Voters will choose from three candidates to fill two Grass Valley seats (VIDEO) |

Voters will choose from three candidates to fill two Grass Valley seats (VIDEO)

Grass Valley city council candidates Ben Aguilar (from left) Bob Branstrom, and Hilary Hodge answered questions from the media and the community during a League of Women's Voters Forum last month. The three candidates are vying for two available council seats.
Photo Illustration by Elias Funez/

Candidate Q&A

Why is this race important? Why should people vote for you over the other candidates?

AGUILAR: This race is important for many reasons. Besides the basic everyday services our city provides; (water, sewer, police and fire protection, safe roads and sidewalks) city council members create policy that pertains to development, city improvements, recreation, and city growth. Council members work closely with various nonprofits, such as the Hospitality House who help the homeless and the Center for the Arts who are a huge economic driver for our community. Council members also work with city staff and developers to ensure that projects coming through the application process benefit our city and way of life. With my experience of having a small business in the City of Grass Valley, my experience on the Planning Commission and City Council, I am the most qualified candidate to continue the forward progress and momentum Grass Valley is currently experiencing.

BRANSTROM: Grass Valley has slowly and painfully weathered the financial crisis of 2008. Our local economy is improving and the people of Grass Valley have decided to invest in our community with the recently passed Measure E. We can now address the issues that face us and improve life here for both residents and businesses. Grass Valley needs City Council members who can bring our community together and provide responsible solutions as we move forward. I believe I am that person.

I bring a depth and breadth of experience that would benefit Grass Valley. With six years working in government, 10 years in the banking industry, and 10 years in the healthcare industry, I understand the important roles that both government and business play. My experience as a research analyst and a financial analyst gave me an excellent understanding of information systems and finance. In short, I’m a problem solver.

I’ve been an active volunteer in our community, where I’ve learned about the everyday issues facing people here. I’ve also regularly attended Grass Valley City Council, Nevada Irrigation District, and Economic Resource Council meetings, where I have met many of our community leaders and heard their concerns. My education includes two degrees in economics, giving me a good understanding of how our economy works. I am a financial conservative, committed to being a good steward of our tax dollars. Last, and certainly not least, my life has taught me to be more compassionate and understanding of others whose life experiences differ from my own.

HODGE: I’m the new leadership that Grass Valley needs right now. As someone who has worked on the ground with our small business owners and local entrepreneurs, I understand economic development in Grass Valley. I understand the economy and how it is changing. The Grass Valley City Council is the governing body of the largest city in Western Nevada County and will be largely responsible for the direction our community takes when it comes to the future of jobs, housing and economic development. We need someone who understands the big picture and who will work for our community and Grass Valley’s future. We need inspired leadership at all levels of government. As someone who has worked closely with leaders in Sacramento, I have the relationships and the expertise to ensure smart growth while maintaining our small town charm and retaining our community’s environmental beauty.

What are the top issues facing the council?

AGUILAR: Important issues our city is currently facing include homelessness, fire danger, adequate housing (for a variety of incomes) and the unfunded PERS liability. The City of Grass Valley is currently collaborating with various nonprofits, such as the Hospitality House, Divine Spark, Sierra Roots, and the Police and Fire Departments to help the affected homeless. By targeting an individual’s specific issue (substance abuse, mental health, unemployment, etc.) we can connect them to a specific service agency or nonprofit to treat the root of the problem. The City has also collaborated with property owners to mitigate fire dangers (clearing brush) of certain properties within and adjacent to the city to lessen our fire risk. With the help of measure N (which has now been replaced with measure E) the city council can now fund more police and fire personnel to help keep us safe in the event of an emergency.

