Council districts 1, 3 and 5 are on the ballot this November; eight candidates discussed their platforms on homelessness, downtown, public trust and police reform during a Sept. 17 candidate forum
TULARE – In six short weeks residents will have the opportunity to vote out or keep three of the council’s five members.
The Sun-Gazette, in partnership with the Tulare County Association of Realtors and the Women’s Council of Realtors, gave incumbents and challengers an opportunity to make their case to voters over homelessness, downtown revitalization, public trust and police reform brought to the forefront by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sitting mayor Jose Sigala, who represents District 1, and current councilman Carlton Jones, who represents District 3, were the only incumbents to join the forum. District 5 councilman Greg Nunley said that he was unable to attend due to illness.
Earlier this year the city decided to move forward with an ambitious low-barrier homeless shelter project. The city voted to approve $500,000 in housing funds for the project that is supposed to provide 76 bed and is slated to be located at 444 E. Cross Ave. The aim is to be able to shelter all of Tulare’s homeless by January. Unfortunately, Tulare’s business community have raised their concerns over the location.
Sigala has been in support of the project since it’s inception and says that it is a priority despite some pushback from the business community.
“We definitely need [a shelter]. It makes an indentation into the numbers that we have and I’m hoping that it is something that will continue to move forward. It is something that will continue to be a priority if I am fortunate enough to be reelected,” Sigala said.
His challenger, Clara Bernardo, said she would rather see the money for a shelter be spent on services.
“Basically, putting them all combined in one roof has never solved anything. And I understand that there’s programs in those shelters that do have help but I believe there’s a lot of other shelters that have the same type of programs,” Bernardo said.
Jones largely agreed with Bernardo – although she is not challenging Sigala in his district – and said that a shelter is just “a leaky roof.” He said that patching the problem is not enough and the city should be focused on solving the root causes of homelessness.
Steve Harrell, who is challenging Jones for his seat in District 3 said that he largely agrees with helping the homeless through more robust mental health and drug addition services. However he said the location is ill suited, and should be reconsidered.
“As far as location, the city worked 18 months and came up with one location. The downtown association within one week came up with six different locations. One of which being the fairgrounds,” Harrell said.
Four of the eight candidates to attend the online forum came from District 5 and are vying to unseat Nunley. Patrick Isherwood said one of the largest factors hurting cities is regulations from Sacramento.
“The barbarians at the gate are mandating and putting forceful actions on our city regarding shelters and other homeless provisions,” Isherwood said. “Partly what we need to do is not shoot from the hip, and just make declarations that we are going to move to a shelter and send shockwaves to the public.”
He added that it would be advantageous to partner with business owners who are concerned about the negative impacts that a large homeless shelter could have on their business.
Mario Flores, the second candidate from District 5 to speak on the question said that the shelter is only a piece of what needs to be done.
“A lot of our homeless are dealing with trauma…before we do anything we need to give them a place to rest their heads,” Flores said.
Courtney Oliver, the third candidate for District 5 said getting the homeless into a safe shelter is the first step toward assessing their needs. She said there could be future opportunities to employ members of the homeless community after they receive treatment or rehabilitation
“Once we get a homeless person to a certain level maybe there is a business that will hire them as a checker or some lower level job where they can build themselves up from,” Oliver said.
She added that what has detracted from progress on helping homelessness has been council infighting.
“I think we need to have a positive attitude and work together. This isn’t a situation that any of us wanted to deal with but we have to deal with so lets just do the best that we can do. Being negative is not going to help with anything,” Oliver said.
The last candidate to answer for District 5 was Grady Dodson. He echoed some of his fellow challengers that sheltering the homeless in Tulare can only be a part of the solution.
“If we address the underlying symptoms and contributing factors that’s really going to give us the full picture of what we need to do.”
The week before the forum, two Tulare realtors, Blake Shawn and Jacob Fraga unveiled their project: The Downtown Dream. Their hope is to convert a vacant building at the corner of L Street and Kern Avenue into a coworking space.
The Sun-Gazette editor and moderator of the Sept. 17 forum, Paul Myers, asked what the candidates plan would be to help revitalize downtown.
Harrell said The Downtown Dream is a good start, but there are still 20 to 30 other vacant buildings to consider.
“It’s going to take a tremendous effort with the downtown association and developers to continue this [and] make Tulare what it was several years ago,” Harrell said.
Jones told listeners and viewers that he had fought for the economic development assistance program which he said the council voted “to get rid of.”
“That’s what we use to help businesses to come to our city where we want to recruit them,” Jones said.
Flores, running for District 5, said that a younger generation like Shawn and Fraga could help “revamp” downtown as a place that young professionals want to work. Flores said that part of the reason the city’s downtown seems so desolate is because of the lack of businesses. Using himself as an example Flores said that downtown is not necessarily family friendly and he looks outside of the community when he wants to go somewhere with his family.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurs within the community that are wanting support,” Flores said.
He added that he would work with the Tulare Chamber of Commerce to help recruit businesses.
Oliver, said that she would look for cities comparable to Tulare. She pointed to Davis, Calif. as an example.
