CALIFORNIA CITY — A small group of residents met Friday night, Sept. 25 for coffee, ice cream and food at BLVD Espresso as 12 local candidates conducted an informal meet-and-greet.
The event, emceed by California City resident Lou Peralta, allowed most of the candidates running for city council or mayor, to provide information to residents. Cal City resident Carolinda Fleming, running for a seat on the Mojave Unified School District, and Steve Fox, running for California’s 36th Assembly District against incumbent Tom Lackey, were present as well.
Along with the two-year mayor spot, three slots on the council are available, including one two-year seat to fill out the rest of a previous councilmember’s term. Councilmember Ron Smith is running for one of the two four-year seats, along with Karen Macedonio and planning commission chair Jim Creighton.
Running for the two year-seat are LaMiya Patrick, Marcus Fair, Kelly Kulikoff and Kim Welling.
Seeking the mayor’s spot are incumbent Chuck McGuire, Mayor Pro Tem Don Parris, whose’s term ends this year, Councilmember Nick Lessenevitch, who still holds two years on his council term, business owner Samuel Pope and former city finance director Jeanie O’Laughlin.
Parris and Pope were not present at Friday’s event.
KarenMacedonio, 4-year council seat
Macedonio, in her bid for a full four-year term, noted Cal City can grow with the right blueprint. Macedonio and her husband Richard, who sits on the planning commission, moved to Cal City in 2015.
“I see the city is poised to develop in a way we talk about,” Macedonio said. “I believe in planning. We need a strategic plan and we need to update our general plan.”
She noted the general plan, which she said expires in 2028, shapes the city’s development.
“We have to have community engagement and buy-in because whatever we decide will make this community go,” Macedonio said. Any plan, she said, will require money to execute, as well as communication. Macedonio added that the city can deliver better communication by using its Granicus web platform, currently used to livestream city council and planning commission meetings.
Macedonio promised at least two townhall meetings every month, even if they are virtual.
“Let’s talk to each other, and beyond that, how are we communicating with each other, with the county?” she said. “We aren’t on an island by ourselves, we need to talk to the county, to the other cities, need to be part of moving forward together in a post-COVID world.”
LaMiya Patrick, 2-year council seat
Patrick stated her purpose in running for the two-year slot centered on the community. A transplant from Watts in Los Angeles, Fair said Cal City represents community for her and five children, as well as pulling together.
“The changes needed for this community have to come from a fresh mind,” Patrick said. “Because of the age difference, we are preparing for a time for people who are on the city council have been given time to mull over things. They need to band together with the next generation to push this town forward.”
She noted the council needs to build a solid communications relationship with the community.
When asked about youth of the community, Patrick mentioned the goal of bringing in the NCAAP because of its outreach program. Patrick added that she had suggested a graduation requirement for high school seniors to participate in community service projects.
Jeanie O’Laughlin, mayor
O’Laughlin, the city’s former finance director and assistant city manager from mid-2016 through 2017, focused on practical matters in her bid for mayor. With a Ph.D. in administration and MBA in marketing, O'Laughlin said she wanted to watch the growth of the cannabis industry from its roots.
Former city manager Tom Weil had her seated on the committee to interview applicants seeking permits.
O’Laughlin said strategic planning and budgeting are among her strongest passions. Using the city’s vision statement would be a solid start, she said.
Cal City’s vision statement states “The creation of a livable, viable and visually attractive community through efficient and effective continued growth and sustainable development that will result in a model city within eastern Kern County.”
From there, she said it would influence budgeting. “When it comes to budgeting, have you ever heard the city council ask what are our priorities here? No,” she said. “At least we have that plan -- it’s very broad but it’s a starting point and we can take it and build on it.”
Plans can be developed, funding options devised and disadvantaged community grants taken advantage of, she added. People need to be assigned to overlook them and linked to annual performance evaluations.
“We need to start having planning meetings immediately and if elected that’s the first thing I’m going to do,” O’Laughlin said. Once a plan has been devised, she added, it should be used instead of sitting on the bookshelf collecting dust.
“If you don’t use that plan in budgeting, nothing’s going to happen,” she said. O’Laughlin noted the city also needs to grow its population and its industry base because the city cannot depend on its special tax forever.
A tipping point prompting O’Laughlin to run was the Aug. 3 Kern County grand jury report slamming Cal City on its purchasing procedure and high number of gas cards issued, as well as council members interfering in the day-to-day operation of the city.
O’Laughlin added the council needs someone who will watch the budget like a hawk.
“We need someone who is looking and who is asking the questions and will hold the city manager accountable,” she said.
Kim Welling, 2-year council seat
Welling, running for the two-year seat, is excited about the city’s direction. A 34-year resident, Welling said now was the perfect time to run in a two-year slot. While initially nervous, she noted people can learn fast.
“One thing I hear that is missing is trust and confidence ... in our city officials,” Welling said. “We’ve seen changes in our city in the last couple of years go down.” She added some of those issues are coronavirus related, others aren’t.
Her goal, she said, was to provide a sense of “I love my city.”
