Florence Pierce, 70, made a point to travel across town to attend a political forum held at Elk Grove Elementary School Tuesday night.
“I came here to be better informed on who I will be voting for,” said Pierce. “There’s no better way than to meeting them face to face. I’m very pleased that the public could meet so many candidates in one place.”
Pierce was among 80 Elk Grove residents who showed up for the “Meet the Candidates” forum sponsored by the Fallbrook Neighborhood Association Board. What is unusual about this event is that candidates running for various offices at the city, state and national level are invited, and residents have a chance to talk to them one-on-one.
“I feel we have active voters in the community,” said Angee Wangsgard, a member of the Fallbrook Neighborhood Association Board who organized the event. “We’ve always had good participation from all the candidates.”
The neighborhood association, which was formed in 1993 and covers 400 households, started hosting these forums about nine years ago with just city council candidates. Since then, candidates from other races have been invited to attend.
Tuesday night, all three candidates running for Elk Grove Mayor – incumbent Mayor Steve Ly, Vice-Mayor Darren Suen, and Tracie Stafford – participated in the forum. So did the candidates for the two Elk Grove City Council seats – Councilman Pat Hume and Andres Ramos in District 2, and Councilwoman Stephanie Nguyen and Orlando Fuentes for District 4.
All four candidates for the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) board – Director Rod Brewer, Jerry Braxmeyer, Jaclyn Moreno and Koi Rivers – were present.
U.S. Rep. Ami Bera was a no-show, but his opponent in the Congressional District 7 race, Andrew Grant spoke. State Sen. Richard Pan was absent from the Senate District 6 discussion, but sent a representative, Marlon Lara, to speak on his behalf.
Eric Frame, who is challenging Pan in the race, was in attendance. Both candidates for the state Assembly District 9 race – incumbent Assemblyman Jim Cooper and his opponent, Harry He- participated in the forum.
Elk Grove Unified School District board members Bobbi Singh-Allen and Beth Albiani were also invited. Since they were running unopposed, they were not given time at the microphone.
For the first time, candidates running for the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) board were also included. Both Angela Spease and Rosanna Herber came to the event but did not speak.
Rich Vasquez, who is running for San Joaquin Delta College trustee, also attended.
All candidates were given tables in the multi-purpose room where they could put up campaign signs and fliers, and talk to residents.
Due to the large number of candidates at the event, the format of the forum was changed this year. Instead of answering two or three questions from the audience, each candidate was allowed to give a short campaign speech. Those running for Elk Grove seats were allowed four minutes, while those running for the state legislature and Congress got five minutes to make their case.
Some highlights from the candidates in the local Elk Grove races:
Incumbent Mayor Steve Ly said he wanted to be re-elected because he wanted to finish what he started, which included plans for an aquatics center, a senior center, a veterans hall, and an animal shelter to be built in the city.
“I’m real excited and pleased to see things to have come to fruition for our city,” he said. “We worked very hard and we stayed for a long time to make that happen.”
He said he would like to see a hospital locate in Elk Grove, as well as the development of a biotech district.
“We need something in Elk Grove that will be able to elevate us to be more than retailers here in Elk Grove.
Ly also indicated that he wants to work with the City Council to address community needs.
“Instead of focusing on things that divide us, we should really be focusing on things that unite us,” he said.
Vice-Mayor Darren Suen said he has a plan to alleviate traffic and encourage job creation.
“We need to invest in other modes of transportation to give our residents, all of us, an opportunity to get around in a different way,” he said.
He suggested having bike sharing in certain areas of town, leveraging Uber/Lyft technology, and creating commuting hot spots in the community for alternative modes of transportation.
Suen also talked about how a road project can lead to new jobs.
“Building Cameron Road, which they call a capacity project between I-5 and Highway 99, is our marketing window for 400 acres of office and land,” he said. “That would give us eyes on that 400 acres to encourage job growth.”
Suen also supports the city getting a train station that would link up rail service to the Bay Area.
“If I can get you to the Bay Area in 90 minutes to two hours, now there’s potential to have companies set up a satellite office here,” he said.
“So, that’s the way it’s set in my plan. I just wanted to add those specifics because I believe, if you’re going to operate strategically on behalf of the city as your mayor, you need to understand the details on how these things work.”
