Three Ceres residents who want to sit on the Ceres City Council were grilled in a candidate forum sponsored Thursday evening that yielded more agreement about the direction of Ceres than disagreement.
Incumbent Ken Lane, and challengers Hugo Molina and Linda Ryno answered questions posed by the Latino Community Roundtable during a forum held at the Ceres Community Center.
Only two seats are open during the Nov. 5 election, prompting all three to explain why they should not be shut out during balloting.
Ken Lane has served on the City Council - also picked as vice mayor -- for eight years.
"It's been an honor serving the community and I would like to continue doing so," said Lane.
Because of her experience working for the city for nearly 30 years as an administrative secretary - retiring in 2010 -Ryno said that she believes she has "the insight and knowledge needed to be a council member. I have a vested interest in a council seat because in our city, its citizens and improvements that will benefit our citizens and future citizens. I possess strong convictions and high moral values that I would like to exercise if elected. My concentration will be citizens first. I will listen to the citizens and guarantee responding to them and provide a timely follow-through of their concerns."
Hugo Molina, a member of the Ceres Planning Commission for the past four years, said he has gained a wealth of experience dealing with issues.
"I feel confident that when elected I will be able to stand by my convictions that the citizens of Ceres come first," said Molina. "... my vested interest in the community in being a city councilman is because this is home. This is where my kids are being raised. We embrace this community as home and of course we will strive, as a councilman to do what's best for the community, for the people, before any special interests."
LCR president Maggie Mejia asked the candidates the first question, delving into the controversial issue of whether Ceres should go to district elections. The LCR recently asked the council for district elections in lieu of the current at-large balloting system to avoid legal challenges by special-interest minority groups.
Ryno did not give her personal opinion on the issue, saying it is up to the voters "because it will affect them if they have district elections."
Molina said that in time district elections "could be beneficial and will encourage many more citizens to get involved" but suggested at-large elections suit Ceres' small size currently.
Lane said the council will send the matter to the voters in 2015 but questions district elections. He noted that in 2011, Ceres had an 18 percent turnout of the 18,100 registered voters and "if you break that up into districts .... you could be elected by as little as 300 or 400 votes. Is that good for the community? I don't know. But you know what? We'll let the citizens decide."
Candidates were asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, how they rate their relationship to the Latino community in Ceres.
"I would give myself a 10," said Lane. "I reach out to everybody in the community whether it's Latino or any nationality." He said he attends many community events sponsored by LCR and other groups.
Ryno also gave herself a 10 and said she has a good working relationship with persons of all nationalities when she worked for the city.
"Just in my day to day dealings I run into people from all walks of life," said Ryno.
Molina, too, suggested a 10 rating. "We will be serving the needs of the entire community," said Molina. "Of course I am Hispanic and I would relate to the Hispanic community but the issue and the focus is to serve the entire community."
Candidates were then asked what they feel is the most pressing need in Ceres. Ryno answered first, saying that making the "budget more balanced than it is."
"I mean the city says it's a balanced budget but in reality there really is a structural deficit of $1.7 million," said Ryno. "I believe in order to go anywhere further with anything you need to take of the budget first."
Molina answered by saying the economy of Ceres. He also noted a number of city departments that are "lacking" in finances.
"I think the economic development part of the city is what's at stake at the moment," said Molina, who suggested that perhaps Ceres can improve its business-friendly atmosphere.
Lane replied to Ryno's budget remark, saying the city does have a balanced budget due to the employees accepting a 10 percent cut in salaries.
"We'd like to get everybody back to the 10 percent," said Lane.
"Economic development is very, very important to this community," said Lane, who remembered the first two years' of his term filled with new development applications. With the economy picking up Lane said the council has taken a stand for economic development.
Lane also suggested that it will be critical for the city to meet water needs by developing a regional surface water system.
Mejia asked candidates to explain how much money they have raised and from whom. Molina said he's raised about $1,500 with main contributors being citizens. Lane answered that he has raised $12,000 to $15,000 "basically out of the city of Ceres" including businesses and families. Ryno has raised about $4,000, mostly from Ceres residents but also $2,500 from Laborers Local #1130.
Candidates were asked their position on hiring a full-time manager. The city appointed Police Chief Art deWerk as the acting interim city manager since the resignation of Brad Kilger as a cost-savings measure. Lane said the council put in a $20,000 budget line item for a city manager search if business warrants it but stated "we don't need to become a bigger City Hall; we need to take care of the current employees and give their money back first." He said the arrangement with deWerk is currently working fine.
Ryno said Ceres is large enough to warrant a full-time public safety director as well as a full-time city manager.
"I think the director of public safety needs to focus on all the issues that involve a public safety department," said Ryno, "and I think the city manager needs to be the one that is looking out for the interests of everyone in the city, that doesn't just have one particular department that he might be concerned with."
Molina said "for the sake of the organization it would be best that we have a city manager and a director of public safety." But he also stated that he is impressed with deWerk's performance.
Candidates were asked their views of the top three challenges of city government.
Lane answered that state revenue grabs have been devastating but said city leaders must press for more legislation to put more tools in the city's toolbox to deal with them.
"I think it's a challenge to get businesses to come to Ceres," replied Ryno, "rather than go to Modesto or Turlock and I believe we could achieve that by enhancing our economic development department to start marketing Ceres more."
She also noted a challenge is maintaining public safety "as we have it because we are scheduled to lose six firefighters with the (loss of) the SAFER grant in 2014."
Ryno also noted that Ceres must attack blight, whether it's a lack of landscaping or streets littered with trash and abandoned shopping carts.
Molina mentioned fighting against state raids, restoring cuts to employee salaries, and providing infrastructure for new business and industry.
When asked if they had any ideas to reduce drugs, gang and crime in Ceres, all three candidates noted that the Police Department's Street Crimes Unit is doing the best job it can. Molina suggested possible use of gang injunctions in the future. Lane said the city might reach out better to the community and said it's important for police to be respectful to citizens of all races and "I think they're doing a fairly good job at that."
"We would love to put more cops on the street," said Lane. "That would help a lot but you know as the economy changes we can certainly do that as the general fund improves."
Each candidate was asked to describe their vision for Ceres a decade down the road.
Molina said he wants Ceres to be spoken of in the same way they do Modesto or Turlock "and not bypass." He wants Ceres to be prosperous, crime free, and a full-staffed public safety department.
Ryno said she wants Ceres to develop shopping or recreational opportunities that is now largely available in other communities.
Lane agreed with both his opponents, suggesting it would be nice to be able to go downtown Ceres or elsewhere to buy coffee or have a steak dinner and watch a movie.