With regards to the housing issue facing our community, there are several housing developments that are being constructed or are currently in the planning process. These developments consist of single family homes and will be sold at market rate. In addition, there is another potential development that will begin the planning process that includes a few hundred apartments. These will be more affordable than purchasing or building a home and will offer an opportunity for many to move to Grass Valley who currently commute from out of the area. The unfunded PERS liability is a disparity between the estimated amount of the pension plan’s obligations and the current amount of its assets. California cities, counties and state agencies will have to make up the difference in the form of additional payments and I, along with the current council have taken a proactive approach to soften the additional monetary obligation. If we do not make wise fiscal decisions now, our city and the services we provide will suffer later.

BRANSTROM: Everywhere I go I find people who are concerned about the shortage of housing, especially affordable workplace housing. We need to address this by supporting lower-cost housing alternatives and, where possible, to provide incentives that encourage more affordable housing. This is a statewide problem, so we also need to coordinate with other public agencies to ensure we find the best solutions for Grass Valley.

A related issue is our local people who are homeless. Grass Valley is already supporting efforts of non-profit organizations working on this issue, particularly Hospitality House. We need to continue to find cost-effective partnerships with non-profits and Nevada County, to help homeless people get back on their feet and become productive members of our community.

Another big issue is the legacy of unfunded liabilities for retiree pensions and benefits. Grass Valley’s current annual obligation of over $600,000 per year to fund these historical obligations is expected to grow to over one million dollars per year over the next five years. I applaud the current City Council for setting aside reserves towards these expenses and I am committed to continuing the responsible approach they have taken.

Finally, Measure E will allow the city to do more to rebuild our police and fire levels, rebuild our roads and sidewalks, and improve our parks.

HODGE: The next governing body of Grass Valley will be responsible for renewing and updating the general plan. It is important that we elect leaders who have the community’s future in mind. The top issues facing our community need to be the top issues facing our council. Grass Valley’s voters have told me that their top priorities are housing, jobs, innovation and safety.

Housing: A sustainable future requires affordable housing. We need housing for young families, our workforce, and fixed-income seniors.

Jobs: Small businesses are the backbone of our rural economy. We must support local talent and invest in local people.

Innovation: High-speed internet is critical to education, healthcare and jobs in our community. We need high-speed internet to bring innovative economic opportunities to Grass Valley.

Safety: We need increased measures for public safety to ensure our homes and communities are protected from wildfire and crime.

Should Grass Valley authorize adult-use cannabis businesses such as dispensaries or manufacturing?

AGUILAR: Grass Valley will continue the discussion regarding the adult-use cannabis businesses as the state continues to roll out their plan for implementing cannabis. As there is no taxation on medicinal use, the recreational would seem to be the more lucrative option. However, I strongly oppose having dispensaries in our downtown area and near any schools or locations where kids recreate. It is important to protect and educate our youth on substance abuse while respecting the wishes of the voters who legalized cannabis in California.

BRANSTROM: Cannabis is now legal in California and it is time we bring growers and distributors into a legal framework of regulation. We need to consider allowing manufacturing and dispensing in Grass Valley, possibly in a specially designated commercial area away from schools and homes. I believe the public can provide valuable guidance to the city on major issues, so I propose we begin to look at this issue by holding a series of public forums to discuss alternatives available to Grass Valley.

HODGE: Grass Valley should implement sensible regulations for legal adult-use marijuana that capitalizes on the economic opportunity in front of us, while keeping our children and our community safe. Grass Valley has the opportunity to tax and regulate cannabis in a sensible way. We can bring this economic opportunity into the mainstream where our community can benefit. I support adult-use cannabis businesses such as dispensaries or manufacturing so that distribution requires permits and so that buying the product requires an adult of legal age with a proper ID. City resources should be used efficiently. I want our law enforcement officers to be able to clearly identify those who are willing to participate in a legal market so that we may use our law enforcement resources to weed out the bad players.

Even though there are four names on the ballot for the two open seats on Grass Valley city council, residents really only have three choices. Dr. Steven Slack dropped out of the race last month, too late for the city to remove his name from the list of candidates.

