It’s at an Oct. 7 meeting of the Seaside City Council, nearing the height of an election year, when the councilmembers/candidates must figure out whether to extend a moratorium on new escort services. Adult services are allowed in parts of town zoned “heavy commercial,” although some new technical questions about escort services need to be ironed out.
Darryl Choates, who has been on the city council for 14 years and wants to be mayor, takes the agenda item to be about prostitution. He asks if the city would be doing health screening of hookers the way government officials do in places where prostitution is regulated. He mentions Las Vegas as one such place, although prostitution is not legal there and no such health screening occurs.
“We can’t eliminate them, but we do want to make sure everyone is safe if someone sets up [such a business] here,” Choates says from the dais.
City Attorney Don Freeman intervenes quickly to assure the public and the council that the city is not about to legalize prostitution.
Tom Mancini, also a councilmember running for mayor, says the city could make the business license fees so “outrageous” it would be “uneconomical” for such operations to open.
The topic of prostitution in Seaside, sanctioned or not, draws guffaws and murmurs from the crowd, which includes two other candidates for mayor—Lloyd Humes, a general contractor and previous candidate, and Sylvia Quarles, a beauty school student and longtime Democrat. Also in attendance is Don Jordan, a former Army officer who served as mayor but ran a troubled administration and was unseated by current mayor Jerry Smith in 1998.
The incumbent councilmember running for re-election, Steve Bloomer, is in his usual seat on the dais, as is Ralph Rubio, who also wants to be mayor. The only candidate not at the meeting is Paul Mugan, who serves on the Planning Commission and battles Jordan and Bloomer for a seat on the council.
But after the snickering about hookers subsides, Mayor Smith, who wants to be a county supervisor, refers back to Seaside’s rowdier days, when certain bars had reputations for serving up more than just cold beer and cocktails. Smith, who gets credit in many quarters for steering the city away from its rough and tumble past, says for the record, “I just want to share with you, we’ve grown beyond that.”
Smith is correct on that count. Long a working class town at the gates of a massive Army base, bearing a healthy dose of resentment for its rich Peninsula neighbors, Seaside has been in a major upheaval for the last ten years. Following the closure of Fort Ord, a demographic and economic shift has been underway in the city. In the last few years there’s been a heavy Latino influx and many of the old African-American Seaside families have moved out of town to San Jose, Sacramento and even back to the South, according to community leaders. Along with Latino families moving into the region’s rare affordable housing are young families from Monterey and elsewhere, buying up homes that have increased dramatically in value in recent years, but would cost far less just about anywhere else.
Emblematic of these changes, Seaside has also seen the controversial Seaside Highlands project take shape on what had been abandoned Army housing on the north end of town. New, shiny and expensive, it stands in stark contrast to the tightly packed streets that make up a good part of the rest of the city. To cross between is to cross between two separate cities, no matter what the politicians say.
But even when that 300-home project is complete, the city council has several more projects coming along that will serve to slowly spruce up the city’s image. Besides several imminent chain restaurants and a big-box retail store that are causing a buzz around city hall, there’s also the much-anticipated Pebble Beach-esque Seaside Resort Development on the city-owned golf courses; the rehabilitation of the concrete maze of car dealerships and repair shops downtown; and a proposed “regional retail center” to rival Sand City on a piece of former Fort Ord land at the Main Gate entrance off Highway 1.
But if there has been a particularly divisive issue in recent years, it’s been the First Tee project—a plan to build an “executive-length” golf course at the eastern edge of the city.
Ostensibly part of a program to teach disadvantaged children the game of golf, First Tee will make kids eligible to play on the course for only a fraction of the operating hours. Opponents of the plan contend the public was not adequately consulted before council approval and that the youth of Seaside have little interest in learning to play golf.
The only dissenting vote on the project was Choates, a grocer who complained, among other things, that the project would use too much water and amounts to land “giveaway” when the city really needs a sports center. Choates has also proposed moving the auto center to the Main Gate parcel, but that notion did not find traction.
In some ways, the political future of Seaside comes back to a question of past and future as the two main candidates for mayor represent differing factions. Choates, who spars with Smith constantly, has backers from the old school of Seaside politics, like Helen Rucker, who donated $1,000 to his campaign. Rubio enjoys both union support and the support of Smith, a recently converted Republican with a union background and strong financing.
At candidate forums, Choates makes a point of standing up to answer each question and takes his usually blustery stance, while Rubio is more low-key and evenhanded. Rubio has several powerful endorsements in Smith and outgoing supervisor Edith Johnsen, but Choates cannot point to such high profile figures.
Trying to nail down the candidates both for mayor and council on the issues can amount to a very frustrating experience. Some are not afraid to talk trash about another or play it loose with the facts. History gets warped. Some candidates, when asked simple questions about their experience or positions must consult their own campaign literature to be sure of their answers.
At two recent forums it seemed as if the candidates were merely taking keywords like “community” and “teamwork” and “diversity” and just stringing them together to try to sound good politically without actually saying anything significant. After all, what elected official opposes public safety? What elected official would not at least try to balance a budget when everyone knows the state and its cities are in terrible fiscal shape?
Incumbent candidate for city council Steve Bloomer, who has been endorsed by this newspaper, has lived in Seaside since high school. Asked to name his priorities for the city, Bloomer replies quickly, “Youth.” He then thinks about it for a second and says, “Youth and seniors.”
Asked for a record of any dissenting votes on the council, he notes one vote he’d made on a planning commission appeal, but cannot recall any substantive votes against the majority. Asked what he likes about Seaside, Bloomer says, “I like diversity. I like the people. What you see is lots of color,” pointing to the purple ink on his campaign brochure. “I like color. The multicultural thing. It’s incredible. Our people are some fantastic people. It’s their cultures. I’m intrigued by them. They have different family concepts. They don’t bore me.”
Whether the old school of Seaside politics embodied in Don Jordan and Darryl Choates win in this election or Rubio’s support from Smith and the unions vaults him into the mayor’s seat, it doesn’t change the basic fact that the story of Seaside for the next few years will be its ability to continue its economic recovery and redevelopment of Fort Ord, regardless who calls himself or herself the leader.