Tracie Stafford said she is running for mayor again because the city still faces the same challenges it had when she first ran in 2016.
“We’ve been a city for almost 18 years, but still have no hospital,” she said. “It doesn’t take 20 years to get a hospital. It means that it’s not a priority.”
She noted that traffic is horrible in Elk Grove and it’s by design, adding that an environmental impact study in the early 2000’s had shown that the infrastructure would not support the growth of the city.
“Our City Council decided to choose a statement of override, saying our economic growth was more important than traffic,” she said. “So there is no remediation of the traffic right now without some pretty major changes, and that is a problem.”
Stafford said that the municipality needs to plan strategically for growth, adding that Elk Grove is the second largest city in the region, the 30th largest in the state, and the seventh most diverse in the nation.
“We can’t continue to run as though we’re a 10,000-15,0000 town,” she said, noting that Elk Grove lacks a downtown. “I’m not suggesting that we be like Sacramento or San Francisco, but we do need to be governed based on the size of the city we are.”
Stafford said she came in third out of seven candidates in the 2016 race because she was not afraid to tell the truth.
“In 2016, my platform was exactly the same as it is now because nothing has changed, and nothing will change unless we’re brave enough to vote differently,” she said.
City Council District 2
Councilman Pat Hume said one of the reasons he would like to be re-elected is so he could fulfill a personal ambition: to be in public service for 20 years, matching the length of service both his grandfathers and his father put in for their careers in the public sector.
“So, I figure if I meet (them in) family reunion in the Great Beyond, I can hold my head high,” he said.
Hume spoke at length about the various projects he has worked on to improve traffic in the city. Those included improvements of the Sheldon Road and Grant Line Road interchanges, the Cameron Road extension, the proposed multi-modal station, and building a light rail extension to Elk Grove.
“But the most important thing that I believe, if you want to solve traffic, is – I’ve said this at the last forum – you have to put the places that people need to go to close to where they are, and so we have to get jobs to come to town,” he said.
Hume also responded to Stafford’s comment about the city not having a hospital.
“We actually approved two hospitals – they can start building tomorrow,” he said. “But the private sector determines when and how they invest their money.”
Hume also noted that the city has spent $6 million on infrastructure to lure new businesses to Elk Grove.
“We’ll put the infrastructure down to where the employment would happen, so we’re there and ready for the jobs to show up, if the companies want to relocate here,” he said.
Andres Ramos said he felt compelled to run for City Council because it was his way of paying back the community that supported him.
“My life is a testament to what this community can do to the lives of people like me, who come from humble beginnings, who don’t come from wealth, who don’t come from well-connected family but are looking to lift themselves up economically,” he said.
“That’s what my family searched for and what this community has given us.”
He said while growing up in Elk Grove, he has seen the city become more diverse culturally and economically, and he wants to make sure that city leaders don’t overlook that change as they plan for growth.
“We need leadership on the council that’s going to do it in a way that’s economically inclusive, so we’re building affordable housing, so we’re actually focusing on bringing jobs, supporting our small business space, and not just bringing in more and more chains to this community, but actually creating an identity for this sort of business climate that we want in this city,” he said.
Ramos also noted that what distinguishes his campaign from the others is that he wants to reform how city leaders are elected.
“One of the growing pains we’re experiencing, as we become a bigger city, we’re long overdue for campaign finance reform, we’re long overdue for by-district elections,” he said.
He said he is proud that his campaign is finance by individual donors.
“I haven’t taken a single dime from developers because my values are reflected in the people who support me,” he said. “That informs the policy decisions I would make in City Hall, to ensure that I’m putting you first, not deep-pocketed special interests, not big contributors.”
He is also in favor of putting limits on campaign contributions, and advocates for by-district elections.
“You should decide who your council member is, not voters who live outside your district,” he said.
City Council District 4
Incumbent City Council Member Stephanie Nguyen noted that she was appointed to her position two years ago, but would like to retain her seat through election.
“It’s only been two years, and I’ve learned a lot in those two years, and there’s a whole lot more that I want to do,” she said. “I’m the youngest member of this council – I’ve got tons of energy left.”
Nguyen said one thing she learned in the past two years is that the city of Elk Grove lacks services and resources for young people.
“It’s not in our city at all,” she said. “Now, most folks go out to the city of Sacramento to receive that service.”
