For the first time in 20 years, California voters heard from two brand-new mayor candidates in a forum Monday night.
With longtime mayor Norris Gerhart stepping away from the role, Moniteau County Sheriff's deputy Aaron Bishop and oil and gas industry retiree Rich Green are on the ballot for the upcoming April 6 municipal election. California voters had the opportunity to submit questions for the pair to answer in Monday's forum, which was jointly sponsored by Moniteau County's Republican and Democrat Clubs.
Before they began taking questions, Bishop and Green had the opportunity to introduce themselves to the audience present at the Finke Theatre and those viewing the event livestream via Facebook Live.
Bishop emphasized his time in law enforcement and military service as a marine. Bishop grew up in California and has stayed in the community for a large portion of his life. He also focused some of his personal introduction on some of the stories he's heard from city workers regarding some of the issues they've faced.
"I share these stories and I stand up here tonight because I believe our city workers, our citizens, need better support from their leadership," Bishop said.
Green informed Monday's attendees about his career background, which has taken him from longer stays living in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas, to overseas and eventually to California full-time. He expressed that since choosing to place roots in the community, he and his wife, Pam, have placed their focus on bettering California however they can.
"Any good cause that's been out there, we tried to get involved," Green said. "If you try to live someplace, we want to be some of the people that help that place. The reason I'm running for mayor is to help the city. I want to do whatever I can, to the best of my ability, to make this a better place to live, a better place for kids, a better place for the citizens of this town."
The first audience question asked of both candidates was how they will communicate with citizens. Bishop expressed he would emphasize transparency, moving to livestream city council meetings so they are more easily-accessible for citizens who may be unable to attend in person. Green said, if elected, he would set daily office hours to make sure he is as available as possible for those who might want to speak with him about any issue.
Then, Bishop was asked if he felt there was any conflict of interest at play were he to be elected mayor since he already serves with the sheriff's department. Bishop disagreed.
"I would actually disagree with that, that in order to be a leader I think you need to be a servant first," Bishop said. "I serve the community each and every day when I put on that badge and that uniform and go out answering calls for service here in California, so I'm not sure what kind of conflict there would be. If anything, our law enforcement would have even more support than they have with the current administration."
Green, in response, said he thought such a case could indeed potentially introduce a conflict of interest depending on the person, but it was hard to tell in advance.
The next question referenced one of Bishop's Facebook posts, asking how he thought he would be able to add raises for city employees and new amenities in California while "trimming the fat" of the city budget. Bishop said rather than "trimming the fat," he phrased his concern as "ceasing wasteful spending," citing an expense for laptops for the California Police Department that far outnumbered the CPD's current amount of employees as one example.
Green, meanwhile, expressed he didn't see Bishop's example, nor any other aspects of the city budget, as representative of wasteful spending.
Next, the candidates were asked how they'd support small businesses in the community.
"Small businesses are the heartbeat of our community, and I think in order to support small business, small businesses obviously need customers to survive; they need the population," Bishop said.
Bishop stated California has lost population at a rate of 0.5 percent throughout the past three years, countering a point that Green made throughout the evening regarding California's inevitable future growth. Bishop said the city should be focusing on changes that bring more people to live in the community to patronize its businesses.
Green, meanwhile, said he's been speaking with business owners in the community talking with them about what they think should be added as far as community amenities. Both candidates expressed continuous support for ideas like a community youth center throughout the night.
A major point of discussion on the night was the recent conflict with the CPD; the next question posed asked whether either candidate would be transparent if evidence of criminal activity on behalf of current CPD employees exists and is withheld from the public due to attorney-client privilege, or would choose to "pretend it doesn't exist." Green, answering first, said he doesn't think there was any criminal activity but will "stomp it out" if it turns out there is and that the facts would come out. He cited the report presented to the city by Gary Kempker, who offered recommendations for ways the department could be better run, as a wise move.
Bishop, speaking in turn, encouraged the public to compare Kempker's reports to the allegations posed by former CPD officers as to wrongdoing and come to their own conclusions as to whether any accusations are untrue. Bishop said he plans on being fully transparent about the issue, if elected.
Both candidates, throughout the night, were adamant about improving the situation at the CPD, stating they would each plan to quickly address the issue of hiring more staff, in particular.
Along the same lines, the candidates were also asked if they planned to address current CPD Chief Daniel Hurt's lack of experience; both candidates said Hurt was a good man but disagreed regarding whether his level of experience played a role in what's happened at the police department recently. Green said he thought Hurt could benefit from further training but cited an extended illness as more to blame.
Bishop, meanwhile, said "what happens in a workplace is reflective of its leadership."
Both candidates were also asked what they'd do to make California a "destination."
Green said he would focus on expanding business, restaurants and retail, and adding housing and tourist attractions. Green also floated the idea of adding another large-scale festival to the community similar to the California Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Ozark Ham & Turkey Festival.
"We need to do a better job of advertising what we have," Green said. "We need to be on the radar for people that want to put their businesses in; we need to expand industry and jobs, and we need to expand housing for people. And we need to expand city infrastructure to handle that."
Bishop, meanwhile, said he thinks there are a lot of things already in the community that people would stop and see. He agreed with Green's assessment regarding a potential additional festival-type event and also shared an idea for a city ballpark facility that could bring in money from visiting fans of teams in town to play California's recreational teams.
Both candidates were later asked about what they'd do to improve the city's financial position. Green said he'd look at where the city does and doesn't make money, finding ways to improve in those areas. Encouraging business growth was again a focus, he said.
"I want to listen, that's what I want to do I want to know what's going on, so that I can fix, if necessary, anything within the powers of the mayor," Green said.
Bishop said he'd focus on reallocating funding, looking at the city budget down to each line item and reviewing it with the city's Board of Aldermen.
Other questions throughout the evening asked the candidates about their management styles, their community involvement and the most important things in their lives. The forum's final question, though, asked each candidate what California's best attribute is.
Green said it's California's people.
"There's good folks here; there's good folks in city government here, there's good people as aldermen in this town, there's good supervisors in this town, and there's good people in this town," Green said. "We have a terrific young bunch of entrepreneurs in this town that need to be encouraged in every way the city can."
Bishop said he agreed with Green and thought the small-town community atmosphere — the safety of the community, its school system and the community's small businesses — was California's best quality, something he cited as the reason he is here today.
"We have to make sure these things not only continue, but do not degrade and actually get better," Bishop said.