San Luis Obispo mayor candidates T. Keith Gurnee and incumbent Heidi Harmon met Tuesday, October 30, at the University Union Plaza stage for their final debate before election day. Each candidate answered questions submitted by both Mustang News and the audience and had time to provide a minute and a half response to each, along with a 30 second rebuttal.

Live fact checkers were on the scene to make sure what the candidates said in their arguments was accurate, as requested by Harmon.

Below are the candidates’ responses to key issues.

Positive growth in San Luis Obispo

Harmon stated she believes San Luis Obispo is a special place and community members have an obligation to keep it as such. She also said since the government will never develop into the city’s open space, the community needs to be smart about where affordable housing will be approved and developed. Harmon said she believes the city needs to increase density for greater affordability.

Gurnee stated he believes all growth in San Luis Obispo needs to be in line with the city’s character. He talked about his background in city planning and how he helped with the four transactions to permanently preserve Bishop Peak. Gurnee also proposed a design competition jointly sponsored by the city and Cal Poly to create a new living community on campus, “a village students would want to live in.”

In her rebuttal, Harmon said San Luis Obispo needs to stay economically vital in development. She said it is not just protecting what San luis Obispo is, but expanding who gets to be in San Luis Obispo by addressing diversity and affordability. Harmon also said San Luis Obispo is one of the least affordable and diverse cities in the United States.

In his rebuttal, Gurnee said that while there is an affordability crisis, San Luis Obispo is not one of the least affordable places to live in the United States. He said he wants to pursue housing projects that are affordable for working people.

Live fact checkers found that a survey from 2016 found San Luis Obispo County to be the sixth least affordable place to live in the United States.  

The debate was moderated by Mustang News anchors Connor McCarthy and Kayla Berenson. Kylie Kowalske | Mustang News

Noise violations

Harmon said she believes in more relationships and less ordinances. She said students are an integral part of San Luis Obispo and should not be looked at as a problem to solve, but as resources for our community. Harmon also said she is proud of her work toward better relationships so far, including her council making the party registration program permanent and voting against an expansion of the safety enhancement zone around St. Patrick’s Day.

Gurnee said he believes the Educated Renter Certificate Program, which helps students learn how to respectfully live in a community and find housing, is one of the main reasons noise violations are at a record low.

Heidi responded by saying one issue she has with noise fines is the discrepancy in students’ ability to pay. She said for some students a $1,000 fine may be manageable, but for others it could end their college career. Harmon said she is interested in working toward a community service program in place of fees.

Gurnee responded with the notion that noise ordinances also affect landlords and that the Educated Renter Certificate Program is also beneficial for them. He said he believes the program and fines currently in place are effective and should be kept.

Affordable housing in San Luis Obispo

Harmon said she has already helped update the city’s permitting fee process to incentivize smaller square footage, which will lead to more affordable homes, and also legalized tiny homes on owner-occupied land. She also said her council suspended a health and safety program that was overly aggressive and replaced it with a complaint-driven program.

Gurnee expressed concern over investors buying housing units meant for working class people. He proposed a stronger control on the resale of units and of renters to ensure that smaller homes and lots are going to working class people. Gurnee also said the city needs to look into further lowering fees attached to building new homes.

Harmon said she would like to see more students home sharing. She encouraged Cal Poly to look into building a model for students and seniors to share housing and enrich the community.

For Gurnee, The Academy at Chorro is an example of student housing that is out of character development that is too expensive. He said he believes The Academy is causing landlords to raise rent for other students in the surrounding area.

45 and 75 foot tall buildings

Gurnee said he believes the city council made a mistake when voting to allow 75-foot tall buildings in San Luis Obispo. He said he wants to limit the maximum height of new buildings downtown to three or four stories. Gurnee also expressed fear that 45- foot tall buildings would become the new norm in the city.

Harmon said she thinks density, enabled by 75-foot tall buildings, is more environmentally and culturally appropriate and will help people be closer to their work and public transportation. As of now, there are no 75-foot tall building in San Luis Obispo and Harmon said the council decided to make them an option if the developer can offer extra community benefits.