“I want people to feel that when they drive here,” Welling said. “My goal is to restore and increase confidence going forward, to provide care, management and oversight to the services we want to protect and keep voters updated in a transparent way.”
Communication was also a key part for Welling, with people dedicated to answering the phone at city hall. Welling stressed that people should look beyond social media accounts and determine if something posted is true.
Chuck McGuire, mayor
McGuire, a retired CHP officer who has served as mayor for two years, and as a councilmember prior to that, built up on what Cal City has already accomplished.
“We haven’t reinvented the wheel but we have reinvented the gears that drive that wheel,” McGuire said. McGuire said that some of the grand jury’s findings, including gas cards, have been corrected.
Building fees have been lowered 50%, prompting new construction; spending has been reduced 30%; the city council established the first-ever tiny and small homes ordinance in homes.
“Those homes can be on (the city water system) but I would like to see builders team up with Tesla so they have solar and batteries, you’re off the grid but don’t have to worry about power going out,” McGuire said.
McGuire noted Tierra de Sol Golf Course now belongs to the city and plans are in motion to replace broken water lines, sprinkler systems and revamping the clubhouse and restaurant.
He added the council has approved $5 million in capital projects. The police department purchased two new vehicles and the fire department received a new fire engine. The city approved five miles of new water lines to be installed
“We are putting the taxpayers’ money to work,” he said. He added the city has lowered water rates and the overall money the city pays Antelope Valley East Kern Water Agency.
McGuire acknowledged the city’s difficulty in maintaining medians and landscaping, but added the city has dropped from 155 employees to 108. Some things, he added, will take longer to accomplish.
McGuire noted new businesses have since come into town and California City Correctional Facility plans to expand, though the date remains unknown. An expansion benefits the city’s wastewater facility, he added.
“I think for the next two years we can make what is on the rest of the list a reality so that will improve quality of life for everybody,” he said. “The number one priority for me ... is improve the quality of life for everybody.”
Jim Creighton, 4-year council seat
Creighton, the current planning commission chair, started watching the city council meetings in 2015, about the same time he was appointed to the commission. With a background in facilities maintenance, Creighton said his primary interest will be the city’s infrastructure and transparency.
Creighton said citizens should be kept abreast of what their government does, something he added seems lacking at the moment.
“If someone comes to the mayor or a city official, they should be given the straight information unless it’s privileged,” Creighton said.
His main focus, infrastructure, involves making sure the right people are doing the task. He noted the water department’s planned projects was a good start, but the city should expand its spending since there’s money in the fund.
“We need to spend more to get more done,” Creighton said. “It needs to be bundled up and contracted out.” He stated that while city employees can perform the duties, they are often called away to handle emergency repairs, including on Cal City’s aging and degrading water system.
“If you’ve got a crew of six people working on a water line and need more people than that to fix something the day we had 10 breaks, that (water line) project is no longer being worked,” Creighton said. “I’ve had that happen to me as a supervisor, I’ve been in a public works department -- you have to prioritize what has to happen.
Marcus Fair, 2-year council seat
For Fair, a civil servant at Edwards Air Force Base and Cal City resident since 2002, has a straightforward approach in running: maintain government’s essential functions of meting out justice and protect its citizens.
“That can be accomplished through protection of life, liberty and property,” Fair said. “This is your community, you have your right to live your life as you see fit. The role of the people you elect is not to make your life difficult, it’s to make it easy.”
Businesses, he said, should not have to find roadblocks in their way. If it runs afoul of a law or regulation, he said, that’s where government steps in.
Fair said Cal City occupies an idyllic spot “but we need to capitalize on that.” He added that he would occupy a council seat as a “prudent, responsible, wise individual when it comes to the budget.”
Public safety would be one of his priorities, to ensure Cal City fire and police departments remain properly staffed. Infrastructure was another important item, with an active plan in place to repair or replace the city’s roads and water systems.
Fair said he was a proponent of citizens forming groups or organizations benefiting the community, and while the council can help facilitate such movements, it shouldn’t start them.
“Don’t wait on elected officials to do something for you, take action,” Fair said.
The council’s job, he said, was to continue finding revenue streams and ensure businesses aren’t encumbered by too many regulations. Fair also stressed revenue management works both ways.
“If you don’t have the funds, you must cut services,” he said. “No one wants to hear that but it is a fact.”
When asked about the growing cannabis industry in Cal City, Fair said his thoughts are irrelevant.
“We have an ordinance and we must follow that ordinance,” Fair said. “It’s not about me on the council, it’s about representing the city.”
Ron Smith, 4-year seat
Ron Smith was appointed in July 2019 to fill the seat vacated by Tami Marie Johnson after she resigned. A pastor of longstanding in California City and resident since 1991, Smith said his initial thoughts after being appointed last year was to make a major difference that first month on the job.
“Someone much wiser told me that I would not be the savior of our community,” Smith said. “That was very much true. One of the benefits of having at least some of the remaining council is that there has to be some history of what’s going on.”
