In Watsonville City Council’s District 7, two veterans square off

Nancy Bilicich (left) is challenging incumbent Ari Parker for the District 7 seat on the Watsonville City Council.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though four city council seats are up for grabs in Watsonville this November, only District 7 will see a contest — where current mayor Ari Parker will square off against longtime Watsonville politico and educator Nancy Bilicich. Lookout sat down with Parker and Bilicich to talk about their campaigns.

Four of seven seats on Watsonville’s city council are up for grabs this November.

But only District 7 — which straddles the easternmost corner of the jurisdiction and is bounded by Beck Street, Lake Avenue, Turtle Avenue, Rogers Avenue and Vermont Street — had more than one candidate surface before the Aug. 12 filing deadline. Incumbent Ari Parker, who has held the District 7 seat since 2018, will face off against Nancy Bilicich, a longtime educator and former Watsonville mayor and council member.

Watsonville ballot measures

A look at the propositions facing voters in the city of Watsonville on Nov. 8:

MEASURE Q: Would effectively renew Measure U, originally passed by Watsonville voters in 2002, which limited future residential, industrial and commercial development to within a defined urban limit line (ULL), the boundaries of which could not be changed unless approved by voters. If Measure Q passes, the ULL would not be able to be amended unless approved by voters until Nov. 3, 2040.

MEASURE S: The “Planning for Watsonville’s Future Measure” would, like Measure Q, renew Measure U, but would add exceptions to amending the ULL. If a project proposed outside the ULL meets certain criteria, subject to community input and environmental review, the ULL may be expanded to include it.

MEASURE R: The “Community Investment Tax Measure” would increase Watsonville’s sales tax rate from 9.25% to 9.75%, with new revenues — amounting to $5 million per year in general fund money — diverted toward infrastructure improvements and repairs, new playground equipment in city parks and schools and other community investments. It would also creates a “City Revenue Measure Oversight Committee” to review city spending at least biannually.

In the remaining districts on the ballot — 3, 4 and 5 — candidates Maria Orozco, Kristal Salcido and Casey Clark, all newcomers to the city council, are running unopposed. Though Providence Martinez and Angel Zuniga filed papers to run against Orozco and Clark, respectively, they did not qualify for the ballot because they lacked the minimum number of valid signatures endorsing their campaign, said Watsonville City Clerk Irwin Ortiz.

Lookout sat down with Parker and Bilicich to discuss their qualifications, campaign priorities and positions on key issues facing Watsonville voters. In addition to their positions on the three measures before Watsonville voters this November, we asked Parker and Bilicich about their outlook on public transportation, the development of Watsonville’s downtown and their plans to meet Watsonville’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers.

Nancy Bilicich

Bilicich, 71, is running for District 7 seat after a nearly 50-year career in local government and education.

After terming out of her nine-year stint on the Watsonville City Council (she was appointed to the District 7 seat in 2009 after the death of council member Dale Skillicorn, and was reelected twice), the former mayor and council member ran for the Santa Cruz County 4th District supervisorial seat in 2018, but finished fourth out of five candidates on the ballot during the first round of voting.

Nancy Bilicich, candidate in Watsonville City Council District 7.
Nancy Bilicich (left) alongside District 3 candidate Maria Orozco during a South County candidates forum last week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“In nine years on the council, I had a great time working with the public,” Bilicich said. “My campaign has nothing to do with my opponent. It’s about solving people’s problems.”

Since 2018, Bilicich has kept busy serving on the boards of the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA). PRFMA is the body overseeing the planning and construction of the Pajaro River levee, a $400 million project funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Water Resources. The project is expected to break ground in 2025, after “decades of discussion” within Watsonville, said Bilicich.

Bilicich’s background in education, which began in 1975 and consisted “primarily in teaching middle school” though she also worked as a middle and high school guidance counselor, has carried her throughout the halls of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD). She served as the principal and assistant principal at five PVUSD schools, including Watsonville High School, and was a PVUSD assistant superintendent for some years. Bilicich currently directs the Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education program, a position she has held since 2008.

