MARTINEZ -- Some residents say Highway 4 is a dividing line in Martinez, with those who live south of the freeway generally viewed as less engaged in city politics and less likely to shop or dine downtown.

At a forum Tuesday with City Council candidates Michael Alford, Arsenio Escudero, Anamarie Avila Farias, Dylan Radke and incumbent Mark Ross, an audience member asked how they would unite the purported two halves of the city.

Escudero called for a two-term limit on council members to ensure a diversity of perspectives. Ross, who insisted there are actually five or six different Martinezes, said the council should listen to residents' concerns in every neighborhood. He noted the tradition of holding council meetings at various locations, which hasn't happened since 2010.

Farias said economic and community development could bring together young families living south of the highway and retirees downtown. While campaigning in the Virginia Hills neighborhood, Radke said he talked to voters who didn't know the city opened a new swimming pool last year; the city should reach out to these residents by holding council meetings in the neighborhoods as well as community forums. Alford said any divisions lie with the council members, whom he accused of ignoring residents' wishes.

Martinez pays for elected officials' health care benefits and last year deposited $7,010 into deferred compensation accounts for council members Janet Kennedy and Mike Menesini, who declined coverage.

"I think we should be doing this for free," said Escudero, the only candidate who opposes paying elected officials' health coverage. Farias disagreed, saying the benefits are "the least we can do for people volunteering for the city."

Radke said he's not running to get benefits but supports affordable benefits for council members because they work hard. Alford said council members who have health benefits through their job or spouse shouldn't "use the (city) insurance as extra cash coming in."

Ross, whose health coverage cost Martinez $9,582 last year, said the benefits are "well deserved" and could draw older and younger people to public office. He added that the payments in lieu of medical coverage may no longer pass muster.

About revitalizing downtown without redevelopment money, the candidates said Martinez should toot its own horn. Radke said the city should promote its recreational amenities, including the marina, trails and new swimming pool, to attract visitors. Escudero said the city should hire an economic development director and hold landlords accountable for renovating and seismically retrofitting older buildings. Alford called for promotion and urged police to clear out the homeless near the Amtrak station.

Ross, whose real estate office is on Main Street, noted that the city gives $45,000 per year to the Martinez Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Martinez to promote the city. He described downtown as on the upswing, with new restaurants and indoor sports complexes drawing residents and visitors alike. The council should ensure Martinez is a viable place to run a business, he added.

"I must live in the wrong town," Farias said, noting that McDonald's on Main Street closes at 5 p.m. and that she can't Christmas shop downtown. She said the city should apply for federal and state funding for small business development loans.

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.