Debbie Arnold and Ellen Beraud square off in first public forum

ATASCADERO — Hundreds of spectators gathered at Atascadero’s United Methodist Church Thursday evening to witness a political showdown between District 5’s two-time county supervisor Debbie Arnold who is seeking election for a third term and challenger Ellen Beraud, a veteran of local politics who has served on the Atascadero Planning Commission and City Council and also served as the city’s mayor. 

The forum consisted of four questions posed by moderator Mike Manchak and five-minute responses from each of the candidates. From the beginning, Arnold seemed to hold the upper hand with those in attendance — throughout the proceedings, the crowd met Beraud’s responses with some under-the-breath heckles, which were, in turn, met by disapproving glances from her supporters.

During her opening statement, Arnold told of tales of life growing up on a ranch and her years spent running a daycare business, cracked a couple of jokes and ran down her relatively short history as a public servant, saying that she never really expected to go into politics. Arnold joined the political arena as a legislative aide, including 12 years working for Senator Sam Blakesly before serving two terms as the District 5 County Supervisor. 

“It has been such an honor,” Arnold said. “I try to think every day and every time I take a vote, I try to imagine many of you are behind me and what is my vote, and how will it impact the people that I represent? Not everyone agrees as well all know on every issue, but I can tell you and promise you that for over seven years I’ve taken every vote seriously, I’ve done my research, and I’ve tried to do what in my heart I believe is the best thing and to take care of our families, people of all ages in the county and to keep our county vibrant.”

Beraud focused on her qualifications and accomplishments during her opening statement. After moving to the area roughly 20 years ago, Beraud said she was heavily involved with school activities and local nonprofits before going on to serve on the planning commission and City Council. She spent 30 years in the health care industry, working as a dietician at Twin Cities Hospital before moving on to her current position at Atascadero State Hospital. 

“Our county is at a crossroads,” Beraud said. “We need to be embracing opportunities, and we need to be facing challenges with the leadership to face those issues. We’re facing the biggest challenges ever. Threats to our environment, our economy and our way of life and over the past nine months, I’ve heard over and over again that people feel that their voices are not heard or valued and that their concerns are not being addressed. So we can’t afford four more years of bad governance. We can’t afford four more years of inaction on the most pressing issues of our time. Now more than ever, we need smart, honest leadership to guide our county to the future.”

Manchak opened with a question regarding the lack of affordable housing in the county and asked the candidates how they would address the problem. Winning the coin toss, Arnold answered first. She said that an anti-growth sentiment in the county along with state regulations causing an increase in building costs is what led to the lack of sufficient affordable housing and pointed to secondary units, tiny homes, and other innovative housing solutions as the answer. 

“The reason I’ve been very supportive of that is because of the demographics of our county,” Arnold said. “We have a lot of older people; we have a lot of young people that can’t quite get into the market and need a chance to be able to save their money. So the secondary units, the smaller housing where the families can share property and be comfortable in their own housing situation is really going to be good for this county and the demographics that we see.”

Beraud called for a change in the local mindset and said that low-income housing should be thought of as “workforce housing,” and that having adequate workforce housing is strongly tied to a healthy economy. Beraud quickly changed tactics and went on the attack, questioning Arnold’s record on the issue. 

“I know that the incumbent has shown a failure of leadership by not having projects line up,” she said. “Affordable housing is a problem that never goes away, so you need to be constantly working and having projects in the pipeline, and it takes a great deal of effort to coordinate all the different agencies involved to get that done. I know that the incumbent has kind of played with the budget in the sense that she’s taken money from mental health services and homeless services to put into the roads budget. Which is fine, but a budget is a reflection of your values, so if you’re going to be moving money from something that a lot of people think is very important to something that could be handled in a different way, I don’t think that is right.”

Next, Manchak asked the candidates about their plans to create and keep jobs in the county and to make sure they pay a living wage. 

Beraud proposed that innovation will fuel the need for more jobs in the area, saying, “when you create a demand for a skilled workforce, it’s just capitalism. You need people to come to live here, and you would hope that overtime wages would go up.” But she again pivoted back to criticism of the incumbent and the Board of Supervisors majority, saying that the board has not kept wages high enough and that employees are fleeing the county as a result. 

“They have not kept the wages of their employees up to speed,” she said. “And (the employees) don’t feel like they are being able to keep up with the cost of living. Those employees put their heart and soul into serving their community, and they deserve a living wage.” 