Nguyen, who runs a non-profit that offers workforce development, would like to see Elk Grove have such a program in place for the city’s youths.
“We make sure that, when the age of 16 or whenever the age you can start working, we give you the skill sets, we give you the resources, and we help you overcome whatever barriers you have, so you can obtain a job or get one step closer to self-sufficiency,” she said.
“For me, that’s what it’s all about – making sure that each and every one of you have access and resources, so that every one of your children and grandchildren are gong to be able to become self-sufficient.”
Orlando Fuentes said his extensive background in working for the state government gives him an edge on solving problems at the city level.
“When you work in state government, you’re working on statewide problems, and you have to have the skills and abilities to analyze policies, to analyze organizations, to analyze how you go about tackling some of the biggest problems,” he said.
Fuentes started his career as a child abuse prevention specialist and developed programs to prevent child abuse statewide.
“It’s not so much an issue these days,” he said. “In those years, it was very much a front page issue.”
He moved on to work in pre-natal care. One of his projects was to get lower liability insurance rates and better reimburse rates for obstetricians to deliver babies.
His most recent statewide job was working with a blue-ribbon panel to develop a strategy to deal with suicides in the state, which was signed off by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“So, in summary, I have depth of experience,” he said.
On a local level, he currently serves on the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) board, and was the original chairman of the Elk Grove Multi-Cultural Committee.
“We just finished off, at the end of August, our seventh successful annual festival, and to me, it’s all about bringing the community together,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”
Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) board
Two seats on the CSD board are up for election this year. Incumbent Rod Brewer is running to retain his post. A vacancy occurred when board president Rich Lozano decided not to seek re-election. There are four candidates vying for the two spots.
Incumbent director Rod Brewer said he is proud that he was able to use his “big brain’ to help the district weather a rough patch after he joined the CSD board in 2010.
“It was in the middle of a rough economy,” he said. “We were looking pretty dire – we were using reserve funds to cover a lot of our programs.
One of his ideas was, instead of closing four fire stations including one in Galt, the district managed by closing only three.
“We could still maintain our high level of service, while at the same time, making ends meet,” he said. “(We were) being very conservative with our wallet, being very intelligent on how we served you through our emergency and fire services, and we’re successfully doing that.”
The district also received additional funding for staff through state and federal grants and programs, which allowed CSD to provide premium service to the community.
“That still holds today,” he said. “That’s who I am.”
Brewer also spoke about one of his achievements in the parks and recreation areas.
“After 30 years, we brought back the soapbox derby races for a very short amount of time that a lot of your kids participated in,” he said.
“But more importantly, there are a lot of other things that we do for people – there are 100 parks, 28 miles of trail space that can really help bring this community forward, and moving forward into the future, bring stability. So that’s my approach.”
Jerry Braxmeyer said his 51 years as a resident of Elk Grove reflects his commitment to the community.
“I love this community, I love it more than anything because I have been here, and I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
“I’m going to be a common sense voice for you, and I am going to make sure that I make every decision – that is one promise I can make to you – that every decision that I make is going to be the best for this community as well as Galt.”
One issue that he wants to address is improving response times on the part of fire and emergency services. He is pushing for building Fire Station 77 but said the district needs to find money to keep it running.
“So, in order for us to do that, we can actually relieve some of that issue (poor response times), but we need to have the funding,” he said.
Braxmeyer also said he wanted to address the issue of maintenance funding for the parks.
“The light and landscaping is a very big issue for you guys here,” he said. “You have assessments that need to be done. So, for that, there is a process you have to go through, so I want to continue that process.”
Jaclyn Moreno credits her two daughters, ages 8 and 11, for sparking her interest in running for the CSD board.
“I decided to run for CSD in particular because of the amazing experiences we have been afforded as a family through CSD,’ she said.
One daughter, Maya, 8, has been active ins sports, including soccer, volleyball and gymnastics with the district. The other daughter, Olivia, 11, has taken classes in improvisation, creative writing and acting.
“I am running because I want to see our community maintain the high level of customer service that we have in that capacity,” she said. “Also, I want to make sure that other families receive the same opportunities that our family has received.”
She said she has been meeting with different stakeholders in the district in the last 15 months, and more recently, she visited the neighbors of Perry Park, which is in one of two benefit zones in the city that is underfunded, and where park maintenance has been reduced.
