An Elk Grove Town Hall Forum was held on Tuesday September 18 at California Northstate School of Medicine with the four candidates running for Elk Grove City Council. During the Town Hall Forum, City Council Member Stephanie Nguyen, her District 4 Challenger Orlando Fuentes of Cosumnes CSD Board, City Council Member Pat Hume, and his District 2 challenger Andres Ramos were all asked a series of questions. Mayor Steve Ly did not participate in the Town Hall Forum but was in attendance. The Town Hall Forum was moderated by Paula Lee of the League of Women Voters.
“My name is Stephanie Nguyen. I came to the City Council and was appointed just almost 2 years ago February 2, 2017, and that changed my life completely.
I want to take you back a little bit when my parents came here from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. They gave me and my family an opportunity, an opportunity here to be able to have the American dream. I now run a non-profit organization that caters to low income families with barriers, re-entry populations, folks that are not working right now. And one of the reasons that I feel the decisions that are made up at council on the dais, really, truly affects the work that I do.
As somebody that runs an organization, and propositions that are made, I know what it’s like when a decision is made and how it affects the organization that I serve. And so being on this council has not only opened up my eyes, but in the last two years, what I have learned is that the decisions that are made, in working collaboratively and with the community are what we need here in our city. And I’ve done that for the last 10 years in running the organization that I am right now. My endorsements and my support are not just from here in the city of Elk Grove, but all across the Sacramento region, and I hope that after today, hearing what I have to say, that I will have the support of all of you as well too. Thank you very much.”
“My name is Orlando Fuentes. I’ve been in Elk Grove for 27 years, and I moved here for its tranquility, its good schools, and its safe environment and affordable homes. Today, I am a parent and a grandparent as well. I’ve seen this town evolve and grow in many positive ways for families. We have award-winning parks and schools, perfect for raising a family. And one of the things that I’m really proud of is how culturally diverse our community has become.
I am now Director of the Consumnes Community Services District Board, that’s an agency that is an 89 million dollar agency. We have five directors. We are your Fire services and your Parks and Recreation services. Fire for Elk Grove and Galt, and Parks and Recreation for the city of Elk Grove.
Elk Grove is now the second largest city in Sacramento county, We were at 72,000 people, residents, in 2000 when we were incorporated. We are now probably, approximately, 175,000. That’s a growth of 100,000 people in the last 18 years. This has brought about new challenges, and I think some you are very familiar with those challenges. For example, traffic and issues around traffic, and specifically along Elk Grove Blvd, and Laguna Blvd. Access up and down interstate 5 and highway 99 to and from the jobs that most people go to in the downtown region. We have the jobs and home imbalance in Elk Grove. Housing has become unaffordable for moderate and low income people. This has lead to an increase in homelessness in Elk Grove. You probably have all seen homeless people wandering our streets. We need to provide services for them. We need to prevent homelessness and there are many strategies for trying to do that.
We’ve always had a safe community, but we need to make sure our police officers have the equipment and the training they need in order to continue doing the good work. I promise to bring you my decades of experience in problem solving at the state-wide level on some of the toughest state-wide issues, my experience as a CSD director, and my community based experience as a member of the city’s multicultural committee for the last 7 years that primarily brings you the multicultural festival. Thank you.”
“My name is at Pat Hume and I’m running for one final term on the city council. I’m running for a couple reasons. One, service to the community runs in my family. It’s in my DNA. My grandfather spent two decades on the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Directors. My other grandpa was the city manager of Chico for 20 years. And my father, before his own untimely passing, was a career pilot and officer in the United States Air Force. At the end of this next term, combined with my time as a planning commissioner, would be 22 years of service to the city of Elk Grove.
That’s how I was raised, and that’s why I’ve dedicated myself in service to the community through service clubs, through acting as a benefit auctioneer at the Elk Grove community foundation, founder of Spotlight Elk grove and Bounty on the Boulevard, the Elk Grove Regional Scholarship Foundation, the planning commission, and ultimately, the city council. Even though Elk Grove had one less zero on the population sign when I was growing up here, and we’ve grown to be the second largest city in the region as was mentioned, I still believe that at our core, we have a small town feel that is attractive to people and people enjoy. That’s why I work hard to protect that sense of community, but I also envision the city we can be and where we can go from here.
And that’s one of the other reasons why I’m running- is that we have three great civic amenity projects under construction right now our aquatic center, our community/senior/veterans hall, and our animal shelter. And it would be an honor to see those projects through to fruition, and in my service to the city, with a punctuation of a sense of accomplishment.
Finally, I believe Elk Grove is better than divisive politics. I think that we don’t need more politics. We need to find ways we can come together, rather than dig in on issues that divide us. I am supporting, and have support, for both sides of the aisle locally and regionally. I have earned the endorsements of my colleagues on the city council as well as the Elk Grove and Regional Chambers of Commerce, the Sacramento-Sierra Building Trades Council and many of its local affiliates, the Consumes Firefighters and our own Elk Grove Police Officers association. Most importantly though I want to earn your vote. I will always listen, that’s why my phone number is on the mailer, and my website is my name, pathume.com, and stop me if you’d like to discuss an issue after the forum.”
