Visalia City Council forum is last chance for voters to hear from candidates

Doors at Visalia Chamber of Commerce forum will open at 5 p.m. tonight, Oct. 24 at Café 210

VISALIA – By the time next month’s election is certified, nearly all of the seats on the Visalia City Council could be held by first-time officials.

Ten candidates are vying for four of the five seats on the Visalia City Council on Nov. 8. At first glance, it may not seem like much is separating these candidates, a common scenario in local, non-partisan races. But tonight’s candidate forum hosted by the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, with support from The Sun-Gazette newspaper, will help voters still on the fence decide with which candidate they most closely identify.

The forum being held tonight, Oct. 24, will be the last chance for voters who have yet to cast their ballots to decide who will lead the city for the next two years, and for the three of the races, for the next four years. The forum will be held at 210 Café, located at 210 W. Center Ave. in Visalia. Doors open at 5 p.m. for time to meet the candidates with the forum beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Each of the candidates for city council responded to a questionnaire sent out by the chamber prior to the tonight’s forum.

District 4

The most engaged race for City Council is in District 4, the only race without an incumbent. After nearly 30 years on the council, Greg Collins decided not to seek re-election opening the door for a new face on the dais after three candidates filed to fill the seat.

Bob Ainley, a business attorney and co-owner of The Darling Hotel, said the biggest issue facing his district is public safety, including homelessness, “which has a dampening effect on local investment and quality of life.”

He wrote in his chamber questionnaire, “As a local small business owner and father, I want our city to be safe for our children and supportive of the small businesses that provide opportunities and prosperity to our community.”

Emmanuel Soto, a community development specialist for Self-Help Enterprises, agrees. He said he supports the city’s plan to build a Navigation Center on the north side of town and the Salt+Light community in Goshen.

“What we have been doing is not working,” Soto wrote in his response to a Visalia Chamber questionnaire. “The low barrier shelter will help our community, our first responders, and the unhoused community, it is great news for Visalia.”

Public safety is a top concern for Marie Line-Labee as well. As a mother, small business owner and local volunteer, Line-Labee said Disrtrict 4 has many diverse issues ranging from crime near the Lincoln Oval Park, to break-ins in Shannon Ranch and speeding in Beverley Glenn.

All of the candidates for District 4 say they are in support of streamlining city processes for new businesses to encourage economic development. Ainley said the city should “not add unnecessary burdens to businesses,” while Soto said the city should “incentivize small businesses,” and Line-Labee said the city needed to provide “diverse neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and family friendly activities” to maintain a quality of life business owners and workers want.

District 5

Next to Greg Collins, the longest tenured council member is Steve Nelsen in District 5. Nelsen has served on the council since being elected in 2010 and seeking his fourth term on city council. The long-time Visalia resident has a long history of community and civic engagement as both a public servant, volunteer and business advocate. Nelsen said homelessness, roads and crime are the biggest issues in the district and the city at large.

“The list goes on but resolving my district’s issues requires the cooperation of all council members and likewise I need to be sensitive to issues in other districts and by working together we can create a solution path,” Nelsen said in his response to the questionnaire.

During his time on the council, Nelsen said he has worked on all of these issues. In terms of dealing with the business community, his position as executive director of the Downtown Visalians and his role as three-term mayor gives him a unique perspective on public-private relationships and partnerships. He said the city has not created “overbearing regulations” on businesses and has worked to “streamline our decision-making processes” enabling businesses to remain profitable in a difficult business climate.

“I’m not saying everything is perfect but the first step in reaching the desired goal is listening and being aware of unnecessary impediments for business large or small,” Nelsen said.

Nelsen is being challenged by political newcomer Kris Korsgaden. What Korsgaden lacks in experience, he makes up in brevity. In his response to the chamber’s questionnaire, he only described himself as a tile contractor and third generation Visalian, listed the city’s biggest issue as simply “housing” and did not provide an answer to question, “What is the City’s role in recruiting, keeping, and supporting business?” His comments at the forum will likely be even mor brief, as is just one of two candidates who have not confirmed their attendance as of this publication.

District 1

In District 1, three candidates are vying to serve just two years on the council to finish out the rest of the term the late Phil Cox was elected to in 2020. Cox passed while in office in June 2021 and Liz Wynn was appointed to fill the seat until the next regular next month, when someone will be elected to finish out the remaining two years of Cox’s elected term.

A former Visalia Planning Commissioner with personal and professional experience in planning issues, contract negotiations, community conflict and employee management, Wynn currently serves as the Foundation Director for the Kaweah Health Foundation. Wynn’s appointment was unanimous, in part because of her statements she did not have plans to seek re-election. Since being appointed to the dais, Wynn said projects such as city’s Navigation Center and the issue of cannabis businesses in Visalia would be difficult for a new member to grasp quickly. Wynn pointed to the success of the city’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team, which uses officers dedicated to connecting the city’s unhoused residents with services while also enforcing laws regarding where they are allowed to sleep outdoors without trespassing on private property.

“There is much more to do and it won’t be a quick or easy solution,” Wynn said in her candidate response to the chamber. “I will keep an open mind to solutions to this challenging issue not only in our community but our State and nation.”

After walking door to door for his campaign, Justin Bolton said most people in District 1 “complained about the homeless.” Bolton said his experience as an EMT, firefighter and entrepreneur would help him make positive change for the district. Bolton is the only District 1 candidate who had not confirmed his attendance at the forum as of this publication.

David Farris, a software engineer for building controls maker Pacific West Controls, Inc., said he believes the biggest issue facing his district, and the city as a whole, is water infrastructure. He said he supports the city expanding this area of its budget to add regeneration basins, injection wells and water reclamation.

“This is the most important task before us to ensure that the central valley agriculture industries can thrive once more,” Farris said in his response to the chamber’s questionnaire.

Farris said the city should also expand outdoor space for businesses to increase foot traffic for businesses and provide patrons with a more engaging business experience. He also said the city should incentivize such as tax breaks for start-ups.

“Our downtown can and should be as vibrant as the boardwalks of our costal neighbors,” Farris said in his questionnaire.

Wynn said the city’s role is to keep fees and processing times for businesses competitive with other communities and to properly manage its inventory of land for different use zonings.

“Retaining and supporting business by maintaining infrastructure, supporting business-friendly legislation and ensuring an adequate variety of housing is essential to maintaining a strong workforce,” Wynn said.

District 3

District 3 incumbent Brian Poochigian is running on infrastructure. He said the biggest issues facing his district are poor roads and traffic circulation. Poochigian said he was proud the city completed improvements at the intersection of Goshen Avenue and Akers Street in his first year on the council and was part of the council to approve widening Shirk and Akers and to push for the widening Visalia Parkway.

He said the private sector thrives when the public sector stays out of its way. Instead, the city’s role should be to provide well-maintained infrastructure, a clean environment and public safety to allow businesses to thrive.

“The city should not be creating unnecessary obstacles for business owners as they have enough obstacles to overcome from the state,” Poochigian wrote in his response to the chamber questionnaire.

Heather Carter, a personal trainer challenging Poochigian, said the city needs to focus on attracting and retaining a younger workforce. In order to do that, she said the city must invest in quality-of-life projects and services and high quality education from kindergarten through community college.

“To keep the workforce young, we need to invest in our downtown and our parks and recreation,” she wrote in her questionnaire response.

She said her priority is to work with Kaweah Health to increase the availability of preventative and specialized healthcare “without traveling as far as Los Angeles or San Francisco.”

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