By MEADE FISCHER
Published March 22, 2012
The March 22 City Council meeting had really one item, replacing Councilman Manuel Bersamin, who had announced he was leaving after nine years due to personal family commitments; who the replacement was going to be was never really in question — Felipe Hernandez was picked over Mary Corley.
Though his resignation was filed, it was determined by the city that Bersamin would be able to vote on his replacement. Bersamin, part of a solid council majority, was a vocal supporter of Hernandez, and would practically be able to name his replacement. This follows the same practice that was adhered to after former Mayor Luis Alejo left the council in 2010 to become state Assemblyman.
Councilman Emilio Martinez challenged the process then, filing suit, but was not able to stop Alejo. Martinez was absent from this meeting, along with Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich, and the assumption was that was in protest against the appointment process.
Members of the community were split on the issue. Letters were sent by both Nick and Ilia Buliach, who objected to the practice of the outgoing member voting on the replacement, citing legal precedents against this practice. The other letters from Javier Gomez and Ramon Gomez were in support of Felipe Hernandez.
To open the proceedings, a representative from Alejo’s office presented a very large plaque to Bersamin, followed by a more modest plaque presented by mayor Montesino.
Nearly a dozen people showed up to speak in favor of Hernandez. The only other comments from the public were from Ilia Buliach and another gentleman, who identified himself as multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and both objected strongly to Bersamin being allowed to vote on the matter.
Corley and Hernandez were seated at the staff tables and were asked a series of questions by the council members. Lowell Hurst asked both “Why are you interested in serving on the council?” They both indicated their commitment to public service, with Corley saying “It was time to give back,” and Hernandez citing his service on the planning commission and that he was bilingual. He also mentioned that his mother was involved in the cannery strike in the ’80s, apparently showing a family history of activism.
Daniel Dodge asked “What do you perceive as major issues in next five years?”
Hernandez replied, “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” and explained that he wants Watsonville residents in Watsonville jobs and a better quality of life for residents. Corley agreed that the major issue is jobs, and expressed concern that the “Enterprise zones are expiring next month.”
“Jobs affect housing; our housing is horrible,” he said.
Bersamin asked what they would do on a major issue with no public support.
Corley said he would go out and get public input, and Hernandez said that for a major issue advantageous to entire city, he would call a meeting to address opposition and have open discussions.
Councilman Oscar Rios asked about affordable housing, with both men naturally supporting the idea.
Mayor Eduardo Montesino had a question about the plight of downtown, and Corley said, “We need to be able to drive people to downtown Watsonville.” Hernandez emphasized public art, the farmer’s market and cooperation with local businesses.
From answers to the fairly general questions asked by the council, it sounded as if the issue of jobs was the top priority of both candidates. Both said they would be running for the office in November.
At least a dozen people came up for the public input. Many folks with connection to the Watsonville Brown Berets spoke on his behalf, including Assemblymember Alejo, who left a cell message in support, his brother Tom Alejo, who he said Hernandez was very intelligent, a hard worker, never missed a meeting and had expertise as an organizer.
“This is a watershed moment,” Hurst said. “I wish there were two seats available.”
Eventually, it was moved and seconded to appoint Hernandez and the vote was unanimous. The meeting ended with a closing statement from Bersamin, where he talked about his years of service to the city.