Choices for council: Four candidates vie for two seats in Nevada City | TheUnion.com

Choices for council: Four candidates vie for two seats in Nevada City

It has been more than a decade since Nevada City voters had the opportunity to choose a candidate for city council. All of the current council members won their seats in uncontested elections.

But this June, incumbents Duane Strawser and Evans Phelps are facing a challenge, or two, to be precise — Pauli Halstead and Erin Minett. The two top vote-getters will serve four years on the five-person council and will take office in July.

In the next few years, Nevada City's council will continue to grapple with affordable housing, homelessness, Nevada City's Sphere of Influence and permitting cannabis businesses.

Pauli Halstead

Halstead has been a vocal proponent of homeless services in Nevada City, and served on the board of Sierra Roots. From 2015 to 2017, she operated Streicher House, providing free food, showers and clothing during the daytime for its homeless clients.

Halstead said she is not just a homeless advocate, however — she is a community advocate. She makes clear, though, that the lack of affordable housing is a priority for her, and the main reason she decided to run for office.

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"I became frustrated that we were not getting any housing built, in all income categories — workforce housing, affordable housing for the teachers, the people who man the cash registers," Halstead said. "If we want a solution to homelessness, we have to address housing. I haven't seen the council be proactive (on this issue)."

In Halstead's view, Nevada City has the tools to mandate affordable housing — including an ordinance that calls for 30 percent of all homes located in new subdivisions to be affordable to moderate-and-below-moderate-income households. But it does not use them, allowing two recent developments to use "affordable by design" plans instead.

"If I get on the council, I want to make sure this doesn't happen again," Halstead said. "Everyone has to play ball. That's my main thing."

The possible development of the HEW property on Willow Valley Road, which neighbors have opposed as higher-density housing there, is likely to be an issue for Nevada City. Halstead said the development needs to pencil out financially for the owner, Bill Litchfield, and decried potential NIMBYism that could derail the project.

"We have to do it somewhere," she said. "We all have to give in a little bit — it's a trade-off."

Halstead said managing the city's budget would be a priority.

"Everybody is concerned about infrastructure and budgetary constraints," she said, noting old sewer and water systems in some parts of the city. "We need to make sure public works has the money they need."

Halstead said she would be open to exploring potential avenues for consolidation of city services — possibly combining the positions of public works director and city engineer, and merging with Grass Valley's police department.

Halstead is bullish on cannabis businesses opening in Nevada City.

"I don't see why everybody is so afraid," she said. "It will be totally regulated. … It's not going to change the character of the town."

Halstead points to Shasta Lake, a town about the same size as Nevada City, which currently has three dispensaries.

"They're happy, it's going well," she said.

Halstead said she has been impressed with the wave of cannabis entrepreneurs that have come to town, saying, "They're going to do an excellent job — let them do it! I'm glad to see Nevada City is paving the way (in the county). I think it will go much better than people expect."

Erin Minett

Minett, another newcomer to city politics, said that it was feeling like an outsider that led her to run.

"What fired me up was not being responded to by the city with my issues, and the issues my neighbors were having — and not getting things handled in my neighborhood," she said.

She began talking to other residents and found that while the issues weren't always the same, the response — or lack thereof — was.

"It was irritating," Minett said. "We all pay our property taxes, and we get ignored. Too much attention seems to be paid to the historical downtown and to tourism."

Minett said that when she moved to Nevada City 26 years ago, the town felt like much more of a community, with many more young families.

"There used to be kids in my neighborhood," she said. "I miss that."

Nevada City has lost its small-town feel, she said, adding, "For such a small town, that's not good."

When she started this process, she said, she only knew the issues in her own neighborhood. But after going door to door, she learned of other problems that need to be addressed, like traffic and crime.

And that's why it's a good time to switch the council up a bit, Minett said. When there is not a contested election, the council members end up volunteering, and don't really know what is going on around town, she said.

"I'm one of these people who's like, let's get this done," Minett said. "Does government have to be that slow? I like to find solutions and get things done."

Minett hopes the cannabis businesses already permitted will bring in some much-needed revenue to Nevada City. But she doesn't want to see too many.

"We don't need to become the marijuana capital of Nevada County," she said. "That would change who we are."

Like the other candidates, Minett said affordable housing is a major issue. And like Halstead, she complains that Nevada City has not implemented its housing ordinance.

"We don't know if it works," she said, adding, "It's better than nothing."

Minett would be opposed to high-density housing on the HEW property, she said.

"I don't want to see 200 units there," she said. "How many cars is that a day? Look at those roads. It would completely change the demeanor of the neighborhoods."