“I think we need a board member that is going to be responsive, going to be out in the community to work in partnerships with these communities, to make sure they know and understand where their tax dollars are being spent, and how we can work together to fix the maintenance issues,” she said.
Moreno also sees the need for the district to develop programs for teenagers and seniors. She suggested working with the Elk Grove Unified School District to provide career readiness opportunities for teens.
The district can also collaborate with an existing senior center, which is not run by CSD, to provide programs in other CSD locations.
In terms of the fire department, Moreno said she has toured all eight fires stations, and has been on several ride-alongs.
“We need another fire station,” she said. “We need the funding too make sure we can staff the fire station that we already have the funding for to build.”
Moreno is also concerned about what is called “wall time” when firefighters drop off someone at the hospital but they have to wait for hours before the hospitals would take the patients off the firefighters’ hands.
“I have some ideas on how to address it,” she said.
Koi Rivers said her experience as a board member for the Sacramento Theatre Company and Transforming Lives, Cultivating Success (TLCS, Inc) which provides housing and mental health services for people with mental health issues, will serve her well on the CSD board.
“I’m all about community enrichment, I’m all about health and wellness, I’m all about making sure that our community has the programs, resources and services that it needs to thrive,” she said.
One of her priorities is the fire department.
“We know we need to make sure our fire department is funded and resourced, so they can be there for you, when and where it matters,” she said
Rivers also wants too see an “arts culture rich community” in the district, and is willing to put her skills to work to make that happen.
“I know how to fund programs, I know how to govern programs, I know how to get things done,” she said.
One project she would like to work on is a partnership between CSD and the city of Elk Grove to provide career education.
“We talked a lot about making our residents here have the resources they need to thrive,” she said. “They have a job, they have workforce development, they have the tools – that’s very important – we have to make sure we get that done.”
After the candidates for the CSD board had spoken, there was a scheduled half-hour “intermission” in which residents could talk to the candidates at the forum.
Although some candidates stayed near the tables where they had their campaign literature, some would move around the room, talking to neighbors and other candidates, and posing for photographs.
A number of candidates or their staff members also put door hangers and campaign fliers on the emptied seats. Several residents also picked up yard signs from candidates.
After the break, a little more than half of the residents returned to their seats to listen to the candidates running for the state legislature and Congress, while the rest simply left.
Andrew Grant, who is running against Congressman Ami Bera, took note of the half empty room when he took the stage after the half hour intermission.
“We have a few chairs open in the front,” he said. “No one wants to talk about the noise in Washington and the politics (there) these days, I guess.”
But he said he was happy that he came to the forum, since he was able to talk to other candidates as well as residents.
“I’m actually privileged to come here a little bit earlier and I know a lot of people who are running for office,” he said.
“I was introduced to a couple of new faces, and for me to sit down and listen to what their challenges are, and how they want to solve the problems for this community, I see no difference in running for US Congress. Someone in Washington, DC has to deliver for each of these people who represent you whether they be local or national.”
For some residents who stayed until the last speaker, Harry He was finished, it was worth the time.
“It was great to hear the different speakers,” said John Engstrom, 60, who has lived in the Fallbrook neighborhood for 14 years. “”It was important to me to see which candidates came and who didn’t come.”
Engstrom’s wife, Teresa, 55, said she and her husband were attending the candidates forum for the first time. The reason is she had recently retired, and now has the time to consider the issues of the various candidates.
“I can take my time and not see it as a bother,” she said. “In the past, I didn’t have the background. Now, I can make an informed decision.”
However, she said she was disappointed that Bera did not appear at the forum.
“It meant something to me when he could not find the time to show up, and not send a representative,” she said.
“It was an opportunity to talk to people like me, and they don’t show up. It’s not going to help with his campaign. I would have liked to get an explanation for why they didn’t think they need to be here.”
For Pierce, she said the forum helped make up her mind about some of the candidates.
“I had done some thinking,” she said. “Some candidates have been around for a while. It helped me make a decision.”
Wangsgard said she was pleased with the turnout at the event, especially when half of the residents came from outside the Fallbrook neighborhood.
“There were people who I have never seen in any other election event,” she said. “Maybe there is more interest in the election this year.”