SAN BENITO — Voters are calling for change in this town they claim has stood stagnant for decades.
On Saturday, residents elected former City Commissioner Rick Guerra as mayor, giving him 1,063 votes to defeat former Mayor Celeste Sanchez, a retired assistant superintendent and former city commissioner who drew 766 votes in a runoff election.
Mayor Ben Gomez, a school district parent educator who defeated Sanchez three years ago, picked up 1,563 votes in the Nov. 3 election, falling short of a second term.
Meanwhile, residents kept Commissioner Rene Villafranco, who won 957 votes to defeat Deborah Morales, who took 856 votes.
In last month’s election, change swept the commission as residents elected Rene Garcia, who won 2,720 votes to oust Commissioner Tony Gonzales, a former post office clerk who drew 2,375 votes after serving in office since 2009.
In the race to fill a one-term left open after Guerra resigned the commission’s Place 3 seat, Pedro Galvan, a pharmacist, won 2,961 votes to defeat former Commissioner Steve Rodriguez, a trucking company owner who drew 1,305 votes, and Joe Rodriguez, a retired computer analyst who picked up 772 votes.
Guerra, who served about 18 months in the commission’s Place 3 seat before resigning to run for mayor about a year ago, said he’s still views himself as a political newcomer.
“People wanted change,” Guerra, a retired firefighter, said Monday. “I still consider myself new. I’m not a politician.”
On the long campaign trail, Guerra ran on the slogan “Put San Benito First.”
“The people are yearning — they want transparency. They want to know what’s going on,” he said.
Guerra said he would work with commissioners to move the city’s forward.
“As long as I can reach out to the commission and we work with each other, we will move San Benito,” he said. “I want the people and the elected officials to know — the seats are not ours. They’re the people’s.”
During his tenure on the commission, Guerra and Gonzales pushed to fire City Manager Manuel De La Rosa, who won the support of Villafranco, Gomez and Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez.
Guerra said he planned to work to fix the city’s pothole-riddled streets while helping to bring new business to the city’s downtown.
Guerra vowed to work with downtown property owners to open the area to more merchants.
“We have to reach out to the property owners — what’s going on? Why don’t you rent them out? What can the city do or what is the city lacking to get you guys to open up?” he asked.
Guerra said he planned to help small businesses grow as national chain stores pull back amid the coronavirus pandemic’s economic slowdown.
“What are going to help us are the mom-and-pop stores,” he said. “I don’t know what big stores would come into San Benito now.”
Guerra said he’d consider looking south of the border to bring warehousing into the area.
“We’re close to the border — can we bring something from Mexico here, like storage?” he asked.
Garcia agreed residents are calling for change.
“The citizens have spoken,” said Garcia, a Social Security Administration employee who serves as vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and vice chairman of the San Benito Housing Authority. “They wanted change in the leadership.”
Like Guerra, he said he planned to work with commissioners to help transform the city.
“I intend to continue working for the citizens of San Benito and working in cooperation with the city commission including the mayor,” he said.
Garcia said he also wanted to work with De La Rosa to meet goals.
“I’m in favor of working with the city manager,” he said.
“The city manager can only do what the leadership directs him to do as far as goals and visions for the city,” he said. “The city commission sets the goals and plans. The city manager needs to be directed with goals, visions and plans for five years and beyond.”
Garcia said he would work to develop a master plan aimed at fixing the city’s streets.
“Streets have always been a priority. It’s a whole lot of streets and a whole lot of money,” he said. “We always make promises. We failed through the years go keep up what we had. Now it’s time to come up with a comprehensive plan to fix all streets in San Benito.”
Garcia said he would work with the city’s EDC to help revitalize the downtown area.
“Downtown will remain the heart of San Benito,” he said. “The EDC will be spearheading the effort to revitalize downtown along with the city administration.”
Meanwhile, Galvan said residents voted in a new mayor and commissioners to carry the city into the future.
“This gave them the opportunity to put someone in who respects their opinion and is willing to hear their voices,” he said.
Galvan said he would work with the commission to take the city “to the next level.”
“I want to see unity on the board,” he said. “I look forward to working with the newly elected officials so we can keep San Benito progressing. We’re going to be trying to work together as best as we can for San Benito. If we show unity as a board, the citizens will start following to propel San Benito to the next level.”
Galvan said his goals are similar those of the city’s other newly elected officials.
“If you look at their platforms, the goal is to make San Benito better,” he said.
Galvan said he wants the city’s administrators to focus on residents’ concerns.
“I want to see customer service on the city administration side,” he said. “We have to hear every citizen’s concerns.”
Like Guerra, Galvan said he wanted to hire a grant writer to help the city find money to help fund major projects, such as street repairs.
Galvan also said he planned to work with merchants to help the city’s small businesses grow.
“I want to work with the small businesses in town, go to these small businesses and hear what they have to say,” he said. “We have to provide them with correct resources and promote them.”