In her answer, Arnold expressed her hopes that the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant may yet remain open and in operation as the county’s largest employer. She said that Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham is currently drafting a bill in support of the plant and the emissions-free energy it provides. But with the threat of Diablo closing looming on the horizon, Arnold placed the focus for the future on government jobs with the next several most significant employers in the county being government agencies. 

“It’s easy to say that we want to raise salaries,” Arnold said. “I want to say that we have added to our workforce at the county a little bit in the last few years as we can afford it. But this is all about balance and we know that most governments in the state are having real problems with their pension debt, it’s very expensive. This county is working to pay down that pension debt and we have paid some good chunks of it and that will help to free up money for higher wages. The board that I sit on is very conscious of the cost of living, and we try to keep up with the cost of living, but beyond that, we’re trying to balance this. It’s money coming out of everyone’s pocket and going into taxes to pay for this. But I’m very proud to say that we have a balanced budget, and we’re working on the pension debt while doing the best we can to pay fair wages and good wages.”

For his third question, Manchak asked what the candidates would do to keep the economy and the business community of the North County healthy and vibrant. Arnold’s solution involved funding the organizations that help to bolster the local economy. 

“We do use some of your tax dollars to work with nonprofits such as the Economic Vitality Corporation, the Hourglass Project and other organizations that work really especially with economic growth so that we can attract businesses and help our communities thrive,” Arnold said. “I ran as a pro-business candidate when I first ran, and I continue to be that pro-business candidate.” 

Beraud said that we need to “level the playing field” for anybody who wants to run a business when it comes to the permitting process or joining local chambers before again vaulting criticisms of Arnold’s handling of the county’s water situation. 

“Currently, the incumbent has been shepherding the Groundwater Sustainability Plan in the process, and I’ve heard from many people in the agricultural community who have been very disappointed in the plan that’s being submitted,” Beraud said. “The only tool in the toolbox is cutbacks and when you’re running a business and somebody says I’m going to have to cut back on your essential resource by 15 to 20 percent? You don’t think people are afraid that their businesses are going to be shut down because they won’t have sufficient resources to do it, and they’re going to have to lay off their people? This is not an acceptable solution. If we had gone back in time and I were the supervisor, I would make sure that all the stakeholders were heard and that they had tools and ideas to include in the plan that could bring that groundwater basin back to sustainability… Mrs. Arnold says she’s pro-business, but I wouldn’t call that pro-business when you don’t let people represent themselves. She was a leader in turning away a water district from being formed. So that means the county controls a lot of that process, but she shut out voices in that process.” 

Beraud went on to advocate for better internet infrastructure in the county to fuel new businesses and innovation.

Running short on time, Manchak limited answers to his fourth question to three minutes. Manchak finished by asking the candidates if the board of supervisors should consider a moratorium on rental increases and restrict applications for short-term vacation rentals to address the high cost of renting a home in the county. 

Beraud said that she thinks it’s important to provide enough housing so that people don’t have to rent and can “purchase a townhouse or condominium,” but also said that we should be developing more apartment buildings in the county. 

“I don’t think that short-term rentals would have that much effect on rentals in general,” she said. “I think it’s important that we welcome apartment complexes into our county and also making sure that we’re developing them around our transportation corridors. If we can start developing those and we have a greater supply, just like supply and demand, the prices will go down. I think it all ties back to housing and housing is something that we need to be working on all the time.”

Arnold spoke in support of short-term vacation rentals, saying that they are a tool that many vacation homeowners use to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of their vacation homes but also called for balance as not to turn local communities into “hotel rows.” She also spoke out against the government getting involved with regulating rent. 

“I do not think that regulation on rent — government interfering — is going to be a good way to go because historically, we see in other places that it just drives up the rental market and there aren’t any places to rent available because people don’t get into that business or want to invest in that business when they feel like they could get trapped in this situation that they can’t keep the expenses up or the rent that they can ask,” she said. “It’s a really slippery slope to have the county government try to involve themselves in rent control.”

 The election March 3 will decide who will take the District 5 supervisor’s seat. With only two candidates in the running, voters will make their decision as part of the March primary. District 5 includes the communities of Atascadero, Santa Margarita, California Valley, Creston, and parts of Templeton and San Luis Obispo. 

Make sure to pick up a copy of the Jan. 22 edition of the Atascadero News for a special Q&A session between the supervisor candidates and the newspaper’s editorial board. 

Getting through this together, Atascadero