Meet the Mayors, part III: Woodlake, Exeter
By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – Unlike major cities to the north and south, the mayors of Tulare County are selected from among their fellow city council members. They have no more voting power than those to their left and right but they do play an important role in setting the tone for the council. The mayor not only signs checks for employees but is also the public face of the council to the community. They are asked to be model citizens and carry themselves with impartial pride in the largely non-partisan seats.
Every two years, city councils reorganize and select new mayors as seats change hands following the November election. Late last year Woodlake mayor Rudy Mendoza remained in the center of the council in the midst of his fourth term in that seat since 2012. Recently re-elected Mary Waterman-Philpot takes her first term as mayor.
Woodlake’s mayor is not shy about promoting his town. Although he may not be promoting the things most mayors dream about. Instead he is shining a light on the little things that make the city run smoothly.
In terms of projects Rudy thinks they are going to continue to build on infrastructure and the South Valencia project including curb, gutter sidewalk, but also improve the way people come and walk through town.
“One of the things that very few cities are able to actually do is work on local streets because of a lack of funding. So, we are going to take every opportunity in partnership with our local sales tax measure, Measure R. Those are things that many people don’t think about because it’s not sexy but the last thing you want is people to start complaining about pot holes,” Mendoza said.
Then again, there are some of the big ticket items the City can point to as positive growth. For Mendoza, it is the Auto Zone that’s half way through construction on Naranjo Boulevard. Mendoza says people are excited about the business developments in town, and Auto Zone is a good example of what they hope the business district will continue to bring.
In terms of residential growth, Mendoza says that Woodlake is looking forward to some Self-Help Enterprise housing projects. He also identified market rate housing availabilities near Castle Rock Elementary ranging between $190,000 and $200,000.
“[More housing] does two things. It provides available housing stock because we have been low on affordable housing for a while. But one thing we are not short of is people looking to buy a house in Woodlake,” Mendoza said. “That’s why going back to those not so sexy things are so important because you have to be poised for that growth and provide those services when you have the opportunity to expand.”
One of the most controversial issues that faced Woodlake in the last two years was their welcoming stance on commercial cannabis. Woodlake is the only city in Tulare County to profit off of a commercial cannabis dispensary so far. Meanwhile, Seven Point, a cannabis cultivator has rehabilitated a once abandoned packing house across from the Dead Rat Saloon that will add to their approximately quarter million cannabis tax income so far.
As a part of the council in 2017 and 2018 Mendoza said the City was sure to do their fair share of research before welcoming commercial cannabis with open arms.
“I think the key to all this is before we ever allowed the doors to open, we did our best to study how other communities across the country who allowed it, what they did right and what they did wrong. We did a lot of research for about a year,” Mendoza said.
And the results have been favorable. With the exception of a one-off attempted robbery that ultimately ended in an arrest, Valley Pure, Woodlake’s downtown dispensary, has been rather quiet. Even better, Mendoza says he has seen a pick up of foot traffic into downtown businesses and restaurants.
“People are not just coming in and buying pot they are spending their local dollars at local businesses…so it’s had a positive impact on local businesses as well,” Mendoza said.
The tax dollars collected by the City has led to benefits for the Woodlake Police Department. Early on Valley Pure bought a dog for the Woodlake K-9 unit as a show of good will. But tax revenue has also provided new equipment and a new police car. And for the community, cannabis tax dollars have helped provide smaller neighborhood parks and park equipment.
“We’re very open about what we do with this revenue and we flaunt it. When people don’t question what happened to their money they see that we are doing what we said we would,” Mendoza said. ‘If we say we’re going to do something we deliver on it.”
Growing Woodlake with purposeful intent has been the motivation for Mendoza since he has been on the council and particularly since he has been mayor. When it comes to his track record, Mendoza points to doing his homework to make the best decision possible. Cannabis and retail have been major parts of his time on council.
“We just don’t let someone come in with a check and say okay open your doors. We want to partner with you and if you are going to open a business in Woodlake then we want you to be as successful as you can possibly be,” Mendoza said.
One such partnership was with Rite Aid. The pharmacy and one stop shop has provided Woodlake residents with a great place to go when they are on the go.
“Rite Aid has come in and provided a valuable service that is open late. And now there is Auto Zone, and I think that’s because it is rather easy to do busy in Woodlake,” Mendoza added. “What I’ve learned is that it’s a game of inches…sometimes its about formulating some plays that will eventually get you a touchdown.”
Mary Waterman- Philpot
Mary Waterman-Philpot was reelected to her seat last November, and then was quickly ushered into the center of dais. And as the first time mayor, Waterman-Philpot will oversee a time of sudden change in the city.
Last year Exeter realized their budgetary woes were not going to be solved by just cutting costs. As of last June the City was able to bring their budget into balance, and had a $20,000 deficit to close before June of this year. Between now and then city staff and the council will be looking into a local sales tax initiative to help repair some of the roads around town and ensuring the City’s water system is reliable.
While most cities have raised their sales tax rate to 8.75%, a full percent above the minimum in Tulare County, Exeter is not positive if they should meet their counterparts or vie for a lower increase.
“The sales tax increase is still unclear. We’re still trying to figure out how much money we are going to need and how we are going to distribute it,” Waterman-Philpot said.
The weight of being mayor in small town, for a second term councilwoman could be difficult to bear. But Waterman-Philpot says there are a few things she has learned since she joined the city council. Mostly, she has found out that the council can’t make everyone happy and government moves slow.
“You can’t say that sounds like a good idea so lets just do that you have to go through all the legal and political steps,” Waterman-Philpot said.
The take is not so surprising. Exeter’s mayor has been self employed for the majority of her professional career. And she noted that in the private sector it is a lot easier to take ideas and put them into action. In government, stakeholders have to weigh in and the public needs to be informed before the City can move on an idea.
But when it comes to getting the community involved, Waterman-Philpot is not opposed. In fact she would rather see the chambers filled to the brim with residents ready to tell their councilmembers what they think instead of saying what they think on social media.
“I’d like to invite the community to come to the meetings and be involved. What I try to do when people complain online I respond by asking what they think the solution should be. Our meetings are on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. I encourage the community to actually be a part of the community,” Waterman said.
Clearly she has put her money where her mouth is. Waterman-Philpot says she wanted to play a role in her community, and she wants Exeter to do the same.
“I love Exeter but I wasn’t going to just sit back and let things happen and not have a voice in my community,” Waterman said.