COVID recovery dominates council candidates’ priorities

The Signal hosts Santa Clarita City Council 2020 candidates Monday via Zoom. Top row from left, Signal Editor Tim Whyte, TimBen Boydston and Jason Gibbs; middle row from left, Cameron Smyth, Selina Thomas and Dr. Aakash Ahuja; bottom row from left, Ken Dean, Kelvin Driscoll and Douglas Fraser. Sept. 14, 2020 Screen shot

Homelessness, housing and traffic have long dominated the list of priorities for many past Santa Clarita City Council candidates, but with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic rippling beyond the election, local recovery sat front and center during a Monday forum. 

The event, hosted virtually by The Signal, featured eight of the nine candidates running for two open seats for November’s local election. 

Those in attendance via Zoom included: Dr. Aakash Ahuja, a board-certified psychiatrist; TimBen Boydston, Canyon Guild Theatre Guild executive director; Ken Dean, an Advocates of Santa Clarita member; Kelvin Driscoll, a program director for the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services; Douglas Fraser, a Canyon Country Advisory Committee member; Jason Gibbs, deputy director of West Coast Operations for GP Strategies Corp.; Cameron Smyth, incumbent and current mayor; and Selina Thomas, owner of a locally based HR consulting business; Candidate Chris Werthe, who indicated he had planned to participate, did not attend due to partaking in Army Reserve training, according to his wife Constance. 

Without hesitation, the majority of candidates said COVID-19 and economic recovery for Santa Clarita is the most important problem facing the city. When it came to describing what they would do, answers varied. Here’s a breakdown of that conversation and other topics: 

For Gibbs and Driscoll, a path toward normalcy will take continued advocacy with county, state and federal representatives to allow businesses the opportunity to restart and support residents hurting the most. 

“I think that’s going to be the ripple effect. We need to allow some normalcy to allow us to get back to the lives that we were experiencing before COVID,” said Gibbs.

“(T)here’s only one governing entity that can print money, and we will need it,” said Driscoll, adding that extending unemployment benefits and putting capital into the hands of local, small businesses will require coordination at the state and federal levels. 

Boydston proposed dissecting the city’s expenditures and offering “innovative ways” to help residents, such as waiving any fees to small businesses that have been closed due to the pandemic. 

As seen on the federal and state levels, Fraser suggested a city-level stimulus package “to get the public to go out and spend money in Santa Clarita.” 

Thomas said an economic impact zone that is specific to industries and the community will be necessary. “And then, of course, the liability shield so our employers are not straddled with frivolous lawsuits because of COVID,” she said.  

Dean suggested looking at the details, such as the effects of reopening indoor shopping malls and resuming indoor dining. “And if we need to, we would (monitor) the people coming into the mall, very much like banks do,” he said. 

Ahuja emphasized a need to educate and prepare the public for COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as provide residents with incentives to spend locally and improve connectivity, such as internet and cell service, for students and residents. 

“Right now we can convert that into an opportunity,” he said. “We can make the cellphone coverage much better so that when the lockdown opens, we are a robust economy again and we are thriving and are back to business.” 

Smyth said he would continue to build on what he has helped spearhead as mayor in Santa Clarita, such as establish a rental protection order, push for a variance from L.A. County’s reopening guidelines, streamline the business licensing process and explore the possibility of establishing a city-run health department. 

In discussing whether they would change the city’s funding level for the Sheriff’s Department, their answers split into yes, no or review and make adjustments. 

Ahuja, for example, said there is a larger need for “more collaboration, not less or more money.”  

“We need to have somewhat more of diversity training, we need to have body cameras to protect officers and to protect the people,” he said. “But I think the bottom line is, we need more collaboration between the community and I think when people come to meet each other, know each other, there is less mistrust.” 

All candidates said they supported the establishment of a local health department and extending the city’s eviction moratorium, and all said that Santa Clarita is not a systemically racist city. 

To watch the complete forum, visit here.

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