Contenders for the three Signal Hill council seats up for grabs in the March 5 municipal election have reduced the decision to a choice of whether voters will want the city to remain on its course or if it needs a change. At the Jan. 29 candidate forum, four new contenders looking for a spot on the Signal Hill City Council called for a change in leadership while the three current councilmembers defended their records as they highlighted the success of the city under their leadership. Incumbents Ellen Ward, Ed Wilson and Michael Noll have served at least 12 years on City Council together. Of the three incumbents, Vice Mayor Noll has the most seniority on the Council. He has served a total of about 20 years. The remaining four candidates are Robert Mendoza, Nancy Sciortino, Elizabeth Wise and Lori Woods.
“Do you know what the five- to ten-year plan is for our community and is that plan in line with what the majority of Signal Hill residents want?” Woods asked the audience of more than 50 people who packed into the Council Chamber for the candidate forum. “Let’s get a new generation of leaders on the council that can open up these ideas, bring them forward to the community to become more inclusive on that.”
Woods drew some groans from the otherwise silent audience when she attacked the record of the council.
“While they have worked hard to get us where we are today, I think we can safely see that we’ve seen all they have to offer,” Woods said. “Current council has had many years to show us the best they have to offer.” Woods expanded on one idea to implement an emergency plan for every neighborhood and encourage neighborhood leaders to complete emergency response training.
Woods’s theme of dissatisfaction with the current leadership was often repeated by the other challengers. Sciortino drew a dark picture of the city. “I also think that crime’s up and the economy’s hurting and our residents are struggling all over the state, not just in Signal Hill,” Sciortino said. “These are difficult times for our city and our residents, and I want to get our city back on a solid economic footing, and we must start by changing the political status quo and the politicians in City Hall. I believe the core function of local government is to serve the residents, not the other way around.”
Incumbent Ward dismissed the dismal portrait of the city outright.
“People talk about a financial crisis. This city doesn’t have a financial crisis,” Ward said. “We have 60 percent of our operating capital in reserve.”
Ward also talked about how the city has enjoyed a two-percent increase in revenue and highlighted how the City has done an “outstanding” job with the budget, noting how it currently has $10 million in reserve accounts.
Noll agreed with Ward’s description of a city that is moving forward.
“Signal Hill has a balanced, $17.2-million budget and uncertainties fund– we call it a ‘rainy day’ account of over $5 million,” the vice mayor said at the candidate forum, as he described how city leaders helped bring restaurants, retail stores and auto sellers Cadillac and Fiat to the city.
“We have succeeded where other cities have failed,” Noll continued. “Signal Hill has lived within its means. I believe my experience is invaluable in maintaining vital services without raising taxes and employee layoffs.”
Wilson, who has served on the Council for 16 years, agreed with the other two incumbents, noting that the city was able to make it through a recession “without layoffs, furloughs or cutting services.”
“In short we are doing pretty well and viewed as one of the premier cities in LA County,” Wilson said Tuesday.
The four challengers also made a proposed measure that would significantly change Signal Hill’s charter a central issue in their campaign. The measure dubbed “Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote” would change the charter as it relates to taxes, bonds and fees. It has not yet been scheduled to be on any future ballot. All four challengers have said that they have actively campaigned for the measure and helped obtain signatures for the petition to get it on the ballot.
Wise advocated for the measure at Tuesday’s forum.
“This concerns us– that if City Council has enough power to put taxes on us without our knowledge or our vote,” Wise said.
Wise, who owns a paralegal business in the city, says that she drew on her background as a paralegal to scrutinize the measure.
“I am that nerd that reads all those small prints that nobody else likes to read,” Wise said. She acknowledged that Signal Hill’s city attorney has voiced some issues with the language of the measure, but she argued that it could be reworked in cooperation with the city attorney.
Ward, Noll, and Wilson, however, pointed out some of the concerns with the measure.
“I have really mixed feelings about this because I feel this was…presented to a lot of taxpayers in a way that they were kind of misled because they were telling people that we could raise property taxes,” Ward said, explaining that Calif. Prop. 13 could not allow them to do so.
“I think this is a poorly written communication,” Ward concluded but added that if the people do eventually vote on it, she would adhere to their wishes. She cited one concern that assessments for the California Crown district would no longer be set by the City through a public hearing and that the whole city would have to vote on the assessments for that neighborhood.
Noll added to Ward’s concern, stating that when fees and extra charges for dog licenses, bus passes and dial-a-taxi go up, it would have to be voted on by the entire population. He emphasized that every time there is an election, the cost runs about $30,000 or more.
“I think that it needs to be aired out and it needs to be adjusted so we don’t have these fears that the city attorney is talking about,” Noll said, adding that he was “open to it, but it has to be cleaned up.”
Wilson, who is by profession an accountant, however, voiced a willful stance against the measure, saying he “would not vote for anything that would put the economic stability of this city at risk.” He explained that when taxes must end in 10 years, it would put the city at a major disadvantage. He further described how bonds would be affected.
“When you go to bond, if you don’t have the revenue stream that exceeds that bonding period, then you can’t bond,” Wilson said. “So if all your taxes end every 10 years, the maximum you could bond for would be 10 years and, in fact, anywhere in that time stream, you would have to bond for less than that. That would make infrastructure almost impossible in this city…we have to look at the practical realities of what we’re talking about, and it is talking about ‘Do we continue to have Signal Hill as a city or not?’ And that will be the vote.”
Challenger Mendoza, who has also been an active advocate with the proposed taxpayer measure, said that he circulated the petition and also brought up another issue about the city’s fiscal health.
“The City of Signal Hill owes $800,000 in water,” Mendoza told the audience. “Right now, today. They owe 18 to 20 months of water bills, and it needs to be taken care of. We can’t keep bragging about how well we’re doing if we’re not paying our bills.”
It was a surprise to Noll, who said he would look into the water bill. According to Deputy City Manager Charlie Honeycutt in an interview Wednesday, the unpaid bills are related to a lawsuit against the Water Replenishment District (WRD). The amount is held in an escrow account pending the resolution of the lawsuit.
The incumbents also spoke about the proposed library building, explaining that the City did have public meetings that included members of the community.
Mendoza said that he and other founding members of the advocacy organization Signal Hill Community First were not at all involved in the planning of the council forum. Woods and Sciortino are also founding members of the organization, which sponsored Tuesday’s candidate forum. Wise is not a founding member of the organization. She is an active proponent of the taxpayer measure, an initiative that was circulated by Signal Hill Community First.
All seven candidates were given all of the questions about five days in advance of the forum. Maria Harris, who is one of the founding members of the community group, explained that the organization wanted to be fair so that the voters would be informed on their positions.
“That’s why they had a time to prepare, because in that way, they’re able to tell us with some thought about… how they see the issues that residents raised and how they propose to address them,” Harris said.