Kylie Kowalske | Mustang News

Bike routes and bike safety

One of Harmon’s major goals, she said, is providing safety for all forms of transportation, especially on the way to Cal Poly. She said the new Anholm bike path, which her council approved, will not only protect bicyclists, but pedestrians as well. She said her goal is to create valid options for multiple kinds of transportation

Gurnee responded, saying the City Council had their priorities mixed up in regards to bike infrastructure. Completing the rail trail should be the main focus for bike infrastructure, according to Gurnee.

He said the Anholm bike path is an example of the city adding exclusive bike paths to already safe streets. Gurnee said he lives in the neighborhood the path will be built through and said he never felt threatened or unsafe there.

When Harmon said residents of the neighborhood were supportive of the path for bicycle safety, Gurnee said the city’s own poll of nearly 300 residents in the neighborhood found three out of four residents were opposed to the bike path.

city council report on the Anholm bike path includes data from a neighborhood mailer survey and other surveys. The neighborhood mailer survey had 239 responses and found 63 percent of residents were in favor of an alternative solution.

Supporting sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors

When asked about supporting sexual assault survivors, Gurnee said the #MeToo movement is encouraging women to speak up and is helping police officers find sexual abuse perpetrators. He said the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) is doing a good job, but needs to have more staff and more tools to respond to these kinds of incidents.

Harmon said the entire country needs to undergo a cultural shift away from misogyny and patriarchal structures, which manifest into sexual violence. She said she gets calls from Cal Poly students who have been assaulted and do not feel like they are being supported in recovery.

Harmon said she has worked with Safer and RISE (Respect. Inspire. Support. Empower.) to address this issue. Harmon also said she has concerns about the Title IX process and will be meeting with Cal Poly officials to learn more about it and discuss its effectiveness.

Gurnee said he agrees Harmon has done a good job in this area, and he reiterated that San Luis Obispo needs to strengthen its police force.

Harmon said men and boys need to be included in the conversation about sexual assault to educate everyone and to not just put responsibility on the police, but also on the perpetrators.

The debate was held in the Julian A. McPhee University Union Plaza. Carolyne Sysmans | Mustang News

Lack of diversity

Gurnee said he felt affordability was one reason San Luis Obispo lacks diversity. He also said he believes addressing diversity through public policy is an odd problem and that racial and economic diversity is one of the great riddles of our time.

Harmon said Cal Poly and the community are inextricably linked in facing their lack of diversity, affordability and inclusivity. Harmon said it is incumbent upon leadership to take a stand with marginalized communities and said she is especially proud of the city replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. At this point, many audience members applauded Harmon. 

Gurnee said the need for immigration reform is a major issue nationally. He also said he wants to protect undocumented people and create paths toward citizenship, while still maintaining a secure border.

In Harmon’s rebuttal she said Gurnee does not support San Luis Obispo as a sanctuary city. She also said Gurnee compared the word NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) – a phrase used toward residents who do not want development – to the N-word. Harmon said this kind of communication, especially today, is a big concern for her.

Gurnee wrote “Let’s stop using the new N-word (NIMBY),” in a Cal Coast News column August 12.

Gurnee apologized for the comparison and said he has already apologized profusely for the statement. He said he also apologized to city council candidate Erica A. Stewart, who is half-Black. He said he believes both NIMBY and the N-word are pejorative terms meant to slight and marginalize an important population.

Building a better relationship between Cal Poly and the community

Both candidates advocate for more students to live on campus, which is a part of Cal Poly’s master plan. Both candidates said they advocate for students’ voices in the community. However, students who live on campus cannot vote for city government because Cal Poly is not within city limits.

When asked to address this contradiction, Harmon said that is something the city and Cal Poly need to talk about in the future. She said she would be open to potential annexation of Cal Poly into the city.

Harmon said she has involved students in other ways, beyond just their vote. She said she has monthly meetings with students and is on campus up to five times a week to speak during classes and events. She also said she tries to hire student interns and mentor students as much as she can. Harmon said she believes students are being demonized in the city. She said community members do not need to protect San Luis Obispo from students, people of color or people of lower economic brackets.

Gurnee said as a city council member during college, he was a strong advocate for students and will do so again if elected mayor. He said there have been previous pushes for Cal Poly to be annexed into the city that had failed. Rather than annexation, Gurnee recommended students get involved in local politics and try to join local councils or committees as he did while attending Cal Poly. 

Vote by November 6

For more information on the candidates and their platforms, read Harmon and Gurnee’s candidate profiles. Nov. 6 is the last day to vote for mayor.

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