City Council candidates revealed how they would address Santa Maria’s spike in violence and help the growing homeless population during a two-hour forum Wednesday night.
The League of Women Voters of Santa Maria Valley organized the event which was attended by more than 50 people at the Betteravia Government Center in Santa Maria.
Incumbent Terri Zuniga is seeking another term on the council in a field that includes five men — former councilman and retired police lieutenant Mike Cordero, dermatologist Dr. Michael Moats and businessmen Hector Sanchez and Ed Hernandez.
The sixth candidate, businessman John Childers Jr., did not attend the forum.
One question centered on candidates’ plans for addressing the spike in violence that left several teenagers dead in the past 18 months.
Cordero said gangs are not new to Santa Maria, recalling arresting three generations of one family for gang membership.
“We all want less gang violence,” said Cordero, who previously served on the council. “We all want less problems in our community. … We need to attack the problem on more than one front. You can’t arrest your way out of it. You can’t legislate your way out of it.”
It’s easy to become a gang member, Cordero said.
“All you have to do is want to be needed and somebody needs to need you and you’re a gang member,” he said. “What they offer them meets their needs and we have to figure out what it is they’re offering them and how to meet their needs with something better.”
Zuniga said she prefers to call it youth violence, not gang violence, adding that the answers may be in homes and neighborhoods.
“I think we need to look at expanding our strategies for intervention,” she said. “We need to not label them from a young age in school.”
In her job as victim-witness advocate, Zuniga said she sees families where parents are addicted to methamphetamine or are struggling to raise children in a single-parent households.
“I think if we’re really going to address, in a significant way, the youth violence we have to expand our vision and expand our efforts to really circle a family and try to identify what the root of the problem is,” Zuniga said.
Patino noted that one violent international criminal gang, MS-13, was responsible for more than half of the homicides in Santa Maria in 2015.
“They came here two or three years ago and they came here to kill,” Patino said. “There is no program we could have put in place that would have changed that. And that’s unfortunate that they came here to Santa Maria because that is not Santa Maria.”
She said the city is looking to form a policy committee of lawmakers, nonprofit group, law enforcement members and more to create a plan to stem violence.
“Knowing the way we work on the City Council — (if) we want it to work, it will work,” she said.
Smith, a former educator who served a contentious term on the Santa Maria-Bonita School District board, said the city needs more activities and jobs for the youths or crime will escalate.
“I think it’s just a common sense approach that we have to do to make opportunities available for our youth and once we do that we can reduce this tripling of the juvenile crimes,” Smith said. “I believe, if my statistics hold, in the last three or four years the youth crime has doubled.
“There’s no commission (that’s) going to solve that problem,” he added. “You have to take action to solve those problems. What actions are there? Provide jobs and activities so that these kids can be successful because committees and bringing in people from other areas and doing nothing about it will not work.”
Candidates were also asked how they would address Santa Maria’s growing homeless population.
Noting the large encampments in San Diego, Hernandez said Santa Maria police should apply pressure to control homeless and mentioned enacting a city ordinance to prohibit and limit the movement of transients.
“Everybody talks about programs,” Hernandez said. “Folks, I can’t imagine, a city like San Diego probably has multiple programs as we have here, but it is not going to be an answer because I see it all the time. I’m down there seeing my sister quite often and it’s unbelievable.
“At the risk of sounding like a heartless bastard, we have to do something that discourages the homeless from becoming even more in our city,” Hernandez added.
Sanchez said the homeless population should not be discussed in general terms since they include people in varying circumstances such as families, veterans, drug abusers and long-term transients.
The city should support more programs like Good Samaritan Shelter and continue to work with Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, he added.
“I know we have a division between church and state, but we shouldn’t have a division between church and morality, and state and compassion,” Sanchez said. “So you can count on a candidate that will be compassionate to these people because I won’t generalize, I will know the conditions they’re facing and I’ll support them to get recovered and back into a life they can live.”
Moats noted that many of the homeless are dealing with mental illness that possibly could be controlled with medications.
“When you’re out on the street you’re less likely to take your medication which then compounds the problem,” Moats said.
“If we could get them into a physician’s office or Santa Barbara Community Clinic and maybe get their medicines going a little bit better so they wouldn’t exhibit the symptoms that happen when you need medicine and don’t take it, I think that would a good idea,” he added.
Other topics covered leadership styles, attracting high-paying jobs to the area, and the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Santa Maria .
The top two vote-getters among the six council candidates in the Nov. 8 election will win the pair of four-year terms on the council.
In addition to Zuniga’s term, the seat now held by Councilman Bob Orach expires this year. Orach decided not to run for re-election after 30 years on the council