NORTH FORK – It was a packed house at the North Fork Town Hall on Friday as more than 150 people gathered to hear from the candidates running for Madera County District 5 Supervisor and District Attorney.
North Fork Citizen of the Year Tom Burdette moderated the debate, which was hosted by Sierra News Online and the North Fork Boosters.
Incumbent Tom Wheeler, who is running for a fourth term as Supervisor, squared off against challenger Marc Sobel. Nokomis Hernandez, who has also filed to run, was a no-show.
Here is a recap of the discourse between District 5 Supervisor candidates – (click here for District Attorney debate)
Both candidates were first asked to speak about the boards and non-government organizations in which they are actively involved, that being a critical component of the work of a supervisor.
Wheeler cited his participation over the last 40 years with such entities as the local school board where he served 19 years; 20 years on the Coarsegold Resource Conservation, 12 as president; the governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force; LAFCO, where he is currently chairman; the Madera County Transportation Commission; the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control Air District; and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.
“I’ve brought millions of dollars into our county, and helped raise millions for our kids at local schools. At CRCD we brushed over 30 thousand acres in Eastern Madera County and did 36 miles of fuel breaks. On the MCTC, I go to Washington, D.C. twice a year and to Sacramento three times a year to fight for money for our roads.”
Sobel agreed that serving in such capacity is an important part of the job.
“If I’m supervisor, I will certainly be doing these things too. There are a lot of grants out there, and I’m really looking forward to being involved in the process. I’m not your supervisor right now, but I can tell you that I have experience on many boards and working with dynamic operations, raising money for the community.”
One hot issue in the mountain area has been short-term rentals such as Airbnb. Sobel manages several rental properties at Bass Lake, and agreed that some people don’t want these businesses in their neighborhoods. He noted that Bass Lake is a different situation, as only 25 percent are year-round residents.
“We need to find some way of providing citizens with a way to keep their neighbors as neighbors. I’m fully prepared to deal with the issue, talk about it, and have community discussions. Let the citizens decide. Another part of this is that schools don’t have enough funding. In Oakhurst there are over 300 homes that are short-term rentals. Imagine if those homes were occupied by full-time residents. How many children would be in schools, and how much more money would those schools have to operate?”
Wheeler noted that some communities can decide to outlaw short-term rentals without Board approval.
“Many developments have CC&R’s that can be changed to disallow them. The ordinances have been in place 30 or 40 years, and we did change some of our language. We also directed staff to look at short-term rentals and B&Bs to see what we can do to make it safer for residents. They bring in a lot of money to Madera County, but some people weren’t paying their TOT taxes, so we identified and notified them; people need to abide by our county laws.”
On the subject of marijuana dispensaries in the county – something veterans spoke in support of at a recent Board meeting – and the possible tax revenue, Wheeler said he has gone to four or five workshops on that very item to “see what we can do to make it safe and viable for Madera County. We’re still discussing it with County Counsel and the sheriff. It’s legal to grow your own in a 10×10 foot space, and there’s a lot of money to be made for the County.”
Sobel responded, “just follow the money. I don’t want to be making decisions based on whether or not Madera County is going to be making money off something. I want to make a decision that makes common sense. If you make money for the good of the community, fine; but it has to make sense. This community voted overwhelmingly against legalized marijuana. It’s something that changes the fabric of our society. I don’t see anything good coming out of it. I’m sensitive to those who need cannabis for medical reasons, but I’m not looking expand anything beyond what it is today.”
With the defeat of Measure L – the one-cent sales tax to fund the fire department and Sheriff’s Office – Sobel was asked about his opposition to the measure, and what County programs he would cut to fund the $20 million estimated by Cal Fire to do the job.
“The budget has been growing $25 to $30 million a year for four or five years – a natural growth through all sorts of processes – and I’m asking to take the first $5 million, do that for three years in a row to bring us up to $20 million. There are only 13 firefighters that the County pays for; that’s unacceptable and the Board hasn’t done anything. Last year they threw $300,000 into new equipment, but didn’t hire any more firefighters. We need three to four million to meet cost of living increase; there’s money for that. Last year the budget went up 12-13 percent for most of the County agencies. That’s a lot of extra money for County agencies when our houses are at risk.”
