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Local Candidates Deliver Views At Forum
Forum 10-3
The four-year term candidates prepare for the Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum. From left, Tom Dunlop, Ramona Howard, J.R. McCarty, Kathy Morgan, Don Petersen. Two persons from the slate of five will be elected. - photo by RICHARD PALOMA/The Leader

Six of the seven slated Oakdale City Council candidates, some appearing more polished and prepared than their competition, went before voters for a candidate forum sponsored by the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday night, Sept 26.

The event was a specific effort to understand each candidate’s opinion on business and economic development issues that impact the city. About 40 potential voters attended.

The candidates, divided by those competing for two seats on a four-year term and those for a two-year term, were given an opportunity to make a three-minute opening statement, answer five predetermined questions, and give a closing statement. Moderating the forum was Michael Loschke, President of IMC Consulting in Modesto.

“I stand behind my record on the council for business,” said current councilman Tom Dunlop in his opening statement. “I ask voters to look at my last seven years on the council.”

Candidate Ramona Howard apologized to candidates stating she was feeling “under-the-weather” and continued on, pointing out she was not a politician but brought leadership skills as a business owner.

“I’m a citizen just like you,” Howard stated. “Communication is the key to give people the opportunity to step up.”

The first question candidates were posed with regarded the current fee structure and if it discouraged business development in Oakdale.

All candidates took the position that more could be done to bring business to the city, making the process less cumbersome.

“We should show people we want business here,” commented current Treasurer and candidate J.R. McCarty.

“When we were at the height in California, fees got out of hand,” said candidate Don Petersen, a local businessman. “Cities looked to fees to make a profit. Times have changed and we need to see what we can do to develop business. We should make sure that they (businesses) are successful but pay their fair share.”

Dunlop took a stronger stance than the others.

“City government is a hindrance to the process,” claimed Dunlop, who said he was annoyed by the process. “It’s hard to get the same answer twice.”

Candidates were also asked about what direction they would like to take to attract new businesses to the city.

Howard said that high speed Internet was needed for the city and she would like to attract “green technology” to the city as well as explore the idea of electric car charging stations.

Current Councilwoman Kathy Morgan pointed to new industries such as solar energy and Internet Technology. She also stated customer service businesses would showcase the qualities of what Oakdale had to offer.

“Government should not be picking winners and losers in business,” Dunlop responded to the question of how the city should attract new business. “Get government out of the way so industry will be attracted to this town.”

“Why haven’t we done this then in the last eight years,” asked McCarty in a shot to his current incumbent challengers. “Let’s get business friendly and bring jobs to Oakdale.”

In regard to restoring and strengthening Oakdale’s financial position, McCarty added that the city should “stop useless spending.” He identified city reports where the city paid over $96,000 on a job for which they were originally quoted $42,000 and questioned the need for three consultants to do the job of one city manager.

Petersen said that five years ago the city wasn’t in a good financial position and the problem got worse. He stressed that the city needed better financial reporting.

Morgan defended the three consultant decision by the council until a more permanent city council came aboard to select a new city manager. She said lessons were learned when the wastewater plant was criticized and the council should not repeat past mistakes.

During closing statements, Howard asked audience members to close their eyes and recall their “tranquil place that touches their heart.” She then asked them to raise their hand if it was Oakdale. She told the audience to open their eyes and see who had their hand raised.

“My goal is to make you love Oakdale like these people do,” Howard said, adding that volunteerism was key for a city without funds.

During the break, one resident said he scored the first session with Petersen and Dunlop leading the way in how questions were answered. Others also felt Dunlop did well and Petersen was knowledgeable and strong despite being an unknown in the political light compared to the other four.

In the second round, former Mayor and Councilman Farrell Jackson went head-to-head with challenger Cher Bairos for the two-year seat left open by the resignation of Jason Howard last April. Candidate Mike Murray was not available due to job responsibilities for that evening.

“With a two-year seat, you have to hit the ground running,” said Jackson, pointing to his previous experience. “I can work with anyone on the council because I do it for Oakdale.”

There have been concerns about how Jackson would interact with Mayor Pat Paul if he was elected. Paul and Jackson faced off against each other in 2010 and have made no secret about their disagreements and conflict.

Bairos asked for a brief moment of silence during her opening statement; however the moment may have caused her to go over her time limit as she read from a prepared statement and was not able to complete it.

Jackson, who was smooth in his deliveries, said he supported the much needed North County Corridor to stimulate business coming to Oakdale. He also said he was in favor a of a “flat-rate” sewer fee compared to the current method of billing.

“You can’t pay bills without knowing how much money is coming in,” Jackson said criticizing the current way of calculating the billing.

Bairos said she would lobby for small business to come to Oakdale and disagreed with the “rosy” financial picture that was portrayed for the city in past years. She considered allowing the city management staff to form a bargaining unit and the purchasing of the Hershey Building – both during Jackson’s watch – as “a bad financial decision.”

During closing, Jackson described himself as “an experienced captain in rough seas” stating there was over $5 million in reserves when he left office. He emphasized that if elected he had the ability to start on the council the very next day and could work with anyone on the dais.

“I want to see Oakdale the jewel it once was,” Jackson said.

Bairos closed with people have had time on the council and done a lot, but it was the time for new people to come together to get through tough times.

“We need a neutral party that can help our city come together,” Bairos said. “We don’t need a divided council or members with agendas or baggage.”

“The Chamber is very pleased with the community turn out and thanks the candidates for participating,” said chamber CEO Mary Guardiola after the forum. “The feedback has been positive from the community.”

All the questions for the forum were submitted from the local business community to the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce and given to the candidates in advance of the forum.