Gary Soiseth, Mayor of Turlock Candidate Questionnaire/Profile
How long have you lived in Turlock and what is your occupation?
I was born and raised in Turlock, growing up on the same 20-acre Turlock farm my grandfather purchased after his return from World War II. Aside from my time living in Berkeley, India, and Washington, DC for school and in Afghanistan for work, I have lived in Turlock all of my life.
In addition to farming almonds with my family, I am currently the Water and Energy Regulatory Administrator at the Modesto Irrigation District (MID), handling all federal- and state-level energy, groundwater, and surface water issues.
Why are you running for Turlock Mayor and when did you start planning your campaign?
In each community that I have live in, whether at Julien Elementary, Georgetown University, or the fields of India or Afghanistan, I strive to be a part of something that is greater than myself and to put forward sound policy solutions for that particular community's problems.
From 2009 until 2013, I worked in Afghanistan under the United States Departments of Agriculture and Defense; I would return home on "Rest and Recuperation" breaks to see our water issues worsen, our roadways deteriorating, and our general fund reserves shrinking. So in 2013, after over three and a half years of serving the villages and communities of Afghanistan, I decided to return home to serve my own community.
Turlock is a great city and we have a history of great mayors; I now plan on living up to this high level of service. I look forward to leading my family, my friends, and my community in an even stronger and better direction.
What do you see as the primary duties of a mayor?
First and foremost, I believe the primary role of the mayor's office is to set the policy agenda for the city. The role of a Turlock mayor is "first among equals" on the City Council, but he is also leading—not following—the discussion on roads, water, and budget issues. The mayor will have a close working relationship with staff at City Hall, but the mayor's role will always be to ensure that the policy directions of the City Council is being carried out by Turlock’s great staff.
What are your main goals if elected to as Mayor?
Within the first one hundred days of taking office, I will be holding workshops to review the main issues currently facing the City: future tertiary water deals, roadway improvements (regardless of the success of Measure B), negotiations on a surface water treatment facility, and the vision of police and fire in the near and far term. The City cannot move forward until we fully know what has happened in the past on particular issues.
List 3 Top Priorities:
1) Water Reliability: Jump starting negotiations with the Turlock Irrigation District on a surface water treatment facility is a top priority. While details need to be worked out, this policy solution to our water issues is the correct path to take. Unfortunately, it will take upwards of a decade to complete the project due to environmental studies and planning, but this solution—once executed—will provide a reliable source of water to Turlock's residents when we inevitably enter into our next drought. I will also work with Turlock staff to find solutions that keep Turlock Irrigation District's farmers whole, which means taking a look at future agreements of treated water deliveries outside Turlock's Subbasin.
2) Sound Roadway Solutions: If passed, I will work diligently to secure a guarantee from county officials that guarantees Measure B's estimated $39.2 million dollars for local roads in Turlock regardless of the passage of a county-wide measure. Regardless of Measure B's passage, I will be taking a look at the city's current budget, line-by-line, to better demonstrate to residents that City Hall is delivering services as efficiently as possible.
3) Deficit Spending and Budget Analysis: $14 million, $9 million, and then $5 million: these are the projected estimates of our budget reserves for the next three years, respectively. It will be my priority to put Turlock onto a road of solvency and lead us out of the years-long rut of deficit spending. While our economy in Turlock has weathered the aftermath of the 2007 recession, we need to be conservative with our resources heading into our possible fourth year of a drought, which could have devastating impacts on our agriculturally-based economy. City Hall needs to remain transparent and accountable in regards to any previous agreements with all departments; those departments that have sacrificed in the past need to be made whole as soon as economically possible.
Why do you believe you’re the most qualified candidate for Mayor? Why did you decide to run for Mayor and not Council? And how do the positions differ from each other?
In March, I announced my candidacy for mayor. I have a vision for better roads, reliable water, and balanced budgets. As the Director of Economic Growth for Southern Afghanistan from 2012 – 2013, I managed and advised multi-million dollar development programs, including airport modernization projects, dam and hydropower refurbishment projects, and other capital projects. While I was responsible for increasing agriculture development in a warzone, I also made the tough (but correct) decision to cut over $80 million of redundant, wasteful projects from my own budget. As a former Director and a farmer, I plan on taking this government and private-sector experience straight to City Hall.
Key Endorsements (up to 5):
1) Turlock Firefighters Local 2434
2) Turlock Association of Police Officers
3) Former Mayor Curt Andre
“Gary has the potential to be one of the best mayors our city has seen. Gary’s life has been devoted to public service. I’m excited to see him carry out his bold vision for Turlock.” – Mayor Curt Andre (1992 – 2008)
4) Congressman Jeff Denham
“Gary is the right leader at the right time. His service in Afghanistan has equipped him with the right skills to be a great policy leader, not merely a political official.” – Congressman Jeff Denham
5) Matt and Maria Swanson, Local Business Owners/Philanthropists
Do you support Measure B, a half-cent sales tax increase to support fixing Turlock roads? Why, or why not?
