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Arroyo Grande has three mayor candidates 

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The Revolutionary War. Water polo. Ding Dongs.

The three candidates vying for Arroyo Grande's mayoral seat are respectively banking on these symbols and more in their campaigns for November.

Incumbent Caren Ray Russom is hoping to retain her position for a third term, and she has competition from Gaea Powell—whose campaign materials state that she was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff—and Vietnam War veteran Dale Hanson.

NEW COMPETITION Longtime Arroyo Grande Mayor Caren Ray Russom (center) hopes to retain her seat against Gaea Powell (left) and Dale Hanson (right), both of whom questioned "conflicts of interest" in city leadership. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ARROYO GRANDE CANDIDATE FORUM
  • Photos Courtesy Of Arroyo Grande Candidate Forum
  • NEW COMPETITION Longtime Arroyo Grande Mayor Caren Ray Russom (center) hopes to retain her seat against Gaea Powell (left) and Dale Hanson (right), both of whom questioned "conflicts of interest" in city leadership.

Arroyo Grande hosted a candidate forum on Sept. 22 to introduce the trio and three City Council candidates to residents who will be casting votes for them in the city's first by-district races.

At that meeting, Hanson not only criticized Arroyo Grande's handling of the water shortage but also questioned the City Council's "ethics" when making decisions that affect them financially. Powell highlighted "conflicts of interest" as one of her reasons for running for mayor.

"I don't think that the elected officials should be involved in influencing and voting on any AirBnB type of resolutions," Powell told New Times.

Earlier this month, the City Council voted to amend its vacation rental ordinance. But before it did so, the usual five-person council shrunk to three in compliance with California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) guidelines. Many Arroyo Grande council members own or operate vacation rentals, so the FPPC recommended that they draw straws to determine who would serve as the necessary three-party quorum while the other two leaders recused themselves from making a decision on the ordinance.

They adopted a similar practice in February when the council discussed accessory dwelling unit regulations.

Powell said that people who don't own vacation rentals should ultimately have the power to make decisions about it.

"I don't know if there needs to be a special assembly of people who don't have a special interest like myself. That's another question that needs to be discussed," she said. "What does happen when the entire City Council has a conflict of interest? Drawing straws is not a good resolution to that."

Powell, the consulting director of a holistic medical office in Pismo Beach, is also unhappy with the messaging around COVID-19, when Arroyo Grande declared a public health emergency and initiated shutdowns during the thick of the pandemic. She called Penny Borenstein, the San Luis Obispo County public health director, a "dictator" who was "obviously following [Gov. Gavin] Newsom's lead."

"With the COVID situation, when mayors and other politicians start to do commercials instructing citizens to actually take medication in order to be safe," she said. "I think that's outrageous. It would be like Elon Musk asking me to do a presentation on SpaceX."

Powell said she ultimately wants local leaders to uphold the Constitution. Another old-school mainstay occupies the mind of the self-styled "Constitutional rights advocate."

"I was also inspired by the Revolutionary War. The small towns and villages were instrumental in winning that war. Obviously, we're kind of a peaceful revolution but people definitely need to talk to each other," she said. "We need a Bill of Rights for parents to make sure their rights are protected when it comes to decisions about their children."

Mayor Russom said she's confident she'll hold onto her seat. Seasoned since 2005 thanks to her debut on Arroyo Grande's political scene as a city planning commissioner, Russom is separating herself from the pack by highlighting her break from gender norms. Her website states that she was the only woman who played on the Cuesta College men's water polo team, and that she was the first woman in 20 years to serve on City Council when she was first appointed in 2010. In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the county Board of Supervisors to see through the remainder of late Supervisor Paul Teixeira's term.

"My success of leadership during COVID was that I didn't take any one person's point of view. My job was to balance all of it," she said. "We had to navigate what we were being told to do by the county and the state, and make sure people were both physically healthy and economically healthy."

Russom added that while she's focused on the general plan updates, she will give special attention to residents' main concerns: addressing a water shortage, affordable housing, and street improvements.

Hanson believes his "diverse" leadership background makes him the ideal mayor for Arroyo Grande. At the candidate forum, he detailed his progression in military ranks over 30 years. In 2013, he ran for City Council but lost to Kristen Barneich. As a mayoral candidate, he wants to focus on increasing the reserve allocation and avenues to collect sales tax.

The most important thing, he said, is to understand people's needs. He illustrated his point with a memory from his time in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as an instructor at Command and General Staff College.

"After lunch break, I had Ding Dongs passed out to students," Hanson said. "I said, 'Take the cream filling out, what do you have?' They said, 'Oh! Something other than a Ding Dong.' That's the point. Going into battle, you do not want to leave anything off the ingredients. You want to cover everything." Δ

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