[Tuolumne County] Tuolumne County candidates state their cases before voting by mail begins

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report criticizinpractices of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

 

With vote-by-mail ballots for the Nov. 6 general election expected to start going out next week, a public forum Thursday night in Sonora hosted by the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce gave people what could have been their final chance to hear from all candidates running for Board of Supervisors and Tuolumne Utilities before they vote.

Roughly 75 people filled out the Board of Supervisors’ chambers on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center to hear candidates answer questions on key issues, from improving water infrastructure to what they felt should happen with the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority.

The questions came from those in attendance and people who submitted some to the chamber in advance of the forum and were read to the candidates by a three-person panel that included Lyn Riddle, editor of The Union Democrat, Margaret Davis, a member of the chamber’s government affairs committee, and Dave Souther, a member of the chamber’s board of directors.

All four candidates in runoff races for two seats on the Board of Supervisors gave impassioned responses and sometimes took a few swipes at their opponents.

Incumbent District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt spoke about his accomplishments with the flair of a seasoned politician after eight years in office. He’s facing a runoff challenger for the first time in his political career after not securing more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the June 5 primary election against two opponents.

Hanvelt said in his opening statement that he changed the representation of the county statewide and beyond since getting elected in 2010.

“Tuolumne County wasn’t even on the map,” he said. “Most of the people in California didn’t even know where Tuolumne County was – they do now.”

Since coming on the board, Hanvelt said he’s had a hand in lobbying state and federal officials for more than $200 million in funding.

That includes more than $50 million in grants the county received from the state for building a new jail and juvenile hall, as well as more than $70 million in federal investment for forest health and wildfire prevention projects through a National Disaster Resilience Competition grant that was approved under the Obama administration.

Hanvelt said that electing his opponent, Ryan Campbell, would be throwing away the momentum he’s worked to build over the years.

“I know the leadership in the state, I know a lot of the leadership in the county, I’m connected to the Governor’s Office, I’m connected at the top of Cal Fire and OES (Office of Emergency Services), I’m connected at the top of Caltrans and other people,” he said. “When things happen, I kick down doors if that’s what it takes to make things happen.”

Campbell, a county administrative analyst, said in his opening statement that he’s running against Hanvelt because he believes too many essential services have been neglected by current and past county leadership, including roads, libraries and access to high-speed broadband Internet.

The first-time politician outlined his idea for improving the county’s economic outlook by focusing on supporting those essential services and other infrastructure, a theme that he said has been central to his campaign from the beginning.

“Tuolumne County government doesn’t create jobs, we’re not a job creator, we set the playing field so you all – the population – can grow and thrive,” Campbell said.

Hanvelt said he believed that a shortage of rental and market-rate housing is the most pressing issue holding back the county’s economy because people who do come to area for work have trouble finding a home. He’s received a $1,000 donation from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee, based in Los Angeles, as well as money from other local construction and development interests.

Campbell also diverged from Hanvelt in his views on the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, which has come under public scrutiny in the past several months since the release of the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury’s annual report at the end of June that detailed an investigation of the agency’s practices, which was preceded by a lawsuit over transparency filed by Sonora resident Ken Perkins earlier that same month.

While Campbell said he followed the early days of the TCEDA while working in his former job as a reporter at The Union Democrat and thought it started with good ideas about bringing new businesses to the county, he believes it has since devolved into more of a business coaching agency, and the nearly $350,000 the county contributes each year could be better spent on other priorities given the county’s current and projected fiscal constraints.

“If I have to choose between supporting the library and supporting the TCEDA, brother, the library is going to win every time,” he said. “And it sounds like a joke, but we are approaching a time where that decision might have to be made.”

Hanvelt, however, accused the media and letter writers in The Union Democrat of using hyperbole to describe the findings in the grand jury report and encouraged people to read it themselves. He acknowledged there appeared to be some “procedural and policy issues” that needed to be fixed by the TCEDA board.

Among the jury’s findings was that the agency lacked documentation about the assistance it has provided to businesses over the years, has board members who serve on multiple overlapping panels that could give the appearance of a conflict of interest, and allowed its executive director, Larry Cope, to claim he was working remotely for all but a handful of days while on vacation for a month in England last year and spend most of the agency’s entertainment budget that’s intended for clients on meals for board members, elected supervisors and other county officials.

There was also a brief moment of some fireworks between the two contenders for District 3 supervisor, Anaiah Kirk and Laurie Sylwester, when Sylwester asked for a rebuttal to Kirk’s claim that she wanted to build “tiny homes” as a solution to homelessness.

Moderator Amelia Harrison, executive director of the chamber, appeared to be caught off guard by the request before giving Sylwester 30 seconds to rebut Kirk’s claim.