Smith acknowledges having strong positions on cannabis in town but those positions have evolved over 13 months of sitting on the dais. Like Fair, he noted the city must uphold its ordinance. He noted after 30 years of speaking from the public at council meetings, he’s held some strong opinions.
“When that ordinance is not followed, I have an issue with that,” Smith said. “The cannabis industry is not going anywhere said ... I’ve been asked if there is a movement to remove cannabis from our community.”
He ruled that unlikely. “There’s been too many people who have invested too much money that it would be unethical to even ponder trying to remove this industry,” he said.
The council’s goal, Smith added, is to ensure the city enforces its ordinance regulating the industry.
“One person is not going to change the city council,” he said, adding that when at least three people can make decisions that affect 13,000 people, representing the population becomes a sacred trust. “Nothing is going to occur unless there is a consensus.”
He added while he doesn’t violate his principles, he recognizes “that for the greater good, the principles that deal with me personally and for our community have to be reconciled.”
Smith noted Cal City needs to focus on a really large “four-year” plan because the city faces a cliff in year five after its special tax sunsets.
“It needs to be discussed immediately and we have been,” he said. “We need to be planning more and not wait two years.”
Smith noted Cal City “has been living well beyond its means” for years and that needs to be adjusted.
“We are a small community, we are living beyond our means,” Smith said. His goal, he said, with cannabis tax revenue, was to push hard in saving it up over four years while reducing the special tax.
A strong advocate of public safety, Smith said he has brought up discussion of using some saved money to provide a signing bonus for lateral-hired police officers, to use as a downpayment on a home in the city.
“That incentive to help with a downpayment to bring law enforcement to our community, I believe, will bring momentum with that,” Smith said.
Nick Lessenevitch, mayor
Nick Lessenevitch, a longtime resident and dentist, was elected in 2018 to the city council after seeing what he called “a disjointed council” with “no vision coming from a group of five people making decisions for the city.”
“I didn’t see this town surviving with what was going on two years ago,” Lessenevitch said. “I ran for office and tried to bring a sense of unity to the council, to begin to agree on items that were brought before us.”
His focus has been on fiscal responsibility, something he said hasn’t been done in the past.
“One of the realities that has always plagued me in the city is that we spend money as if it doesn’t have an end to it,” he said. “To me the budget has been a critical area of responsibility and it is the first responsibility of the council.”
He called the changes implemented over the past three budget cycles “amazing” but could use more clarity.
The mayor’s spot, he said, “is a big job” albeit one that would entitle him to only one vote in five like any other California general law city or board of directors.
“I don’t make decisions for the council, I run a meeting,” he said. “The meeting is there to get a consensus out of the people that are members of that board.”
Lessenevitch said he would like to see an emphasis on professionalism “on the part of our staff” but added “that is not under the control of city council.”
The council can only hire and fire and direct the city manager; the city manager handles all other staffing priorities as the day-to-day executive of the city.
Lessenevitch echoed McGuire in noting the city experiencing a few solid good years.
“I’m encouraged by where this city is going,” he said. “At point, what I would like to see is our city council meetings be very short and very boring and no one wants to watch them because straight business happens and you go on with life.”
He added that he doesn’t want the city to be in the way of growth.
“I think there are wonderful opportunities in this town that are not because of city hall,” he said. “That’s got to be my bottom line. I want city hall to be professional, to do their jobs ... and to protect us ... but I don’t know that I want this town to be controlling every business and every new family that wants to come here. I think this town will grow just fine if we give it a chance and opportunity to develop on its own organically.”
Lessenevitch still has two years left on his term; if elected mayor, his seat would need to be filled by appointment or special election.
Kelly Kulikoff, 2-year council seat
Kulikoff, a business owner, realtor and general contractor and Cal City native, voiced a different rhetoric than other candidates by expressing his dissatisfaction with the town.
“I hate Cal City, I don’t like Cal City,” Kulikoff said. “The reason why I don’t like Cal City is because a long time ago, my older brother always tried to get out of Cal City and he died trying.”
Kulikoff argued that “there is no opportunities for the kids of this town and there’s limited resources on where they can go for mentor programs.”
Kulikoff noted there were issues with the Mojave Unified School District that need to be addressed while acknowledging the district lies outside the council’s jurisdiction and governance.
“The school system is lacking in a lot of stuff,” he said.
He also said he noticed a lot of shifting the blame around in city government and comments that the city should shed workers if they aren’t working out.
“That’s not the problem, it’s a lack of proper teamwork, lack of a structure, lack of a framework and agility that we could create together,” Kulikoff said. “People aren’t bad generally, there could be outliers that are bad, but that’s not a problem. There are a lot of smart people here and a lot of resources we could get together and we could do a lot of great stuff.”
He added when people here from Cal City and see their concerns, “you don’t push them aside, you have to really take every single problem and find solutions.”
“The problems might look big, but you have to break them down,” Kulikoff said. “You do that with project management .... break it down to smaller steps. But we aren’t doing that in California City; we’re trying to look at something at the end of the rainbow that’s never going to get there unless we come together as a community and work on these problems.”