During a recent Times interview, a local political candidate reflected: “I keep hearing people say Merced is a city on the rise, but once we get there, once it has risen, what’s it going to be like? … Are we all going to be better off?”
The candidate was referring more to overall socioeconomic progress rather than specific things like the development of a downtown entertainment district, infrastructure projects like Campus Parkway, and the expansion of UC Merced and the university community.
It’s overwhelmingly clear that the midyear spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the state of the city and its ambitious goals stated just a short time ago when times were much more optimistic.
Furthermore, issues related to poverty, employment, underserved communities, social justice and political representation only appear to be intensifying locally as well as across the nation.
One important indicator of the direction Merced is moving toward will be revealed on or shortly after Nov. 3 when local voters will decide who is going to lead the city as mayor.
The race features four candidates: a 70-year-old former Merced City Council member and former city planner; a 34-year-old Merced City Council member and high school teacher; a 40-year-old Merced City Council member and deputy district attorney; and a 65-year-old homeless advocate who has lived on and off local streets, parks and creeks for more than a decade.
Michael Belluomini, 70, is a detail-oriented former city and school planner who comes to leadership meetings well-prepared. He is not afraid to point out flaws in staff-driven plans or private party developments that are up for approval, often under deadlines, and he is known for showing up armed with alternative solutions to make things happen.
While serving on the Merced City Council from 2013 to 2018, Belluomini says he realized how the mayor’s position is important to leading the council and city in a unified direction.
“The current council has been very slow to get some things accomplished,” he told the Times. “I feel like I need to be there to try and break the logjams in terms of getting things done.”
For example, he says:
- The building of a new police headquarters and a couple new fire stations have been a top priority in recent years, but the last time the City Council discussed plans for the stations was nearly a year ago on Sept. 30, 2019.
- Police / community relations reached a boiling point over the summer, and a community panel was put together rapidly to study areas of concern regarding police tactics, interactions with residents, and oversight of the department. “They could have avoided the turmoil if they had responded to my call two years ago for the development of a police-community advisory board.”
- The council claims jobs and economic development is a top goal, but the last time they held a study session over plans for new industrial sites was back in September of 2018. “It’s one of your most important goals, so how is it that we go nearly two years without talking about it?”
Belluomini says the method of setting goals and priorities would be refined if he were to be elected mayor.
“The council does a good job going out to town halls and getting input about residents’ concerns,” he says. “However, the council needs to focus on three to four, or max five things that are critical to get done in the near term. Instead they don’t do that. When they adopted their goals and priorities last March, there were 65 items on the list. … We need to take our top goals and create benchmarks for each goal so that we know we are making progress.”
Belluomini wants to improve parks and recreation programs. He believes homeless residents need a safe, sanitary and stable place to reside while they pull their lives together — and action is needed now. He wants more apartments and affordable housing, but not crowded units that put profits above safety and enjoyable living.
And the candidate is a big advocate for landscaping along public streets and tree maintenance.
As for downtown, Belluomini says the city needs to work to provide more parking, regulate hours of on street parking better, regularly power wash the streets and sidewalks, support police foot patrols, and provide public events, with marketing for downtown.
The candidate is the son of Italian immigrants. He was raised Catholic and came to Merced 40 years ago as a city planner. He is married with twin grandchildren and and a grandson. He is an active member of St. Patrick’s Church and the parish choir. He is the president of the Merced Breakfast Lions Club, the president of the Italian Catholic Federation Merced Branch, a board member of Sierra Saving Grace Homeless Project, a member of the Catholic Charities Resource Board, and a member of Merced College Community Chorus for 12 years.
He has a Masters Degree in City Planning from Cal Poly Pomona, and a Bachelors Degree in Psychology from UCLA.
Anthony Martinez, at 34, has come a long way since 2016 when he became the first Merced resident to represent District 1 (southeast Merced) on the City Council. From the dais, the El Capitan High School teacher and assistant football coach has not been afraid to speak his mind, point out a perceived wrong, ask basic questions and debate tough issues.
Instead of seeking re-election to his district post this year, the youngest member of the council has decided to take the big step of seeking the mayor’s seat. It’s a new ball game, and the at-large election involves all registered voters in the city of Merced.
“I’ve known that I was going to run for mayor for years,” he revealed to the Times. “I’ve never known exactly when or how I’d go about it, but I’ve always felt it was in me, and when the time was right, I would emerge as a serious candidate. Now, I think the timing is right because Merced is on the crux of a change; change for the better or worse is up to council members and their ability to best represent the people’s desires from their areas. I think I have the ability to empower council members to help facilitate the change they want to see in their areas, and that’s very important to me.”
