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OPINION: Getting to know the mayoral candidates

pt-square logoThe Progress Times hosted a forum for the Mission mayoral candidates Tuesday evening for which two of the three candidates showed up – Dr. John Guerra and Jaime Gutierrez. Incumbent Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas did not. Instead, Salinas sent a letter to our office Tuesday afternoon apologizing for his absence “due to an unforeseen conflict.”

That’s too bad. The room full of nearly 100 Mission citizens and our 20,000 readers could have benefitted more if all three candidates had been represented. In his letter, the mayor made some very good points about how the city has prospered during the past 16 years under his leadership. I did not read the letter at the forum and I won’t provide the details here. He should have been at the forum. I know he would have articulated how well off the city is and the numerous improvements we have seen during his administration.

His opponents are saying, “It’s time for a change.”

But what kind of changes would these candidates bring to Mission? That’s the question.

When I size up a candidate, there are several key things I look at:

• Is he trustworthy? Is he of good character?

• Does he show good judgment?

• Does he show a good grasp of the issues and does he present intelligent and reasoned solutions?

• Does he have a track record in public service that allows us to examine the above characteristics?

Norberto Salinas is the only candidate who has a track record. His is very revealing – both pro and con. If we re-elect Beto, we know exactly what we are getting.

If we elect Guerra or Gutierrez, it’s difficult to tell what we’ll get. But the debate Tuesday night provided some helpful insights.

Both candidates were asked to respond to each of the questions presented by the Progress Times moderators, myself and Julie Silva, editor. When asked about their experience with city government and how it operates, neither candidate made any mention of having served on any city boards or of leading community organizations where they could have honed leadership skills and gained experience solving community problems.

This lack of experience and unfamiliarity with city issues was reflected throughout the evening in the answers both candidates provided.

Gutierrez seemed to be uninformed about what has transpired in the city in recent years. For example, he said North Mission is lacking basic needs, including paving, drainage and security, whereas the south side has all they need. Except, he said, the south side needs more [police] security.

“Those are needs that are easy to fix,” he said.

Does he really believe these problems are easy to fix? The city has expended a great deal of money on streets, drainage and the police department. It is no easy fix. Nonetheless, those are the very areas that have received a great deal of emphasis over the past 16 years and are the hallmark of success for Mayor Salinas. There is not enough room here to cite the long list of substantial paving and drainage improvement projects completed during recent years and that continue today.

Gutierrez also said he questions council decisions concerning providing adequate budget monies for the police department. Compared to other cities, “we are way behind,” he said. “We’re not giving them what they need.”

But that’s not what I’m told by Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez, who recently said other area police departments are envious of the computers and technology Mission police officers have.

Are the police officers really unhappy with the current city administration as Gutierrez says? To find out, I called the presidents of the two police unions in Mission.

Both Roel Velasquez, president of the Mission Professional Law Enforcement Association, and Reynaldo Casarez, president of the Mission Police Association, said their unions are endorsing Mayor Salinas because he has done a lot to improve officers’ wages and provide the tools necessary for the police to do their job.

In 1992, Mission had 22 police officers. Today, there are about 150 officers. In 1992, the starting salary for a police officer was $16,000. Today it is approximately $42,800, plus benefits.  

Casarez said Dr. Guerra never contacted the police union.

Gutierrez did meet with the police association and brought up concerns, “but he never did really explain how he would make his ideas work,” Casarez said.

“We’re not ready for a change,” he added. “It would be heartbreaking if someone else came in, not knowing how municipal government works, and we might end up losing out in the long run. Mayor Salinas has given us what we need to protect the city very well.”

I like Dr. Guerra. He seems to be an intelligent man whose heart is in the right place. I think he would make a good candidate for city council. We need people willing to take on leadership roles in the community such as he is attempting to do now. I just think he needs more experience before taking on the top job. He needs to work his way up so the city doesn’t suffer while an inexperienced mayor learns the ropes, making mistakes along the way that could hurt the city. He could learn a lot just by attending city council meetings twice a month. He would learn even more by serving alongside other more experienced city council members as he is groomed to lead the city.

Guerra made a very good point during the debate Tuesday. Asked to name a recent city council decision that he would have made differently, he said BFI. (Note: The city recently decided to terminate their contract with BFI for garbage collection services and create a new city department of sanitation.)

He said this would be an enormously costly move that would affect everyone in the city. BFI employees work every day of the year except Easter and Christmas to provide reliable service for the residents, he added.

Creating a whole new department of city employees will, indeed, be very costly. What he did not say is that government never does things as efficiently as private enterprise. City employees would be “entitled” to a long list of holidays and the community would either not get the garbage picked up on those days, or the city would have to pay extra holiday pay. And that’s just the beginning of tax-supported benefits and other inefficiencies that will be thrust upon the citizens.

Gutierrez, on the other hand, thinks he can somehow bring more amusement, art and cultural centers to Mission at no cost to the city.

“These things don’t take money,” he said. “There’s people out there that are willing to do it as volunteers.

“Once we open the space for somebody to be able and performing, I know we ain’t going to have to pay anybody,” he added.

His ideas are unrealistic. This is clearly a man I could never support for any public office.

So, who won the debate?

I’d have to give this one to John Guerra because some of his answers made sense and he made some good points.

I could find nothing of substance in Gutierrez’s responses. He either did not support his claims or just plain got it wrong.

The mayor gets zero points for the debate, since he didn’t show up. But he does have a track record with proven leadership ability. And that’s what he is counting on to get re-elected.

Regardless of who you support, get out and vote. Early voting starts Monday, April 28. Election Day is May 10.

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