RIVERBANK -- Whether they're looking for experienced veterans or enthusiastic newcomers, voters got a taste of both at a League of Women Voters candidates forum Tuesday night.
Six candidates vying for the mayor's seat and two council slots answered questions from residents at the event. Candidate Norman Comer, who's running for City Council, did not attend.
Discussion ranged from how to handle Riverbank's stray dogs to how to combat gangs and drugs. But the evening's recurring theme was how to drum up Riverbank's economy and create more jobs in a city with an estimated 16 percent unemployment rate.
Among the two mayoral candidates, incumbent Chris Crifasi hammered the message that during bleak economic times, the city needs someone with his financial know-how at the helm. Crifasi, 42, is a certified public accountant. He said he believes the city should be run like a business, with maximum efficiency and low costs.
His challenger, Councilwoman Virginia Madueño, a 42-year-old who runs her own public relations firm, touted her passion and can-do spirit. As a business owner with a flexible schedule, she said she has the time and drive to "roll up her sleeves" and help Riverbank accomplish its goals. "I'm not afraid to stand up for what's right even if it means taking on criticism," she said.
Madueño's council seat is open because she is running for mayor.
Both said the city needs to keep a close watch on its finances. Crifasi said he believes the weak economy is the single most important issue facing Riverbank, and that he doesn't foresee a turnaround any time soon. Madueño cited high unemployment as the city's biggest challenge.
To remedy the problem, both said revamping the ammo plant and revitalizing downtown are crucial. Crifasi said he'd like to put a small business incubator site downtown; Madueño said she'd use her contacts across the state and country to lure new businesses to downtown.
The five council candidates sounded similar notes. All of the officeseekers listed bringing business to downtown as a key goal.
Ric McGinnis, who heads the Rio Arts nonprofit arts organization, said downtown should promote theater and other artistic endeavors to attract visitors. Jesse James White said he'd like to "even out" Riverbank, so downtown looks as prosperous as the area near the Crossroads shopping center. He supports bringing businesses downtown, but not at the expense of taxpayers, he said.
Incumbent David I. White said downtown revitalization requires a strategic plan to attract visitors with community events and activities. Jerry Whorton suggested giving tax breaks to businesses that locate downtown.
McGinnis and Whorton have served on the council. Jesse James White, a 19-year-old Modesto Junior College student, is making his first run. He said he wants to make Riverbank into a city that young people would be proud to move back to after they graduate from college. "I know I'm young, but I'm a fast learner," he said.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.