Mike Brem retired recently as president of a food-processing company and decided to run for mayor. He faces Gary Soiseth, a young but accomplished farmer and water expert, in the Nov. 4 election.
They are running to succeed John Lazar, who has been mayor since 2006 and a City Council member since 1992.
By all appearances, it is an amiable contest between two men seeking to lead the city of about 70,000. Turlock fared relatively well during the economic doldrums of the past decade, but it still has challenges – roads, water, homelessness and more.
Soiseth, 30, is an almond grower and adviser to the Modesto Irrigation District. He spent nearly four years training farmers and managing economic development in Afghanistan, working alongside the U.S. Army. He said he now hopes to serve his hometown.
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“I am running because I have the right energy and the right ideas to tackle these problems right now,” he said.
Brem, 60, was president of SupHerb Farms, an herb and specialty vegetable company that employs about 125 people on the city’s west side. He is a 14-year member of the Turlock Planning Commission and involved in several business and civic groups.
“I wanted to dedicate myself to community service, and that is why I am running for mayor,” he said.
Brem has been endorsed by Lazar, who decided not to run again. Soiseth has support from former Mayor Curt Andre. Each candidate has endorsements from dozens of other prominent Turlock residents.
Soiseth said he expects to spend $55,000 to $60,000 on his campaign, while Brem estimated $40,000. Soiseth jumped out to an early lead in the first fundraising report, with $32,402, compared with $8,924 for Brem as of June 30. The next report is due Monday.
Turlock voters in November also will choose two City Council members and consider a street repair tax and district council elections.
The mayoral candidates’ main disagreement is over Measure B, which would increase the sales tax by half a percentage point to pay for street work. It has a seven-year term but would end earlier if voters approve a similar road tax throughout Stanislaus County.
Brem supports B, which includes a detailed list of projects all over the city. Soiseth said he is not opposed to a road tax in general but worries that Turlock would get less money than needed for these projects if the countywide measure replaced the city’s.
Both candidates favor Measure A, which would divide Turlock into four City Council districts while continuing at-large elections for mayor. They agree that the city could be sued if it does not improve minority representation.
Both endorse a proposed treatment plant for Tuolumne River water that would reduce reliance on wells in Turlock, Ceres and south Modesto. It likely would require more rate increases for Turlock water customers, who already are bearing a near doubling of charges by 2019 just to maintain and upgrade the groundwater-fed system.
Soiseth and Brem both said they would watch carefully over the city budget as Turlock continues to move out of deficit spending. It has tapped reserves over the past few years to pay for police, fire and other services, but sales and property taxes have been increasing with the improved economy.
Brem, as a planning commissioner, has helped direct future development mostly to the southeast part of Turlock, where soils are not so good for farming.
“We have a general plan that I think is as good as any in the Valley, and that is going to be the blueprint as we go forward,” he said. He added that increased density and infill projects will help, too.
Soiseth agrees with the southeast growth, which he said would preserve land needed for farming and groundwater recharge. He supports higher density and mixed uses, such as homes above businesses, along the Geer Road and Lander Avenue commercial strips.
“I think people are looking at other options for housing and business,” Soiseth said, adding that these developments could be attractive to students at California State University, Stanislaus.
Both candidates said the city should ensure an easy permit process for companies that could bring jobs to the large industrial zone on the west side and other parts of Turlock.
And they agree that the city could best help homeless people by supporting the efforts of faith-based groups such as the Turlock Gospel Mission and The Salvation Army.
Brem, a Gilroy native, has nearly 40 years of experience in agriculture. He works on public policy issues for the Turlock Chamber of Commerce and the California League of Food Processors. His volunteer work includes education, the disabled and other causes.
Soiseth, the third generation of a Turlock-area farming family, has worked as a White House legislative affairs intern; as a field representative for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa; and in federal relations for the Association of California Water Agencies.
He recently taught international relations as an adjunct professor at Stanislaus State. While a student at Turlock High School, he was co-president of the city’s Teen Advisory Council.