Candidates debate plans, zoning, jobs

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The eight candidates vying to be the next leaders of the city of Belen gathered Tuesday for a forum hosted by the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce.

The participants included the two candidates for mayor, Jerah Cordova and Wayne Gallegos, both current city councilors; the three candidates for two council seats, Darleen Aragon, Frank Ortega and Audrey Vallejos, a current city councilor; and three running for municipal judge, Gilbert Garcia, Kathy Savilla, the current judge, and Ernest "Benji" Torres.

The mayoral and council candidates spoke about everything from the city's outdated land-use plan to boarded-up buildings to economic development, while the judicial candidates talked about maximum penalties, community outreach and scheduling.

The first question posed to the mayoral and council candidates asked what they would do to update the city's current land-use plan, which is 10 years old.

Gallegos said the city has to update four different plans, most of which has to begin with the city's planning and zoning commission. He said while the city is in a carrot-and-stick situation for funding, since it must come up with matching funds to complete the plans, city officials are currently working on updating its comprehensive and land-use plans.

Cordova said the city has been looking at updating its plans within the last few months. He agreed that funding was an issue, but that the city is moving forward.

"It's a matter of priority," Cordova said. "The downtown master plan is underway and in relevant stages."

Vallejos, who was appointed to the council eight months ago, agreed with both Gallegos and Cordova, saying she is keeping in touch with city officials, making sure that all four plans, including the land-use, comprehensive, downtown and strategic plans are a priority.

"Funding is very difficult right now; matching those funds is difficult" Vallejos said. "But the city does need to do this in order to move forward."

Saying the master plan is the most important thing the city needs to focus on at this time, Ortega pointed out that it is the responsibility of the city manager to take the lead. He also said the city manager is responsible for looking for grants to help fund the plan.

Aragon said the city council, mayor and administration all have to "work together as a team" in order to make sure all four plans are updated. She said the village of Los Lunas has been successful in acquiring grant money and suggested that the city learn from other municipalities about the best way to secure funding.

The next question asked of the candidates dealt with how they would handle the "blighted community," which includes boarded-up buildings.

Ortega said the city has to make sure they have someone who will enforce the ordinances already on the books, make sure citations are issued and then enforcement in the municipal court.

"I think this will make people listen," he said. "We need to make sure people follow our ordinances."

Vallejos said the city does have an ordinance dealing with abandoned buildings and that the city has been issuing citations. She admitted that there are "quite a few neighborhoods" in the city that have become a problem.

Cordova said under the city's abatement properties ordinance, property owners have one year to inform the city what they plan to do with their abandoned building.

He mentioned that the city does have an ordinance that would allow for demolition of structurally unsound buildings, whether it be a residence or a commercial property.

Gallegos said he has helped the city implement the international property code policy, which he says is a good tool for the city.

"We have trash and weeds, but with this code book, planning and zoning now has a tool to deal with this," Gallegos said. "We also have a vacant and foreclosed structure code which means you have to register vacant buildings."

Aragon agreed that it is a problem in the city, saying nothing seems to be getting done.

"We live by a trailer park and we're always calling the police," she said. "There needs to be more enforcement. But we do need to be careful because of the historic buildings. We need to try and get these grants to help the owners rehabilitate these properties. It's part of the city's charm."

The candidates were also asked how they plan to encourage new business and investment in Belen.

Vallejos said "I love Belen; it's a diamond in the rough. We need to be more attractive, we need to clean up the streets."

She said everyone has to become involved by taking pride in the city, while shopping local to increase the gross receipts taxes. She also said the city needs to improve the roads and the lighting.

Ortega said the first step to improve the city's economic development is to first update its master plan and recruiting ideas from the community. He said by working with the local chambers of commerce and not ignoring the needs of small businesses, they could increase employment opportunities.

Aragon suggested that the city work closer with BNSF and hopes a hospital would attract the aging Baby Boomer population to the city. She also said the city needs to increase tourism to the Hub City by utilizing the attractions, such as the Belen Harvey House Museum and the Belen Art League Gallery.

"Belen is the city, and we are the Hub City. Los Lunas is still a village," Gallegos joked. "But we can't continue to go on with blinders on. They've grown into a big-box type of city. We're different and I'm very proud of that."

Gallegos said while he'd like the city to grow, he's concerned that the city's infrastructure is not ready.

Cordova agreed that Los Lunas is "the franchise city" and Belen is "the small-business city." He said planning is important, and that Belen's current attractions, such as the museum, airport, proposed hospital, the industrial park and the possible railroad expansion will help the city.

"We need to bring jobs to this community," Cordova said. "We also need to ensure that we understand our assets."

The candidates for judge were asked a series of questions, beginning with how they feel about maximum penalties for scofflaws.

Savilla said while she doesn't use the maximum penalties all of the time, she tries to adjudicate corrective punishment for repeat offenders.

"Jail time is a cost for our city," Savilla said. "We work toward restoring positive behavior."

Garcia said he feels strongly that repeat offenders have to be held responsible for their crimes. He said he believes in restorative justice, an approach to justice focusing on the needs of the victims, the offenders and the community, rather than simple punishment.

Torres said he "totally agrees with the maximum penalty for repeat offenders," but also believes in alternative sentencing.

"If we can help them with community services, then I think it would be best for them," he said.

When asked if the court would be interested in conducting free legal workshops to help educate the community, Torres said he would try to establish trust in the court.

"Right now, we have a major problem of crime in the city," he said. "Fortunately, we can help by punishing repeat offenders for the safety of the community."

Savilla, who has been municipal judge for 12 years, said as a judge, she is not allowed to give legal advice because she is not an attorney. She did say, however, she has helped guide people through the city's ordinances.

Garcia said planning is important because people need to feel safe in the community.

"People don't feel all that safe," Garcia said. "We need to have an open dialogue with the police chief and city council and be on the same page."


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.