Martinez continued, “I know the line between success and suspension in our schools is razor thin. I know the difference between a homeless person and a homeowner is often a role model that was present when parents’ weren’t, and I know that no matter what side of town you were raised on, or what your family name is, if you’re ready to work hard, you may not become a millionaire, but you can make a decent living here, and if you’re not ready to work hard, you probably won’t do too well in Merced.”
For Martinez, the role of mayor should be about helping other council members better represent their areas rather than “the mayor using political influence to push what he/she wants.”
Nevertheless, the candidate has some projects he would like to see accomplished along with the other council priorities. One of his goals is to use the Campus Parkway road project and the nearby Gateway commercial development along Highway 99 as momentum to build a large city-wide park that can include a nature trail, dog park, tennis courts, and/or other big park amenities that will reach from the corner of Childs and Campus Parkway all the way to the Dwight Amey neighborhood park. He believes the effort will help attract further development of houses and retail, and eventually improve the average income of neighborhood residents.
“Imagine parents taking their son/daughter to the UC for the first time,” Martinez says. “They take the Mission exit off Highway 99, and see brand new retail developments, then turn the corner and see a fabulous park with a nature trail and newly-made houses. Don’t you think by the time this family passes the light on Childs Avenue, and looks westward towards the 140 overpass, they will wonder, ‘What else does this town have?’ Inspiring that type of curiosity is essential into getting incoming students and families to believe in this area.”
Martinez, who earned a BA degree in English and a teacher’s credential from California State University Northridge, says he is not going to run a traditional campaign and he is not seeking donations. He won’t be putting up campaign signs either. Instead, he will be attending city events and meeting with residents on a more personal level. “I want to be doing things for the community, not making a campaign that’s all about me. I’m not running for me.”
The candidate adds: “I think the City Council has done a good job over the last four years of growing Merced in terms of infrastructure and financial stability. However, once again, the times are changing, which means that we as a council will soon need to confront pressing and contentious issues that each council member will have to rectify within themselves and within their districts. Things like police policy reviews, zoning changes, or incoming apartment developments may require action that may change things for years to come. If council members aren’t studied up on items, have minimal exposure to diverse perspectives, or get too engrossed in their own personal politics, we as a governing body will have a very difficult time fixing the problems that have always been with us while trying to adapt for a prosperous future. However, if we can come together to confront the issues that have always plagued us while invoking necessary change for the better, our city will continue to survive and flourish.”
Matthew Serratto, 40, has taken a moderate, common-sense approach to his Merced City Council position since being elected nearly four years ago to the District 5 seat (northwest Merced). His words are often fashioned to create unity on the dais, and he is keen to building up city neighborhoods and parks, boosting the city’s image, creating attractive entertainment and dining districts, bringing jobs to town and solving the homeless crisis.
The deputy district attorney is also well-spoken, outgoing and friendly with fellow residents, and comfortable addressing even the most heated concerns of residents. He currently holds the title of mayor pro tem, and now he wants to take on the top role for the city.
“I love the work, I love our city, and I love the people in it,” he told the Times. “I want to help give residents a place that they can be proud to call home. Being mayor allows you the ability to serve the city at a higher level, to provide good, effective, positive representation at a time when the city needs it the most.”
Serratto says the mayor’s seat absolutely requires leadership skills, good judgment, and a great plan for this city. He says the mayor needs to have the ability to listen to people, find common ground, and unite people around a shared vision.
“I will represent everyone, not just a certain type of people, a certain side of town, or a certain constituency,” he said. “I will talk to, listen to, represent, and serve the best interests of absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they vote for me, agree with me, or support me. I believe strongly that effective representation involves empowering the community to step up and be leaders, because we can go so much farther when we have more people contributing. I am the kind of guy who always starts with ‘yes,’ trying to figure out a way to help bring people’s ideas to fruition.”
The candidate says the city needs to navigate the COVID-19 crisis effectively, while keeping the focus on uniting the city and moving it forward. The key issues, according to Serratto, are homelessness, economic development, downtown revitalization, public safety, neighborhood revitalization, parks and youth activities, cleaning up the town, rebuilding infrastructure, and building community.
