Only three of the 11 candidates for the Calexico City Council race — Javier Moreno (second row, third from left), Raul Ureña (third row, first from left) and Michael Christopher “Chris” Mayne (third row, third from left) — participated in the Sept. 19 candidate forum put on by the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee and Imperial Valley College Students for Political Awareness and Action. | VIDEO SCREEN CAPTURE
How COVID and social distancing will continue to affect attendance at candidate forums throughout Imperial Valley remains to be seen, but for certain one of the first web-based debates for the Calexico City Council race saw abysmal participation.
Only three candidates among a field of 11 vying for four council seats in the general election logged in for the Zoom-based forum, and that included zero incumbents. The council has three full-term seats and one two-year, short-term seat up for grabs Nov. 3.
Considered a Calexico-wide forum, and part one of two weekend forums by the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee and the Imperial Valley College Students for Political Awareness and Action, two additional area forums held Sept. 19 had better attendance.
Two of the three Calexico Unified School District candidates were in attendance and both Imperial Irrigation District Division 4 incumbent Erik Ortega and challenger Javier G. Gonzalez, who are in a runoff for Ortega’s seat, attended the virtual forum, which will culminate in endorsements Sept. 29, after the final forum.
As for the lack of Calexico council candidate participation, I.V. Social Justice Committee chair and founder Marlene Thomas said the attendance was indicative of some of the problems facing the city, particularly within the council itself.
“If you want to represent the people of Calexico, we already know how it is here to reach people today (because of COVID),” Thomas said Sept. 20. “Here you have the opportunity to hear issues and concerns that impact them. Part of leadership is to convey your message.
“Where were they? If they can’t take out an hour to speak to the people, that says a lot about their role on the City Council,” Thomas added.
A fourth Calexico-area forum was held Sept. 19 as well, but it’s a race this newspaper is not covering for staffing reasons. It’s the Imperial Community College District board of trustees Area 1 seat, now held by Louis Wong. Only challenger Annette Gonzalez Buttner logged in for the forum.
Three Face Off in Calexico City Council Forum
In what seemed a poorly organized and somewhat confusingly orchestrated virtual forum conducted by Thomas, a handful of student moderators and one college advisor, Gretchen Laue, only two Calexico City Council candidates were initially registered to participate among the 11-member field.
They were former Calexico police officer and retired law enforcement agent Javier Moreno, who is running for a four-year term, and mathematical economics student and a founding member of the Imperial Valley Equity & Justice Coalition, Raul Ureña, who is running for the two-year seat.
Former Calexico Planning Commissioner and property manager/developer Michael Christopher “Chris” Mayne, who is running for a full term but was logged on as a viewer Sept. 19, was allowed to participate after there was some confusion over finding documentation candidates were required to turn in.
Apparently, Mayne’s documentation was lost among an organizer’s email account because it came from his personal business, Amigo Real Estate.
In their opening statements, each had three minutes to introduce themselves, then three minutes to answer two questions each from IVC students. Additional questions were taken from those logged in to the Zoom conference.
Moreno introduced himself as a lifelong Calexico resident, who retired from law enforcement after 34 years, including two decades as a Calexico cop before transferring to a position with the Department of Justice. With a bachelor’s and master’s in criminal justice, the member of various local boards, including the Calexico Wellness Center and the Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council, is seeking his Ph.D. in management.
“I’m about being out there observing others and asking questions, and I’m over 21 years old,” he said when asked what makes him qualified to run for council.
For Ureña, him seeking office is about being responsive to an underserved and overwhelmed community in the thick of COVID. He said COVID and the emergency state of the health concerns in Calexico drove him home, only to find a Calexico City Council not interested in engaging with the community.
Ureña is currently unemployed having graduated during the pandemic with a bachelor’s degree in economics from University of California, Santa Cruz, according to his bio. He has a long history of political activity as a community activist and organizer.
The first-time Calexico candidate noted the way the council has held its meetings since the pandemic began, not setting up meetings to include the public through Zoom and other interactive technology; rather, requiring public comments to be emailed and read into the record.
Ureña also pointed out that it’s problematic that council members, and Mayor Rosie Fernandez in particular, have cancelled all office hours to meet with their constituents, and that the council and city has worked hard to suppress peaceful protests of city leadership.
