Soto decries incumbent, calls for ethics on county board

Maria Soto

Maria Soto doesn’t hold back when she brings up issues of ethics, transparency and political corruption when talking publicly about Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa — the leader she wants to replace in the 2024 Election. In fact, Soto has appeared before Espinosa and the board on more than one occasion in recent weeks to candidly and sharply speak her views.

Soto and two other challengers, Sonia Alshami and Jim Pacheco, are vying to represent District 1, which includes the communities of Livingston, south Merced, El Nido, Le Grand, Planada and Santa Nella. They are going up against Espinosa, the incumbent who is seeking re-election to a third term.

The four candidates are on the March 5 primary election ballot, and if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote plus 1, a runoff between the Top 2 vote-getters will be held in the November general election.

Soto is a teacher and a member of the Livingston City Council for the past seven years. The Times submitted questions to the candidate, and received detailed answers. Let’s start with the issues in the District:

“I believe the most important issues in District 1 are actually prevalent throughout all districts, with the exception being the lack of not being heard in south Merced,” Soto points out. “Issues involve the lack of infrastructure, water rights, not enough policing in areas of need, the roads are a mess, accessibility and accountability of representation of the county elected, the unhoused population, limited access to mental health care or medical facilities, affordable health care, medications, and housing.”

The candidate says providing housing for those unsheltered is key, while also providing wrap around social services. “Coordination between county departments, local agencies, non-profits, and other partners is critical,” she says. “Examining Veterans housing solutions seems like a top priority especially considering the amount of funding available for Veterans housing projects. Livingston has entitled over 600 units of housing of which a significant number will be affordable housing units.”

Regarding water: “We need sustainable water consumption as well as regional solutions. Pumping from the basin is a short term solution. Long term solutions including basin recharge, reclaimed water usage, and potential surface water solutions are needed to provide comprehensive water sustainability. Livingston, in the last year, is protecting its water by doing a thorough evaluation of its system to ensure residents have a reliable and safe system. The city is ahead of other cities by having a Capital Improvement Plan adopted, and MCAG illustrated that many cities lack long term plans for investing in its system. Livingston is prioritizing its existing system and planning for expansion for the future.”

As for attracting new jobs to the area, Soto says: “Our immigrant community is responsible for so much of the wealth building that is going on here locally. Their hard work and labor provide the manpower which drives Merced County’s multi billion dollar economy. We need to push for robust ways to help people achieve legal status through work visas and otherwise. I also do expect to rewrite county ordinances to allow for our farmers and developers to be able to have more options to legally provide shelter and work opportunities in different ways to our unhoused population. It’s tricky, but it can be done. We must also do a better job at incentivizing the different departments of government into working together to provide more efficient options. The current programs are a great start; however, I think they could be more efficient by providing greater incentives for participation and involvement and this can be achieved in several ways. We don’t always need to spend new taxpayer dollars to achieve greater results.”

Soto also says she is committed to bringing the first full-sized water park to Merced County, complete with a concert venue, food and drink gardens and a licensed child center and senior center.

“We can have nice things when we have full time supervisors and concern for citizens and how tax dollars are spent,” Soto says. “We currently have part-time supervisors who are full-time self interested business men.

She continues: “When elected, I plan to initiate investigations into why the residents of Planada did not receive an evacuation order prior to the flood waters rushing into their homes. I also plan to initiate an investigation into why, in the immediate aftermath of the floods, at an emergency town hall meeting in Planada, the county did not provide interpreters for the primarily Spanish-only speaking residents of Planada and instead allowed the supervisor, Mr. Rodrigo Espinoza, to constantly interrupt the remarks of the flood victims resulting in what appeared to be a coordinated effort to censor the public. When elected I also plan to launch an investigation into where the supervisors $40,000 discretionary budget has been going, as well as why the county continues to sell its government land to elected officials. These supervisors are not going to investigate themselves.”