On the ballot measures before Watsonville voters this November: Bilicich supports Measure Q instead of Measure S, saying she worries passing the latter measure would give the city council too much land-use authority and send Watsonville down a path to become like San Jose — where “some of the richest farmland in the world would be cemented over” to build new housing. Bilicich said the city should steer new housing developments toward infill lots within Watsonville’s current city limits, in lieu of expanding its borders.

“Councils come and go, but it’s their responsibility to represent the people,” Bilicich said. “And people don’t want the council to have that power.”

The city’s RHNA lift, like the rest of the county’s, is heavy: State leaders say Watsonville must construct 2,037 units of new housing by 2031, or else could lose the authority to review what housing projects are built within its borders. Bilicich supports new housing in Watsonville, but says the city will have to work with the people to find the right balance between meeting Watsonville’s housing needs and preserving the community as it is.

On alternative transportation, too, Bilicich says adding bus lines and bike lanes would rub against Watsonville residents’ habits — though she supports the long-term idea of connecting Santa Cruz County with a light rail line.

She opposes narrowing Main Street, Watsonville to two car lanes instead of four. That plan is enshrined in the proposed “road diet” that would see bike lanes added and sidewalks widened along the major downtown thoroughfare. Bilicich said the plan would worsen Watsonville’s already bad traffic situation, and lengthen response times for emergency vehicles.

“It would be great to see it work, but people are attached to their cars,” Bilicich said.

Bilicich also said she is against Measure R, and says she thinks it’s unlikely to pass. She pointed to the property tax assessment Watsonville voters approved this June to fund upkeep on the future Pajaro River levee, saying a sales tax increase would only worsen the financial strain on her constituents.

“The bottom line is, the timing’s not right,” Bilicich said.

Ari Parker

Parker, a veteran of the local politics scene and Watsonville’s current mayor, is seeking a second term as city council District 7’s representative.

First elected to the council in 2018, the 62-year-old Watsonville native aims to revitalize the town’s urban economy if elected. She currently works as a sixth grade teacher, and has been an educator for 34 years. She has served as a Santa Cruz County’s Women’s Commissioner and as commissioner of Watsonville’s Parks and Community Services department, along with a slew of other board and advisory roles.

Ari Parker, incumbent running for reelection in Watsonville City Council District 7.
Ari Parker during last week’s candidate forum in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You know what they say, ‘If you want a job done, have a busy person do it,’” Parker said.

Like Bilicich, Parker supports Measure Q, saying that at least for the next 18 years — the length of time before the current urban limit line (ULL) is up for amendment in 2040 — the locations where housing and commercial development in Watsonville is allowed to take place should remain static. She pointed toward the findings of Watsonville’s draft 2022 Downtown Specific Plan, which estimated that 3,910 new units could be built downtown alone through a mixture of new and infill development.

She added, though, that in July she and council members Jimmy Dutra and Lowell Hurst sought a compromise measure that would maintain the no-amendment-until-2040 terms of Q, but would allow the city to annex a 13.6-acre farm property at 320 Lee Rd. They were outvoted by council members Eduardo Montesino, Vanessa Quiroz-Carter, Francisco Estrada and Rebecca García, who supported the compromise’s countermeasure — what would become Measure S.

Parker is also against Measure R, citing the same property tax assessment recently passed by Watsonville voters to maintain the future Pajaro River levee. Many District 7 residents, she said, are seniors living on fixed incomes, and would feel the effects of a sales tax hike directly.

She also said during a forum of Watsonville City Council candidates on Wednesday that she doesn’t believe an oversight committee directing how general fund tax revenues should be spent would be effective.

“An oversight committee is not effective,” Parker said at the forum. “They have no bite. They can say, ‘No, it’s not good,’ but the councils of the future will take this money and do what they want.”

But her perspective on the way downtown Watsonville should be developed differs from Bilicich’s. Parker is for the “road diet” that would narrow Main Street, and said downtown Watsonville needs to become more bikeable and pedestrian-friendly if it’s to survive.

“No matter what, change is hard,” Parker said. “But in the end it will produce a greater, more vibrant Watsonville where people will get what they want: housing, entertainment, family times — the opportunity to walk and do an escape room and then go have something to eat.”


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