Merced candidates address youth issues

By Thaddeus Miller

— An election forum threw a few curveball questions this week at Merced’s candidates for City Council and mayor’s seats.

The topics at the forum ranged from ways to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people and how to create job opportunities for youth, and what song each candidate thought best personified him or her.

Jordan Cowman, the communications specialist for Building Healthy Communities in Merced, said the questions asked by the youth moderators were purposely unlike those asked at the League of Women Voters forum early this month.

“There were definitely a lot of questions that came up this time that weren’t really set forth last time,” Cowman said. “The LGBT one is a great example.”

The youth forum was organized by BHC and We’Ced Youth Media, Merced-based nonprofits that work with young people. About 100 people heard all or part of the forum at Tenaya Middle School.

Nine of the 10 people in the race for a municipal post answered questions from mostly high school-aged residents. Some of the questions asked how elected officials would ensure young people were heard, provide young people ways to stay entertained and develop south Merced.

Mayoral candidates Stan Thurston and Noah Lor shared their ideas, along with City Council candidates Michael Belluomini, Kevin Blake, Alex Gallardo Jr., Jana Mowrer, Peter Padilla, Josh Pedrozo and Monica Kay Villa. Candidate Chris Ramirez was not there.

Cowman said he thinks the youngsters in the room benefited from direct interaction with the candidates.

“With the local election less than two weeks away, I think that candidates’ responsibility to youth and youth services will be an important factor in voters’ decisions,” Cowman said.

The questions at the forum were developed after organizers surveyed nearly 500 young people in Merced. The second portion of questions were presented in a game show style, with candidates choosing from three categories: “about you,” “growth” and “youth life.”

Andres Reyes, a coordinator for We’Ced, said the young people involved in organizing decided to make the questions interesting, “keeping in mind that we would have a little bit more of a younger audience than the other forums.”

Reyes said he expects an increase in youth services and the role of the youth council to play a big part in the election.

“There’s a lot of other youth topics that I think should be paid attention to, I think those two are the ones we’re going to see more even after Nov.5,” he said.

Reyes said he was pleased with the crowd who showed to the forum. Organizers said it was the first forum of its kind.

Providing services for young people has been a popular discussion point for City Council, particularly since spring.

At a budget meeting in June, the council set aside $25,000 for a youth council. Advocates had been pushing for youth funding for months before that.

Since then, the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission appointed three of its own — David Burke, Flip Hassett and Napoleon Washington — to be part of a task force to mold that youth council.

The City Council aappointed seven high school-aged representatives to the task force.

Napoleon Washington, a member of the task force who was at the forum, said the night was important and that the questions included a wide breadth of topics.

Town halls and forums increase participation in and the transparency of government, he said, and that’s a good thing.

“We should strive to include young people in this process,” he said, “so that they can grow to know how important it is to be participatory in their government.”

As for those curveball questions, most of the candidates swung away.

When it came to picking their songs, for example, Thurston went with Pat Boone’s “Friendly Persuasion;” Lor, the theme song from “Barney and Friends;” Belluomini, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up;” Blake, The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy);” Gallardo, Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop;” Mowrer, Katy Perry’s “Roar;” Pedrozo, Weezer’s “Perfect Situation;” and Villa, Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.”

Padilla decided to take that pitch and passed on the question.