Keep in mind that Supervisor Espinosa has also publicly rebuked and denied Soto’s array of allegations against him. Nevertheless, Soto says her beef with Espinosa goes back to when she was first getting active in Livingston politics and learning about the destruction and demolition of the landmark downtown Livingston Court Theater in 2014. “City officials had promised to refurbish the donated land and accompanying theater, and although money was raised, the Livingston politicians, lead by Rodrigo Espinoza (a former mayor and council member), had our downtown jewel torn down with no account for the money raised,” she claims.

After Soto was elected to the City Council, she started looking through Grand Jury investigations, including one involving Espinosa in a leadership role, the purchase of property in a redevelopment zone, and conflict of interest issues; and another regarding Espinosa and the use of government influence to benefit a private business.

Espinosa says he has been exonerated in these cases, while also saying he has received unrelenting and unfair criticism from political opponents in Livingston for more than a decade.

Soto also says Supervisor Espinosa has shown up at more recent City Council meetings in Livingston and used threatening words to “blackmail” her so she will no longer look into issues, “or dig up dirt,” regarding himself or his business dealings. Soto says she has filed a report with local police authorities regarding the matter.

Meanwhile, the candidate’s concern with ethics and transparency extends to the entire Board of Supervisors.

“It seems this current board is in cahoots with Mr. Espinosa, not only recently awarding him the title of Chairman of the Board (even after I approached the board during public comments regarding his threats and intimidation), but the current board also placed him as their representative on LAFCO even after they were made aware that he was caught purchasing property in a Redevelopment Zone. Since LAFCO is involved in the planning and rezoning of city and county lines, you would think a responsible and ethical board would elect to keep him away from his vices.”

To be fair, Soto herself is not free from controversy. In 2021, she was named, along with the mayor of Livingston, and two other council members, in a recall effort by local organizers who said they were targeting fraud and ethics violations at City Hall. The organizers, however, failed to submit enough signatures to qualify for a special recall election. That same year, she was also serving on the Council when protesters gathered outside of the Livingston Council chambers demanding answers about why the city’s police chief was placed on administrative leave a few months after being sworn in. In that same time frame, Soto also raised eyebrows when she showed up at a Merced City Council meeting as a member of the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce advocating for a developer, Dwight Larks, who was planning an expansion to a Main Street commercial location. Larks was also involved in a development plan for a cannabis business in downtown Livingston — something that triggered debate among residents and leaders.

 

Maria Soto was born in San Joaquin County in 1971,  but made her way to Santa Cruz County through the foster care system. She was raised in Livingston, first arriving in August of 1975, then later adopted in February of 1976 at the old Merced County Courthouse. She was the youngest of four, and was fortunate enough to be raised in a household with both parents. Her father worked at the Evans Telephone Company and was a volunteer baseball coach. Her mother stayed home as a homemaker, but she was very engaged with the community. She even wrote her own article for the Livingston Chronicle called “As I See It.”

Soto went to Campus Park Elementary, Selma Herndon Elementary and graduated from Livingston High School (where she was senior class president) in 1988.

She obtained an AA in Liberal Studies from Merced College; a BA in Early Childhood Education and Liberal Studies, (minor in Psychology) from CSU Stanislaus; an MA in Education Curriculum and Instruction from The University of Phoenix, Sacramento campus; and earned a Multiple Subjects Teaching Credential from Fresno State, and was previously in process of an Ed.S. Education Specialist in Administrative Leadership with the completion of 6 units.

Soto became a teacher specializing in helping struggling students be successful in school and in life. She has taught throughout a multitude of school districts, including in Los Banos, Waterford, and Livingston, as well as at her alma mater, Livingston High, and Golden Valley High in Merced.

Later in life, she became a Parks and Recreation Commissioner for the City of Livingston before being elected to the City Council.

She is the proud mother of six children, three of whom have graduated college, with one currently in college, another in high school, and another in the 8th grade.

Says Soto: “I believe my commitment to transparency, and proven leadership grouped together with my years of experience and relationships, make me the most suited candidate for the position of District 1 Merced County Supervisor.”

ElectionsMercedMerced County
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