There were fiery exchanges in the first mayoral debate Tuesday between candidates Perry Woodward and Roland Velasco—and some distinctions made between their policies and hopes for the city.
The debate was held at the weekly Gilroy Rotary Club meeting at the Elks Lodge. Politeness took a back seat to vitriol, but unlike some national forums, the candidates covered the issues in between personal attacks.
They differed most strongly on last year’s proposal to build 4,000 homes on 721 acres of northern farmland outside the city. Woodward had voted for it and Velasco against.
They pulled no punches hyping their own qualities and denigrating their opponents. Woodward said Velasco has no support or endorsements from other politicians; Velasco said Woodward was responsible for many of Gilroy’s problems.
“It was Perry, he pushed me into this race because of some of the anti-business decisions he was making,” said Velasco, explaining why he chose to run for mayor. “The 721 acres, that’s why I decided to go ahead and put my name in the race. I want to try and restore the faith and confidence the citizens of Gilroy have in City Council [and in] the mayor’s office. There have been too many backroom deals, too much talking down to residents in council chambers. It was offensive to me, and that is why I decided to run.”
Woodward fired back: “It troubles me to be in those crosshairs and hear Councilman Velasco talk about how my hometown has lost faith and confidence in me and I want to put that in perspective. Roland Velasco has been in the county for 20 years and on the City Council for 10 years. We are in the first month in a three-month race and he has not been endorsed by a single elected official in the region—not a single member of the Gilroy City Council or school board,” he said, adding that he has been endorsed by the majority of the City Council and school board, the head of the county water board and community leaders including Don and Karen Christopher.
And while the candidates could not agree on why the Measure H Urban Growth Boundary Initiative started, both agreed that it which would change how growth decisions are made in Gilroy until 2040, and that it was bad for the city.
“I’m opposed to this measure because it’s up to you, the voters, you have the duty, the obligation to vote elected officials out of office if you feel they are not representing you,” said Velasco to the roomful of Rotarians Tuesday. It was the first time the candidate has openly and clearly opposed the anti-sprawl measure brought forward by citizen action group Gilroy Growing Smarter.
“We don’t need an arbitrary line around Gilroy.” Velasco did, however, credit the organizers for bringing the issue forward, saying, “I applaud them.”
Woodward also said he didn’t support Measure H, which would limit where and by how much Gilroy could grow and require voter approval for any change to the boundary until 2040. He said the measure would only redirect growth towards the south of the city, not stop it, and made it harder for the city to attract new businesses.
“It’s not good for Gilroy,” said Woodward, a San Jose-based attorney who was first elected to the City Council in 2007.
Velasco later accused Woodward of trying to “rewrite history” when the mayor seemed to downplay the role the ill-fated 721-acre Rancho Los Olivos housing proposal played in the citizen-led effort to launch Measure H and blamed other developments, such as Glen Loma Ranch and Hecker Pass, which were approved before Woodward was on the council.
“This is because of Glen Loma?” said Velasco. “Oh, no, it was because of the land grab to the north.
“If you oppose the urban growth boundary, just take a look at Perry—he created the perfect storm,” Velasco told the Rotarians. “He brought together groups that normally operated in isolation—the farmers, the environmentalists, the downtown folks—and he brought them all together to form that urban growth boundary.”
When the 721-acre proposal, which included 4,000 homes, was appealed to the City Council in December after being rejected by the planning commission, Velasco voted against it, while Woodward voted for it.
The project was ultimately shelved, but not until after former Mayor Don Gage resigned and two lawsuits, including one by LAFCO of Santa Clara County, were brought against the city.
Velasco said Woodward should have known the LAFCO lawsuit was in the pipeline. “If that is the leadership Perry is providing, that’s the kind of leadership we don’t need,” he said.
Velasco has two years left on his current term and would continue to serve if he loses the election. Woodward would be out of office if he loses. The mayor earns $14,532 a year; a council member earns $9,684.
“Being mayor of Gilroy is a thankless job, sometimes I wonder why I want to,” said Velasco. “Why do I want to put some crosshairs on my forehead and put myself out there?”
Woodward defended his vote on the controversial 721-acre development saying that the mayor “must be a leader and you got to take some difficult stands sometimes.
“I originally ran for the council in 2007—when Roland was on it—to make a difference,” said Woodward. “There were things going on there that troubled me and I thought that residents deserved more from City Hall and the majority of residents agreed with me. I finished first and he finished fourth after serving eight years on the council.”
Both candidates touted the city’s investment in downtown improvements.
“The city has spent $16 million on infrastructure improvements since I’ve been on the council,” said Woodward, who also cited his work on the unreinforced masonry task force over the years, helping to get each downtown building in compliance with earthquake safety rules and out from under heavy fines imposed by the city.
Fines, he said, that were part of policies started during Velasco’s time on the council. Velasco was first elected to the council in 1999, then re-elected in 2003 and 2007.
Calling downtown a “work in progress,” Velasco said while the city often gets the blame for not having a vibrant downtown, it also takes “the business community and entrepreneurs to invest downtown.”
The city could help create an environment that makes people want to go downtown, he said. He also suggested streamlining permit processes, working with local businesses and engaging the city administrator in district initiatives.
Woodward warned that if he isn’t elected, Gilroy would lose representation on the transportation boards he serves on, the Santa Clara Transportation Authority and Caltrain. He said his efforts on those boards have brought more trains to Gilroy and will help fund improvements to First Street.
Currently serving his fourth two-year term as the Gilroy-Morgan Hill representative on the (VTA)—previously serving as chair in 2015 and vice chair in 2014—Woodward touted his work to solve traffic issues in the county, and effort to put the countywide half-cent sales tax Measure B on the upcoming ballot, which includes $1 million a year in roadway improvements and additional Caltrain service for Gilroy.
Woodward is also current chair of the Caltrain nine-member board of directors, and is one of three representatives from Santa Clara County.
“I’ve devoted my career and my time on City Council to not just represent Gilroy here but regionally,” he said.
Velasco has worked in public service at the county level since 1997 and is currently a land use policy analyst for County Supervisor Mike Wasserman.
“I’m able to see the big picture, I’ve served on many boards, including an alternate on LAFCO, including VTA sub-committees,” he argued. “I know what it takes and I have the time to do it.”
For more details on Gilroy’s two mayoral candidates, go to their campaign websites at perrywoodward.com and rolandvelasco.com. The next debate is Oct. 1 at the American Association of University Women forum at the Gilroy Library.