Candidates for the 5th District Board of Supervisors seat shared their vision for the county at a Saturday morning forum organized by the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County.
Mayor Robert Rickman, Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom, Councilwoman Veronica Vargas and construction manager-carpenter Mateo Morelos Bedolla each spoke on topics from homelessness to economic growth to county park funding during the nearly hourlong forum at the Tracy Branch Library.
One of the candidates will replace Supervisor Bob Elliott, who has represented the 137,000 residents in an area encompassing Tracy, Mountain House and southern portions of Manteca and Lathrop since 2012. Elliott, who will be termed out at the end of the year, is running for Congress.
The top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary will advance to the November election, unless one supervisor candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the 5th District race.
Saturday’s forum began with opening remarks by each candidate. The moderator, Kathy Casenave of the League of Women Voters, delivered the microphone first to Ransom, seated at far left.
Ransom said she hoped to draw attention to the needs of residents in the southern part of the county that had been neglected.
“I’m running because it’s really time for us to get things done in this county. If you have paid any attention, we have a failure to respond to things like infrastructure, local job creation and public safety,” Ransom said. “And that’s what I would like to do with the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, is make sure we have the representation that we need to get things done, to respond to things that have not been responded to for decades.”
Rickman spoke about his roots in Tracy and San Joaquin County and his accomplishments as Tracy’s mayor while emphasizing that there was still work to do.
“The homeless crisis is out of control, commute times are increasing, cost of living continues to increase and crimes in parts of our county are increasing,” Rickman said. “The next supervisor needs to have the experience, education and track record of accomplishments, be a fighter and listen to the interests of the community if we’re going to solve these problems.”
Bedolla said voters should elect him because residents of the 5th District deserved better representation.
“I’m running for supervisor because we face crippling underrepresentation and our local leaders outsource policy to real estate developers and under their watch the interests of families have been sold out to those same developers. All the while, rents continue to go up, traffic is getting worse, and incomes are staying the same,” Bedolla said. “What we need now is Medicaid and mental health care, housing as a right, tuition-free college and trade school, high-wage jobs, and infrastructure.”
Vargas said she had helped create jobs in every city in the district and hoped to continue the work she had begun as a council member.
“We are a very successful city council and we have worked really hard, and I seek to take that success to the county level and work on those projects that are meaningful and valuable for our community, and work together as a whole and bring our community, our San Joaquin County, to the next level,” Vargas said.
Candidates were asked what policies they would champion to encourage businesses and employers to create jobs in the county.
Bedolla cited lower real estate costs as an enticement for Bay Area businesses to build here.
“In terms of attracting employers to come to San Joaquin County, let’s take a step back and look at this from the outside. San Joaquin County has much more affordable land compared to Silicon Valley, where a lot of our residents go to work,” Bedolla said. “The reality is they’re going to be looking for options in the very near future. We have to have leaders with some chutzpah to go out and reach out and tell them: Hey, we have the workforce here, we’re even going to try and bring a college here, and this would be a great place to set up shop.”
Vargas drew connections between job creation and higher education and transportation, including the proposed Valley Link light rail line between San Joaquin County and BART in the Tri-Valley.
“The Valley Link — which I am spearheading, and I was actually one of the founding members of this group — is one component, but that is not it. We have to make sure that education is a huge part of it, and we need to have our children educated — and that is why I serve on the Delta College advisory board, to make sure we have job creations and, when the jobs come this way, we have an educated workforce. And that needs to happen at the same time we have new roads, fix our country roads,” Vargas said. “We need to figure out a better way to connect people to jobs, to housing, and count on the reverse commute that will have those jobs that are coming to District 5.”
Ransom, who serves on the San Joaquin Partnership board of directors, said the nonprofit economic development corporation was restructured after her appointment and began to talk with Bay Area companies about why they weren’t coming to the county.
“In these conversations, what we found is we don’t have the amenities they want, we don’t have the infrastructure they want, and we don’t have the transportation connectivity that they are looking for. So in order to create those local jobs, what we have been doing is finding out what kind of incentives we can give them,” Ransom said. “What I am looking to do is incentivize companies that are actually going to sustain head-of-household jobs for our community. That means we need to work with state and federal government to get those dollars to work on infrastructure.”
Rickman said that Tracy had led the region in bringing in new jobs, from distribution to manufacturing, and that the next step was to raise the education level of the local workforce.
