Government / Politics

San Benito Chamber of Commerce hosts forum for council members, Measure J debate

San Juan City Council candidates and Measure J proponents and opponents answer questions at community forum

On Monday, Oct. 6, approximately 50 people attended the San Juan Bautista Candidates' Forum hosted by the San Juan Committee of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce.

On the panels were candidates for San Juan Bautista City Council and representatives in support of and opposition to Measure J, the measure to ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other enhanced methods of oil extraction in San Benito County.

The event was held at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall and moderated by San Juan resident John Ferriera, who serves on the city’s Strategic Planning Committee.

Candidates for City Council were, Chris Martorana, Councilman Tony Boch, former Graniterock spokesman, Jim West, and former Councilwoman Maggie Bilich. Ray Sanchez, who had filed papers to run, has withdrawn from the race, though his name will still appear on the November ballot. There are three city council seats being contested by the four candidates.

The candidates were asked questions posed by the San Juan Committee and also written questions submitted from the audience. The candidates were mainly in agreement on the city’s current plans to address its ongoing water quality issues by drilling deeper wells near the existing wells as well as the lack of funding for alternative measures to rectify the high concentrations of nitrates that have kept a drinking water ban in place for months.

Boch explained that San Juan has been in compliance with state mandatory nitrate levels for the past two months. He explained that the city has been relying upon Well No. 1, which only produces 125 gallons a minute. To meet its needs, the city has been adding water from Well No. 2, which has a high nitrate level. When the water from the wells is blended, the nitrate level can be reduced. Boch explained that the city is looking at drilling deeper wells in the same location as well as looking at drilling on the north side of the city. He said that the there would be a need to transport the water from the proposed wells on the north side, whereas the infrastructure on the south side of town is already in place.

In response to an audience question about Measure J, West was the only candidate who spoke in opposition, explaining that while he would vote against “fracking” with no hesitation, he believed that the banning of steam extraction was unwise and unnecessary. The other candidates spoke of the need to preserve San Juan's water supply. Martorana suggested that once the facts are known about the safety of these techniques, the bans imposed by Measure J could be reconsidered.

Regarding the proposed expansion of the city’s Urban Growth Boundary, which has been a heated topic in social media groups, all candidates spoke in support of the expansion to the north, noting this was supported by the public through the General Plan update process. West mentioned the city's need for funding to improve its infrastructure and saw the impact fees of proposed development as a source of funding. Boch cited the importance of respecting the General Plan process, which has included input from hundreds of people. Boch and Martorana each suggested that those who oppose the expansion should make their opposition known at City Hall.

In response to a question about enforcement of San Juan’s codes and ordinances, there was general agreement that the problem was a lack of funding for enforcement, as well as a lack of understanding by the public about what the rules are. Boch explained that City Manager Roger Grimsley was sending the assistant city planner out to tag some offenders, but this was only part of the response needed. Martorana suggested that the city needed to expand its communication with the public to utilize social media and other methods to inform the community in a more effective way.

As to a question about the San Juan participating in creating a “brand” for the city, as was done in Hollister, Martorana responded that he was concerned that there would be a rush to create a brand of obvious images without doing the more important work of determining what the city's direction is going to be. Bilich said that she was given something that represented the city when she was elected to the council and she thought that item might be helpful in determining the city's brand. Boch said that he was not aware of the pursuit of branding for the city and spoke of the use of the “City of History” tag, which the San Juan has been using and which is displayed at the Windmill Plaza gateway. West said he thought branding a good idea, and noted Graniterock’s use of the old dump truck he drives in parades as a brand for that company. He noted that he enjoyed San Juan as a “mission town” and noted that  such places are no longer being built. He said that is a strength that should be used in the promotion of the city.

In response to a question about where the candidates stood on the city’s “Formula Business” position, West noted that he had purchased a home in the Historic District of San Juan and strongly supported preservation of the historic aspect of downtown. He said he believed that there were areas outside of that district, out by Highway 156 and elsewhere, where the presence of formula businesses could be a benefit to the city. He noted that his home renovation had gone through the Planning Commission’s process of architectural review and he felt that there was enough oversight to ensure the integrity of the Historic District.

West, Martorana and Boch, noted that without allowing formula businesses, the city could not have a bank, or a hardware store, or gas stations. Boch noted the role formula businesses play in helping those who wish to start a business. Martorana noted that the presence of formula businesses like the Windmill Market, the Pizza Company, and the recently-closed bank showed formula businesses could be contributors to economic health in San Juan. The candidates all seemed in agreement.

The presentations on Measure J were made by Andy Hsia-Coron, in support of the ballot measure, and Kristina Chavez-Wyatt, in opposition.
Hsia-Coron spoke of the genesis of the ballot measure in his living room as he and his wife discussed how to effectively protect San Benito County from the effects of hydraulic fracturing when they became aware of the possibility due to trucks in Aromas thumping the ground while surveying. They were informed that the initiative process would be an appropriate mechanism to put a ban in place and they worked with legal assistance to create Measure J. Hsia-Coron noted that the measure does not ban all oil production, and that in 95 percent of the county, the kinds of oil production which traditionally have been done would be allowed to continue if Measure J passes. However, methods of production such as fracking, steam injection and matrix acidation would be banned under the measure.

Chavez-Wyatt expressed the concern that the initiative process was not an appropriate course to work out issues. She noted the preference of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce and other groups to reach consensus rather than going through a divisive process such as an election. Chavez-Wyatt said that it is the understanding of the legal opinioms she has heard that Measure J would prevent current oil production from continuing. She noted that she was aware of three businesses in Hollister involved in oil production which would be out of work. There was disagreement between the proponents and opposition on how Measure J would affect the continuance of oil production in San Benito County and also about the level of current contributions the oil industry makes to the county's economy.

Following the event, San Juan resident Eric Gredassoff said, “I thought it was a great event.  We got to learn more about the city council candidates and get a feel for their views on some of the issues that face our city. The candidates, for the most part, were very informed and eager to answer the questions presented.The Measure J presentation was also informative.  I felt like I had made my decision prior to attending the evening's events, however, there were good points made by both sides that will make me research a bit more before making my final vote in November.”

John Freeman remarked after hearing the candidates that he thought "the city is now going to be accepting of well-designed businesses, even if they are a franchise or chain type of operation.  As long as the business fits into the San Juan architectural scheme, they will be welcome.”

Moderator John Ferreira said that “All of the candidates for city council expressed similar views on the topics that were presented. The community has a difficult choice before them. As for Measure J,  the opinions and facts presented by both sides are so opposing that everyone in the county should do more research before making their own decision."

Note: City Manager Roger Grimsley reported that the capacity of the CIty's wells are each around 400-500 gallons per minute, and not the 125gpm that Councilmember Boch stated. The CIty has been only taking 130-150gpm from each well to avoid stressing them. He said that the problem in San Juan is not the amount of water, it is the quality of the water. He noted that the CIty's need for water, including fire readiness, is about 300gpm.

BenitoLink Staff