Mayne said although he was born in El Centro, he was raised and went through Calexico schools and IVC. As a real estate agent and later property manager and developer, he said he became interested politically after seeing how decisions on the city council level could “create development, or stifle development.”
He first attempted to run for council in 2008 but was defeated and accepted an appointment to the Planning Commission. He said he would gladly accept another appointment to serve if he fails to win a seat on the council in November.
He said if elected, he wants to be a “thermostat” who affects change and sets the temperature of the community and not a “thermometer,” who reads the temperature of a room or who idly accepts what is going on around him.
One of the questions Moreno was asked was how he would combat graffiti and vandalism in the community with city officials.
He said the city does already have a graffiti abatement program in place to address some of those concerns, but he added he would work closely with the city manager and the police department to “bridge that gap” among community relations with police to get to the bottom of why graffiti and vandalism is occurring.
Ureña was asked how he would address the issues that have been ongoing with the Santo Tomas Swap Meet, which has been closed since summer 2019 after dozens of city building and fire code violations led to the swap meet’s closure for good by ownership. Calexico city officials, prior to the COVID outbreak, had been working with Santo Tomas owners and vendor representatives to somehow revive the closed business.
While he did not give specifics, Ureña said the city should be flexible in helping the swap meet get back up to code, but he instead criticized the city for not doing more to help Santo Tomas while going out of its way for “multi-national corporations.”
“Support local investment. I was present during the Gran Plaza (issue several years ago) to give them tax credits for low-wage retail jobs,” Ureña said.
Mayne was asked how he is ensuring that the community is engaged and working closely with his campaign to hear his message.
Although he said the current COVID climate is discouraging face-to-face contact, he said technology and the use of social media is a great equalizer in getting the message out, but he thinks he is still more effective in personal settings.
Using social distancing and the protocols in place by the county, like wearing facial coverings, he said he thinks one could still “stop and chat” with potential constituents and voters.
“I’m a stop-and-chat person,” Mayne said.
In their closing statements, each candidate took a bit of a different approach in summing up their reasons for running.
Not using his full three minutes, Moreno closed things out by addressing the culture of corruption and accountability in Calexico and homelessness in the city, neither of which was he specific about.
He said the council needs to stress accountability and “promote a pathway to (have citizens) participate in government.”
As for homelessness, which he has shown to be involved in through his membership in the Continuum of Care executive board, and through working with the Brown Bag Coalition, he stressed the need to key in on helping the 14 percent of local community college students who have identified themselves as being homeless.
Ureña again emphasized the need for city council members to be accessible and listen to community members impacted by COVID-19. He said the current seated council members, including the mayor (who is the only council member not up for re-election), are not up for that task.
“I’m a good negotiator,” he said, adding he is inclusive and not like the rest of the council members.
“The ones in power are bullies,” Ureña said. “They don’t want to listen. … I’m praying people in Calexico are paying attention with what has happened during COVID.”
Mayne touched on economic development, recreation, and public safety in his closing remarks.
While he would normally be about growth, he said Calexico will need to be about sustaining the economy it has once businesses emerge more fully from the aftermath of COVID closures. He added that the city needs to stay on top of the $8.5 million grant it received for Heber Park.
Last, Mayne said, while “our city is safe,” public safety is key and the city needs to financially support its police and fire departments to the best of its ability and continue to give back to city employees in general.
Those not participating in the forum were Incumbents Bill Hodge, Camilo Garcia, and Lewis Pacheco, and challengers Joong Kim, Gloria Romo and Jason Jung for the full-term seat. Two-year challengers not in attendance were incumbent Morris Reisen and Michael Anthony Jeffers.
Calexico Unified Incumbents Speak
The first forum of the day, Sept. 19, involved Calexico Unified School District Board of Trustee incumbents Enrique “Kiki” Alvarado and Michael Castillo, both of whom are running for re-election against challenger and self-identified “business owner” Margarita Magallanes.
Magallanes did not attend the Zoom forum.
Elected along with Alvarado in 2016, Castillo said the Calexico Unified School District board has been good about getting input from stakeholders and members of the community.
“Our eyes and ears have been open to our community (and it) helps drive our school district’s decisions,” Castillo said.
Alvarado was asked how the district has addressed the mental health needs of its students, to which he responded that the district has established the Family Resource Center, which is staffed with counselors and other who can hear the concerns of students and parents.