Incumbent Ben Aguilar, who was appointed in 2016, is running for re-election against challengers Bob Branstrom and Hilary Hodge.

Ben Aguilar

Aguilar got his start in local politics when he was appointed to Grass Valley’s Planning Commission in 2011.

“I got four years experience in government and planning processes,” he said, adding that he had not anticipated running for city council but threw his hat into the ring when Terry Lamphier resigned his seat in 2015.

“I felt it was important for the city to have some choices in its open application process,” Aguilar said. “It was a big decision.”

The “tremendous” amount of knowledge he gained over the last four years is part of what prompted him to run again, he said.

Aguilar touts accomplishments while on the council that include new trails, new housing, cleaner and more modern parks, and the latest technology for the fire and police departments, adding, “I want to build on the city’s momentum.”

Aguilar is often the quiet one on the council, but says while he is not outspoken, he cares deeply about the issues being discussed.

“I value robust conversation,” he said. “I like to talk to those affected by an issue and get their opinion.”

Aguilar notes that even though he has been involved in city government for nearly eight years, he still remains “new blood” — the other council members have decades of experience under their collective belts.

“It’s important for the younger generation to have a voice on the council, and in the city,” he said.

That planning commission background has been invaluable when it comes to evaluating proposed developments, Aguilar said.

“Having a knowledge of the project history helps the process,” he said. “The cogs of government are very slow — and the learning process can be a hindrance.”

Like the other candidates, Aguilar sees affordable housing as a top priority, but also as a complex issue that will be difficult to solve.

“The issue is not really well understood at the public level in regards to the process it has to go through,” he said. “We have a housing element that has to include a variety of zoning. The city doesn’t build houses ­— we only have control over the design and the type. As far as zoning restrictions, we’ll work with property owners to assist with the project — that’s our role. We encourage developers to mold the project into a better fit with the community.”

The Dorsey Marketplace is a good example of that process, Aguilar said.

“We got a lot of community feedback about the need for more housing, so the applicant, working with staff, architects and planners, added housing and decreased the commercial aspect of project,” he said.

Other issues Aguilar sees as important include improvements to the city’s sidewalks, streets and parks.

“I’m particularly passionate about (parks) because I have young children,” he said. “They need to be clean and safe. We have to come up with solutions where everyone is welcome, but engaging in healthy activities.”

Grass Valley’s police department, he said, is using technology such as cameras and speakers to improve safety.

Above all, Aguilar said, getting people educated about the way their government works is important.

“Most don’t understand the processes of government,” he said. “It’s so important to be engaged. Those decisions affect the way our community grows, our way of life.”

Bob Branstrom

Branstrom, a resident of Wolf Creek Lodge Cohousing community, said he has been active in volunteering for community organizations since he was in his 20s.

But it wasn’t until he began attending water district meetings that he started thinking about engaging in the political sphere.

“I got very interested in the Centennial dam issue and began attending NID meetings,” Branstrom said. “I just wanted to know more. Then I started thinking there was a place for me outside the nonprofit sector.”

Government service appealed because, he said, he wants to serve the community in a public way.

“I appreciate the fact that I have a good life and I wanted, to use an old phrase, to give back,” Branstrom said, adding, “I feel privileged to have the time and the energy to do that.”

While he currently serves on several oversight committees, elected office would be a real step up from that, he said.

“And it turns out reading reports, understanding finances and working with other people are valuable skills” in government, Branstrom noted.

“I don’t know (everything) but I know when people have common interests, and I try to connect them,” he said. “I pass on information that could be helpful.”

As an example, Branstrom said, he gave Nevada Irrigation District General manager Rem Scherzinger a book about public participation, as a possible way to move forward through public mistrust.

“It was a small thing — but the right idea at the right time to a guy who needed to hear it,” he said.

“My experience with NID, the idea of more public participation, is key to what I want to see in Grass Valley,” Branstrom continued.

In his view, the city needs to publicize and proactively seek public input on big issues. Getting the public involved earlier in the process, he says, is critical for democracy — to have a government that people understand will listen to them.