I believe that Turlock’s roads are undeniably failing, but I am seeking a guarantee from the county that the estimated $39.2 million over seven years will remain in Turlock to fill potholes and resurface neighborhood streets. Regardless of whether the current measure ends and our half-cent enters the county-wide measure in two years, I need assurances that those residents who cast their ballot for Measure B to fix their specific road are receiving the return that they expect.
As a small farmer, I don’t sign contracts before I read the fine print; as mayor, I will employ the same diligence with taxpayer funds.
Leading up to the proposal of Measure B, I believe the Council should have publicly gone “line-by-line” through their discretionary budget, should have held a robust discussion on the feasibility of assessment district creation, and should have discussed the potential negative impacts to voters before passing a tax proposal; this is the process that I will employ if elected mayor. When given a guarantee by the county or proponents of Measure B that Turlock will receive the $39.2 million for local roads regardless of passage of a county tax, I will support Measure B.
With the majority of the General Fund already allocated to public safety, what would your plans include to continue a quality of life that Turlock is used to while addressing the ongoing issue of public safety staffing, compensation, pensions, and affordability?
Please include your top 3 priorities within the area of public safety.
In any budget discussion with any city department, respect, transparency, and accountability need to be employed. When a department is asked to make a sacrifice, the terms of this sacrifice need to be honored. I will remain committed to working with department chiefs on a vision that: maintains (at a minimum) fire staffing levels, puts Turlock on a path toward staffing its ladder truck when fiscally possible, and puts Turlock on a path toward reinstalling crime prevention units (such as the eliminated Gang Task Force Unit); these will be my top three priorities within public safety.
As the mayoral candidate endorsed by both the Turlock Association of Police Officers and Turlock Firefighter's Local 2434 Association, I have earned their trust because of my commitment to openness, frankness, and transparency in all negotiations with any union.
What are your plans to address the concerns of the homeless population? How would you combat the increasing homelessness issues in Turlock?
Turlock is headed in the right direction regarding the homeless and transient issues in our city, but we are far from taking a victory lap. It is my belief that the Salvation Army, Turlock Gospel Mission, Enclave Ministry, and other faith-based and non-profit programs are better equipped and more effective at handling the issues surrounding homelessness. I am proud of their efforts and City Hall will continue to support these ministries and programs through police and community services when I am elected mayor.
Most political candidates state that economic development and growth is a priority, but how exactly do you plan to grow Turlock’s economy and what are your thoughts on the job market here in Turlock?
Business relocation into Turlock occurs when a city has made the right investments. Setting the right conditions for business expansion and relocation into Turlock will remain a top priority when I am elected. These conditions include the provision of reliable water, improved roadways and interchanges, and even fully functioning public safety departments.
Similarly, I believe the major economic driver—aside from agriculture—is our own California State University campus. I look forward to increasing the partnerships with CSU Stanislaus and creating high quality jobs that keep graduates here in Turlock.
Turlock, as well as the rest of California, is experiencing a major drought, what are your plans for the City of Turlock dealing with water management? What is your position on the sale of wastewater to the Del Puerto Water District? Do you believe the City should move forward with construction of the surface water treatment plant as per any long stalled agreement between the TID, the City of Turlock, and other cities?
As I continually state, there is no guarantee that there will be a wet winter and, even if there is, the low soil moisture levels in our watershed, the increased regulatory demands on the Tuolumne River, and the diminishing or poor quality of wells in the Turlock Subbasin all contribute to a rapidly diminishing water source for Turlock's citizens and farmers. Currently, the City is 100% dependent on groundwater, which is rapidly diminishing in quality and quantity; the cost to treat two wells due for arsenic and nitrates costs City Hall over $750,000 this past summer (a very expensive band-aid approach to solid water supplies).
It is crucial to jumpstart the surface treatment facility negotiations with the Turlock Irrigation District, with the hopes of getting this up and running by the next unavoidable drought. In 1994, this route was taken by the City of Modesto and the Modesto Irrigation District, and the benefits to the Modesto Subbasin are indisputable. While it is largely a revenue neutral project, it will provide the city and surrounding communities with a reliable source of water in the future.
We need to also diversify our water use, which includes a wider use of tertiary water within the city and on our farms. While I would not advocate derailing current contracts with the Del Puerto Water District, I will work with TID to look toward future solutions that keep water pumped from Turlock's Subbasin within Turlock's Subbasin.
The City Council is currently discussing labor contracts with the City Manager and City attorney, the only two positions hired by and work for the Turlock City Council. If elected, how important will it be that these two key positions are approved by you?