“Davis is similar to Tulare in size and has a huge ag community and industry. So I think it is perfect town to mirror ourselves after…we also need to make sure that we bring in stores that are essential,” Oliver said.
Echoing, yet slightly changing Oliver’s point, Dodson said the city should take notes on local sister cities like Visalia and Exeter. He noted the city has done some beautification projects but also said that the city has to pay attention to what residents want.
“I think what it comes down to is supply and demand. We are starting to hear from residents that they do want to see the city council put forth effort and resources into downtown and if the people are asking, we should do it,” Dodson said.
Bernardo, challenging Sigala for District 1, said the city could learn from Visalia’s downtown efforts and strategically recruit businesses with an interest in staying open later.
“[Visalia has] totally changed that main street around…we come down our K street, we have great businesses down there, but by 5 p.m. everything’s done,” Bernardo said.
Sigala largely agreed with Bernardo about businesses staying open later, but he added that the city could do more to beautify it. Sigala added that the city still needs to deal with homeless in downtown and perhaps bring mental health services to that part of town.
It has been no secret that the city council has been disjointed over pivotal issues in Tulare. Each candidate gave their pitch about how they would help restore public trust in their office if they were elected this November.
Oliver said she would take a hard line against corruption.
“If you don’t have integrity you have no business serving the public. You are actually going to cost the city money,” Oliver said.
Dodson pointed out that the city has been hurt publicly and financially by lawsuits filed against the city and even by their own city council members.
“If we go back to our history we spend a lot of money in law suits. And that has to stop,” Dodson said.
Isherwood, also running for District 5, said he was embarrassed when he took some of his high school students to a city council meeting in the past.
“Instead of bring a notepad the students should have brought popcorn. The insults, shaming and fighting back and forth, it was embarrassing. The level of professionalism was sad,” Isherwood said.
He added that he would make an effort to “reach across and shake hands” and try to transform the council to become a platform for working together.
Flores echoed Isherwood’s comments, in part. He said that council members should keep each other accountable and be disciplined in what they were elected to do.
Sigala, who has been on the council for many of the clashes in recent past address them head on. He said that he attempted to create a culture of cooperation among the council but when he called for a meeting two members did not show up. He did not name who. Sigala said that he is still happy to be on the council and working on issues in the city.
“I’ve been very glad to be working with the working majority on our council to bring some stability and some professionalism to our council and try to focus on issues and try not to pay attention to the disruptions at our council meetings,” Sigala said.
Bernardo gave her searing opinion on the council’s recent lack of decorum.
“Truthfully, some of these people need to sit down and shut up and listen to the citizens,” Bernardo said. “If one of them starts up it’s not right to jump on board. You’re here for your district. So, listen to them.”
Jones, who at times was at the center of controversy in the council said that out of 10 different city council’s he’s served on, “this is the worst it’s ever been.”
“We have some people who don’t see the passion and love, and then speak for their community. And they bring that [negative] energy not just to the council but everywhere they go,” Jones said.
Harrell called on his 50 years of law enforcement experience, and that experience gave him perspective that he is serving the public.
“You aren’t there for your own agenda. You are there to meet the needs of the district you serve…at the end of the meting you should be able to shake hands because you are there to serve your citizens. That’s your number one priority,” Harrell said.
Since the death of George Floyd in May cities all over the country have been forced to confront protesters calling for police reform. All of the candidates agreed that there is a need to support the police in some way, shape or form, but there is room for improvement.
Bernardo outright said that defunding the police department is “not the way to go.” She said that officers are more likely to do well in their job performance if they are financially secure.
“If they are mentally cleared and their finances are in order and they feel like they have a comfortable living then it makes their job a lot easier,” Bernardo said.
Sigala agreed that the city should not consider defunding the police. He added that he has been working on initiating some reforms but did not get into specifics.
“I was able to bring together the chief and union leaders of the department to initiate some reforms…there’s more to be done and I look forward to those conversations,” Sigala said.
Harrell, who has an extensive career in law enforcement, said there should be more room for training. Especially since the field of law enforcement is changing so quickly. But added that officer safety should be protected.
“They need the support of the community. The average person doesn’t know what it’s like to walk up on a vehicle at 2 in the morning with tinted windows and you don’t know what’s inside until the window is rolled down,” Harrell said.
Jones said that he is in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protesters. He said that he does not want to dismantle the police force. “Defunding the police is not getting rid of officers,” Jones said.
Dodson recognized that Black Lives Matter and defund the police have hit a fever pitch at the national and local level, and said that training is important for the department. He said that the city needs to train and equip officers for situations they will be facing.
Flores said that reform is needed. He would like the city to bring in officers who are equipped and have experience in dealing with issues that Tulare officers already face.
“I think they do a great job of keeping us safe. But what I would do different is try to bring in some specific officers that are trained with gangs and drug backgrounds,” Flores said.
Oliver said that she supports law enforcement but does not support Black Lives matter.
“I’m a black woman so I do think that black lives matter…but I don’t support the organization,” Oliver said.
However, she said that she wants police departments to be forthright with information.
“I do support law enforcement. But I don’t not support the code of silence culture because that’s where corruption happens,” Oliver said.