Bishop City Council Candidates’ Forum 2014 – Sierra Wave
By Charles James
With the election tomorrow, following are excerpts from the Bishop City Council Candidate Forum held on October 9 at the Bishop Senior Center. Approximately 60 prospective voters listened to the five candidates vying for two seats open on the Council. The Forum was co-sponsored by the Sunrise Rotary Group and the Inyo Register.
The five candidates include current Mayor Jim Ellis, Councilman Keith Glidewell, former Bishop Police Chief Joe Pecsi, businesswoman Karen Schwartz, co-owner of Sage to Summit, and Acupuncturist Howard Wu.
Candidates answered prepared questions provided beforehand and after a brief intermission, questions were taken from the audience.
Jim Ellis described himself as a local boy from Bishop and said that he was grateful to have had the opportunity to serve on the Council for the past four years, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. He said that he took great pride in being a full-time ambassador for the city.
Former Bishop Police Chief, Joe Pecsi, said that his 31 years of experience in law enforcement and his qualifications as a leader, and his experience with the city’s budget process makes him a good choice. He said, “What I can add to the council is leadership,” describing his involvement in the community as a teacher at Cerro Coso Community College, his service as the current chair of the Bishop Water and Sewer Commission, as well as serving on the board of the Bishop Country Club and the Inyo Mono Handicapped Association. He also said that he was a member of the Bishop Lions Club, Bishop Elks Lodge, and Knights of Columbus.
Howard Wu is a local acupuncturist. He hopes that “diversity on the ballot would give voters a reason to come out to vote” and that he would bring “a fresh and different perspective; novel, but not real ‘far-out.” He said that he was unafraid to take “the other side of things” on an issue and “That is why we have a council, to have many voices heard.”
Local business owner Karen Schwartz said, “I’m here because I love the City of Bishop…We live in a ‘year-round paradise.” She feels that she is uniquely qualified as a business owner to represent the City of Bishop. “I believe that Bishop needs to capitalize on its location and access to the mountains.”
A self-described “‘go-getter’ with a vision,” Schwartz said, “I can see what needs to be done. I can set goals. I can accomplish them.” She went on to cite her track record with two successful businesses and expressed optimism that “every mountain enthusiast should have the City of Bishop on their ‘bucket list’ as a planned vacation.”
Current City Councilman Keith Glidewell explained that he was appointed almost two years ago to fill a vacancy created by Jeff Griffiths. “It’s been a great two years. I have learned a tremendous amount about city government. The City Council has accomplish a lot and I would like to continue my service.”
Glidewell feels that what he brings to the City is “not so much leadership, but a collaborative spirit. I’m a team member on the Council and we work together to establish leadership.” The “process” he said, “means setting aside personal bias and listening to other council members and the public, and then weighing the facts and going through the process to do what is best for everybody. “
Candidates were presented with four prepared questions given to them for the forum:
The City of Bishop currently allocates $149,000 to the Bishop Chamber of Commerce under its $200,000 budget for community programs. Is it an appropriate use of public funds?
All five candidates answered “yes.”
Pecsi said that the City has been funding the Chamber since the 1980s and that while the County of Inyo supports similar community events, they evaluate them on a project-by-project and event-by-event basis, which is something that the City might look at in the future. He commended Tawni Thompson and the Chamber on its success in putting forth the Bishop Tourism Business Improvement District (BTBID), which is supported by the majority of local motel owners. The 2% assessment (if approved) over 5 years would begin in January 2015 and might bring in as much as $200,000 to $300,000 to promote tourism to the area.
Schwartz said, “I definitely, 100-percent, support it.” She listed a number of popular events such as the Rodeo Championship, Blake Jones Trout Derby, the Rainbow Trout Derby, Mule Days, and Millpond Music Festival supported by the Chamber. She went on to add that the Chamber hosts chamber mixers and lunches, citing an article recently in The Sheet on the TBID that (according to the marketing firm Civitas Advisors, who has helped develop Bishop’s TBID and more than a hundred others), that “for each $1 dollar invested in tourism marketing, there is a $70 return for the economy.”
Ellis said that he definitely supports continued funding of the Chamber and that the success of its marketing efforts has brought more tourism to the area. “That, in turn, has increased the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and sales tax− the biggest contributors to the City’s General Fund,” he says.
Wu also strongly supports the city’s funding of the Chamber of Commerce. saying that he moved from Mammoth Lakes to Bishop 17 years ago, “There was a time when I might have questioned the presumption that we use so much money for the Visitors Center. Because of what I have learned over the past two weeks, my perception has changed… What they do is incredible.” Noting that there are other ideas on the economy and not just one that is tourism-based, “Bishop is not just a tourist town. Planes that bring things into Bishop from the airport, can also take things out…. we need to look at the diversity and creativity of the individuals in the community, and not necessarily just those on the 395, but those who are connected to the world through the new fiber-optic system (Digital 395).”
