Walking into the Cherry Bean in Oldtown Salinas, former city councilmember Jyl Lutes is as effusive as ever. But the “former” in front of her title carries a sting a few weeks after she lost the seat she’d held for 18 years and wanted to keep.
On the night of Dec. 13, her successor, John “Tony” Villegas, was sworn into the District 6 seat, but the transition was not without hiccups – Villegas was 35 minutes late for his own ceremony. Over coffee the day after that council meeting, that fact make Lutes start with a chuckle and end with a cringe.
Lutes, a fifth-grade teacher at McKinnon Elementary School in Salinas, has seen the city go through a lot in her four-and-a-half terms on City Council. She reluctantly voted in favor of closing the Salinas libraries in 2004 during a budget crisis, and again made difficult decisions to cut back services and eliminate 135 positions to keep the city solvent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
But, her tenure wasn’t all doom and gloom: The libraries reopened and expanded, employees have been hired back and Oldtown – now called Salinas City Center – has gotten a facelift.
While she has lost her title, Lutes says her involvement in city politics is far from over. She says she plans to keep advocating for affordable housing and keeping pesticides away from schools.
Weekly: Cutting to the chase, why do you think you lost the election?
Lutes: I was outspent four-to-one. Villegas had two other councilmembers [Kimbley Craig and Steve McShane] speak out against me, and he had Don Chapin [a local construction business tycoon and PAC board member] pour lots of money into his campaign.
But what did damage was that his campaign undercut any substantial discussion on policy. He promised to fix the roads, he promised to hire more police. It’s easy to promise, but those promises show he really doesn’t know how government works.
What are the biggest issues Salinas must tackle going forward?
Affordable housing. I’m not sure if people really grasp the size of the problem. We’re a workforce town that provides the hospitality industry on the Monterey Peninsula with workers. Just look at rush hour traffic on Highway 68 and you can see the flow of people. As a city, Salinas has to do more, but we really have to look at this regionally. Peninsula cities and the hospitality industry are abdicating their responsibilities by not providing enough affordable housing and it’s Salinas that suffers.
What about gang violence?
The gang problem will never go away as long as we have two prisons 30 miles south of us.
As a politician and as an educator you’ve expressed concern about pesticides around schools. What needs to be done?
At my school we’re surrounded by ag land. Pesticides are applied by people wearing hazmat suits just 10 feet away from where children play – you bet I have concerns. It’s heartening to see there has been some progress with regulation that bans application of pesticides near schools during the day and the requirement of advanced notice.
What exactly does advanced notice do when they’re still applying poison near where kids play?
It raises awareness and it’s a step in the right direction.
What are your fondest memories from your time in office?
While closing the libraries was traumatic for the whole community, there was a lot of good that came out of it. We received an outpouring of support from across the country. We even received a $1,500 check from inmates at San Quentin. That’s an amazing sum for men who make 19 cents and hour while working inside the prison.
I went to the prison to accept the check and meet the inmates in the literacy group who supported us. I was nervous at first because many of them were convicted murderers. But it was a wonderful experience and I started traveling to San Quentin to work with the inmates every few months. I made a lot of friends who I’ve kept in touch with over the years. I’ve even had one man come and visit me for Thanksgiving after he was released.
Homelessness is a huge problem and it’s only getting worse. I wish I could take back my vote to ban camping on public property. It hasn’t helped the situation.