Minett argued that does not make her, or the property's neighbors, NIMBYs.

"I hate it when they call us (that)," she said. "What it is, is let's work it out so everybody is heard and we come up with a situation that works."

Minett sees the need for balance, saying it's important not to "Roseville" Nevada City.

"We can do better for people who need housing, for the community we are," she said. "These aren't easy decisions. It would be great if I could say I have the answers."

Evans Phelps

Phelps said she always intended to run again from the minute she was first elected.

She knew it would take at least a few years to understand the issues facing the city, she said.

"And government works so slow," she said. "I knew from the beginning I would likely do two terms, if the voters wanted me."

There will be no third term, she said, citing the "burnout" factor.

From Phelps' perspective, all of the candidates for city council have the same agenda — mostly.

"We're looking out for Nevada City," she said.

But if the voters want someone with experience, who can start strong from the get-go, Phelps said she has the advantage as an incumbent.

"I try my damnedest to be responsive to any communication from the community," Phelps said. "I try to look at the big picture. What do we want Nevada City to look like in 20 years? Can we find ways for our children to work and live here? It's easy to get absorbed in the daily dramas. We need, very much, to think in the long term."

Like the other candidates, Phelps focuses on the need for housing.

There is little room in Nevada City in which to place any new development, she said.

"Our physical dimensions are very well-defined and 85 percent is already developed," she said.

Phelps argues that accessory dwelling units are the only workable solution, and advocated to loosen restrictions on those.

Nevada City doesn't want gated communities or apartment complexes, she said. She was not specific about what kind of development she would support on the HEW property, saying it is up to the developer to come up with a workable plan. She noted, however, that the proposed development could be a big battle with the potential for a costly and time-consuming lawsuit.

Phelps said there is no possibility the old airport property, which is zoned public, could be used for housing. She personally paid for a $10,000 solar farm feasibility study, she said.

"We could produce enough solar power to provide the residents of Nevada City with their electricity," Phelps said, adding such a project would have to share the property with recreational uses.

Phelps calls herself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, saying the city needs to concern itself with fiscal realities.

She thinks Measure F, the cannabis tax, will produce much-needed revenue for town.

"I definitely have been more pro-cannabis than Duane (Strawser)," Phelps said. "The other (candidates) say they're pro-cannabis. We'll see what happens when they get pressure."

While she agreed that eliminating Nevada City's police and fire departments are legitimate discussions, she thinks the residents would be "overwhelmingly" opposed.

"The citizens will pay for them to maintain their independence" as a city, Phelps said. "I feel fortunate we can make our own decisions."

Duane Strawser

Strawser, who has owned Tour of Nevada City since 1996, said that after he bought the bike shop, he had a hard time figuring out who could help him as a small business owner. When he reached out to Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Whittlesey, she told him to run for the chamber board — so he did. Strawser ended up serving as president of board for three terms, he said.

Then, he said, City Manager Gene Albaugh encouraged him to run for city council in 2010.

"I was busy," Strawser acknowledged. "But I always thought, don't complain if you're not going to step up to change things."

It's true that he did not face any opposition on election day in 2010 and when he ran again in 2014. But that was not the case initially, Strawser said. More than one person threw their hat in the ring, but backed out when they saw how much time and effort it takes to be an active, engaged council member, he said.

Strawser noted the other three candidates are retired, and said he is concerned about the lack of elected experience on the part of Halstead and Minett.

"They think they can give the time," he said. "We'll see."

Strawser said his years on the chamber board taught him politics "the hard way — on the job."

He said he already was volunteering on a number of events, was a business owner and the parent of school children. And, he said, his roots in Nevada County have made him "passionate and vested in keeping this a cool place to live."

Strawser said he initially was not going to run again this year, saying it is still a sore point for his family.

"I promised I wouldn't," he said. "My wife has given up a lot."

But, he said, there were some important issues he didn't want to leave dangling, such as the county courthouse. The renovation of the courthouse was put on indefinite delay by the state in 2013.

"It's a big part of our dollars in town," Strawser said. "It's crucial, and people have forgotten about it,"

Affordable housing is also crucial to the future of Nevada City — and is coming to a tipping point as well.

"It's directly tied to the homeless topic and to the employment issue," Strawser said. "How can Nevada City attract new business with no housing inventory?"

Strawser said the HEW property should have been developed years ago, adding, "We have to look at the long-term health of the community. It truly is a NIMBY situation. We need to be proactive."

And as for cannabis businesses, Strawser said, he said he felt the need for the council to throw up some "road bumps."