Wheeler disagreed with those numbers, and said funding the fire department has always been one of his top priorities.
“The budget has been going up about three percent per year. You have to remember that 62 percent of that is not our discretionary dollars. And whatever dollars we have extra we have put toward our fire and sheriff. We started a plan a little over a year ago to replace fire trucks; we bought five last year, and just ordered two more a couple weeks ago. We gave our volunteer firefighters a raise that cost a half-a-million dollars. Raised them from minimum wage to $15.50 up to $21.50 an hour. We also started a program to pay for all their training and equipment. Finally last year we got to fully fund every position at the Sheriff’s Office. We have never been able to do that since I’ve been on this board. Our fire department budget is $7.7 million. A lot of money, but we don’t have $20 million. If we did, it would be on there right now.”
Sobel also said of Measure L that the County “spent $400,000 to convince you to tax yourselves. You have to have fire and sheriff as your first priority. If you don’t fund those two functions, everything else falls apart. Our fire stations are in poor shape.”
“I want to make one thing very clear,” responded Wheeler. “The County can’t spend money on anything like that [Measure L]. It was all donated money, not the County’s money. We’ve built five new fire stations up here since I’ve been elected. We’ve been aggressively working on that. We’ve also got hundreds of thousands of dollars for wood stove replacement – money we weren’t even eligible for. But I talked them into it. That’s what you gotta do. You have to have knowledge of how big budgets work. Budgets in the millions of dollars.”
On the subject of being just one voice on a panel of five, Wheeler spoke to the art of working together.
“If you can’t cooperate with your fellow board members, you will never accomplish one thing. There are always competing interests. If I don’t have two people to vote my way, I can’t get anything done. So after four or five years of working my tail off on the Board, I finally got the respect to be put on all these committees. You don’t get to be on those for the first few years. When I wanted $563,000 to get a $2 million grant to clear the dead trees from our roads, the Board voted 5-0 to give us that money. I’ve brought in millions of dollars for our special districts, both in the Valley and up here, because if I don’t help the Valley, they will not help me up here. I need their votes, and I work with them steadily to get those dollars for our water and tree mortality.”
“There are five supervisors and you have to work together,” Sobel responded. “I talk about common sense; common sense should rule the day, and it’s easy to follow common sense. When you bring common sense to the table, I think we get a lot done. You have talk to these people and find common ground, and I think that’s certainly doable. We all have similar views. Of course the mountains are a little different than the valley, but they’re going to need my vote too. Common sense is going to rule the day, and that’s how we’re going to get things done.”
“When I was elected, I decided to be the most transparent supervisor Madera County ever had,” said Wheeler in closing. “I‘ve held more town halls than the previous five supervisors put together. I take pride in representing you. I have a stack of notebooks a foot-and-a-half thick with all my phone calls and meetings. I think it’s so important to be out here with you. Since I became Chairman, I’ve gone back to having Board meetings every week like we used to. I’ve done the first On-the-Road Board meetings ever in Madera County, and we’re going to do it again. Those events are important for me to be able to represent you; so I can see what you need for my decision making. These decisions are very tough, and if you don’t do your homework, you can’t do a good job for the people. I do my homework; ask any staff member. I was raised here; I have grand-kids here, plus a daughter and son living here. We enjoy living here, and there’s nothing better in my life.”
“About five years ago, friends came to me and said, ‘you ought to run for County Supervisor,’” said Sobel in closing. “Five years ago Tom was doing a better job; that’s changed. Over that time I’ve gotten more involved and have been paying attention to County government processes and talking to people; it’s not so pretty anymore. I never thought I’d run for public office, but it’s been exciting. People come out and talk to me about different issues; stuff that’s going on in the county. We have a great community here, and I love living in this area. I have 42 years of public service, and I want to make a difference, bring common sense back to process, be fiscally responsible, and connect with the community. I’ve got lots of ideas.”
The primary election will be held on Tuesday June 5. For information on the new voting process, click here.
To read about the debate between the candidates for District Attorney, click here.