My names is Andres Ramos. And the reason I am here before you today is because over two decades ago, my mom made a decision that many Elk Grove residents have made and that was to bring her family to this community, in search of good schools, in search of safe community in which to raise a family. And so I am a product of this community. I am a beneficiary of a sense of community in Elk Grove, the safety, the good schools that we cherish that make Elk Grove special and unique.
Now the other thing that brought my mom to this community was that it was affordable for a single mother raising four kids to be able to not only be able to raise her family in this community, but also to enjoy the many civic amenities that we have whether it was our parks, whether it was art lessons with the CSD recreation services that we went to, whether it was sports. And so, that allowed me to thrive.
I went to Elk Grove Elementary, Markofer, Kerr, Elk Grove High School made it to CRC and then Sac State. My sisters and I are the first in our family to make it through college and earn 4 year degrees. My oldest sister and I are the first in our family to achieve graduate school. In district 2, in Hilltop cemetery, my grandfather was laid to rest. He spent his entire life illiterate in Puerto Rico. He never had the opportunities that this sort of community offers its people. That really informs the values that drive me.
That informs the values why I’m running for city council because I want to ensure that future generations get the sort of Elk Grove that I got to benefit from. Because we are facing an affordability crisis statewide within our community. We are facing a lot of growing pains in Elk Grove in terms of diversity, and in terms of how we bring our community together. And those are some of the things I am advocating for, bringing my values to bear at city hall. And so I look forward to the discussion tonight, and I hope to earn your vote. Thank you.
Each candidate had two minutes to answer each question. As they approached the end of the questions, this time length was shortened to one minute and thirty seconds.
1. How do you respond to the criticism that Elk Grove City Council is developer driven?
2. What is your position on district elections and do you think it would improve representation of voters in Elk Grove?
3. What is your position on the termination of the City Manager Laura Gill?
4. As the Grant bypass is completed will rural Elk Grove be preserved?
5. What would you do to solve the traffic issue in Elk Grove and how would you pay for it?
6. What are your ideas on youth engagement?
7. How should reserves money be spent?
8. How do you bring more technology companies or start up companies to Elk Grove?
9. How will you get the full space of the Lint Ranch property occupied?
10. How could the City Council work with the Elk Grove Unified School District to increase educational opportunities in Elk Grove?
11. What do you bring to the table that will make Elk Grove better? (Closing statements)
Question 2, which asked, “What is your position on district elections and do you think it would improve representation of voters in Elk Grove?” drew a distinct difference of opinion. Current City Council Members Nguyen and Hume both advocated in favor of the current system of “from district elections”. Challengers Ramos and Fuentes clearly advocated “by district elections.”
When the City of Elk Grove was established in 2000 they had “at large district elections.” In this system an Elk Grove City Council member could live anywhere in Elk Grove but the entire City of Elk Grove would vote on all candidates for City Council. With our current system of “from district elections,” a City Council Member must live in the district where they reside, but the entire City of Elk Grove will vote on all candidates for City Council every four years.
Critics of the current at large system say that this system favors more well funded incumbents and is a clear violation of the California Voters Rights Act of 2001. In “by district elections” which has been proposed multiple times in Elk Grove City Council meetings, all City Council members must live in the district where they reside and only voters from that district would get to vote for City Council members every four years.
Fuentes explained why he supports by district elections. “I support by district because it gives a chance for each district to select their own City Council person. It identifies an individual who will be their representative on City Council. If they have concerns about traffic or crime in their neighborhoods, they know they have a City Council person they can go to. If they have five City Council persons that they can go to, it’s easy just to ignore a concern whether that’s a phone call, a personal contact or an email. The other thing is that it’s a California Voting Rights Act issue.”
Hume, predictably defended the current system. “Would you prefer one representative, as Orlando mentioned, or would you prefer five representatives? Because in your current system you get to vote for a majority of the Council every two years. You get to vote for two council members even if they don’t live in your district, and the mayor. Under a by district system you would only get to vote for the mayor every two years and your council district every four years.”
Ramos shared an opinion similar to Fuentes. “If voters in rural Sheldon were concerned about preserving their way of life well that’s actually more possible under the current system because you may not even have a representative representing district 2 who would be supportive of that because voters in Laguna West, voters in East Franklin, voters in Laguna Creek, they get to vote on who represents this seat. Which means that theoretically I could by district in district 2 but voters in Laguna West and East Franklin who want someone who isn’t going to preserve rural Sheldon could choose who represents them.”
Ramos made the point, “I think it is better to be accountable and responsible to the people in the neighborhoods. Ramos believes that the California Voter Rights Act of 2001 favors the by district elections as it allows more opportunity for groups of people previously disenfranchised from seeking office an equal opportunity for engagement in electoral politics. He points out that typically candidates of color may have less access to resources and their at large elections may discriminate against candidates of color.
