Riverside’s Ward 5 city candidates face off

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By: Erik Galicia

Things got tense at the Ward 5 city council debate on Oct. 9 when candidate Sean Mill accused his opponent Gabriela Plascencia of benefitting from Riverside’s pension obligations at the taxpayers’ expense.

“When two-thirds of my opponent’s money comes from the same special interests that are benefitting from those high pensions, take a guess who she’s going to be looking out for,” Mill told the crowd at Riverside’s Hunt Park Community Center. “It won’t be the taxpayers.”

Riverside’s budget officials expect the city’s pension liabilities to rise 45% by 2023, which may result in a “fiscal insolvency” for the city.

While rebutting his opponent’s defense of the city’s Measure Z tax, Mill criticized its implementation and called out Plascencia’s 50% meeting attendance record this year as a member of Riverside’s Budget Engagement Commission.

“Only one half of 1% of the money from Measure Z has gone to these quality of life issues like street repair and tree trimming,” Mill said. “So what the voters got was not what they were promised. And it was Mrs. Plascencia’s and the Budget Engagement Commission’s responsibility to oversee it. Perhaps if she showed up more than 50% of the time, she would do that.”

Mill provided the city clerk’s 2019 attendance record for the Budget Engagement Commission to prove his claims. Plascencia offered no rebuttal. 

According to Mill, Measure Z not only fails to alleviate the forecasted deficit, but is also being used to line the pockets “of the very people who paid to support the yes on Measure Z.”

“Over $22 million went back into the pockets of the folks, instead of to the services that we were supposed to get,” Mill said.

Plascencia suggested that Riverside is “not unique” to the situation of deficits regarding pension liabilities.

“Every institution, every business that has public employees (is) trying to figure out how they’re going to manage this,” Plascencia said. “We have set a trust that’s specifically there just to pay off the pension obligations.”

She insisted that Measure Z tax revenue has gone toward its intended use, such as paving streets, trimming trees and hiring more police officers.

“That’s what we’ve done with the tax dollars,” Plascencia said. “It was not initially intended to pay the pension obligations. I think the current council and other groups are working proactively to address this issue.”

Mill suggested that “nothing should be off the table” in addressing the matter.

“With $600 million in unfunded pension liabilities … we have to be willing to look at different compensation models going forward,” he said. 

According to Mill, Riverside may have to privatize some departments, such as waste management and street sweeping, in order to “remain financially viable.” Plascencia commented that showing a lack of gratitude for public employees is “a bad idea.”

Both candidates acknowledged homelessness as being the top safety concern of Ward 5 businesses and residents.

According to Plascencia, Riverside has 15 intern social workers in the field connecting homeless people to services. She proposed doubling that number.

Mill is proposing a six-point plan to deal with homelessness in Riverside that includes housing assistance, job training and stronger enforcement of trespassing and curfew laws to clear the city’s parks after dark. Although the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that a lack of affordable housing is indeed a leading cause of homelessness, Mill called this a “false narrative” and argued that it is a problem of addiction. 

“We can’t pick and choose who is going to be arrested for certain crimes,” Mill said about drug use in public parks. “ I’m pretty sure that if I went out into the park and did a lot of these things, I’d be cuffed up. But we turn a blind eye and normalize the antisocial behavior of others.”

Anna Martinez, a homeless woman who sleeps at Hunt Park, explained that she stays at the park because she feels safer there at night than anywhere else.

 “It’s not fair to us,” Martinez said. “I would like to see them put themselves in our shoes for 24 hours.”

Martinez was among a group of homeless people in the park that claims code enforcement has taken their belongings away in garbage trucks.

“Code enforcement is really f—— with us,” said Martinez’s brother Pete. “They come by and take our clothes and blankets away. They’ve thrown my bike in the trash.”

Several in the group claimed that code enforcement has taken away their cell phones and legal documents, such as IDs and birth certificates.

Mill’s plan to tackle homlessness also includes mandatory participation “in an effective substance abuse and recovery program,” a requirement that Pete agreed with.

“It’s really up to us to want the help,” he said. “You can help me with this and that, but if I don’t follow through, it’s useless.”

Mill responded to the case of Anna Martinez by suggesting that Riverside already has the services she needs.

“I know they are humans,” Mill said. “I talk to them every night. But they are not starving for services. We have the services in this city to place them into housing, especially for a single woman.”

Plascencia, who holds the support of the city’s law enforcement unions, argued the effectiveness of Measure Z in increasing police presence and keeping Riverside safe. 

She also claimed that many of the homeless people in the city are not originally from Riverside, but end up staying upon their release from jail. Plascencia suggested they should be returned to their place of origin when released “so that they are not absorbing Riverside’s resources.”

Both candidates commented on the progress the city has made in partnering with California Baptist University and urged the continuation of those collaborations. 

Mill promoted a small government approach to attracting businesses to Riverside.

“The best thing that we can do is get out of the way of our small businesses and make things easier for them,” Mill said. “City Hall has to get out of the way. You have to cut the red tape, you have to cut the regulations and allow our businesses to flourish.”

Plascencia argued that the city should continue to provide incentives to attract businesses.

“The businesses that I have talked to have felt that the city has taken the appropriate steps … to make it easier for them to bring businesses to the community,” Plascencia said.

After the forum, several attendees confronted Plascencia on her claims that Ward 5 residents had the opportunity to voice their opposition to the St. Michael’s Project, a 49-unit apartment complex approved by the city council in May to combat housing insecurity.

Ward 5 resident Janice Schuler argued that the project will be a “revolving door” for the homeless. 

“We’re trying to stop it,” Schuler said. “Across the street from the park with schools around is not the ideal place.”

Norco College outreach specialist Desiree Rivera called Mill’s mentioning of Plascencia’s meeting attendance record “ridiculous.”

“He doesn’t serve on non-profits so he doesn’t know the level of participation it requires,” Rivera said. “I feel Gaby (Plascencia) held herself with integrity and addressed the real issues that pertain to this community.”

The election will be held Nov. 5.

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