Glidewell provided a more nuanced response on continued Chamber funding support saying, “Yes…and maybe. ‘Yes,’ the chamber does a fantastic job of promoting the area and that promoting the area is also a part of the City’s General Plan. ‘Maybe’ depends on the city budget and meeting its fiduciary responsibilities.” He noted, “The City is running out of money and how money is spent in the future has to be evaluated along with how well the BTBID does in supporting the chamber’s needs. “ He ended saying that “I strongly support the Chamber and I wish we could give them more.”
What are your thoughts on the future of development at the Airport and what opportunities that could provide for the City of Bishop?
Wu said that he listens to people at his business and many of them are pilots. He feels the new long-term lease that the County of Inyo has with the City of Los Angeles is “a very good thing,” however he doesn’t agree it should become a commercial airport, quoting business magnate and investor Warren Buffett, “Don’t buy an airline. It’s a good way to lose money.” Explaining that Bishop should continue to provide one of the greatest private airports in the region and make improvements, he observed that there is a shortage of hangars. Saying that pilots who fly into Bishop are excellent tourists who support local businesses, he cautioned residents to “think twice about a commercial airport.
“The airport is strictly a county issue,” said Glidewell, “that is not in the purview of the city, although everyone welcomes the improvements.” Saying that the current plans for the airport are to improve sidewalks, lighting, and other infrastructure, it is “not an expansion but rather what is needed to bring the airport into compliance with FAA regulations. “Beyond that,” he said, “we would need to have a commercial airline agree to come in.”
Pecsi said it was an exciting idea, but agreed with Glidewell that it was a complicated process that would not likely happen anytime soon. He noted that many flights to Mammoth Lakes Airport are cancelled or rerouted, and that “Bishop Airport, with improvements, might be able to serve as an alternative landing site in the future.”
Schwartz agreed with Pecsi and that she “would love to have reliable air service to the area that would bring more professionals to the area and create more of an economy here.”
Ellis was also enthusiastic, saying “I’m actually looking forward to the development of the airport. It opens up a bunch of doors and would make Bishop a viable destination for conventions, meetings, and home-based businesses that Karen touched on. “Between Reno and Lancaster, we are the only cross-wind airport, which is an important factor in providing reliable service.”
What are your thoughts on a proposed increase in the city’s transient use tax (TUT) by a half of a percent? (Inyo County and the City of Bishop share a county-wide .5 percent TUT, of which the city receives a 30 percent share.)
“The idea first came up in budget workshops and was one of many options,” said Ellis, but while “I was at first in favor of it, I later changed my mind. We determined that, at the time, it wasn’t necessary…In the short term, I do not see it being an issue or being needed. There are other ways to offset rising costs.”
Wu supports an increase in the TUT, but “only if it is needed to keep essential services, and only if it were necessary to for the city’s financial stability.” He observed that not everyone would benefit from it and that he was concerned that it would show favoritism to some types of businesses over others.
Schwartz opposed any TUT increase, calling it “a short-term solution to generate more revenue.” She said “Small businesses already have a hard time competing with online businesses.” She added that, “Online you get an 8 percent sales tax discount and increasing the city tax would only compound the issue by making things locally more expensive than online.”
Glidewell said he doesn’t support the tax increase. He said that “Without a long-term plan, it would be like asking taxpayers to write a check for $500,000 to a friend who doesn’t know how they are planning to use the money… and whose finances are likely to get worse….and that’s why we did choose to ‘write that check.’”
Would you support a proposal to contract with the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department and eliminate the Bishop Police Department to trim the city budget?
No candidate came out in support of the idea, although current City Councilman Glidewell said, “Security is very important to the City. We do not want to put the City at risk. However, with 60% of the General Fund cost going to the Police Department, and in light of the budgetary problems, we have to ask: ‘What can we afford to have?’ We have to look at reducing our costs while maintaining services…We need to keep our options open and base our decisions on what we can afford…As a councilmember, I have to remain objective on and evaluate all the possibilities.”
Ellis, who worked as a former dispatcher with the Bishop Police Department, said that he couldn’t support the proposal. He noted that “Bishop has an incredibly low crime rate, it’s incredibly safe. The average response time when I was a dispatcher was less than two minutes. They will protect you.”
Wu told those present that “the possibility of saving money should always be looked at, adding however, “Having a stand-alone police department provides the community, and its visitors, with the confidence that they are safe and protected. “Bishop is the only incorporated town in Inyo. We have a police station and I think that’s a ‘cool thing to have.’ A police station provides a sense of security. I like the fact that we have a police station in this town.”
Former Bishop Police Chief Pecsi was unequivocal: “Don’t vote for me if you want to contract out to the Sheriff’s Department.” He gave two examples of larger cities that had dissolved their police departments to contract with the local sheriff’s office and “In both cases,” he said, “the cities eliminated the contract and were forced to rebuild their departments from the ground up.