“We have to invest in our education. We have to look at bringing in a university — I would love to have them here in the south county, but at least here in San Joaquin County. Also, we have talked a lot about universities, but we need to look at vocational and trade schools, bringing those here to Tracy or south county,” Rickman said. “We have to expand businesses that are already here. We have to create a long-term vision, be proactive and aggressive, something I have been very, very good at, and getting back to basic customer service, streamlining the permit process and reducing fees and regulations.”
Homelessness and mental health
In light of the growing number of people who are homeless in the county, including many who are dealing with mental and behavioral health issues, the candidates were asked how they would work to address homelessness and deliver social services.
Vargas asserted that a multipronged approach was needed.
“It’s not just people losing their homes — it’s mental illness, it’s substance abuse, and there needs to be somebody that can create policy that can address all those things together. Right now, we are failing, terribly,” Vargas said. “More of a spirit of collaboration with the other supervisors. It is a responsibility of the county to pay for those social services. We need to collaborate with the local government to make sure we address each city and their unique needs. Right now, it’s not a solution for all.”
Ransom, who helped establish the Tracy Community Homelessness Taskforce, said she has been a leader in the local response to homelessness.
“Unfortunately, the county hasn’t been doing its job. The mental health fund, we have had to send back millions of dollars to the state for not using those dollars — $40 million at risk because we’ve not done what we needed to do,” Ransom said. “We’re actually being fined — although we have the money, San Joaquin County is being fined for not having enough mental health workers. So some of the things I would do is support the cities and make sure these dollars are actually being spent and hold people accountable to make sure those dollars are allocated to the community as part of the ongoing continued care approach to addressing this issue.”
Rickman emphasized the role of mental health and substance abuse, not just a lack of affordable housing, in the homelessness crisis.
“One of the things that we need to do is get these people help. It’s not compassionate just to let them sleep out there on the sidewalk. If we are going to have housing, we need to have housing around our mental health facilities, around substance abuse programs,” Rickman said. “Once they get clean and get the help they need, we can move them into transitional housing and give them vocational training, job training, so they can get back on their feet.”
Bedolla said he would focus on getting people connected to the proper services. He suggested establishing a satellite office for county services in the unused county courthouse on 10th Street to make it more convenient for people here to find help.
“That’s something we have to put our money where our mouth is. If we’re actually serious about helping people with this situation, let’s get it done,” Bedolla said. “It’s something worth more to spend the money now then spend 10 times the amount later. And the reality is, yes, we need to connect people with mental health services and other social service to get back on their feet.”
Candidates’ top priorities
Candidates were also asked to speak about what they saw as the single most urgent issue for San Joaquin County.
Ransom said the county needed leaders who would take a stronger stand.
“I think leadership is a huge thing, a serious issue that we need to address, and we need to be unapologetic about the leadership that we take and be bold and respond. And sometimes people are not going to like the decisions that are necessary to actually solve the problem, such as this issue with homelessness,” Ransom said. “No matter what, we have to address those issues with leadership and bringing the right people to the table to work with state, federal and local leaders.”
Rickman asserted that homelessness was the most pressing issue facing the county.
“Walking the neighborhoods and talking to people, one thing that is always on their mind is the homeless — people sleeping in the park, people using drugs. You know, five years ago, you didn’t see this problem here in San Joaquin County, not as much as you see now,” Rickman said. “You have to the truth, you have to tell the way it is. Sometimes it’s not the most popular thing, you know, just like it’s not just a housing issue, but one of substance abuse and mental health.”
Bedolla said the county’s economic growth should be the top priority.
“In terms of economic development, encouraging companies that we know are looking for the traits that we have as a city, as a region. Pushing for a CSU or UC to be built in Tracy or Mountain House versus Stockton. Stockton already has a satellite of CSU Stanislaus. They have UOP. We need something over here,” Bedolla said. “We need to make sure we have leaders that are not afraid to speak up and be at the table when these decisions are being made, not days later and then send out a press release while you are upset because the decision was made because you weren’t at the table.”
Vargas said the next supervisor must focus on results-driven leadership.
“Leadership with a vision, values and a voice for the people, that’s what we need, being not afraid to speak up,” Vargas said. “Of course homelessness is the second component we need to figure out and I would love to have the leadership to just see a project through. There needs to be a result, it needs to be addressed and again it’s not just homeless for housing, it’s homeless with a lot of other issues that need to have problematic, result-driven approach.”
Other questions posed to the candidates touched on funding for regional parks and water storage.
The forum concluded with brief speeches by each candidate and a reminder from the League of Women Voters about important voter registration and election dates.