Anna Velazquez for Mayor supporters walk through the streets of Soledad last year | Provided
By Yajaira Garcia Meza
History was made in Soledad last year when voters elected the first female mayor in the city’s 99-year history. Soledad City Council member Anna Velazquez bested incumbent Frank Ledesma in the November election. After a decade, Soledad is under new leadership.
Velazquez said she hopes to accomplish her ambitious vision for the future by bringing in all residents’ voices. In her new capacity, Velazquez is also serving as the chair of the Monterey County Mayors Association, president of the Monterey Bay division of the League of California Cities, co-chair of the Monterey Salinas Transit, and the board of directors for Central Coast Community Energy. She is also district director for state Sen. Anna Caballero.
Married with two children, Velazquez grew up in Soledad and went to Fresno State where she earned a degree in criminology. After working for the City of Salinas for 20 years, she also worked in administering federal funds for housing. Although running for political office was not something that she ever envisioned, she asked herself, “How can I change the things that I do not like in my town?” That inspired her to run for Soledad City Council in 2016.
Velazquez spent time with young journalist Yajaira Garcia Meza for a question-and-answer interview. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Voices of Monterey Bay: What were your accomplishments as a City Council member?
Velazquez: In initiating a Youth City Council and adding funding. I made sure that the youth commission had an allocation of $10,000. Obviously, that is not enough. I do want to give credit to other individuals that were instrumental in moving that vision forward. I also advocated for an inclusive park —we need an inclusive park and we do not have that available for our families. Orchard Lane Park, a massive park with an inclusive play yard (accessible to those with special needs or disabilities), will be coming (to fruition) in the next two years. We are working together with the Tatum’s Garden Foundation to make sure that the elements that they included are also included in our playground.
Another success is being able to bring other resources. You hear this all the time, South County is lacking resources. We had several different resources that came, like the first mom webinar through the county. It talked about the issues that first-time moms go through and what are the resources available. We did training because when we talk about affordable housing, people have to understand how that happens and how we bring (those resources). We worked with Monterey Bay Economic Partnerships, we (hosted) a housing 101.
If I want transparency and accountability, it is important for me to look at local government and its policies and how they can become inclusive for everyone. Anna Velazquez
VOMB: As mayor of Soledad,what are the goals that you have for your tenure?
Velazquez: I came in with different goals in terms of continuing working with affordable housing, workforce development, and greater transparency and accountability; sometimes we do not have that. One of my goals is to really make sure that people understand that they are part of the process and their voice is important. Also, that we provide information to our community on how critical their voice is and how to find these opportunities for their voices to be heard; transparency and accountability are huge for me. When people talk about politicians and they say to me, you are a politician, I say no, I am a public servant, I am not a politician. I have been a public servant all of my life working with the City of Salinas.
My goals changed from when I campaigned to really look at the recovery for the pandemic. No one knew that we would have a worldwide pandemic. At least for the next two years, (will be to focus on) …some projects that are really significant. One of them being the partnership with the Hartnell Education Center, it is going to be completed already. We have to make sure that our students have the opportunity to take classes locally. We continue to support academic institutions in our community and that support academics for our students.
Although I wish all students will go to college, some of them will not, so how will we provide those pathways for workforce development. We know that there is already data on agriculture and health — they are two big job employers. We make sure that our families and students have those pathways to enter into that job market that pays more money.
When we talk about agriculture, we have to change that lens, what I grew up with was that my dad worked hard in the fields so I would not have to. Now for me, it is not looking at agriculture as a bad component but where the opportunities for agriculture are, there are so many opportunities in STEM and technology and to really have our students realize our valley is agriculture whether we like it or not how can we take advantage of what we do have, and to see it as a blessing. Why can’t we create different pathways for our families and students to become those scientists that are needed in agriculture by creating different types of commodities?
Technology is huge, why do we not have those students that can create those apps or what are the systems needed to determine the water rations or any of the systems that farmers need. If our students are saying “I want to be a farmer,” why are we not supporting more of the initiatives so they can become their own boss and continue to produce what everyone talks about, what we are known for as the Salad Bowl of the World.
VOMB: Common concerns are starting to happen in the growth of small towns. Some people want to see Soledad grow, others don’t. Overall what is your perspective on gentrification and welcoming outsiders?
Velazquez: I welcome them, but I understand that as we grow we have to have smart growth policies and that means I have to be able to look at our existing families that live here and say, “How do we not push them out? Do they have the housing that we need?” and “What are the resources that they are lacking?”. It is about being able to balance that.
I do not want to have houses being built for people coming from different areas if our families can not afford to buy these homes. Many families have lived here all their lives and have contributed to Soledad in many ways, and we want those people to stay. I want to make sure that we are not gentrifying those who have been here for generations. I welcome newcomers but I want to make sure we are taking care of our families.
We also have to focus on continuing with economic development. We (want) to continue to build those spaces so families can enjoy their leisure time here so they can make memories here and not have to travel to Salinas or Monterey. So are the other elements in terms of growth not just building housing but building the commercial and retail needed. When you continue to grow and expand, you want those commercial sales taxes to stay here.
We have grown a bit (but) we need more. We need more diversification in our restaurants, we need more spaces for family entertainment, Soledad’s median age is 35 and when families are that young they have children and they want parks and recreational spaces. Parks, arts and music are really important to me. How do we bring more of those elements?
All of the small towns need to find their charms and look at how we transform our communities and highlight the charms that we do have, not in the scale of tourism like the Peninsula but a different type of tourism that provides people that come into our communities with a different sense and perspective. There is beautiful art, culture and food. I want a cultural center but besides (that), we need spaces where we can really celebrate our diverse cultures.
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