“One of the reasons I love to live in Bishop is because it’s so safe,” said Schwartz, “and eliminating the police department would be a tough sell to me.” She said that “As long as the police force is in line with the budget, that’s great. Let’s keep a dedicated police force….It would be a question of whether or not, if it came to cutting other services such as parks, etc., except the police department, then it would have to be looked at, but, even then there are many options that can be explored.”
After a 15-minute break, questions taken from the audience were posed to the candidates. They were given one minute to answer.
Can you describe your method of receiving public input, especially from residents who do not attend City Council meetings?”
Schwartz said that, “As a councilmember, I would like to let my constituents know what’s going on. How decisions are going to affect them that are coming before the board.”
Ellis felt the best way is to just get out in the community. “I am very approachable and I am always willing to discuss city issues with residents and listen to what they have to say.”
Wu said that “People do come up and tell me things and there’s no shortage of opinions” and that his door is generally open. He encouraged voters to “tell me what you think. The stranger the idea, the better.”
Glidewell noted that the city had recently implemented a new technology program (Granicus Software− beginning Oct. 14) that will allow residents to watch both current and archived City Council meetings online at the city’s website. They can also submit comments online. “Whether people cannot attend the meetings or are uncomfortable attending a public meeting, it allows them to still be heard,” said Glidewell, “I use input from the public to research issues brought to me as part of my decision-making.”
Noting once again that he is involved in a number of local service organizations, Pecsi said, “Everyone has an opinion…but, if elected, I will base my decisions on what the public has to say and not just on my opinion.”
What do you think about the 2% Bishop Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) on local motels and what is your opinion on other benefits from it?
Pecsi said, “The motels approved the idea to promote tourism, which should improve the numbers of rooms being booked,” going on to add, “The best thing that other businesses can do is to become involved in the Chamber of Commerce to help promote events.”
Schwartz said that local businesses can lend support to motels to bring more visitors to the area by promoting local events (bike races, etc.) as well. “It’s a ‘win-win.’”
Ellis stated that the TBID was not forced on the motels. “They agreed to it, and it bolsters their own businesses,” he said. “Will other businesses benefit?” he asked, “Yes. All businesses will be part of its success.”
Wu said that “I honor and respect the motels that made the decision to collectively work together for their own common good,” while Glidewell answered that he felt that Tawni (Thomson) of the Chamber of Commerce had wisely limited the TBID to only motels, saying, “It will greatly increase the Chamber budget and increase their ability and capability to promote the area.”
What was your opinion on the ATV Adventure Trails of the Eastern Sierra Project, which aims to allow off-highway vehicles access to some city streets?
Glidewell said that it is at the county level and that it has not yet come before the City for a vote. He went on to note that there is a process that the city goes through of open hearing which will include a review by the County Planning Commission, legal staff and residents through California Environmental Act reviews.
“I have to evaluate the facts, CEQA, and so on. I don’t really have a position on it yet,” Glidewell said.
Pecsi agreed, saying that Adventure Trails was the number one question he was asked about while campaigning. “It is up to the county,” he said, adding, “Perhaps there is a way to have an economic boost from the program and still not impact the residences.”
Ellis said, “My decision will be based on public opinion, but for now, I support it. If you love the streets, economically we need the revenue. However, in the end, it’s up to the public.”
Wu said that he had heard from residents on both sides of the issue. He said that he agrees that it is ridiculous to have to trailer an ATV to go ride on a dirt road two miles away. “Yet,” he said, “I agree with them. I think a solution can be weighed in− but it’s going to take flexibility to deal with.”
Schwartz supported it, saying, “I think Adventure Trails is a great idea and will bring more tourism to our area.” She said that, while she is “sympathetic to residents who would be affected, we should evaluate the impacts to Bishop’s quality of life and to tourism.” Nevertheless she feels confident that a solution can be found.
What are your thoughts on police getting out of their cars and getting to know the residents?
Ellis and Wu said “Police do get out of their cars and talk to business owners,” while Pesci said he saw plenty of officers while out campaigning, but “maybe they can do more.”
Schwartz thought “seeing police on bikes and walking would be great as it seems to make them appear more friendly and approachable.”
Glidewell said, “On the surface it seems a good idea but there may be good reasons for an officer to not to be out and away from his or her vehicle as it could affect response times.”
What is your vision of economic development for the city?
Schwartz felt that there are ways to make the city look more attractive to visitors with the placement of more flowers and signs that direct motorists to parking in downtown.
Ellis said, “The key is the redevelopment of downtown Bishop,” but went on to say that they first needed to find funding. He thought it would be a good idea for the city to partner with business owners to provide low-interest or short term loans to make downtown more attractive.
Wu said, “We need a business incubator. Cerro Coso Community College would be a great site for developing ideas.”
Glidewell observed that the City is already in the process of making improvements such as the Warren Street Improvement Project and the prospect of free public Wi-Fi connections in downtown Bishop. “In the end,” he posed the question, “What does the community want and what will it tolerate or accept?”
Pecsi said the city is using a Community Development Grant to work on an economic development plan and that he is excited to see what comes out of that process.
Tuesday, November 4, is Election Day. Be sure to vote!