By Joe Livernois
Gino Garcia says he’s the sort of guy who hangs out quietly in the back of the board rooms, watching and listening. Now, suddenly, he’s moved to the front of the Monterey City Hall chambers, the first Latino councilman in the city’s history.
Garcia, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, was selected from among 11 applicants to fill a vacant seat on the City Council on Monday. Garcia was raised in South Central Los Angeles and moved to Monterey 12 years ago with his wife, who was raised in Monterey. His selection completes a sweeping change in the culture and complexion of leadership during the past month, and is the last of a series of historic firsts for one of the most historic cities in California. Consider:
- Garcia is the first Latino to serve on the Monterey council.
- Tyller Williamson is not only the first Black mayor in Monterey, but he’s also the first gay mayor.
- Dr. Kim Barber, an administrator at CSU Monterey Bay, became the first Black woman on the council after running unopposed last month.
This comes after decades of representation and leadership that skewed Anglo since the day Walter Colton was elected the city’s first mayor in 1846.
“There’s a palpable positive change in the city today,” said Esther Malkin, an activist on behalf of the city’s renters.
Also, as Williamson pointed out, the recent changes to the council (including the appointment of the 43-year-old Garcia) lowered the median age of the City Council members from 60 to 52. The median age of Monterey’s residents is 36.9.
Significantly, Garcia lives in a section of the city — District 4 — with the highest percentage of minorities and the most renters. Williamson said that area hasn’t had any representation on the City Council for at least 50 years. The district abuts the city of Seaside and includes most of the city east of Highway 1.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Garcia said. “Just to see the change in the council’s complexion. To me it indicates that folks are eager for change.”
Garcia is an assistant planner for Ecology Action in Santa Cruz, an organization inspired by the first Earth Day in the 1970s that seeks to create community programs that promote climate-smart innovations.
With the current emphasis on affordable housing in the region, Garcia said his work at Ecology Action gives him a unique outlook on how new housing projects and growth can have the least impact on the environment. In his professional life, he advocates for safe routes to schools in neighborhoods, with an emphasis on increasing access for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Raised in a Spanish-speaking home in South Central Los Angeles and attending public school, Garcia says that his experiences in the inner city “prepared me to view things in a little bit more critical way.” He says he is an advocate for social justice, affordable housing and inclusion.
He still speaks Spanish at home, he said.
Becoming a city councilman in an upscale coastal community in Central California was about the last thing he expected to happen to him. “I mean, I never thought that I’d be living in Monterey, much less being a council member here,” he said.
Settled in with his wife and three children (including 12-year-old twins), he said he did hatch plans to run for City Council in 2024. The city recently carved itself into council districts, which means that council candidates are elected only by voters in the district — and not citywide.
Not only that, the Byzantine electoral procedures the city implemented years ago prevents sitting council members from keeping their positions if they run for mayor. That meant that because two existing council members — Williamson and Dan Albert Jr. — threw their hats into the mayoral race earlier this year, at least two seats on the council would be available. Barber took one of those positions with her election, but the other vacancy needed to be appointed by the rest of the council. And when that vacancy came up, Garcia said he decided to apply.
The council reviewed the resumes of the 11 applicants and heard presentations from each of them on Monday, and then appointed Garcia in about 30 minutes.
“In addition to being a great candidate on paper, he presented himself well during the in-person interviews,” Williamson said, by email. “The fact that he’s Hispanic, bringing much-needed representation to the largest minority group in the city (representing one-fifth of the city population), is a great addition.”
Garcia admits that he was a relatively “invisible” participant in city politics. He followed most meetings by Zoom and was a city representative for the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee for the Transportation Agency for Monterey County. He first got involved in the politics of the city with his active support for Williamson’s mayoral run.
During the meeting on Monday, Councilman Ed Smith said he believes Garcia has the type of experience “that will put him in a position to really, really grow very, very quickly into the … role of a city council member.”
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