Politics & Government

Four challenge three Porterville incumbents

PORTERVILLE -- Seven candidates are running for three spots on a City Council that is expected to face decisions that will significantly affect Porterville's future.

Many of the candidates say the two most pressing issues before the next council will be hiring a new city manager and the possible relocation of a large casino inside the city limits.

The proposed 40-acre casino would "change the face of Porterville," said Cameron Hamilton, 50, one of three incumbents running for re-election.

Council Members Pedro "Pete" Martinez, 38, and Eddie Hernandez, 46, also are running for re-election on the June 3 ballot to represent Porterville, a growing city of more than 50,000 people in southern Tulare County.

They will be challenged by Richard Laswell, 59, Greg Shelton, 43, Jerry Waller, 74, and Brian Ward, 32.

Those elected in June will have to hire a replacement for City Manager John Longley, who is expected to retire in January.

"That will be a critical juncture for our community," Hernandez said.

The new council also will have to decide how closely it wants to work with the Tule River Tribe on the relocation of Eagle Mountain Casino from its foothill reservation to property near the city's airport.

Earlier this year, the tribe and City Council reached a "memorandum of understanding" to explore bringing the casino to Porterville.

Assembly Member Bill Maze, R-Visalia, also has pending legislation that would authorize a joint-powers authority between the city and tribe to develop about 200 acres of land near the airport.

Waller and Hernandez said they would welcome a new casino that would bring jobs to Porterville.

"The tribe has been an integral part of our community," Hernandez said. "They've been a great neighbor."

But Ward, a school psychologist, said he would not welcome the casino. Gambling, he said, is a regressive tax on the poor.

"I've never heard of a casino or gambling facility strengthening families," he said.

Shelton said the casino issue should be taken directly to the voters with a referendum.

While not averse to legalized gambling, Shelton said he doesn't think a casino is "the cure to all of Porterville's ills."

Martinez and Hamilton said they want more community feedback before taking a stance on the issue.

Several attempts to reach Laswell, a counselor with the Department of Corrections, for this story were unsuccessful.

Candidates noted other important issues including government spending, public safety, education and economic development.

The challengers said red tape from the city bureaucracy is steering small businesses to other cities such as Tulare and Lindsay.

The incumbents described Porterville as a business-friendly community that has streamlined its business permitting process in recent years.

Some challengers also criticized council members' spending habits.

Waller and Shelton criticized the city for spending thousands on studies for a new library.

"We spent so much money on plans," Shelton said. "We've lost perspective on just the nuts and bolts of running the city."

Shelton serves on the city's Parks and Leisure Committee and a watchdog group for the city's use of sales taxes.

Waller, a retired businessman, criticized the city for recently giving $15,000 to the local Boys and Girls Club. Waller said it seems the City Council shows favoritism when giving out taxpayer money to nonprofit groups.

But Hernandez, who was appointed to the City Council in 2006, said the city should support youth centers.

Investing $15,000 in youths, he said, is cheap compared with spending $100,000 a year on graffiti abatement.

Hernandez said he also wants to build a sports complex that he estimates would cost the city between $10 million and $12 million.

However, Hamilton said he wants to save the city $10 million to $15 million.

Hamilton, a council member for the past six years, said he wants to privatize the city's garbage collection. Savings would fund a new department for maintaining city roads, he said.

Many candidates said Porterville needs to improve education and keep its educated people.

Ward said his dream is to bring a satellite campus of California State University, Bakersfield, to Porterville.

Martinez, who has been on the council for five years, said he wants Porterville College to offer four-year degrees.

"How are we going to increase our educated population?" asked Martinez. "How are we going to provide jobs for all these people?"