PINOLE -- In a recent City Council candidates forum here, challenger Ivette Ricco presented herself as the answer to the political and commercial "status quo" and as an alternative to incumbents whom she depicted as out of touch with residents' concerns.
Councilman Roy Swearingen and Mayor Peter Murray, meanwhile, portrayed Ricco as someone who takes credit for other people's work and ideas.
The three candidates vying for two council seats Nov. 6 met in a debate in the City Council chamber sponsored by Common Cause and moderated by Contra Costa Times political editor Lisa Vorderbrueggen. The debate can be viewed on the city website at www.ci.pinole.ca.us by clicking on the videos online icon.
Swearingen is a semiretired construction consultant who served a term on the council in the late 1980s but did not run again until 2008. Murray, on the council since 1992, is business development director for Contra Costa Electric Co. in Martinez.
Ricco, a retired businesswoman who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2008, is a former Pinole Chamber of Commerce executive director and, until earlier this year, president.
Swearingen and Murray spoke about the city's financial straits of the past four years, during which it cut the budget and salaries and laid off more than 30 percent of the city's staff.
Ricco said the city needs leaders who can reach out and form partnerships and do more to attract businesses. She proposes business improvement districts along three corridors: Appian Way, San Pablo Avenue south of Appian Way and Old Town Pinole. The incumbents cautioned that the concept can be hard to sell to small businesses, noting that the council created an assessment district along Pinole Valley Road that exempted businesses below a certain size threshold.
Murray also challenged Ricco over an article on business improvement districts on her website purporting to be "by Ivette Ricco," saying it was someone else's copyrighted material. Ricco argued that links to other sites made it obvious she was not claiming authorship but nevertheless promised to make the correction expeditiously.
The incumbents disagreed with Ricco's claim that the city has done little to attract business, noting that despite the lousy economy, new stores such as Trader Joe's, Burlington Coat Factory and several eateries have opened and the Pinole Valley Shopping Center has been redeveloped.
All three support Measure M, an eight-year extension of the city's 8 percent Utility User Tax on the Nov. 6 ballot that pumps just over $2 million a year into the city's general fund. All three agreed that residents want to keep their city fire and police departments but that consolidation with other agencies could still be discussed in the future.
They also agreed it would be nice to reopen the Pinole Valley Fire station -- if $1.3 million a year could be found. Swearingen suggested looking at putting a $50-a-year parcel tax on the ballot to raise $400,000 a year, and a $75 charge for emergency medical calls.
Ricco, noting that Swearingen and Murray get a council salary of $250 a month plus benefits, said she would serve for free if elected.
The candidates agreed that the Interstate 80 Integrated Corridor Mobility project will help Pinole. The incumbents noted that Pinole extracted several concessions from the state, including promises of warning and traffic-calming devices, measures to prevent backup on city streets and other safety features.
They disagreed whether the city could cut the budget further, with a standby Plan B budget in case Measure M does not pass. The incumbents said the budget is down to bare bones; Ricco said there may be more fat yet to cut.
Asked about the performance of City Manager Belinda Espinosa, the two incumbents praised her, while Ricco said she could not make a judgment at this time.
Earlier, Ricco had criticized Espinosa's "evergreen" contract clause and what she characterized as a $260,000-a-year salary. According to this newspaper's Public Employees Salaries database compiled from public records, in 2011, Espinosa got a base salary of $179,451; the total cost to the city of her salary, miscellaneous pay and benefits that year was $217,021.
Swearingen said that some of the actions Ricco takes credit for were community efforts subsidized by the city in which she took part, including the creation of the Community Corner in Old Town and keeping the Swim Center open this year. A Business Expo held by the Chamber of Commerce was subsidized with city money for three years, Swearingen noted.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.