“The last few months on the City Council have been rocky to say the least, with everything that is going on in the world coupled with considerable internal strife,” Serratto said. “Government is not always pretty, but what matters is making the right decisions to benefit our community, and I think at the end of the day we have done that in a very difficult environment with lots of distractions taking the attention and energy away from the important work still being done. In many ways, I am thankful for going through the last few months, because I am wiser and stronger for it, and will take this experience to benefit the city in the years to come.”
Before these pandemic times, Serratto helped draft and champion an ethics ordinance for city leaders. He supported rules to enhance local preference for city contracts. And he has taken the lead on various committees, including one to explore improving downtown, one to create a major soccer facility/public park in southeast Merced, and one to restore the historic Laura Fountain in Applegate Park.
He started a neighborhood improvement project in the Loughborough area, and targeted specific areas for landscape and sidewalk work, as well as the creation of a new park.
Serratto was named the Top Prosecutor of the Year for small and mid-size cities in California. He was also the lead prosecutor for the District Attorney’s successful Operation Scrapbook effort to combat violent gang activity in the region.
Monica Villa is a 65-year-old woman who has been advocating for the well-being of local homeless residents for more than a decade, yet all the while struggling with homelessness herself.
Since April, she has been living out of a hotel room provided by funding from the statewide program known as Project Room Key that was developed to help homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike the three other candidates who are running for mayor of Merced — all men, by the way — Villa has never held an election position in local government. But she says she’s not intimidated by her competitors.
“Hell no,” she told the Times, “Do I look like a scaredy cat? I’m not even intimidated by cops who are 6 foot 5 and 300 pounds. Do you think I will be intimidated by these other guys. … Oh please. … Don’t forget I’m a beautiful, intelligent, tenacious, charming, Hispanic.”
Surprisingly, Villa has run for office more times than the three other candidates have run for office combined.
In 2013, she ran for an at-large seat on the City Council along with seven other candidates. She came in last place, but received 807 votes (4.46 percent). In 2016, Villa ran with three other candidates for the District 3 seat on the council, and again came in last place, but this time she received 12 percent of the vote. Then, in 2018, Villa found herself as the only challenger to incumbent Mayor Mike Murphy in an at-large mayoral election, and to the surprise of many local political observers, she garnered 32.15 percent of the vote, or 5,439 votes.
Now she is running again for the city’s top post — her fourth election attempt.
Why does she keep trying?
“Because I can!” is Villa’s standard answer.
“It’s plain and simple,” she said. “I’m the only homeless person who has ever ran. I’m setting a precedent. And I’m getting a lot of support from seniors, disabled residents and fellow homeless people. The momentum is building. This could be my year.”
Villa said she has already registered 30 people to vote in the last two weeks, and half of them are homeless residents who have never voted before.
She plans on staying below the $2,000 fundraising threshold for reporting purposes, but she will be creating “limited edition” campaign T-shirts for sale. On the front will say: “Vote For Monica” and on the back, “Let’s Lock ’n’ Load!” — meaning along the lines of “Let’s Rock ’n’ Roll or “Let’s Get Er Done.”
Villa spends her day gathering supplies and food which she helps distributes to her fellow homeless residents. She has a circle route that takes her to a few local churches who have food programs and the Merced County Food Bank. She also campaigns at those sites, meeting with residents who are concerned about “housing, evictions, and having enough food to eat.”
“The money is there, but housing options for the homeless are scarce,” Villa said and added: “despite the best efforts of groups like Sierra Saving Grace, Healthy House, New Direction, the Continuum of Care board, and the Housing Coalition.”
Villa contends that while “low-income residents” have options, there’s not much housing available for people like her. Even some of the group homes that have been provided are not working out, she says, because many homeless people do not want to share space, or have pets that complicate living situations.
As for the county’s Navigation Center / shelter being built on B Street in south Merced, Villa says: “I will believe it when I see it.”
If elected mayor, Villa says she will work to find common ground with the local real estate community. She points to vacant homes and office buildings that could be used in a similar way as the state’s Project Roomkey.
She also said she would support public safety initiatives, as well as the Police and Fire departments in general. However, she said she would work to reinvent the police “Dart Team” that deals with homeless issues. She said there needs to be improved guidelines on how homeless people — and their property — are dealt with. Villa points out that “hoarding of personal items” can be an addiction and should be treated as such.
Villa supports the police despite the fact that she has been cited and detained on multiple occasions, mostly for trespassing after hours at city parks, or riding a bike and carriage on downtown sidewalks. Nevertheless, these charges have always been dismissed in court, sooner or later.
“Life is good,” she said.