Jose Gaspar

Sunday, Jun 16 2013 03:49 PM

JOSE GASPAR: New council member has heavy burden to bear

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Willie Rivera, 22, has just been elected to represent Ward 1 on the Bakersfield City Council.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Willie Rivera, new city councilman, helps Patricia Warner with the water in the front of her home in Bakersfield.

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By Jose Gaspar

The special election held earlier this month produced some most interesting observations. First, the Bakersfield City Council has some new blood with the election of Willie Rivera as the people's representative of Ward 1.

It was a crowded field with six candidates all giving it their best shot at getting elected. Rivera hails from San German, Puerto Rico. It's a small town, centuries old, with a population of around 35,000. Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth territory -- some would say colony -- the island's inhabitants are automatic U.S. citizens. That's where Rivera was raised the first 10 years of his life before his family moved to Bakersfield. Talk about culture shock.

"I remember listening to country music for the first time on KUZZ. I thought, 'Wow, this is really different than salsa and merengue,'" said Rivera. "I was just a sponge trying to absorb everything."

Apparently he's done a pretty good job of absorbing. A graduate of Bakersfield Christian High School, he then enrolled at Cal State Bakersfield and went on to Cal State Sacramento for two years, where he majored in government.

Did I mention Rivera is 22 years old? Many others have pointed this out with a sense of disbelief -- such a young person can't possibly be prepared to take a position on the Bakersfield City Council. No experience, they say. "He's just a kid" is another refrain.

True, Rivera is more than 30 years younger than some of the people he ran against. But is that inherently a handicap? In almost 25 years I've spent covering stories involving the Bakersfield City Council, I often wondered how some of the "mature" City Council people ever got elected to office.

Naturally I wondered if his election made the young man from Puerto Rico the youngest ever elected to the Bakersfield City Council. So I called City Clerk Roberta Gafford. No luck. It turns out there are no city records that go back far enough to determine if anyone younger was ever elected.

There are lots of old photographs of past City Councils, Gafford said, but it's hard to tell the age of those folks.

"In recent years, I would say it's highly likely that he is the youngest elected," said the city clerk.

There you have it. Sometimes I hear people say that today's youth have no clue to what's going on in their own community and have little interest in getting involved. Rivera was 15 when he got an internship with then 5th District Kern County Supervisor Michael Rubio and became hooked on public service.

Along with Jose Gurrola of Arvin, the two are most likely the youngest to serve on a city council in Kern County. Like Rivera, Gurrola defeated older candidates when he was elected to the Arvin City Council last year. Still a student at Bakersfield College, the 19-year-old sophomore found time to run a campaign and persuade voters in Arvin to elect him.

Like Arvin, Ward 1 has some really tough challenges all the way around. The community needs good, affordable housing in addition to low-income rentals for families. The area takes in the east and southeast side of town, making it one of the oldest parts of Bakersfield. And it shows.

Numerous streets desperately need upgrading beyond just fixing potholes. Many unsuspecting drivers find themselves slamming on the brakes at an intersection as the street suddenly takes a dip that rivals a roller coaster.

Neighborhood safety is another concern for the community. Rivera said he's got a list of things to do for the people of Ward 1 and is aware that he needs help from his colleagues and city staff to get those accomplished.

Getting jobs is one priority, Rivera said. He wants to make that part of town more attractive to industry and business by improving its aging infrastructure. Good thing Rivera has not lost his bilingual skills, because he will need it to communicate with a good portion of the community. As so often happens, when a non-native English-speaking youngster is educated, his or her native language skills diminish. Or you end up speaking Spanglish, a combination of Spanish and English.

Will Rivera be an effective leader for the community? That, of course, is how people will ultimately judge him. Whatever action he does or doesn't do will be scrutinized and either be chalked up to his inexperience or be seen as being "mature beyond his years." No pressure here. Welcome to the Bakersfield City Council, Willie.

Over in Wasco, voters rejected a ballot measure that would merge or unify the city's two school districts into one. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade attend the Wasco Union Elementary School District while high schoolers are in Wasco Union High School District.

Why a town such as this needs two separate school districts is baffling. But the practice is in compliance with the rest of Kern County, where we have 49 school districts, some of which are just blocks within each other. Out of 58 counties in California only Los Angeles has more, with 88 school districts. But is more necessarily better for students?

Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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