Sylwester explained that Kirk was referring to an article she posted on her campaign Facebook page about the concept of tiny houses for the homeless and was trying generate discussion, but never intended for it to be a formal proposal or endorsement of the idea.

“We need to look at those ideas as a community,” she said.

Both candidates are vying to replace outgoing District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce, who announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election to a third consecutive four-year term to spend more time with family and focus on his construction business.

Sylwester touted her experience as a supervisor from 1999 to 2003. She said one of the major projects she worked on then was helping to usher the development of Black Oak Casino Resort, now the largest employer in the district, through the county’s permitting process.

“I’m committed to building the community through bipartisan coalitions, bridging differences by coming together over common needs,” she said. “We really need to look at the things we need to solve for all of us.”

One of the points that Sylwester repeated throughout the campaign is that she would leave her job as a teacher at Columbia College to solely focus on being an elected representative, while noting that Kirk has said he intends to keep his full-time job as a supervising correctional counselor at Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown.

Kirk said a former county supervisor called him and said the fact he will work while in office means he wouldn’t be beholden to a specific agenda or “bureaucratic idea.”

The annual salary for a supervisor is about $51,000, while Kirk reportedly earns about $93,000 a year working for the state.

“I’ve been transparent since the beginning,” he said.

Kirk has portrayed himself as an outsider in the race, but his campaign-finance disclosures show he has several major donors that also contributed to Hanvelt, including the California Real Estate PAC, District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer and his wife, Jo Rodefer.

The Rodefers have donated a combined total of $2,900 to Kirk’s campaign as of Sept. 22 – more than any other single donor or couple – in addition to giving a total of $1,000 to Hanvelt’s campaign.

All donations to Hanvelt and Kirk combined account for about 75 percent of the money that has flowed into the two races since last year.

Kirk also said he has been up front about how he would fight against any attempt to legalize commercial marijuana cultivation in the county, which he said is one of the reasons he got into the race after speaking at a board meeting when the issue was being explored.

“You can’t control human behavior, you can’t control human greed,” he said. “It’s a greedy industry. It’s a money-making industry.”

Hanvelt said he too would be against legalizing the cultivation of the drug in the county for commercial purposes because it would “enslave our children in a drug scene.”

Campbell said he doesn’t feel like the county is in a position to reject a potential new source of revenue and believed there were ways to safely allow the practice without disturbing other residents through zoning laws, while Sylwester said she was willing to keep an open mind but was concerned about the conflicts between state and federal law.

Earlier in the event, the four candidates running for the Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors spent about an hour answering questions.

The candidates competing for two seats are incumbent Director Ron Ringen, incumbent Director Jim Grinnell, Jeff Kerns and former TUD Director John Maciel.

Ringen talked about the progress he’s helped to make at the district since getting elected in 2014, a time when TUD was financially struggling to meet the needs of its aging infrastructure and had just implemented the strictest water-usage restrictions in the state due to the drought from 2012 to 2017.

“Now, almost four years later, TUD is back on track,” he said. “We stabilized our water rates, the employees are busy with capital improvement projects, and we have reduced the risk of catastrophic fire through our tree mortality removal grant program.”

Grinnell, who was elected in 2012 but left early in his term due to a foot injury, said that much has been accomplished over his past four years on the board, but there was still more work to be done.

“We can’t continue to ignore the infrastructure problems,” he said, adding that they need to continue working on obtaining land for a plan to consolidate the district’s 13 water treatment plants, obtaining grants and other outside revenue to relieve pressure off ratepayers, and getting homes on septic tanks around Phoenix Lake – the main storage reservoir for the City of Sonora’s municipal water supply – connected to sewer service.

Maciel, who served from 2012 to 2016, said he lost re-election two years ago because he didn’t do a good enough job expressing that he wanted to stay on the board. He’s long been a proponent of finding ways to reduce loss from the district’s open-air ditch system that conveys water to some 44,000 residents, though some argue the leakage is good for the environment by recharging groundwater and slowing the flow to downstream interests.

“We have enough water, it’s just a matter of using our water efficiently and going through and taking care of it,” he said.

Kerns, president of Yosemite Title Co. in downtown Sonora, said he wanted to run for the board because his family has owned and operated a small water company in Cold Springs since 1981. He also says he’s deeply concerned about the vulnerable wooden flume that conveys water from Lyons Reservoir to the ditch system and ultimately the taps of ratepayers, as it’s been said that it could take months to restore full water service if it were destroyed by fire or other disaster.

“We need a long-term solution to the flume,” he said. “That weighs heavily on my mind, and if you’re kind enough to elect me, that will be one of my top priorities.”

October 5, 2018

The Union Democrat

By Alex MacLean

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