It’s a place “students feel they can go in and talk to someone,” Alvarado added.
Raised in Holtville, Alvarado moved to Calexico with his wife and family in 2000, where he said he has been active in the community ever since. “I think Calexico is the pinnacle of the educational system” in Imperial County.
“We’ve got a great district here in Calexico, great momentum moving forward,” Castillo said. “We’ve got a great team, and (have taken on) lots of good projects.”
Castillo pointed to student achievement, continued advancement in “21st century learning” and being one of the only if not the only district to move closer toward being a “one-to-one” district, meaning one digital learning device for every student.
Although with COVID’s impact on the state budget, Castillo said, “What lies ahead could be challenging with the fiscal problems statewide.”
IID Division 4 Contenders Face Off
Technical issues led to less of a debate between the two IID candidates — incumbent Ortega and community organizer Gonzalez — and more of two one-sided conversations. Division 4 represents the majority of Calexico, south Heber and the IID service area along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ortega led the discussion, touting his success on the board and his idea that people in office need to be there to serve the public interest, and not their own.
“I have a record of accomplishment as an IID director that I am proud of,” he said during his opening statement. “I ask the voters to compare it to my opponent’s certificate, which he is using in place of his record.
“I’m an independent businessman who understands budgets and balance sheets, but I also recognize that IID first and foremost is a public service organization. It doesn’t serve shareholders or investors because it is not for-profit. It’s for the public,” Ortega continued. “As your IID director, it’s my duty to represent your interest in setting the water and energy policies of the district, but it is something more than that for me. It is a chance to build up our community and the quality of life we all share by putting our resources to work for all of us, not just some of us.
“I see the IID as being a catalyst in creating a greater and more equitable Imperial Valley in the future, which ought to be the bill of every office holder,” he said. “I think the Imperial Valley’s best days lie ahead.”
After Ortega’s opening statement, two questions and closing statement, challenger Gonzalez had his chance to speak.
“I, Javier Gonzalez, am running for the position of the Imperial Irrigation District to represent Division 4 because I believe I can better represent the people and communities of Division 4,” he said. “Today is no longer just about keeping the lights on and the water flowing, today it’s about rolling up our sleeves and using our political power, our experience and extra time and get very involved in the communities we represent, to empower them.
“That is not the case today, not at all,” he continued. “Getting involved with grassroots initiative as a community leader participating at all levels of our community to help make sure that the communities that we serve are safer should be a top priority for every elected representative, school, city council and IID. This cannot be achieved by representatives just going to meetings. We need more. We need representatives in the community leading the way.
“South Heber and old Calexico neighborhoods are in disarray with entire streets dark, retention basins overflowed with smelly dirty water with mosquitos, fence holes all over the canal fence, dirty alleys where IID electrical lines run, All-American Canal full of debris and much more,” he added.
Both candidates were asked about the possibility of splitting up the district into a water side and an energy side and adding members from the Coachella Valley to the Board of Directors. Both expressed disinterest in that idea.
Ortega was blunt, saying he was not in favor of a proposal from 2019 to add board members from the Coachella Valley as it “would dilute Imperial Valley’s voting right,” he said.
Gonzalez was more guarded with his answer, but also said representatives could be on the IID energy subcommittee, but the board voting power should stay in Imperial County.
“I would really need to study that,” Gonzalez said in response. “The IID has a subcommittee for energy and a subcommittee for water. I really need to study why they would want to break them apart. Things are working fine. Every IID director appoints certain people to the energy and water subcommittees.”
Part 2 of Social Justice/IVC Forum Sept. 26
The second part of the I.V. Social Justice Committee and IVC student-run forum will be from 10 a.m. to (tentatively) 8 p.m. Sept. 26, with a break between 2 and 4 p.m.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., candidates for El Centro City Council and El Centro Elementary School District are scheduled, followed by Imperial City Council and Imperial Unified School District. IID Division 2 runoff challengers Ryan Childers and J.B. Hamby are scheduled, as are those running for IVC board, Area 3.
From 4 to 8 p.m., members of the Brawley City Council, Brawley Elementary School District board and Brawley Union High School District board are scheduled. Also, IVC Area 4 candidates and candidates for the Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District board are planned to speak.
The full audio and video of the Sept. 19 participants will be available Sept. 21 at https://youtu.be/IfCjuH-Davo