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Amendments move forward

Posted: Wednesday, Jan 8th, 2014

Watsonville City staff count a pile of petitions Wednesday that would change the way the mayor is selected and and how City Council vacancies are filled. (Photos by Erik Chalhoub/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — A group of more than a dozen people brought several stacks of signed petitions to the Watsonville City Clerk Wednesday, with more than 8,000 signatures on two charter amendments that would change the way the mayor is selected and allow voters to fill City Council vacancies.

Meanwhile, an initiative that would require voter approval to rename public places in Watsonville passed muster with election officials and will appear on the November ballot.

The number of signatures — more than 4,000 for each amendment — far exceeded the 2,408 needed to qualify for the ballot. County election officials have 30 business days to validate the signatures. If they do, voters will decide on the issues in the June primary election.

Currently, the Council appoints both the mayor and councilmembers. If the amendments pass, the mayor would be chosen on a rotating basis and Watsonville residents would vote for councilmembers if they die or quit before their term is up.

Proponents said they got the signatures by walking the city and knocking on doors of the city’s 14,000 registered voters. Some paid signature gatherers were employed, paid by a local senior organization, said Rhea DeHart, who is promoting the mayoral charter amendment.

DeHart said she encountered little opposition as she spoke with voters.

“People are not just speaking out there, they are shouting out there,” she said.

Judy Doering-Nielsen, who said she petitioned for all three issues, estimated that about 98 percent of the people she spoke with were in support.

Doering-Nielsen said residents have tried approximately three times in the past to allow voters to choose the mayor, the last effort falling short by 47 signatures.

Proponents say the changes will free up the Council to focus on issues relevant to city operations, rather than wrangle over mayoral and Council appointments.

“It makes a difference in policies,” DeHart said. “We’re constantly faced with the selection of the mayor, and we’re constantly faced with people who die or resign their seats. This will make government so they can focus on policies without spending time arguing about what a vacancy is and who’s going to fill it.”

In addition, DeHart said, the amendments would increase transparency and increase public participation.

“Each district would have a chance to be represented,” she said.

City Councilman Lowell Hurst said he’s unsure whether the proposed changes would make a difference for local politics, but added that, “I think it’s important that people participate in local politics and have their say.”

“I’m excited that people are energized and that we’re going to have better participation in the public process,” he said.

Hurst pointed out that, out of the city’s 52,000 residents, only 14,000 are registered to vote. Out of those, only 40 percent visit polling stations during elections.

“Apathy and indifference are some of the real roadblocks to building a better community,” he said.

The real issues facing the city, Hurst said, are the high unemployment, poverty, public safety and building better city services.

“These petitions don’t address any of that,” he said.

Mayor Karina Cervantez said that every citizen has a right to petition their government.

“But my focus continues to be maintaining and expanding our vital city services, such as public safety,” she said. “Building a strong, vibrant economy to support a greater quality of life for our families in the Pajaro Valley will be what guides my policy decisions in the year ahead.”

Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich said she supported the petitioners since they began their efforts in July.

“The committee that gathered the signatures has listened to the people,” she said. “If people want to vote and be involved in the democratic process, that’s a good thing — more community involvement.”

Bilicich, who represents District 7, has served on the Council since 2009, but has never been mayor.

“The people have spoken,” she said. “They want the opportunity to vote and express their opinion. That’s what these signatures reflect.”

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