"As we embrace it, we need to do it in baby steps," he said. "Let it integrate into the community."

In their words

Pauli Halstead

Q: What do you view as the most pressing issue facing Nevada City?

A: Nevada City is facing a critical housing shortage for its work force, seniors, students, and also our impoverished residents who can little afford housing. We must use every means possible, as outlined in the Nevada City Housing Element, to reduce fees and make the permitting process as efficient as possible.

Q: What makes you the best candidate for the job?

A: I bring over 40 years of business management experience, (from owning a San Francisco restaurant and Napa/Sonoma catering business), to the job of the City Council. Working with people is what I have done all my life. Being a good researcher I am also skilled at implementing solutions.

Q: How do you address the needs of Nevada City's residents with a limited budget?

A: If we don't manage the limited budget we have, we will not be able to hire and keep professional City staff (police, fire, and public works). The budget has to allocate sufficient funds to Public Works or we will not have the means to repair our aging infrastructure. The residents of Nevada City must have confidence in how the budget is managed, transparency is key.

Erin Minett

Q: What do you view as the most pressing issue facing Nevada City?

A: The nuts and bolts of providing services to city residents within our budget and a receptive City Hall are part of my overall concern that neighborhoods be represented more on the Council. My friends and neighbors are talking about their water bills, police services, fire dangers, traffic issues and parking. Better communications with City Hall on these day-to-day issues. Affordable housing that is compatible with our existing neighborhoods.

Q: What makes you the best candidate for the job?

A: I will be a new voice on the city council. It is time to return a balance of business interests with neighborhood concerns on the council. I have demonstrated this ability from experience on neighborhood issues and community concerns having volunteered for many community groups for 25 years. I will provide balance to the City Council as a clear neighborhood advocate, which is my only "special interest group."

Q: How do you address the needs of Nevada City's residents with a limited budget?

A: Stay within the budget. Taxpayers have approved three sales tax increases in recent years, yet the City Council bought a house in Pioneer Park for over $400,000 without the funds. As a result, city expenses exceeded revenues by almost half a million dollars last year. We don't need luxuries, just solid city services.

Evans Phelps

Q: What do you view as the most pressing issue facing Nevada City?

A: I think the most immediate issue is the increase in homeless individuals now in our community. We need the county to develop the political will to tackle this problem. We need Grass Valley not to turn homelessness into a felony offense. We, the government, have to take the lead, not leave it to overextended volunteer organizations.

Q: What makes you the best candidate for the job?

A: I have 16 years experience working in Nevada City government. I have the energy and stamina to tackle the issues and I can take the heat from those who disagree. But I have the wisdom to listen to others and realize sometimes compromise is the best solution.

Q: How do you address the needs of Nevada City's residents with a limited budget?

A: We stretch every dollar spent in Nevada City. We rely on residents and volunteers to help fill in the gaps. We love our little city and we value the independence we have to make our own decisions. We are the little engine that could.

Duane Strawser

Q: What do you view as the most pressing issue facing Nevada City?

A; The top item has to be tackling the affordable or achievable housing crisis. Most issues we deal with at the City (as well as County) level is tied to affordable housing in one way or another. Many of the homeless individuals we deal with are in that situation because they can't afford, or even find an affordable housing option, and many other lower income citizens are one step away from becoming homeless because of it. If our minimum wage employees can't afford to live here, they'll go elsewhere. When, not if, that happens we'll have an employment shortage that hurts our local merchants' ability to keep their doors open. It becomes a no-win situation that starts a negative economic downward spiral.

Q: What makes you the best candidate for the job?

A: I've always tried to treat every citizen I represent fairly and respectfully, and have always made the time to meet with our local residents in person when they have an issues to deal with. As a local business owner with 13 years of experience on the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and eight years on City Council (two terms as mayor). I have an intimate knowledge of all of our departments needs.

Q: How do you address the needs of Nevada City's residents with a limited budget?

A: First of all, you have to have an intimate knowledge of how budgets work, especially at the municipality level. We have to be creative on a daily basis, and work with our amazing staff to stretch more out of their talents that any single employee should have to do. By understanding our budget limitations and thinking out of the box, we have been able to balance our budget and continue to provide equal if not additional quality of life services to our residents than that of other cities with 10 times our annual budget.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

By the numbers

Pauli Halstead

Jan. 1 through April 21: Raised: $1,624, spent $1,039, has $585

Erin Minett

Jan. 1 through April 21: Raised: $2,992, spent: $2,725, has $267

Evans Phelps

Jan. 1 through April 21: Raised: $0

Duane Strawser

Jan. 1 through April 21: Raised: $0

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