Public safety becomes major election issue

One thing is for sure after Merced witnessed a divided City Council debate the idea of placing a Measure C extension on the November ballot:

Public safety will be on the minds of local voters as they decide who will help lead the city in the three representative council districts up for grabs in the upcoming election.

During a special meeting on Monday night, a majority of the Merced City Council was in support of placing a Measure C renewal on the November ballot — or, in other words, asking registered voters if they would support extending an existing half-cent sales tax that goes to support current staffing levels at the Merced Police Department and the Merced Fire Department.

The four “Yes” votes, however, fell short of the five required for approval. Council members Fernando Echevarria, Bertha Perez and Jesse Ornelas voted “No.”

Among those who showed up in the audience, there were equal numbers of people in support and in opposition of the public safety tax that voters approved in 2006 and has been in place for 16 years.

Without the half-cent tax, Merced would face an estimated $7 million annual budgetary shortfall. Measure C’s expiration in 2026 would also leave about 30 police and fire department jobs in jeopardy.

There’s still opportunity for the City Council to place Measure C on a future ballot, and that has potential significance in the decision on who will be elected or re-elected to the council.

Also, a future council will be weighing in on who will become the next police chief. Last week, Merced Police Chief Thomas Cavallero announced plans to retire this December after 37 years in law enforcement.

There’s also the expansion of the Main Police Station, new Fire Stations on the horizon, and the growth of public safety services linked to the annexation of the UC Merced campus community.

So far, in District 6, incumbent Councilman Delray Shelton is seeking re-election. He voted Yes on Monday night and is a firm supporter of Measure C and law enforcement in general. He works in administration in the county’s Sheriff’s Department. One other candidate has appeared on the list to face Shelton, and that is Fue Xiong, a housing advocate who appears frequently at council meetings and scrutinizes city funding strategies. He has spoke out against this year’s Measure C effort, as well as other funding for police services, including equipment and vehicles, traffic enforcement and DUI crackdowns.

In District 4, current City Councilman Kevin Blake, also a Sheriff’s Deputy, has been a staunch supporter of law enforcement initiatives. However, he is termed out, and so at this moment we have three candidates who have filed paperwork for that race: Shane Smith, Casey Steed, and Javier Aguilar Fuentes. Smith has already been interviewed by the Times, and he supports Measure C, and recently spoke up at City Hall in support of school resource officers. Steed has law enforcement experience and is a constant supporter of local police and fire efforts as the host of the weekly Citizens Watch radio show. The Times is awaiting confirmation of Steed’s entrance in the race, along with Aguilar.

In District 2, incumbent Councilman Echevarria is seeking re-election. He has voted to support law enforcement initiatives in the past, including putting it on the ballot this year during an initial vote last July. However, Echevarria changed his tune, criticizing how polling data was taken in his district and saying he received emails from constituents who wanted him to reconsider. He also took on a conspiratorial tone when it was revealed at the last minute of a later July meeting that the council had more time to turn in the ballot initiative paperwork to the county’s Registrar of Voters. Echevarria and Council members Perez and Ornelas voiced concern that the process was deceiving, and so with their “No” votes, the Measure C plan was unable to move forward.

Nevertheless, the city’s expert polling consultant had indicated there was a strong chance of Measure C meeting with voter approval in the fall. There was also a subsequent show of force from Measure C supporters who don’t typically attend council meetings, including a couple dozen public safety officers. Echevarria and Perez indicated on several occasions that they supported the measure, and then, they even voted to have the council reconsider it. But just a week later, when asked if they actually wanted it on the ballot, they voted “NO.”

So far, Echevarria has one opponent in the District 2 race this November. It’s Ronnie De Anda, a former postal carrier and longtime District 2 resident who was a write-in candidate when Echevarria won four years ago. De Anda’s name was not on the ballot, but he received an impressive amount of votes considering he was a “write-in.” This time, De Anda expects his name to be there for voters to choose. The Times is awaiting an interview with him to discuss the issues.

Here’s what Echevarria said on Monday night concerning the Measure C decision:

“I support Measure C, however, I’m not going to support it for this election. I’ve done enough extensive research that there is a high probability that it won’t pass. … I think we should wait until 2024. … I’m asking that we wait a little bit and that we have the survey be more engaging to our residents. It’s not an emergency. We still have time . . . but this process isn’t acceptable.”

He said the survey that was given to registered voters “was biased” and should be “more engaging to our residents.”

And he added: “It was rushed because the election is coming up. Rushed because a lot of our members here are going to be elected or re-elected, or they are going to put someone else in, and they want to move on this because they are running scared. You have nothing to fear. We relish law enforcement.”

For his part, Mayor Matthew Serratto, who is serving a 4-year term that ends in 2024, tried to move Measure C forward with a last ditch effort of negotiation on Monday night.

“What’s it going to take?” he asked, though it was clear Council members Echevarria, Perez and Ornelas were not budging.

Said Serratto: “So much of what we do, not just with public safety, including ARPA funding, and all the housing programs, the jobs programs, on and on. They were all possible because the city was in good fiscal health and good financial health. That is in large part because of Measure C. If we don’t have that, then all of that, to a huge extent, goes away. … You look at city after city and what did they do with their ARPA dollars, what did they do? They funded police officers. They did other public safety and filled gaps in their funding. What did we do? None of that. We were in great financial condition …. We were able to fund other programs [residents are calling for]. Park improvements. All of that.”

He turned the Echevarria, Perez and Ornelas and said: “I get your frustration. I get the attitude. A lot of people don’t like law enforcement. But it just seems that if we do this, if we vote no on this, what are we doing? … It’s the classic cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. You are angry and you’re mad. I get it. But a no vote on this, doesn’t just affect public safety, it affects so much else. And so many things you care about. …

“You can’t have it both ways. It’s hard to say you support law enforcement, but you don’t support their jobs and you don’t support paying them. It puts you in a really difficult position.”

MercedMerced City CouncilMerced County
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