The new year begins with new leadership at Shafter city hall.

Last month, veteran Shafter councilman Gilbert Alvarado was voted in as mayor and newly elected councilman Cesar Lopez named mayor pro-tem. In Shafter, the five city council members nominate and elect a mayor and mayor pro-tem from among their own ranks every two years.

In this case, Alvarado defeated longtime incumbent, Mayor Cathy Prout, by a 3-2 vote. Prout was then nominated for mayor pro-tem, but she lost again by a 3-2 vote to the rookie, Lopez.

Alvarado was ecstatic about being elected mayor, a post he says has eluded him in past years.

Despite first being elected to the city council in 2008, Alvarado says he was never nominated for mayor. Until Lopez did so.

"They (other council members) knew I was interested in being mayor and unfortunately politics played a role in this and I was blocked out," said Alvarado, who works as systems operator for the Semitropic Water Storage District.

Raised in Ventura County, Alvarado and his wife Martha were living there for a while, but the high cost of living on the coast prompted them to relocate to Shafter, Martha's home town.

The couple arrived in 1994, and at first things seemed a bit strange. "Coming to Kern County, I was very shocked. Sometimes I was scratching my head wondering, 'Am I back in the south, or where am I?'" he said. But he quickly adapted, immersing himself in community, civic and his children's sports activities.

Though Shafter is 83 percent Hispanic, Alvarado is just the second Hispanic mayor in the city's history. Fran Florez was the first when she served 2004-06.

His priorities as mayor include making sure no neighborhood gets left behind as the city continues to grow and develop. He credits city staff and ex-mayor Prout with doing a good job of making sure the city is financially sound.

The city is home to the Wonderful Industrial Park, which provides hundreds of jobs and is expected to continue to grow as it attracts new businesses.

That's all well and wonderful, said Alvarado. But.

"I feel like if we don't balance our economic growth, this could turn some areas in Shafter into like east Bakersfield," said the new mayor. "We've got to come back to our roots, back to the core, and try to start investing back and meeting the needs of the community."

That sentiment is shared by Lopez. "I feel there's a certain group of residents whose voice hasn't been heard in a long time," said Lopez.

No doubt Shafter (population 19,600), like all cities in Kern County, has its share of challenges. According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, one out of four Shafter residents lives in poverty, and the median household income is $40,493. Fifty-seven percent of residents graduated from high school or higher, and just 7.6 percent have a bachelor's degree.

Lopez said some parts of the city are lacking. "The north side of the city, there's nothing for kids to do," he said. "I want to work together, I want what's best for our community, I want to speak for the people that do not have a voice."

Lopez, who works as a correctional officer at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, has come a long way since his parents migrated from Mexico to Taft in 1985 with kids in tow. He was 7 years old then and didn't speak a word of English.

"We arrived here with $200, four kids and my parents with a third-grade education," said Lopez, whose family moved to Shafter in 1988.

Prout has made significant achievements of her own. In seven months, she will have served -- ready for this? -- 40 years as a Shafter city councilwoman. That makes her the longest-serving sitting council member in Kern County, and she was just re-elected in November. She's also the city's first woman elected mayor, having achieved that in 1982.

Prout is proud of how the city partnered with the schools, establishing the Shafter Education Partnership, an initiative between the city, the Richland School District, and the Kern High School District. The program helps students in numerous ways to graduate from high school and go on to college or enter the work force. And the city pays for it.

As for new developments on the city council:

"Our council has always been diverse," said Prout. "I still can adjust to change."

Longtime Shafter resident Gary Rodriguez likes the way things turned out this time around. "I truly believe Shafter voters have done the right thing, in retaining council member Prout to another four-year term while adding youth and a new perspective to the team," said Rodriguez.

"With this council," he  said, "we'll blend 'something old, something new and something borrowed' ... to take Shafter into the second stage of the millennium."

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

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