It is my firm belief that "at-will" employees should remain accountable to the four democratically elected councilmembers and mayor. When "at-will" managers have long-term contracts, this erodes the ability of the elected officials to set policies and have them executed properly. Contracts for these positions is a relatively new concept for Turlock and I would encourage the current City Council to delay renewal until a new Council is elected and takes office in as little as two months.
With so much attention being brought up about government spending due to a proposed tax increase to fix Turlock roads, do you believe recreation is a service that should be funded and provided by government?
Turlock's Recreation Services Department not only contributes to a high quality of life in Turlock, but is also a key element to in serving at-risk youth in our community. While there are great non-profit programs, such as Westside Ministries, that do an excellent job of creating recreational opportunities for different areas of our community, Turlock's Recreation Services Department does a great job managing our aquatics programs, our afterschool programs, our Teen Advisory Council, and our large-scale civic events. While all departments in Turlock may be required to make future budgetary sacrifices, I do not believe in singling out Turlock's Recreation Services Department for cuts specifically.
Transparency has always been an issue for elected officials, as they commonly state to represent their constituents. Seemingly more and more communication has been an issue with society’s move toward Facebook and social media as its main source for information. How do you plan to communicate to, and more importantly with, the citizens of Turlock?
Instead of simply talking about transparency, my campaign has demonstrated our effort to be more transparent. Whether it is posting all of our Fair Political Practices Commission expenditure and fundraising reports on our website or voluntarily limiting the amount of money a single donor can contribute, our campaign has demonstrated that we are committed to accountability and transparency. I will continue to use social media and websites to convey our message and decisions once in office, and I will continue to try new modes of communication with the public throughout my time in office.
Modesto Bee Editorial (September 21, 2014): Why I Need a Guarantee on Turlock’s Road Tax
‘He’s anti-roads.” … “He’s anti-tax.” … “He’s anti-Measure B.”
All are false claims being used against my campaign for mayor of Turlock because of my current criticism of Measure B, a proposed half-cent, seven-year sales tax to fund Turlock road improvements.
Turlock’s roads are indisputably failing. Nearly six years ago, City Hall first learned of its woefully inadequate road condition ratings. Yet after decades of neglect, City Hall wants to raise our city’s sales tax to a county-high of 8.1 percent.
With only 50 percent of Turlock’s roads in self-taxing assessment districts, there has been no significant discussion about long-term solutions that bring the other half of the city – which includes our older, more socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods – into their own assessment districts.
Within City Hall’s budget adoption process, there has been no public “line-by-line” review of revenue and expenditure projections to prove that Turlock’s coffers are indeed empty for roads. Because of Turlock’s predisposition against new tax initiatives, it’s even more important for city leaders to exercise due diligence in analyzing the budget.
Until recently, there has been no line-item within the council’s $32 million discretionary fund for road repairs. A token allocation of $50,000 for 2014 is far from the $10 million annual projection needed to bring our roads up to above-average conditions.
Finally, a single clause in Measure B’s Title 3 gives me concern because it states the measure will end “upon the operative date of a validly enacted countywide transportation tax measure.”
The “Measure B” label will no longer exist, but the same half-cent will still remain on all Turlock sales receipts – just with less local oversight and less local return. Even with a two-year “head start” before passage of a county tax, Measure B would only positively impact the Turlock residents lucky enough to be listed in years 1 and 2 on Measure B’s road priority list; for residents with roads listed in years 3 through 7, the fate of their road will be in the hands of the Stanislaus Council of Governments and its yet-to-be determined spending formula.
Ms. Smith, a fictitious average Turlock resident scheduled to have her cul-de-sac repaved in Year 5, could vote for Measure B. But due to the Title 3 clause, her project isn’t guaranteed. Ms. Smith and her neighbors might not get what they expected of Measure B.
I believe road infrastructure issues are better solved in a cooperative manner at a county level where matching funds are available, but it’s disingenuous to ask Turlock residents to increase their sales tax knowing the revenue generated for “pothole repair” could dramatically decrease.
As Turlock’s leader, I’ll work collaboratively with StanCOG to ensure the spending formula for the 2016 county road initiative ensures Turlock will receive the same funding for the first five years of the county-wide initiative. I’ll fight for this guarantee and will support Measure B, or preferably, a countywide initiative, once I’m assured Turlock’s taxpayers will receive their expected $39.2 million for the life of the proposal.
I’m for good roads, but I’m also for good government. I can’t agree to a tax proposal without questioning its possible negative impacts. Along with the proponents of Measure B, I want the best for Turlock.
As mayor, I will focus on sustainable solutions to Turlock's current diminishing groundwater resources, its inadequate highway interchanges, and its neglected local roadways.