Lodi City Council candidates discussed gang violence, bringing jobs to town and even whether there is a local good ol' boys network in front of 24 people at the Lodi Public Library.
Incumbents JoAnne Mounce and Bob Johnson joined challenger Doug Kuehne to discuss their priorities for the next four years during the forum the Lodi News-Sentinel sponsored Thursday evening.
Mounce, who is the current mayor, talked about her family owning a business in town for the last 80 years and how her grandmother, Esther Mounce, taught her the importance of volunteering.
She listed some of her successes as reducing the cost of water meters for citizens, getting "In God We Trust" posted in the lobby of Carnegie Forum and making "Liveable, Loveable Lodi" the official motto of the city.
"My grandmother taught me by example what it's like to help other people. ... I've been blessed and grateful for the opportunity to work with many Lodians over the years," Mounce said.
Johnson, who has also served as mayor, discussed how he was a New York native who fell in love with Lodi and served on the Parks and Recreation Commission for 16 years.
During his time on the council, Johnson said the city has promoted the winery business and recently refinanced some of Lodi's debt to use the savings to build Fire Station 2 on the Eastside.
"We are in a good position to ride out the rest of the recession. I'm proud to be part of a group that has moved this city forward," he said.
Kuehne, who chaired Lodi's Planning Commission for two years, discussed how he was briefly homeless when he was young, and how he started his company with $300 to pay for city permits and buy 10 carpet cleaning machines. Now, he is the owner of King's Carpet and one of the top experts in his field.
He decided to run for the council after his father-in-law, who is a Vietnam veteran and amputee, was robbed twice and had guns and medication stolen. Police were not able to prosecute the thieves, he said.
"When I'm asked, 'Why would you want to do this?' I say I have a vested interest in what this community looks like. ... If the police cannot do their job, I have a concern," Kuehne said.
Below are the lightly edited answers to three of the questions from the debate:
Is there a way for Lodi to attract more jobs to town, and presumably more tax revenue and be more business friendly?
Doug Kuehne: When I was chairing the Planning Commission, we had the largest growth in Lodi's history. We approved the FCB (Homes) project west of Raley's and Temple Baptist. We approved the Reynolds Ranch and Blue Shield project.
Both of those, especially the Reynolds Ranch project, have proven to be an excellent revenue stream for the city. With Costco and Home Depot there, those have really helped not only with jobs but with a bigger tax base.
When I was chairing the Planning Commission, this was very controversial at the time, but we approved the Wine Country Cardroom. Part of my thought on that process was to move the cardroom away from World of Wonders, where there was a lot of kids, and we wanted to see Downtown to continue to blossom and grow.
So we moved that cardroom outside of Downtown to its current location. As a result, we've seen a large revenue stream as a result of that, probably bigger and better than we anticipated. I took a lot of heat when I made that decision.
The next project that's on my horizon is to continue to grow Downtown Lodi.
I affectionately called it the Yellow Brick Road when (School Street) first came in. We want to make sure that Sacramento Street continues to flourish, and that we do our part to make it more business friendly for people to come in.
JoAnne Mounce: That's been something I've been concentrating on for the last few years because I've been asked by many members of the community, "How do we create more jobs, good-paying jobs, that can pay for the quality of life we have in Lodi?"
I'm proud to say for the last three months, I've been working with a Stockton downtown business, a good manufacturing company that has 120 jobs. We were told yesterday (MEPCO Label Systems) has officially closed escrow and are moving to Lodi.
We have the enterprise zone credits, which are huge. There are some people who will never pay state tax again as a result of enterprise zone credits if they create jobs.
The other thing we have is if you are a business in the wine industry, or something that is catering to tourists, we have discounts through the Lodi Electric Utility by the amount of jobs that you offer.
We just lowered our impact fees, so if you want to open up a business in Lodi, it will cost you less to do so. Now it is just a matter of putting the right team in place so when someone comes to Lodi and says, "I would like to move here," we can roll out the red carpet and say, "You are welcome here, because we have a community that's open for business and we want yours."
Bob Johnson: The comments from JoAnne and Doug are in many instances spot on, but might not go far enough. The MEPCO deal is certainly a win-win for the city of Lodi.
One of the things they said in their press release is they were impressed with the electric utility rates, which everyone in town says are the highest in the free western world. These people happen to love them, and also are very favorable about the wastewater rates, which an industrial company has to deal with on an ongoing basis.
My big bugaboo is what I call the Eastside of Highway 99. All of that land zoned over there is for industrial use. Who in this room would not love to see another General Mills come to town? We have got to find a way to make that happen. In order to do that, we have to not only be reasonable on our impact fees, but we also have to be aggressive in courting people to come to town. They will not wait for us to provide infrastructure to a site so they can take it over. The competition out there is endless.
JoAnne mentioned the surplus in the Lodi Electric Utility fund. I would take some of that money and hire an economic development coordinator out of that surplus. And if he or she brings new business into the community, those people are going to be buying the electricity, and that might be the payback for the investment we are making.
Members of the audience are concerned about crime, gangs and violence. How do you propose to keep Lodi safe?
JoAnne Mounce: We can all feel in our neighborhoods whether or not they are healthy, and there are pockets of the Eastside and areas of Lodi that are just not.
