City Council candidates differ on local issues

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Candidates campaign on roads, jobs, affordable housing in District 3 race

By Reggie Ellis
@Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Two unopposed incumbents have already been appointed in lieu of election and a third incumbent chose not to seek re-election, leaving just one seat on the Visalia City Council undecided on this year’s ballot.

Mayor Warren Gubler’s decision to step down from the dais after nine years left his District 3 seat wide open for challengers wanting to represent western Visalia. Longtime community advocate Merritt Wiseman, technology specialist Steve Woods and logistics supervisor Brian Poochigian are vying to succeed Gubler on the City Council, but they all have very different ideas on the major issues affecting their district and the city as a whole. Each of their candidates have been involved in the city in their own way.

Steve Woods, instructional technology  specialist.

Steve Woods, instructional technology
specialist.

Woods, 51, has had the most direct involvement with city government. The Navy veteran turned instructional technology specialist has spent the last three years as vice chair of the Visalia Parks and Recreation Commission where he spearheaded the effort to rewrite the parks and trailways ordinances. He has provided key input on the proposed Aquatic Center and Southside Community Center. “While a new community center on the southside would provide the most benefit initially, I also support the Aquatics Center, as the Parks and Recreation Department is laboring under a lack of facitlities for swim lessons and water-based exercise.”

Poochigian, 36, currently sits on the Citizens Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the City Council, and is co-chair of the city’s annual Public Opinion Survey. He has also attended most of the city council meetings for the last two years.

Wiseman is a mother of four who not only owned her own small business but was also intimately involved in the city she loves. Her community service track record extends to all facets of Visalia from the St. Paul’s School Board, Fox Theater Board, Bethlehem Center and Visalia Rotary. “We need more north-south thoroughfars for easier commutes and school drop offs.”

District 3 is a hotspot for growth encompassing the western portion of the city between Akers Road and Highway 99. The area is experiencing many growing pains such as new housing, congested roads and an active industrial park.

Brian Poochigian, logistics  supervisor.

Brian Poochigian, logistics
supervisor.

As a logistics supervisor, Poochigian sees roadway maintenance as a major issue for both his city and district. District 3 encompasses major development along Plaza Drive, the city’s Industrial Park and new schools to keep pace. “Our city has been growing but the roads have not been property maintained, nor have they been widened,” Poochigian said referring to the need to widen Shirk Road. He also cited concerns of the growth in the city’s pensions, which are projected to outpace revenue in three years, and addressing homelessness.

Wiseman, who has lived in the same neighborhood for more than a decade, said she sees public safety as the main issue facing District 3. “It is important that our police and fire departments have what they need so they can keep pace with continued northwest development,” referring to recent city council discussions on where new police and fire stations should be placed. She also noted the need for economic development and more higher education to provide a highly qualified workforce.

Merritt Wiseman, community  advocate.

Merritt Wiseman, community
advocate.

Instead of a new community center, civic center or aquatics center, Wiseman said the city should be focusing its efforts on developing new college and career partnerships, similar to CSU Fresno and College of the Sequoias. “There are empty buildings in the City which could be re-pruposed and utilized as campus facilities.”

After seeing high-end apartment development on Shirk Road nearly fold from public pressure, Woods said he is concerned that the lack of affordable housing may begin to diminish interest of major employers in moving to Visalia. He said as the population approaches 150,000 and then 200,000 people, additional industries will look at Visalia’s centralized location and will need a growing employee base to fill positions. But if entry level workers can’t afford to live in town, where will the labor force come from? “Our rents are outpacing the ability of Visalians just starting out their lives, those on limited incomes, and low-income senior citizens to afford them.”

The three candidates also differ on the city’s handling of a controversial topic of the Main Street Theatre, home to the Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Company. As a member of the Fox Theater Board, Wiseman said she understood the dilemma facing the children’s theater company but as a taxpayer she could see the city not wanting to bear the financial burden of owning an aging theater. Ultimately, Wiseman said art programs like Enchanted Playhouse and historic buildings like the Main Street Theatre will always be embraced by the community in new ways.

“Ideally, the theater should be the creative hub for local performing arts groups however, those groups need to find ways to support and maintain the theater financially,” Wiseman said.

Poochigian said his hope was that the theater company could raise enough funds to buy the theater from a city that doesn’t want it and retain the building for its intended purpose. “If they are not able to raise the funds, then it is my opinion that he city should sell the building to another buyer.”

Woods said the city’s decision to evict the Enchanted Playhouse from the building was one of the impetuses for his run for city council. “After having spent over $1.2 million since 1997 to occupy and maintain the building, with a legacy of having performed for thousands of Visalia’s children, they deserve to be gifted the theater so they can continue their fine work.”

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