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The four candidates seeking to fill three seats on the Portola City Council met in a forum Oct. 9 hosted by the League of Women Voters.
About a dozen people attended the event, including the city manager and mayor.
League member Lee Anne Schramel Taylor posed the questions submitted by the audience.
The candidates first were asked to name the three biggest challenges they would expect to face in the coming year.
Choosing a new city manager topped the list of challenges for incumbents John Larrieu and William Weaver and for newcomer Michelle Gault.
For incumbent Phil Oels, it’s all about bringing more jobs to the area. He also wants to provide more affordable water and make city government more responsive.
“It seems like them against us,” Oels said. “We need more communication.”
Communication is also key for Gault, who said that relationship with the public “hasn’t been the best” and wants to see the City Council and staff reconnect with citizens.
Larrieu said it’s important to “keep the budget balanced” and to “keep people in town” as well as attract new residents.
Weaver agreed and said, “We need to get our population back up; it’s only 2,104.”
When asked to be specific about how they would address those challenges, some of the candidates provided more details than others.
To achieve his goal of providing affordable water, Oels wants to form a nonprofit corporation to subsidize those who can’t afford to pay. He described adding more jobs as a real “head-scratcher.”
Weaver, who said his top priority was finding a city manager, said he talked to friends in Sacramento about the possibility of one of them taking the job.
“These guys are really good,” he said.
Gault wants to promote Portola and said, “We are on the right track. We just need to expand on it.”
She also wants to promote winter recreation and is a proponent of establishing Portola Days — what she described as a quarterly opportunity for people who love Portola to get together.
Larrieu said that he would take an “active role in the recruitment” of the city manager and said it should be a communitywide effort.
Relationship with the county
The candidates were asked how they would improve the relationship between the city and the county and how they could better serve each other.
“We have never fought with the county,” Weaver said. He said that as a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission, he worked with county representatives. “We need their help as well as vice versa.”
Gault said that sometimes “rumors fly” but she said it is important to communicate, unite and be a team. “There’s no reason to battle each other,” she said.
“I see the connection improving greatly over the past five years,” Larrieu said, “particularly with the sheriff.” He said the animosity of past years has disappeared.
Oels said it was important to communicate. “We are all in the same boat,” he said. “They are sinking faster than we are.”
He added that he talks with Supervisor Terry Swofford often.
The candidates were asked what they thought of combining Portola and the Grizzly Lake Community Services District.
Gault said she didn’t know a lot about the subject, but if it would be beneficial for the city and for the services district then she would support it.
“I haven’t heard of any movement in that direction,” Larrieu said. “Delleker never wanted to be part of the city.”
However, he said that if the two entities worked together there could be an advantage to both.
“I think we should at least study doing that,” Oels said, adding that it could solve a lot of problems for the services district.
“I agree with these gentlemen,” Weaver said. He mentioned the district’s financial problems and the loss of its general manager. “We need to work together to solve our problems.”
“Can the roads be fixed? Ever?” one audience member wanted to know.
“I’m still walking on some pavement I was walking on when I was 6 — what’s left of it,” said the 61-year-old Oels. He suggested floating a bond to pay for road improvements.
Larrieu said that if people were willing to pay, then the city could patch the streets, but “we certainly can’t repave the whole city.”
“There’s no answer to repaving at this time,” Weaver said, noting that the dollars weren’t in the city’s favor.
Gault said, “If people want it bad enough, we should find a way to do it.”
The candidates were asked about state fees and restrictions that are placed on communities, and if they believed the city had a voice and how they would address such issues.
“The vast majority of our problems come from Sacramento,” Oels said. “People down there live differently; they have no clues what our problems are.”
He said that if he had a “magic wand” he would make Sacramento go away.
Weaver noted that the city is a member of the League of California Cities. “We are small, but we do have a voice,” he said.
Gault said that even though Portola is small, there is strength in numbers. She encouraged community members to go to Sacramento and to write letters.
Larrieu said that the council could consider political connections when hiring a new city manager. He also mentioned the League of Cities and “talking with our state representatives.”
