Local Elections

West Sacramento race focuses on homelessness, city amenities

Two West Sacramento City Council incumbents are asking voters to re-elect them as housing and entertainment projects bring new life to the riverfront and the city continues its redevelopment efforts.

A pair of challengers say the council has done too little to combat homelessness and must work harder to provide amenities for the growing number of young professionals moving to the city.

Mayor Pro Tem Mark Johannessen, 58, and Councilman Chris Ledesma, 47, sit on a City Council that has embraced new projects following the recession, with the Bridge District development taking shape along the Sacramento River as the most visible example.

“We have a good team,” Johannessen said. “People feel vested in the outcome. Folks in West Sacramento feel the city is going in the right direction.”

Jeff Lyon, 58, a challenger who retired from the state Department of General Services and who is an advocate in his Washington neighborhood, has loudly criticized City Hall for its handling of homeless issues.

West Sacramento has one of the highest homeless populations in Yolo County, according to a 2013 county homeless census. Many of the homeless live north of the Broderick Boat Ramp, near the Washington neighborhood and where the city plans to remove the campers.

A Yolo County pilot project in West Sacramento called Bridge to Housing aims to move homeless residents temporarily into a city-leased motel where they are assigned case managers, receive community services and could qualify for more permanent housing via a county housing voucher program. Yolo County and West Sacramento will share the cost of the estimated $100,000 pilot program.

Johannessen said the first goal is to find housing for homeless residents and provide services, then make sure they have someone they can go to for help. The program is tentatively set to start Nov. 12, according to City Manager Martin Tuttle.

Lyon is openly suspicious, calling it an election-time ploy “so incumbents can show they’re doing something about the problem.” He said money to fund the program should be shifted to police services.

Lyon predicts the project will fail. He fears relocating homeless people to a motel will open the door to higher crime, vagrancy and drug use. He says the county-city pilot duplicates services already available in Yolo County. Instead, Lyon would offer transportation and other vouchers “to get the homeless off the streets and to services that taxpayers are already paying for. ... If they don’t want the services, they’ll have to move elsewhere.”

Johannessen and Ledesma defended the pilot program and the city’s record on homeless issues.

“You can’t just ship the homeless to other jurisdictions. You can’t arrest your way out of homelessness,” Johannessen said. “Zero tolerance addresses symptoms, not causes.”

“These are not issues that have popped up in the past year,” Ledesma said in a separate interview. “We know we have challenges. These are complex social issues in every urban area of the country, but there are things that we have done and continue to do.”

Another challenger, Nancy Heth-Tran, 29, said the city is not doing enough to attract and keep young professionals – and the money they spend – in West Sacramento.

Heth-Tran, an energy specialist at the California Energy Commission and resident of West Sacramento’s Ironworks development, said restless young professionals still look across the river to Sacramento for better entertainment options and activities. She wants that to change.

“Where I live, in Ironworks, there are a lot of young professionals. What I hear from them is that there aren’t a lot of amenities. Activities, parks, coffeehouses – you want to keep those things in West Sacramento. People are willing to pay,” Heth-Tran said. “(City leaders) are saying, ‘We’re working on that.’ They have these plans in place, but these plans don’t keep people” in West Sacramento.

Heth-Tran also supports infill development and said she will work to help West Sacramento become a greener, more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly city.

But both Johannessen and Ledesma say they are already tackling these issues.

“I have the most experience of all the people running, in terms of what’s been building and improving the business climate,” Johannessen said. “West Sacramento has always been about recognizing that the city has different components – suburbs, downtown – smart growth is something we’ve been doing. We plan for bicycle and bus routes. What (Heth-Tran) is saying is right, but we’re doing it already. We’ve been focusing on this all along.”

Ledesma said he and his council colleagues have been focused for several years on high-density housing, a streetcar line and infill development.

“These aren’t pipe dreams anymore,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.