The Columbia Chamber of Commerce hosted a candidates' night on Wednesday at Columbia State Historic Park, and hopefuls vying for Columbia Union School District Board of Trustees, Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors District 5, and Columbia Fire District took questions on myriad issues from members of the public.
All three will appear on the General Election ballot this November.
School board candidates Jenny David, Danese Pimentel and Jo Rodefer all fielded multiple questions on the 2010 sex scandal involving Brennan Pendley, son of Superintendent John Pendley, and how the school board handled the fallout.
Rodefer criticized the current board for what she called "stoney silence" when the public raises questions and asks for answers. She also claimed there has "been no accountability taken by either" the board or Pendley since the incident, nor a public explanation of how the district will "protect" students in the future.
"This is way past unacceptable," said Rodefer, a retiree. "They need to be a whole lot more transparent."
In response to a question about whether the board handled the Pendley situation properly, David said she has attended all the public meetings dealing with the issue and has read all the media accounts. But David also pointed to ongoing litigation that has kept some information from becoming public, and she said she wouldn't want to make a decision based only on the public information.
The special-education teacher also said "confidentiality is a very high priority" to her in situations that require it, and she said "it's just not right" to talk publicly about specific individuals or personnel if it should be kept private.
"If I have questions or concerns, I will first go to John Pendley," she said.
Pimentel said she believes "student safety is a No. 1 priority." But she also said members of the board should get all the information available and make decisions based on facts.
Those decisions, the Cal Fire captain said, shouldn't be made because of "things that are printed in The Union Democrat" or "things that people say or are told."
The Pendley issue still comes up regularly at Columbia board meetings, with members of the public regularly criticizing the superintendent and board for handling the aftermath of younger Pendley's sex crime. The 25-year-old pleaded guilty last June to having sex with a 14-year-old student while on campus. The young Pendley at the time was a district employee who also admitted to exchanging explicit text messages with the student.
For the county Board of Supervisor candidates, the discussion continued to focus on the local economy and county projects. Karl Rodefer and Domenic Torchia are both looking to replace longtime supervisor Dick Pland for the District 5 seat. Pland is not seeking reelection.
Rodefer said he supports boosting the local economy by "minimizing redundancies and maximizing efficiencies" at the county government level. He also said the county should focus on attracting and encouraging "clean, low-profile industries" as well as its historic industries such as agriculture, timber and minerals.
"When the economy grows, our tax revenue … grows as well," Rodefer said.
Torchia pointed to what he claimed are misguided projects when giving ideas for how to improve the county. Torchia continued his criticism of the county's plan to build a multi-agency Law and Justice center off Old Wards Ferry Road, calling it a waste of between $10 million and $12 million. Rodefer questioned that claim, saying the project cost is closer to $8 million.
Torchia criticized county officials on what he called a "big mistake" to dedicate millions to a new juvenile center, and said it would be cheaper to send youth offenders to out-of-county facilities as is the existing policy. The proposed center is expected to eventually house a juvenile hall, jail, courthouse, law enforcement stations and other offices, some funded locally and some funded by the state.
Torchia also connected the center to a discussion about county roads, claiming the justice center money could be used better elsewhere.
"You want to complain about roads, complain about the law and justice center," Torchia said.