When asked whether the Portola Fire District should combine with other fire districts, all four candidates said “no.”
Weaver said that the districts work together now and that fire personnel aren’t interested in merging.
Gault said she could foresee future problems in leadership if they combined.
Larrieu said that volunteer fire departments are successful because the volunteers are working to protect their own areas.
“Absolutely not,” Oels said. “These men take pride in what they do.”
All agreed that the entities work well together as they are.
The candidates were asked how they would market Portola.
“We need a marketing leader,” Gault said, and listed a number of areas where the city could market with the help of an expert.
Larrieu said that would be a complicated and expensive approach.
“We need to work with what we’ve got,” he said.
Larrieu said that a lot is accomplished through word of mouth and volunteer efforts such as the Williams House.
Oels suggested a “Department of Tourism and Economic Development,” and said that it would be necessary to work closely with the chamber of commerce and to promote Railroad Days.
Weaver singled out Jeanne Rowden-Dansby and described her as “one person who has a committee trying to promote Portola.”
The candidates were asked for ideas to beautify downtown Portola and enhance business.
Larrieu said that there was already a plan in place — the A15 project. He said that when it was completed, downtown would have underground utilities and new streetlights.
Oels said improved facades downtown were a step in the right direction, but he thought what really would help downtown is better signage on Highway 70 to promote the downtown area.
Weaver said that Commercial Street is improving, but that people need patience.
Gault said that a lot has been done in recent years — lights, signage, improved parks — and they “all look great.”
She said at this point it’s more important to focus on Main Street as it comes through town. She mentioned the dilapidated car wash and chain link fence that greets visitors entering Portola.
The candidates were asked to name five groups that they thought were currently serving the area best. That proved difficult.
“I really can’t answer that one,” Oels said, before singling out Jeanne Rowden-Dansby and Rebuild Portola.
Weaver said, “I’m not aware of five groups other than City Council and staff.” But then he, too, mentioned Rowden-Dansby, and added “all citizens of Portola are a good group.”
Gault named the economic development group, Rebuild Portola, the chamber of commerce and the fire department.
Larrieu mentioned the food pantry, the Williams House volunteers and the Historical Society.
The candidates were asked what they would do to regain the respect of the community.
Weaver said that the majority of citizens already respect the City Council.
Gault disagreed with him. “This is a very, very touchy subject. We’re on the defensive all the time; we think we are being attacked so we attack,” she said of the council and staff. She added that it would take time.
“I like to consider myself someone who is respectful of everyone,” Larrieu said. He noted there were times when people became overzealous.
Oels said he sees an “us and them” mentality, especially among the younger people. “I tell them, ‘Don’t complain if you aren’t going to participate.’”
The city uses less water than it is allotted from Lake Davis. The candidates were asked: “What should we do with it and should the city be in the business of making money?”
This is an area where the council members differed the most, with Gault and Larrieu in favor of the city making money and Weaver and Oels against the concept.
“If we can make money, we could do the things we want to do,” Gault said.
Larrieu said that there is excess water in the Lake Davis allotment, but he isn’t sure that the city has the authority to sell it.
He recalled a time when Nestle wanted to bottle water from Willow Springs, but it didn’t work out. “Maybe we could pursue some other company,” he said.
Oels thought if there was excess money then the rates should be lowered so that more people would use it. “We’d also have a prettier community,” he said, noting that more people would water their lawns, etc.
Larrieu said he wanted to continue to work for the city that he loved. He would focus on bringing jobs and beautifying Portola.
Oels thanked those who gave him the opportunity to serve and said that he was never bored. He studied and worked hard to do a good job. He said Portola was his hometown and he “cared deeply about it.”
Weaver said he learned a lot in the past 10 or 12 years and he would like to stay on.
He said he was accused of being a “yes man,” but he wasn’t that, not even to his wife.
He said that he would continue to work for the city even if he wasn’t re-elected.
Gault said she has a lot to offer Portola, which she dubbed the “little city that could.”
And just like the popular children’s book, she said, “I think I can, I think I can.”
She concluded by simply saying, “Please elect me.”
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