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Taking better advantage of Martinez’s waterfront, bringing local businesses back to health post-COVID-19, fighting homelessness and preparing for big changes at local refineries that have provided jobs and direct financial support for a century were among the main points of discussion at a recent City Council candidate forum.

The two-hour forum, sponsored by the Martinez Chamber of Commerce, included three candidates from District 2, where Mark Ross seeks a seventh four-year term, and from District 3, whose incumbent, Noralea Gipner, is going for a second term.

Ross said that years of talks and negotiations have finally resulted in the city taking title to a big chunk of waterfront near the marina, after decades of leasing it from the state. Ownership, Ross said, allows the city to find prospective partners for development of a waterfront restaurant and/or other attractions.

Gipner, Brianne Zorn and Danial Leahy agreed, but all said rising water levels brought about by climate change could imperil any waterfront uses within 30 years, if they aren’t built properly. And Alice Rain Marazzani said the area should be more of a recreation destination (with rental of kayaks, boats and the like) than it is now.

Zorn, an environmental scientist, is going up against Gipner in District 3, while political novices Leahy — a mentoring tutor of middle and high school students — and Marazzani, a social media marketing professional, are challenging the long-term incumbent Ross.

Dissecting the districts

Martinez’s council districts are curiously drawn, with all four districts reaching to the northern shoreline, and each having a share of the downtown area. District 2 includes much of the city’s industrialized waterfront, and stretches down to state Highway 4 near Morello Avenue. District 3 also drops down south from the waterfront and downtown to Highway 4, stretching all the way to the city limit near Pacheco Boulevard.

All five candidates said big changes are likely at PBF Energy’s Martinez refinery (formerly Shell), with the gradual move from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives nationally and internationally. The Marathon refinery east of Martinez is already preparing for a switch from crude oil refining to biodiesel, and the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo plans to become the largest renewable fuels refinery in the world by 2024.

Zorn said that physical remediation and cleanup of this and other area refineries could potentially become its own locally based industry; all said keeping the refinery, whatever it may become, open and involved in Martinez as Shell was for so many years is crucial, and that the city needs to be proactive in that.

All five said they favor more work in keeping businesses downtown and in other parts of the city, and that the city could take an increasing role in that. Leahy said outside dining on weekends isn’t enough, and that closing Main Street completely may better serve downtown restaurants and other merchants. He also suggested city grants and short-term loans to help merchants through the pandemic.

Ross said Martinez should continue to work toward a “mercantile economy” that draws people downtown with quirky, off-beat retailers that generally aren’t found in surrounding cities. He also said the city, merchants and entities like the chamber need to work together better, “with oars in the water going the same way.”

Candidates were also largely in agreement on other issues, including keeping the city’s budget in line (and dealing with unfunded pension costs) and getting residents more involved in city government.

Divergence on social reforms

During a forum where significant disagreements were few and far between, there was some divergence on the city’s reaction so far to “Black Lives Matter” and other issues stemming from the May killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, and the discovery soon thereafter of white-power fliers in Martinez.

Incumbents Ross and Gipner pointed to the city’s recently created Anti-Racism and Discrimination and Pro Inclusion and Equity Task Force as a measure to meet the moment. Zorn, a member of the city’s Parks, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission, said she thinks the anti-racism panel should be a full commission.

And while Ross and Gipner said Martinez voters’ 75-percent passage in 2018 of a new tax to fund police services shows residents’ feelings on that issue, Marazzani and Leahy said they would favor reallocating some police money to pay for people providing mental health and other services that could help keep police officers doing the work for which they were trained.

Perhaps the greatest diversity was revealed when the five candidates were asked what their top personal issue would be if they win in November. Gipner said she would continue her work with the homeless, and hopes to establish transitional housing in a second term; Ross said his emphasis would be on safety, including police and fire protection. Zorn said preserving and acquiring open space is a personal priority, and Leahy said working to eliminate empty retail storefronts would take precedence. Marazzani said she would work to play up Martinez’s high points, so more people would visit her city.

A video of the forum can be viewed on Facebook.