Merced County Times Newspaper
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City embraces new public engagement plans

The Merced City Council’s meeting on Tuesday night had plenty to offer for those concerned about community engagement in civic affairs.

Leaders moved forward with a new website and public survey designed to gather information from residents and share details about the inner workings of city departments — all in an effort to boost upcoming Town Hall discussions to be held virtually in February.

They also allocated funds to kick start a new community outreach strategy, made way for a grant program for small business owners, and last but not least, brought back an elevated podium for residents to speak from during public meetings at City Hall.

The “virtual platform” to launch the Town Hall series will feature the City Council’s most recent goals and priorities, along with staff activities to make those wishes a reality. The site includes videos of work being conducted by various city departments, as well as a survey portal where residents can weigh in on issues, add comments, and rank their areas of concerns in order of importance.

The website was subsequently launched Wednesday morning, and a link can be found on the homepage of the city’s main website: cityofmerced.org.

Of course, the city is also attempting to build enthusiasm and participation in the upcoming virtual Town Hall meetings set for Thursday, Feb. 11; and Thursday, Feb. 18, both held from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. COVID-19 restrictions currently do not permit public attendance at council meetings. Residents will be able to watch the proceedings through the city’s website and Facebook page, and also on government access channels provided by local cable TV companies. The city is currently formulating ways for the public to interact with leaders during the meetings in real time and through communications sent in by email and voicemail.

Project Unity

Councilman Delray Shelton gave an update on a community initiative he’s been working hard on behind the scenes since this summer’s civil unrest linked to the killing of George Floyd and calls for justice by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Shelton calls it “Project Unity” — a community wide effort that brings diverse groups together to tackle issues, solve problems and create common goals. Potential projects in the plan include mural and art programs, community messaging, a literacy program, the renaming of Black Rascal Creek, cultural heritage programs, youth engagement programs, a revision of the city’s Core Value Statement, and the creation of a Community Humanitarian Award.

Project Unity is backed by a strategic committee with some big names in town, including Mayor Matt Serratto, Supervisor Daron McDaniel, UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sanchez Munoz, Merced College President Chris Vitelli, and County CEO Jim Brown, among several others.

“This just can’t be another project that we do a few things and it dies out,” Shelton said. “We want this to continue as a topic of conversation. We want this to be a culture shift.”

City Council members agreed to use their own travel funds to help offset the ongoing cost of developing Project Unity, including the literacy program that is ongoing and the development of a promotional video.

Huddleston Grant

Councilman Jesse Ornelas brought forth a proposal to allocate $10,000 in funding from the city’s Economic Opportunity Fund to support a business grant program for small business owners. He asked for it to be named in honor of esteemed Merced resident Charles Huddleston and with recognition for Black History Month.

Qualifications for the grant include: any new, small business with up to five employees, along with a business plan approved by the Small Business Development Center. The funding is intended to offset the cost of securing business license fees for the new owners.

The council voted unanimously to approve the plan.

Councilman Ornelas also put forth another plan, but failed to convince his colleagues to approve it. The leader asked for the city to consider implementing a strategy for members of the community who in the past were incarcerated or penalized for marijuana violations during the “War On Drugs” to be able to become financial stakeholders or part owners in existing and future cannabis businesses in the city.

Members of the council appeared interested in the data Ornelas collected about racial disparity and historically marginalized groups. However, according to the city attorney, the plan had legal implications that would have to be investigated prior to any council decision.

Council members went ahead and denied the Ornelas’ plan, but called for more local ownership options to review in future selection criteria for new cannabis businesses coming to the city.

Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory budgeting is a grassroots strategy intended to empower people to decide together how to spend public money.

Recently, the Recreation and Parks Commission recommended to the City Council the creation of a 2- to 3-year pilot program for the coming fiscal year to use a portion of Measure Y funds on a participatory budget process for things like youth activities.

Measure Y funds are taxes collected locally from the sales of cannabis products, and the revenue goes to the Parks and Recreation, Police and Fire departments.

The commission effort, led by member Norma Cardona and an ad hoc committee, ended up with a recommendation to spend $40,000 or 20 percent (whichever is lower) from the Measure Y funds allocated to Parks and Recreation at the direction of community members through participatory budgeting.

However, the proposal included the spending of at least $25,150, and up to $34,900 from the Measure Y discretionary funds to run the process each year in a collaboration with a local organization known as “Valley Onward” (formerly Building Healthy Communities).

A majority of council members expressed they liked the idea of improving community involvement in such matters, but they were against spending a significant amount of money on the process, especially during challenging economic times, and when there are already existing avenues for community input and volunteerism — such as the commission, Parks and Rec forums, the Youth Council and Town Halls, among others.

“We are spending an equivalent amount of money for administrative costs as we are for the people to vote on where they want to see that money could go … when that money could go directly to $35,000 for a youth program,” Councilman Kevin Blake pointed out.

Mayor Matthew Serratto added that the plan preselected an organization that would benefit from the contract without going out to the entire community for a bid.

After a robust discussion, the City Council voted unanimously to reject the Planning Commission recommendation.

Podium Reversal

Councilman Fernando Echevarria stood up and cheered after his colleagues unanimously agreed to remove a portable podium from in front and below the City Council dais — as soon as COVID-19 restrictions subside and residents are allowed to return to City Hall for meetings.

The podium was positioned in its current spot during the era of City Manager Steve Carrigan apparently so that residents who spoke during the public comment period would focus their comments directly toward the council members.

However, Echevarria has been a strong critic of its location, calling it intimidating and demeaning for residents. He also pointed out that the Council Chamber has an original, built-in podium to the right side of the dais that is more convenient for public speakers to use and be seen by all.

“I know there were some who wanted speakers to be front and center like the Spanish Inquisition, and have direct contact with the members of the council,” Echevarria said. “But I really feel it’s very intimidating.”

Merced resident and KYOS talk show host Casey Steed agreed with Echevarria in a voicemail sent to the council.

“I think the podium that has been in use down in the well for the past four years has been an affront to the public,” Steed said. “The location stifles public participation. It does not meet any handicap requirement … It’s time for the podium to go. … This is not a court of law. We are not down in the well giving testimony. This is a public dialogue. An interaction. And to be able to look at the other audience members [while speaking], I think, is necessary.”

In Other News …

Members of the local Hotel-Motel Association asked the city recently to waive the 3.15 percent convenience fee when they paying the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) by credit card for a period of one year. Several local hotel and motel operators pay their quarterly Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) with a credit card. When a credit card is used as the form of payment, a convenience fee of 3.15 percent is added to the TOT total to cover the issuing bank’s processing fee. If the fee is waived, the responsibility to pay it falls on the city.

On Tuesday night, association member Edwin Kainth told the council that the local hotel industry was operating at an average 41 percent to 42 percent occupancy — well below what’s needed to break even in their business dealings. He said hotels in the area are facing closure due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council members voted unanimously to waive the fee for those hotels affected and have the city pick up the cost through August. City staff, however, will have to take the direction and bring it back to the council with a budget appropriation proposal for approval.

“Frankly if our hotels — which are wonderful — close that would be a horrible thing for our community,” said Councilman Kevin Blake. “Likely when they close they will probably not reopen. Anything we can do to help keep their heads above water until things get better … I am all for.”

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