Nguyen shared views similar to Hume’s. “When I first came got this council there was an issue that came up regarding trailer homes and that was in my district, the approval of that. I watched as my colleagues each took a turn and answered the question with the individual, and helped me through it. Being a new member on the council, that was exactly what I needed to do. Being a new member on the council, I didn’t necessarily know what I needed to do. Now, moving forward, in the last almost two years, I’ve also seen other council members and assist other members when they weren’t the council for that district. You look at any other city that is from district (corrects herself) or by district you don’t see that. You all live in a certain district. Would you like it if each one of us from the council voted on an issue in your district?”
Interestingly, question 3, the question immediately after also drew a distinct difference of opinion with Nguyen and Hume stating they voted in favor of the termination of Laura Gill and Fuentes and Ramos stating that they would not have voted in favor of the termination of Laura Gill.
The City Manager position is currently unfilled but it is held on an interim basis by Assistant City Manager Jason Behrmann. Behrmann appears to a strong candidate to fill the City Manager position.
Nguyen did mention some of Gill’s merits such as the fact that she directed the city through the recession. However, Nguyen stated that terminating Gill was a tough decision especially because she was a woman and there are so few women in management positions but, “we needed somebody that would take us through the next few years especially since we have so many projects that are going on right now.”
Fuentes and Ramos both noted that Gill received a large severance package in the amount in excess of $300,000. Fuentes stated his feelings. “When I heard that Laura Gill was let go after years of excellent service I was concerned. It struck me you know that basic question is why are we doing this, why is the council doing this at a cost of $300,000. That’s a huge check to write for someone at the end of their tenure as a City Manager.”
Again, Hume shared a similar view to Nguyen. “We felt like it was time for a new set of eyes, for a different skill set and to try and elevate the city to the next level as we look to try to make it a place where you can live, work, shop, and play.” Hume indicated that at the time he also measured the morale of the city but was confident that they had made the right decision. “I voted to do it. I stand behind it. But again, I have no ill will against the former City Manager.”
Unsurprisingly, Ramos had a view similar to Fuentes. He said that the severance money would have been better use in community grants or for public safety. Ramos called the termination irresponsible. “At the end of the day, as Harry Truman says “the buck stops here.” “The council has a leadership role and the City Manager is an employee, an agent of the City Council. Which means, if you don’t like the job that’s being done, it’s a question of leadership and how you direct your employee.” Ramos emphasized that he thought the decision to terminate Gill was not well made.
“If a change is needed, the council needs to look in the mirror because I think it is a question of the leadership of the council knowing that you have the responsibility, that you take responsibility and if you think that new direction is needed in terms of policy, in terms of leadership, not merely blaming the staff.”
Question 7 asked the candidates, “how should reserves money be spent?” The answers of the candidates were decidedly predictable, given their personalities.
Hume thinks the reserves money should be spent on “guiding us through the greatest recession of our lifetimes.” He explained, “if you’re going to spend a rainy day fund, you gotta spend it when it’s raining.” He likes the practice of tucking away funds when times are good in order to save for a recession.
Ramos also believes that money should be tucked away for a recession. “I actually like the approach that the state has recently enacted with proposition 2, 8 years ago with the governor put it on the ballot, it was adopted by the voters. Not only trying to put more money aside for reserves but also trying to put more money aside but also trying to take some of the swings in revenue. Because if you get a lot of revenue in one year well then you should put more in reserves.”
Nguyen emphasized that it’s a question of needs versus wants. “The only time I think that we should dig into reserves is when it is needed and then we can work on the things that we want.” Nguyen made a point of mentioning that this is how she runs her non-profit. Nguyen is the Executive Director of Asian Resources in South Sacramento.
Fuentes emphasized that his experience on the CSD Board has influence his opinion on reserves should be utilized. The CSD saw its funds diminished in 2009-2011 and then hit rock bottom. “We did have to spend money from the reserves. We did have to cut back on services. We did have stations that experienced brown outs.” Fuentes that the other use of reserves is internally, “within your own agency so that you can meet the market and essentially pay yourself back at a lower rate of interest and utilize the money that’s sitting there.”
Overall, it was quite interesting to see the different opinions of the candidates on each question. Surprisingly, no question came up which asked about why candidates would align with colleagues who are not of the same political party. Note that Nguyen is a Democrat and Pat Hume and Steve Detrick are Republicans. However, Stephanie Nguyen, Darren Suen, Pat Hume, and Steve Detrick have all chosen to support each other in all races being voted upon this November. Andres Ramos and Orlando Fuentes are both Democrats and have been campaigning together. Important to note, the City Council elections are non-partisan.
As we get closer to November elections, the alliances of each political candidate running for Elk Grove City Council have become poignantly clear. Furthermore, the incumbents on the City Council, Nguyen and Hume, believe that the City Council needs to continue to move in a similar direction on many issues. Keeping up in a similar direction includes, retaining the current system of from district elections, finding a new City Manager, and keeping up with workforce development, as emphasized by Nguyen. In contrast, the challengers Fuentes and Ramos have clearly expressed their current displeasure with current practices including from district elections, the termination of Laura Gill, and the fact that individuals funded by developers are more likely to get elected.
As we look for solutions and as the fight to lead our city progresses, the Elk Grove Tribune will keep you informed. We will see you all at the Elk Grove Mayoral Debate on September 27.