oxnard, who outlined forum rules and urged attendees to submit their questions.

On the panel were council incumbents Ralph Fernandez and Bob Gonzales, who are seeking their second four-year terms, former councilman Rick Cook, who served two terms before losing his bid for a third in 2006, and newcomers Duane Ashby and Rita Stafford. Determined by a straw vote, each candidate had 90 seconds to introduce themselves.

Fernandez said his background as an architect and Ventura College instructor for 22 years helps the council in “giving a different perspective” for proposed new projects, and allowed him to express concern regarding design and other issues. His knowledge of the community and awareness of needs, as well as what Fernandez said was calming the “chaos” of the community and on the council, are attributes.

Cook said he was a Santa Paula Police sergeant when he retired after 23 years, and his eight years on the council included issues still before the council including Limoneira East Area 1 development and the new water recycling facility (WRF). Bettering the community is a priority, as is finding an alternate solution to the $500,000 monthly payment for the new WRF that Cook wants to “stop.”

Stafford said she is a relative newcomer to the city, a “wonderful place,” where she believes she can make a difference. A language professor with a doctorate degree, Stafford said she hopes to find a position “closer to home” in January to better serve the community and its needs.

Ashby said his family has been “quietly involved in the community” since they moved to the city in 1993. He serves on the city’s Economic Development Advisory Board. His professional experience is in finance and he has worked in agriculture, and Ashby said one of the qualities he would bring to the council is the “willingness to listen...  you may not agree with me when I’m doing my job” as a council member, “but I will listen to you and treat you with respect.” Past years were “contentious” for the council, which “seemed to be out of touch,” and the council elected in 2008 has been faced with “tough decisions” including how to deal with sagging finances.

Gonzales, like Cook and Fernandez a city native, said he rose through the ranks of the SPPD - ultimately retiring as chief in 2005. During his SPPD career he also served on a variety of elected boards, including the Santa Paula elementary and high school districts and the Ventura County Community College Board. “I’ve had a significant amount of exposure to governance” and handling budgets up to $100 million. “After my retirement I went to work for a developer,” Pinnacle Corporation, and “we pushed and pushed and finally” obtained a voter approved development agreement for Adams Canyon.

Candidates were asked to address their position on low-income housing.

Housing issues, said Cook, “have been and always will be a hot topic,” and he hopes East Area 1 - which will provide more upper-end housing - will soon break ground, although the economy has greatly stalled start ups. When it comes to low-income housing per the city’s plans, “We’ve used up most land for large projects” and must concentrate on attracting smaller projects while expanding housing growth. “Any plan coming before the council deserves our fair and unbiased” research and consideration, and although Cook said he has turned down projects in the past, “I’ve always supported all phases of housing.”

Stafford said, “If there’s a need there’s a way, however to just build low-income housing so they will come is not necessarily the best approach.” Housing is an issue dependent on need, “when there are more people than houses,” which she has not seen demonstrated. “It seems to be a lot being built right now,” and Stafford said some projects have been controversial and, although “not opposed,” she believes the city must create revenue higher-end housing would bring.

Ashby, Fernandez and Gonzales said Santa Paula’s housing needs “balance.”

Ashby said it is “a tough topic for everybody... we have to do what is best for the entire city,” and much building is required. “The issue is what is best for Santa Paula, and what is best is a balanced various type of housing” and businesses. The city’s current budget is being undercut by sagging property tax: “Let’s get back into balance” and use the revenue Limoneira will be paying in lieu of building low-income units wisely.

Gonzales said housing is out of balance, and residents of low-income units “use city services and schools and the hospital... and property taxes are not being paid.” Limoneira will be paying the city an in-lieu fee for the required 15 percent set-aside for low-income housing, and Gonzales said the revenue should be directed to those “who currently own rental homes” through low-cost loans so they can better their units.

Fernandez also said housing is out of balance, and he noted the opportunities that could result from Limoneira’s in-lieu fee. “We can redevelop areas in the community and improve Santa Paula,” while ensuring amenities such as green space and playgrounds are provided. Without such amenities, problems are generated that impact the community. “We could benefit the community if we do this wisely, not necessarily” construct “big boxes that don’t serve us as a community.”

City Council members are paid $300 a month, but with the city benefit package - which includes about $1,000 a month that can be used for the city cafeteria health plan - their total compensation is almost $20,000 annually.