Political intrigue brewing for City Council in Turlock

Mayor Gary Soiseth, left, and Councilman Steven Nascimento attend a special council meeting on the Turlock farmers market on Feb. 20, 2016.
Mayor Gary Soiseth, left, and Councilman Steven Nascimento attend a special council meeting on the Turlock farmers market on Feb. 20, 2016. cwinterfeldt@mercedsun-star.com

A City Council race that few expected is taking shape, with Councilwoman Amy Bublak buying a new house and confirming that she’ll run against Councilman Steven Nascimento in the fall.

Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth also has moved and is staying with relatives within the city limit, he said, while renovating a place he bought that’s also in Turlock.

I’m living with relatives for a couple of months till the new place I bought is ready to live in. I currently live within city limits and have changed (voter) registration to my relatives’ (address). I remain an elector of the city of Turlock.

Gary Soiseth, mayor, Turlock

Additionally, Jaime Franco has emerged as the first candidate in Turlock’s wide-open southwest quadrant.

And in other news related to the rising political intrigue in Stanislaus County’s second-largest city, Nascimento said in time he will try again to persuade the council to enact Tin Cup rules limiting the influence of money in politics by barring leaders from voting on issues involving large donors.

Without moving, Bublak would have no seat to defend when her term is up in November because she lives in Turlock’s northeast District 2, whose representative – Councilman Bill DeHart – was re-elected in November. Bublak might have been forced to take a two-year hiatus from the council before taking on DeHart in 2018.

Instead, Bublak and her husband, Milton Richards – both recently retired – “found a house we really like,” she said, in District 4 – about a mile from Nascimento, previously viewed by many as the heir apparent to Turlock’s northwest quadrant.

Carpetbagging in Turlock?

Nascimento confirmed he will run Nov. 8. “I didn’t think someone would be willing to move in order to run for council,” he said.

The two came down on opposing sides in the recent farmers market flap. Nascimento pointed to their votes as evidence that people “will have a clear choice on which direction they want to see the city go.”

Turlock voters used to choose leaders in citywide elections but switched to district elections for the four council members, with the mayor continuing to be elected by all voters at large.

Bublak was running for county assessor when the council made the change in 2014, and she did not object to a sequence that seemed to leave her as the odd woman out. But she lost the race to assessor Don Gaekle, who had 27 years of experience.

Property records show Bublak, 51, agreed Nov. 23 to sell the 2,720-square-foot northeast Turlock home she had owned since January 2003, and she and her husband purchased a 3,504-square-foot northwest Turlock home on Jan. 27. The same day, she filed a “candidate intention statement” at City Hall, as well as a “statement of organization recipient committee” to benefit “Amy Bublak for City Council District 4 2016.”

The official filing period doesn’t open until July 18, but the intent forms allow candidates to raise money now, and to move any unspent funds from previous campaigns.

“We could choose to live anywhere in the world and we still want to live in Turlock,” said Bublak, who retired a year ago from the Modesto Police Department. Richards, a former athletic director at California State University, Stanislaus, spent four years in Vancouver, Canada, where he held a similar job for almost four years before retiring and returning to Turlock.

I just want to run on my merit. ... Whatever happens in the election will happen, hopefully, in an honorable light.

Amy Bublak, councilwoman, Turlock

Bublak, first elected in 2008, did not mention her plans to Nascimento.

“I didn’t move there thinking, ‘I’m going to run against Steven,’ ” she said. “I don’t typically look at my opponent. I look at what I have to offer.”

Farmers market could factor in races

Nascimento, elected in 2012, said, “I have lived in this neighborhood for the past 13 years and I look forward to the opportunity to represent my neighbors on the City Council.” He filed similar campaign intent forms in early February.

Nascimento, 30, stood alone in December, refusing to direct the city’s staff to develop a bidding process for the farmers market, whose nonprofit organization suddenly faced for-profit opposition from Turlock farmer Peter Cipponeri. He recently established a farmers market management company and won contracts in Hughson and Carmel.

A week ago, DeHart joined Nascimento in opposing the staff’s bidding document, but they were outvoted by Bublak, Soiseth and Councilman Matthew Jacob despite four hours of strident pleas from supporters of the nonprofit group.

Jacob represents District 1, Turlock’s southeast quadrant.

DeHart said Bublak’s residency has not been “a conscious thought” for him. “Politics is politics,” he said. “Those things do happen. You’re here one day and gone the next. The fortunes of politics do take strange turns; her moving into another district is a turn.”

DeHart and Soiseth declined to say which District 4 candidate they might support.

“They’re both dedicated council members,” the mayor said. “It’s too early to weigh in.”

Jaime Franco throws hat in ring

Franco filed campaign intent forms in September to run in District 2, which includes everything west of Golden State Boulevard and south of Fulkerth Road.

“It’s a rough part of town,” Franco said of the area he’s called home for some 40 years. City Hall seems to funnel services such as road upgrades to newer parts of town, neglecting the southwest quadrant, he said; the change to district elections was enacted in part to boost poorer neighborhoods by helping minority candidates.

“I know the issues and problems,” Franco said. “I know everything that goes on here, and everyone pretty much knows me and my family. Hopefully we can join forces for the benefit of us all and clean up this side of town.”

Franco, who is single, was born in Mexico and came to the United States as a youth with a family of farmworkers.

He attended Turlock High School and Modesto Junior College and earned a political science degree in the 1990s at California State University, Stanislaus, where he advocated for student issues. Franco’s activism includes decades of volunteer Spanish interpreting for people involved in the courts, immigration and Catholic Charities. He has sold cars in Modesto and Turlock and works for a used car dealership in Merced.

Franco envisions a west Turlock community center where people might get help with job searching, tutoring and health care.

Meanwhile, Nascimento said he’ll take another run at a “Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics” ordinance – after the dust settles from the coming battle over management of the Turlock farmers market.

I am planning on bringing the Tin Cup ordinance back. I think the farmers market issue has highlighted the need. But I don’t want (the ordinance) to distract us from the issue at hand.

Steven Nascimento, councilman, Turlock

Not long before Soiseth’s election in 2014, Nascimento proposed that the council refrain from voting on matters that could benefit donors of $2,000 or more over the previous three years. The idea was similar to Modesto’s Tin Cup ordinance, which has a $3,000 cap on donations over four years.

Campaign money limits urged

Some disagreed. A compromise features candidates’ campaign finance forms posted on the city’s website, but doesn’t address leaders voting on issues affecting major donors.

Nascimento wrote in a recent Facebook post, “If we cannot rely on the discretion of our elected officials to do the right thing, we must have clear rules to hold them accountable.”

In two years, Soiseth accepted $14,400 from Cipponeri and his extended family, the majority ($12,000) from companies of his father-in-law, Matt Swanson. He also gave $4,300 to Bublak from 2011 to 2014; $3,000 to DeHart since 2010; $2,000 to Jacob in October; and $1,000 to Nascimento in 2012.

$14,400 Political contributions to Mayor Gary Soiseth from Peter Cipponeri and entities associated with his extended family

$10,300 Political contributions from Matt Swanson’s companies, Associated Feed and Prospector LLC, spread among the four other council members

Swanson contributed $52,300 to various campaigns in 2014 alone, including $25,000 to the California Republican Party, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Brad Bates, who served as Turlock mayor for eight years in the 1980s, urged Soiseth to recuse himself from weighing farmers market issues, but city attorney Phaedra Norton said no council member had a conflict of interest.

Cipponeri, the Turlock Certified Farmers Market board and any other bidder have until March 8 to apply, followed by council selection on March 15.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390