Competitors for three open Signal Hill City Council seats squared off during a second candidate forum Monday, Feb. 4 in a highly contentious race that has formed a clear divide between incumbents defending their track records and political newcomers pushing for a change in leadership. The seven candidates are running in the March 5 municipal election.
Co-sponsored by Concerned Citizens of Signal Hill (CCSH) and the Signal Hill Chamber of Commerce, the forum was moderated by Gary Dudley, a longtime community leader, who fielded questions prepared by CCSH and the Chamber. Due to time constraints, audience members were unable to ask questions.
The forum, which drew a crowd of more than 50 people in the City Council Chamber, included incumbents Ellen Ward, Edward Wilson and Michael Noll, who have served together on the Council for 12 years, who declared their accomplishments, such as recently completing the construction of a new police station.
The mood quickly turned heated, however, as challengers Robert Mendoza, Nancy Sciortino, Elizabeth Wise and Lori Woods, although cordial, presented a different view of the City, making allegations of hidden taxes, ever-rising legal fees and business developments that some of the challengers claim have decreased quality of life for residents.
“We are a small town… do we need two strip clubs in our neighborhood?” Sciortino, a 24-year Signal Hill resident, asked the audience during her opening remarks.
She also asked, “What about the increased pot holes and pollution in our neighborhood that came with more trash from the trash-transfer station? … Does foul odors that come from the station improve the quality of life of residents who live near it?”
In addition, Sciortino said a radio-station tower poses health risks to residents and that she has heard concerns about rising crime and the need to expand the City’s neighborhood-watch program.
Mendoza, who said he wanted to become Signal Hill’s first Latino councilmember, said the Council should “think out of the box” and start partnering with the Chamber to use the City’s cable television channel to offer local businesses free advertising. “We need the tax money, and we need the City of Signal Hill to excel in business,” he said.
Vice Mayor Noll, who called himself “an elder statesman,” having served on the Council for 20 years, shot back by saying the existing Council is currently accomplishing many of the suggestions raised by opponents. “Sometimes I sit up and here and hear these people talk, and I wonder what city they live in,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. We are doing all those things, and that’s why we’re so successful.”
Noll added the city is on a positive track and has already secured $8.5 million in redevelopment bond money that the City will be able to use to build a new library.
Wise, who claims to have a background in the oil industry and runs her own paralegal business, said she wants to see a more “integrated communication” between the oil companies, residents and local businesses. Wise added that, if elected, she would partner with the Signal Hill Historical Society and sister cities to turn Signal Hill into a tourist attraction, highlighting the City’s oil history.
She noted that Signal Hill is centrally located between major theme parks Universal Studios in Hollywood and Disneyland in Anaheim, which is prime for entering into a venture with other cities to bring in more sales-tax revenue to the City.
“We’re right in between,” Wise said. “[With] billions of dollars being spent in LA, [we can have] a few million spent here… There’s a lot of wealthy people out there [who] can help, and I believe we can use our past to build our future.”
The challengers have based much of their crusade to unseat the existing councilmembers on a decision that was made by the City Council last year to pass an ordinance in light of the State’s move to dissolve redevelopment agencies.
Incumbents, however, state that the new ordinance was passed for economic development and City incentives to help spur new jobs and bring in businesses due to the loss of property tax-increment funding. The challengers, on the other hand, claim that the City Council amended the City Charter and have infringed on citizens’ rights by creating what some challengers said is a form of “taxation without representation.”
The dispute has led to the drafting of an initiative called “Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote,” sponsored by neighborhood-advocacy group Signal Hill Community First. The initiative, for which all challengers have said they have campaigned, aims to amend the City Charter to require that registered Signal Hill voters have a chance to vote on all new city taxes, assessments, property fees and bonds.
Woods said she gives the initiative drafted so far a “B-plus” when asked to judge the accuracy of the language in the measure.
“I think there are a few elements that need to be understood, but I think it is written to the degree of 90 percent of accuracy of what can be done in this city,” she said. “It doesn’t grandfather in all fees and assessments that have already happened. We’re talking about new things… we understand redevelopment money is gone, and we understand that the City will still need money going forward for major projects… we recognize that we want those things. We just want to have the right to know about them.”
Wilson, however, said the initiative, if passed, would cause the City substantial sums of money to have to continue holding elections every time a fee in the city is increased. He added that City Council’s ordinance includes nothing about raising taxes without people voting on it. “If anyone up here tells you otherwise, they didn’t read it or are being disingenuous,” he said.
Noll, who is also strongly against the initiative, said the City is prohibited from raising property taxes due to the state’s Prop. 13. In addition, he said state Prop. 218 “protects every citizen that you have a right to vote on any fees or tax increases.”
When the candidates were asked what they would replace redevelopment with, Ward said the City needs to find a way to help developers and businesses with the remediation of abandoned oil wells. Noll later said oil-industry officials have confirmed can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 or more per well, which was previously paid for by redevelopment monies.
She said there are about 100 abandoned oil wells waiting to be cleaned up in the City to create new development, such as a boutique hotel, with about 23 abandoned wells located on the Spring Street property on Atlantic Avenue.
Candidates also discussed implications of a lawsuit that Signal Hill has filed against the Water Replenishment District (WRD) to seek a refund for underground pumping charges that the agency assessed without notification.
Some of the challengers took aim at City Attorney David Aleshire for advising to go forward with the lawsuit and criticized the City for withholding water-bill payments while in litigation. According to City officials, about $800,000 in unpaid water bills are being held in an escrow account pending the resolution of the lawsuit.
Wise, who said she could translate the City’s “legal mumbo jumbo,” said the situation might come down to the City one day turning the faucet and “no water coming out.” She added that the lawsuit could subject the city to being sued by some 15 other cities that signed on if the case isn’t upheld in court.
Mendoza said, in the end, the city may not save any money from the lawsuit because of all the legal fees. He said, if elected, he would put a stop to rising legal fees that he claims cost the city millions of dollars a year. “We’re always in position where somebody is suing us or we’re suing them, and I don’t know how we got there,” Mendoza said.
Sciortino echoed claims brought by Mendoza and other challengers, saying, “I think our legal department needs a little… going over.”
Wilson, however, said the City is actually protecting the rights of its citizens by going after the WRD that assessed higher fees, which he said oddly enough goes “beyond” the “Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote.”
The next candidate forum, sponsored by CCSH, is scheduled to take place at the new Signal Hill Police Station on Feb. 25.