January 28, 2014

Riverbank City Council not willing to let Cheese & Wine Expo shut down

City Hall will not let the iconic Riverbank Cheese & Wine Exposition die, and in other news, the City Council is exploring district elections.

City Hall will not let the iconic Riverbank Cheese & Wine Exposition die, and in other news, the City Council is exploring district elections.

With the blessing of city leaders, clubs have run the popular Cheese & Wine street fair for 37 years. But they’re burned out, and one option listed in a staff report would – gasp – “discontinue the event and consider that perhaps it is time for change.”

That didn’t sit well with council members, who envision the event coming under the city’s umbrella. They hope to hire an events coordinator, who also might help with other community events – Beyond Earth Day and the Riverbank Farmers Market – that have struggles of their own.

On a political front, the city is close to hiring a consultant to study whether Riverbank should switch from at-large to district elections. Council members are scheduled to award a contract at their Feb. 10 meeting.

Similar to several school districts and at least one other city, the action has followed a legal threat from the Latino Community Roundtable, which says minorities are better represented when leaders are chosen by geographic area. Courts have sided with that reasoning, and the Modesto City Council and some school boards have switched to district elections.

To avoid lawsuits, six school districts in Stanislaus County – Riverbank, Salida, Waterford, Stanislaus Union, Hughson and Newman-Crows Landing – a year ago moved their 2013 elections to this November. The Ceres City Council will ask voters about district elections on a future ballot.

Riverbank leaders have not agreed to a change, and seek a consultant’s advice. “We want an independent look at it so there is no bias one way or the other,” Mayor Richard O’Brien said.

Minority representation on the Riverbank council became an issue in late 2012 and early 2013, when O’Brien moved from the council to the mayor’s seat, leaving a council vacancy. A dispute arose, the council could not agree and the city was forced to spend $56,000 on a special election won by Cal Campbell.

Replacing former Councilwoman Dotty Nygard, who resigned for personal reasons in August, went much more smoothly when the council selected Leanne Jones-Cruz in September. But Latinos make up about 52 percent of Riverbank’s nearly 23,000 people, and the lawsuit threat remains.

Some community events lost important support with Nygard’s sudden departure. She was a driving force in Riverbank Community Gardens, which sponsored the farmers market and Beyond Earth Day, and the group told City Hall it can’t handle either without her.

Another group called Friends of Jacob Myers Park, where Beyond Earth Day has been held the past three years, has helped with the event and said it would continue under city leadership. The City Council on Monday agreed but will change its title to Riverbank Riverfest, with an added focus on river recreation and water safety.

“We want to put the ‘river’ back into Riverbank,” O’Brien said, “and make it a good, strong day for the entire family.”

The city might assume control of the farmers market as well, and could combine it with Wednesday Night Out food and entertainment at Community Center Park, but would prefer that the Riverbank Chamber of Commerce step in and take charge. That group is expected to decide next week.

Those events draw mostly locals, while the Riverbank Cheese & Wine Exposition pulls crowds in the tens of thousands. “People for miles around don’t even put it on their calendars; they just know that the second weekend in October is Cheese & Wine,” said Councilwoman Jeanine Tucker.

Sponsorship switched eight years ago from the chamber to the Riverbank Rotary Club, which no longer wants the headache of coordinating such a large and demanding street fair. In addition to cheese and wine tasting and 200 vendor booths, the event last fall featured bands, a zip line, carnival rides, a petting zoo and an outdoor laser tag arena.

Faced with letting it fade away, council members on Monday asked City Manager Jill Anderson to hire an events coordinator, perhaps part time, whose pay would come partly from the event’s proceeds. Its profit averages about $8,000 a year, a report says.

“It’s definitely not going away,” Tucker said. “We want to encourage more of these kinds of things, not less.”

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