Editor's Note: This is a part of a series of stories on how mayor and council hopefuls would address various municipal issues.
It is, in most cases, just green grass, a scattering of trees and some playground equipment.
But in many of Manteca’s 50-plus parks Ben Cantu sees the potential to reduce gang activity in the coming years by placing city-sponsored after-school recreation programs at neighborhood parks. The candidate for Manteca mayor in the upcoming Nov. 2 election believes getting kids into safe and wholesome diversions in their own neighborhood through playground programs where hired city recreation leaders can also serve as mentors is the best shot Manteca has at weakening the growing grip gangs have on the community.
And on that list of potential safe havens for kids away from the influence of gangs also are the community gyms the city and district partnered in at the Neil Hafley, Stella Brockman, Golden West, and Shasta elementary school campuses.
It is part of Cantu’s four-pronged approach to what he considers the biggest pressing issue facing Manteca today - crimes.
The others are:
•restoring the gang unit to increase the level of intelligence gathering.
•adding gang officers to allow for prolonged surveillance of problem gangs
•diligent patrol efforts.
Cantu is running against incumbent Mayor Willie Weatherford, former mayor and former newspaper publisher Carlon Perry, and Councilwoman as well as Manteca Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive officer Debby Moorhead.
Cantu, a retired city planner, calls public safety his top priority. He noted the fire department is in good shape but is critical of the position that the police department is in today with 24 less sworn officers than three years ago including 12 officers that were laid off last October.
Ben Cantu blames the reduction of Manteca’s front-line officers from 82 to 59 on “poor fiscal management of the city budget” over the years.
He concedes, though, that due to the economy returning back police to the level of three years ago it will take some doing as well as some time.
“Once I’m elected I’ll push to revisit budget priorities to make sure the No. 1 concern of public safety has (as much) funding as possible,” Cantu said.
In terms of bringing back the 26 officers lost to position freezes, early retirement, and layoffs Cantu said he doesn’t have a “crystal ball” as to when it would occur but that under any circumstances restoring money to the police budget to hire back officers has to be the highest priority.
Cantu added that he wasn’t “going to rely on staff to say what the needs are for the city.”
“I’m going to talk to the department heads, the employees and community residents to see what is needed for Manteca,” he said.
And based on conversations with residents the current top priority is combating gangs. “In my opinion, gangs in our community fall into three areas - young homegrown wannabes, gang members that have moved here with their families, and gang members passing through the area,” Cantu said. “The proper response to the gang problem should be sustained resources that focus on the youth that are vulnerable to gang participation, continued support of the gang response unit and intelligence gathering, and support of the heightened streets patrol units. I firmly believe that sustaining public safety involves the mentoring of our youth, obtaining intelligence, prolonged surveillance, and diligent patrol. Under the current mayor and council, this is not the case.”
Cantu noted that in a month’s time this summer Manteca has experienced over seven gang-related shootings and one related death.
He noted gang members are “well aware” of the reductions in the police gang unit and the overall force of sworn officers shrinking to 59.
“While the chief of police and our safety people, including the (Seniors Helping Area Residents and Police) SHARPs, perform admirably under the given circumstances and limited resources, it is only a matter of time before the situation results in collateral damage,” Cantu added.