With two seats on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors up for election this November, candidates for the county's District 1 and 5 sparred on issues like the economy, regulations and county projects Thursday at a special election forum.
The event was hosted by the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce, with District 1 candidates Liz Bass and Sherri Brennan and District 5 candidates Domenic Torchia and Karl Rodefer fielding questions from panelists and members of the public during separate forums.
Torchia and Rodefer, vying to replace longtime Supervisor Dick Pland, spent much of their time discussing projects involving the county like the proposals for the Law and Justice Center, Cooperstown Quarry and Yosemite Gardens. Torchia took aim at all those initiatives, criticizing county officials and supervisors for their handling of all three projects.
Torchia called the gardens project a "fiasco," and of the justice center he said, "It's not going to save us any money. People are just not thinking ahead."
The future justice center is located on Old Wards Ferry Road, and eventually is expected to include a new jail, juvenile hall, courthouse and other law enforcement offices. Torchia said he would work to prevent the project from moving forward as a supervisor, though the county has already spent more than $2 million on infrastructure at the site.
The Cooperstown Quarry is a proposed rock quarry in the far west end of the county, and a settlement was recently reached after multiple lawsuits over environmental regulations. Yosemite Gardens is a proposal to turn a former Jamestown pit mine site into a botanical garden and amusement park with multiple sports fields, shopping and other amenities.
Rodefer said the jail, which will be housed at the Law and Justice Center, is clearly necessary. And the other two, he said, will help bring jobs to the county.
"Both projects have the potential to be good, economic boons to this county," Rodefer said.
The District 5 discussion also touched on regulations, with the two facing off over a question on conserving verses using natural resources. Rodefer posited the county has "gone way overboard" when it comes to conservation of species and forests, which, he said, stifles job growth. He also said that area forests are "overgrown" and "destroying the natural ecology."
"I'm not against protecting species where it make sense," Rodefer said, later adding "species go extinct every day and new species are created every day."
Torchia said he believes logging can "be a great asset" if done properly. But he also called himself a "strong environmentalist" and said the county should focus on its service and tourism economy before timber, mining or agriculture.
"Only 3 percent of our jobs in Tuolumne County come from mining, agriculture and timber," he said. "It's not that big of a priority with that big of a function" in the economy.
In the District 1 forum, the discussion between incumbent Bass and challenger Brennan touched a few times on some specific policy issues. The two had different takes on a question about possibly initiating a business license program like the city of Sonora.
Brennan strongly opposed the idea, saying it would discourage business growth in the county. Tuolumne County currently doesn't require business licenses in the county's unincorporated areas.
"Adding fees is not going to create wealth in Tuolumne County," she said. "We need to do the opposite. We need to streamline processes."
Bass said she's in favor of licensing, saying it helps create a database of businesses and can also generate revenue for required inspections. It's never been intended to accumulate wealth, Bass said, but there have been times when the business community has come looking for a license in order to qualify for loans or other useful things.
The program "did not get in the way, but actually helped" in Sonora, Bass said.
The two also discussed the Tuolumne Tomorrow document, a recently completed planning document that recommends future growth patterns for the country. The growth blueprint was the center of some debate at the Board of Supervisors recently, with some questioning whether it will infringe on property rights by restricting land use.
Brennan alluded to the concerns over those possibilities, saying it could have "far reaching consequences." She also suggested the county should have sought more public participation.
"I'm totally against anything that puts further restrictions on private property," she said.
Bass pointed out she originally voted against the Tuolumne Tomorrow proposal on the board, as she said she believes the board should have ultimate say in growth matters.
But Bass eventually came around and recently voted for the blueprint, as the studies were complete and contained "a lot of good work."
"I still think three votes on Tuesday is what the public wants," she said, referencing the board meetings. "A lot of good information has been gathered and you can't go wrong with that."
The candidate forum will be aired on Comcast Channel 8 at a time and date to be announced.