In Branstrom’s view, there are only long, complicated answers to solving the lack of affordable housing in Grass Valley.

“We have an affordability gap, between what people can afford to pay and what developers can afford to build,” he said. “We need to bridge that gap. We need to raise incomes, we need better-paying jobs. We can’t rely on service industry jobs, on tourists and retirees. That’s one piece.”

Another piece is finding different ways of constructing homes to lower the cost, Branstrom said.

“One role for the council, in my mind, is working with the people in the community to help facilitate a discussion,” he said. “Government can’t do it by itself.”

Branstrom cited roads and traffic congestion as big issues as well.

“We really need to ask the community, what are your priorities?” he said. “We need a reality check with the public. My guess is, one biggie is the Highway 49 and McKnight intersection. My view is, the community voted for Measure E to invest in the community. It’s their money, and they need to have input.”

Some of Grass Valley’s parks need a lot of work, Branstrom said, adding Measure E funding can be used for that as well.

“Families don’t feel comfortable in the city’s parks,” he said. “Parks are valuable, they’re a real asset to the community.”

In the end, Branstrom said, “All you can do is your best, given what you know and given the time and money available — and hope it works. If it doesn’t, you learn from that. That’s what government needs to do. That’s how the real world works. You’re not going to ever come up with the perfect solution.”

Hilary Hodge

In June, Hodge lost to incumbent Nevada County Supervisor Dan Miller by less than 200 votes. By August, she had decided to officially announce her run for Grass Valley city council.

According to Hodge, she initiated her foray into local politics at the supervisorial level because of the influence on economic policy that happens at the county level.

“Grass Valley is a doughnut hole, it’s entirely contained within the supervisor district,” she explained.

Hodge came to realize that the year she spent campaigning for supervisor gave her a deep understanding of the concerns of Grass Valley’s residents.

“I felt poised to address those … at the council level,” she said. “Running for office is very difficult. But my mother looked at me and said, you’ve laid the foundation. You’ve been doing this for a year. What’s another three months?”

Hodge came to realize the issues she was passionate about — housing and jobs — are problems that are the same at the city and county level.

“Collaboration is going to be necessary,” she said. “So many problems we face are multi-faceted. Historically there has been a level of sibling rivalry, would be a friendly way of putting it. But everyone in the community is affected by (the same issues). If we can’t solve our problems together, we won’t be able to solve our problems.”

While Hodge praises the entrepreneurial spirit that often characterizes Nevada County, she said a willingness to collaborate is key — especially when it comes to solving issues like homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.

“We do not have infinite resources,” she said. “We need to use them in intelligent ways.”

Grass Valley needs to be open to trying something new, Hodge said, adding, “The city would benefit from some fresh perspectives and new ideas. That’s my main offering.”

Hodge noted Grass Valley’s General Plan is likely to be re-written by this council, as the current one expires in 2020.

“We need to think about the future with a whole-systems approach, ways to not just infuse money, but sustain the community that is here now,” she said. “This council will also be responsible for oversight of Measure E funds.”

Nevada County’s aging population is of concern, Hodge said, adding that Grass Valley needs to make youth and families part of the equation.

“There has been this phrase, ‘Don’t Roseville Grass Valley,’” she said. “I think there’s a lot of merit to that. People don’t want to see sprawl. But we don’t want to go (too far) in the other direction either. We are seeing the economy change, retail is atrophying. We need to make sure we can move forward in a sustainable way, attracting people and business that share our values, maintaining our character while sustaining our future.”

Hodge argues that Grass Valley is not marketing itself effectively, pointing out there is not a even a clearly visible welcome sign on Highway 49.

“There’s no indication of the beauty and charm of our historic downtown,” she said. “We have so much to offer. There’s never nothing to do here.

Our events should be world-renowned … I want everyone in the world to know how amazing this place is.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at



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