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Oceano candidates disagree on public forum participation

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While candidate forums across San Luis Obispo County each feature a gallery of hopefuls contending for government, the discussion introducing the public to the Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) prospects might stand in stark contrast.

On Oct. 8, the Oceano Advisory Council sent an email invitation to OCSD appointed incumbent Steve Montes and Charles Varni, who is running against him in the November general election. But Montes declined to take part, sparking a slew of heated messages.

"I have received your invitation to attend a candidates forum, hosted by the OAC, where the chair of the OAC is my opponent and where its vice chair (you) was an opponent of mine just a few months ago for the OCSD seat which I now hold," Montes wrote in reply to OAC Vice Chair April Dury. "Based on the reasons, which I outline below, I don't think a meeting moderated by you can be either 'open' or fair."

Montes was appointed in May to finish the rest of former OCSD Director Cynthia Replogle's term after she resigned. He beat out Dury and Gary Hamel, who were also vying for a position on the OCSD board of directors. Now, he hopes to be elected to the seat.

In his reasons for declining the invitation, Montes said that the advisory council lost "considerable credibility" in the community for its belligerent meetings and Dury's cantankerous interactions on social media. He also cited low attendance at council meetings as a reason to not participate.

Montes told New Times that he had already taken part in a community discussion with Varni. On Oct. 2, he attended a forum hosted by Duna Vista Mobile Home Park. Prior to the event, Park Manager Pat Gilson told him five mobile home parks would attend, but Montes was in for a surprise.

"Of the five invited, there were approximately 14 people in the audience, and one of those people was my wife," he said. "I found out later that many of those residents already knew Charles or supported him. I felt set up a little."

Montes also expressed his preference for the other advisory body called the Vitality Advisory Council of Oceano. Varni then suggested a forum hosted by both advisory groups, but Adam Verdin, the VACO founding member, told New Times that holding a public political debate is "absolutely not something that we do."

The Duna Vista forum took place after both candidates received an invitation from the League of Women Voters on Sept. 26. Varni provided his list of available dates but Montes didn't respond until a week later with his own set. The league could not accommodate the forum because Montes' only available date was too short a timeline for them.

"Are these the same reasons you refused to cooperate with the League of Women Voters' desire to host a public forum with you and I?" Varni wrote in reply. "What are you afraid of, Mr. Montes?"

Now, the advisory council is set to host an online forum on Oct. 24 and Varni expects to be the only speaker. Montes told New Times he does not plan to attend and will focus on campaigning now that ballots are on their way to residents' mailboxes. At the Sept. 14 OCSD meeting, he recused himself from the board during public comment and pitched himself as the best candidate during the three-minute allocation.

"I think the people in Oceano are kind of sick and tired of getting the short end of the stick from the county and the OCSD," Varni told New Times.

He believes he is ready to usher in change and said that Montes represents the "same old." Varni is a proponent of sidewalk and street improvements, which have been a long-running need in the coastal town. While the OCSD does not have the authority to build sidewalks, he said the board could be a "bully pulpit" in Oceano.

If he wins the seat, Varni hopes to encourage a more robust application for grants. As the advisory council chair, he said he's already making headway when it comes to sidewalk improvements, what with the council, the Lucia Mar Unified School District, SLO Council of Governments, the county Planning and Public Works departments, and the Oceano Beach Community Association aiming to apply for a grant worth more $15 million from the State Active Transportation Program.

"Stormwater recharge will be part of this project, and OCSD could be cooperating and collaborating—seeking grant money in partnership—with the other agencies. There are all sorts of pots of money out there," Varni said. "OCSD currently thinks very narrowly and parochial."

Varni and Montes are also divided on fire services in Oceano. The former vocally opposed Measure A-22, a controversial flat parcel fire tax that would have supported fire and medical services through the Five Cities Fire Authority. Residents voted against it, leaving the OCSD wondering about the future of fire services. Varni wants them to contract with SLO County, but Montes said he's too focused on sidewalk renovation.

"If there's a medical emergency in Oceano, we're going to call the fire department not the contractor who put in the sidewalks," Montes said. Δ

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