It's going to take not just the police department, but it's going to take more of an action approach to that problem. You look at the bigger problem: the housing stock we have, what kind of landlords are allowing people to house criminal activity, why is the criminal a criminal, is there something in the home that we need to do to address it if it's gang-related?
There are so many multi-faceted areas that the city can work on in collaboration with other organizations to help deal with the crime and violence that's occurring in Lodi.
Bob Johnson: The police are doing an admirable job in attacking the problem. Could they do more? Surely they could if we had more resources to give them, but that comes with the strengthening of the economy. As the economy grows, we should look at increasing our police presence.
But it goes beyond that. As the economy grows and as we begin to restaff after being down 20 percent in our personnel count, we should look at code enforcement. Our code enforcement personnel goes a long way to alleviating a lot of the problems we are referring to.
Nuisance homes, run down properties, landlords that are not cooperative, the whole gamut just creates blight and blight breeds crime and indifference to crime. So code enforcement in many instances are just as important as a police presence,
We had an experiment last Saturday at Tokay High School. We brought some at-risk kids, primarily Hispanic kids from the Eastside for the first ever Lodi handball tournament. We had a ball. It cost the city virtually nothing to put this on.
So there are ways to address it. Will it be easy? No. Will we ever, ever solve the gang problem? No. And you are kidding yourself if you ever think we will completely alleviate it, but those are some ways we can help.
JoAnne Mounce, rebuttal: One of the things I go back in my history on was working with the Lodi Eastside Improvement Committee. Our whole goal was to fight crimes, drugs and blight. I remember the day when there was no code enforcement department at all.
The biggest solution that we have in front of us that we have not taken advantage of is more code enforcement, and making sure the community feels they can be the police and the police can be the community.
Neighborhood Watch is the No. 1 reason crime decreased in a neighborhood. And if you can do that with a code enforcement increase, then you have a collaboration that works well and doesn't require additional police officers.
Doug Kuehne: We currently have one code enforcement officer. She's doing a lions share of the work. There's not enough hours in the day for her to do her job completely.
I had a conversation with Chief Helms a couple weeks ago, and we were talking about bringing in (funded by the state) another code enforcement officer part-time focusing strictly on gang violence.
This is a great idea. Unfortunately, bureaucracy got in the way. It was a two-year funded position, but we are kind of late to the game, and it's only going to be a one-year funded position.
The key (with code enforcement) is we can actually write a citation to criminals that we cannot arrest on other items. We can certainly penalize them with code enforcement.
The next issue is technology. I don't think we have utilized technology as much as we possibly can.
For example, finger print scanners. We do not have enough finger print scanner. So what does that do? That allows our police force to get an ID out in the field immediately, instead of bringing them back to the station, and taking more time. It allows our police officers to stay out in the field longer and to do less report writing when they get back. It makes this whole system efficient.
Is there a good ol' boy network? If it exists, who is in and who is out?
Doug Kuehne: I'm not a member to the extent that that statement conjures up. However, I do know this about Lodi after having lived in so many places when I was a kid. Lodi is a well-connected community. There is an inter-connectivity of Lodi.
From an outsider looking in, it might look like a good ol' boy system. But once you get involved and know Lodi and are familiar with the town and get to know its citizens, you are part of that good ol' boy network in a looser term.
My kids went to St. Peter's, and I found out which one had a helmet on when they were riding their bike and which one didn't because of the people I know on the route. It's just a phenomenal town when it comes to that, and I like that about Lodi, and I want to keep that about Lodi.
If that's what you mean by that, then yeah, maybe there is and I like it. But if you mean something different than that, I'm not so fond of what else you might mean.
Bob Johnson: There is a good ol' boy network to a certain extent, and I'll try to illustrate why I think that exists.
A year after we moved to Lodi, we had a house fire. While the water is dripping on us, and the fire department is gone, there is a knock on our door and it's the gentleman across the street who we barely knew. He shows up and he says, "I think you need a drink."
I said to him, "I think I'm having a hard time getting accepted into this community. I consider myself a fairly gregarious person."
He said, "You are doing fine." Every one of my objections, he said, "You are doing fine."
Finally, I said, "What do you mean I'm doing fine?"
He said, "We know where you work, we know where you bank, we know how much money you have in the bank. You are doing fine." So I had another drink.
That's indicative of how Lodi has been going on for years. Now, will this network change — if it exists, and I do believe it exists — as the demographics of the community change and we get larger and more people come in from the outside and we lose some of this inbred connectivity? Maybe. But I think it's there and for the most part it doesn't hurt anything.
JoAnne Mounce: My family has been here since 1932, so 80 years in the city of Lodi. We've never been connected because we were on the other side of the tracks.
When I first ran for office, I joined Rotary Club because someone told me if you want to be part of the network, you have to belong to a service club.
I expressed to one of my Rotarians as we were driving in a van to a Rotary event that I was going to run for city council. And he patted my hand and said, "Well, JoAnne no one from the Eastside could ever get elected to office in the city of Lodi." And I spent the next year proving him wrong.
So I think even if you live outside of the good ol' boy network, it's possible to do great things in this community. And don't give up because I certainly didn't.