Merced County Times Newspaper
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City Council election races off to early start in three districts

Downtown area most competitive

Now that the March Primary election is pretty much in the rear-view mirror, attention is turning to Merced City Council races, where some candidates are poised for campaign kick-offs, and others have already made announcements and moves to win a seat in November.

Normally, in years past, political activity for these types of races start to ramp up in August when filing deadlines come into play. While there’s always been some early starters in any given election year, this one is remarkable for the number of candidates already speaking out.

The most competitive race, so far, looks to be in District 3, the area between Highway 99 and Bear Creek that includes Downtown Merced and the Old Town neighborhoods.

In this race, incumbent District 3 City Council member, Bertha Perez, who also holds the title of Mayor Pro Tem, is facing a decision over whether or not to run for re-election. There’s been no word from her camp at this point; however, as previously stated, it’s still early in the year. Nevertheless, a total of three political newcomers are already campaigning for Perez’ seat. Mike Harris, 70, and Cynthia Kelly, 53, have already announced their intent to run, and the Times learned this week, that Sair Lara, 41, is planning a campaign kickoff soon.

“I know I can take the residents of District 3 in a different direction, a direction that highlights public safety and fiscal responsibility,” Harris says.

The former Air Force veteran, firefighter, paramedic and deputy sheriff points to his years of service on the city’s Planning Commission and Tax Transparency Commission as quality experience for the job.

“I believe in fostering open and transparent communication, and I am committed to listening to the diverse voices within our community,” he says. “My goal is to build bridges, unite our community, and advocate for policies that will lead to positive change.”

Cynthia Kelly, the president of the Merced SPCA and a Ragsdale neighborhood resident, announced her candidacy during a City Council meeting, telling leaders on the dais that their government body was “fractured” and in need of more unity to get positive work accomplished for the community.

“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” she later told the Times. “I believe that lip service is an injustice to any organization and unfortunately as we’ve seen from the current climate in politics locally, statewide and nationally there are always so many promises made during an election season, but never realized. The only promise I’ll ever make is that I will give 100 percent to any task or challenge I’m presented with.”

She adds, “I believe that public safety has to be Merced’s top priority. The foundation of any community begins with safety — you won’t patronize shops, restaurants or engage in any outdoor activity if you feel unsafe. You won’t allow your children to utilize our beautiful parks or even ride their bikes if it’s not safe. Most people don’t realize that the passing of Measure C only maintains the current staffing in our police and fire departments.”

Sair Lara is an educator who grew up in Atwater, graduated from Long Beach State, and returned to Merced to build a new career and start a family.

Most recently, he was the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association for two years, having stepped down from the position in January. Lara has been a consistent advocate for downtown, and has appeared before the City Council on numerous occasions to bring attention to issues in regard to beautification of public places and concerns about homeless camps in and around parks and residential neighborhoods.

The candidate was influential over the past few years in the city’s efforts to clean up Applegate Park and the area surrounding the historic Laura Fountain.

“I want to bring businesses and people to downtown Merced,” he told the Times. “I want to make it safe. I want people to feel safe downtown, and currently that isn’t always the case.”

Lara says he plans a campaign kickoff event in the coming days.

District 1

Incumbent City Councilman Jesse Ornelas already announced he will not seek a re-election to a second term in District 1 — a surprising revelation late last year that was first reported in the Times.

Ornelas is pursuing other career goals, as well as continuing his advocacy for youth opportunities in the community. So that opens up a seat in District 1, located in southeast Merced, including the area bordered by Yosemite Parkway, Highway 99 and E. Mission Avenue.

So last fall, a young lawyer named Darin DuPont, jumped into the race. Since then he has been appearing at many community events, and has started a campaign Facebook page and website.

The Times has not interviewed DuPont yet, but according to information online, he is a 2014 graduate of Buhach Colony High School, so that would make his age around 28. DuPont attended Merced College before transferring and attending George Mason University in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration with an emphasis on Public Policy, the candidate attended the University of Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, graduating in 2021 with a Juris Doctorate with a concentration in Water and Environmental Law and a concentration in Public Policy/Government Law.

He is married and currently works as a civil attorney in Merced with a local private law firm.

“Merced needs leaders that will support adequate public safety and help grow Merced,” he said on a Facebook video. “Merced is at a crossroads … We need leaders to help guide us through those crossroads. We need to ensure that we have adequate public safety and we continue to grow our economic development.”

He has also stated that District 1 is in “the best position to facilitate growth in economic development.”

“Jobs are critical for the future of Merced,” he says. “As a city council member, I will fight to make sure we have top-of-the-line jobs in our city. To accomplish that I will work with UC Merced & Merced College, local leaders, and current employers in our city to see what we can do better to attract new employers, help current employers to see where we as a city are falling short, and focus on workforce training so we can attract new highly qualified employees.”

The name of another candidate in District 1 has also come to the Times attention, and that is Walter Smith.

Walter Smith is currently a member of the city’s Planning Commission, but he’s perhaps better known for his advocacy for the improvement in the quality of life in south Merced.

Mayor Matthew Serratto has called Smith the “unofficial mayor” of McNamara Park, a place where both have spent time hosting events and taking part in clean-ups and other beautification efforts.

Smith is also a youth mentor and helps coach several sports teams as part of his work with the Parks and Recreation Department.

The Times has not interviewed Smith on his candidacy as of yet, but the candidate has announced to the paper that he intends to run, and has even filed some paperwork with the city.


District 5

There’s one incumbent on the City Council who is up for re-election, and she is definitely going to run. There’s no doubt about that.

Councilwoman Sarah Boyle, who is about to turn 36, has already been fundraising and receiving endorsements to continuing serving District 5 — which includes northwest Merced, roughly bordered by Bear Creek, G Street and Highway 59, though it does curve out to include other neighborhoods.

“I’m committed to serving our community and seeking a brighter future for our residents,” she told the Times, “and I have strived to be responsive to the constituents in District 5.”

Boyle says she has worked to improve infrastructure, roads and public safety in her district. She is also known for her advocacy to improve housing development across the city, as well as her work on programs to beautify public spaces.

Boyle has worked to include more women in the nomination process for city boards and commissions, particularly in District 5.

The UC Merced employee has already received endorsements from Merced City Firefighters, as well as from Merced County Supervisors Josh Pedrozo, Daron McDaniel and Lloyd Pareira.

Boyle tells the Times that she will be holding an official campaign kickoff with supporters in the coming days.

There have been no other candidate announcements in District 5.

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