At the Feb. 25 Signal Hill City Council candidate forum, three incumbents seeking another term in office continued to defend their records as long-time councilmembers, but their opponents pressed for a change in leadership.
The Signal Hill Police Station’s community room was packed with more than 60 people at the forum, where five out of the seven candidates turned up to debate local issues that included the proposed construction of a new library and a controversial charter-amendment initiative that will be on the ballot in 2014.
Monday’s forum was the final time that the candidates would debate the issues before the city election on March 5. The incumbents, Michael Noll, Ellen Ward and Ed Wilson, were joined Monday evening by Robert Mendoza and Lori Woods, two of the four challengers who are hoping for a spot on the council dais. Challengers Nancy Sciortino and Elizabeth Wise did not attend. Terry Rogers, president of the Signal Hill Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event, announced at the beginning of the forum that Sciortino was ill and that Wise had a family emergency.
The incumbents emphasized their experience and knowledge of the pressing issues.
“Experience does matter,” incumbent Wilson said at the forum, “and this election, that’s what it’s about. Where are we going? Where do you want the city to go? Do you just want change, or do you want us to continue to move our city forward?”
Wilson talked about the number of positions he’s held with various organizations like the California League of Cities and the Signal Hill Sustainability Committee. He said that the city benefits when he and the other incumbents are active both outside the city and in the city, highlighting $10 million in grants that Signal Hill has received in the last six years.
Both incumbents Ward and Noll emphasized their experience as well. Ward pointed to her years working for the Cities of Hawaiian Gardens, Paramount and Santa Ana in various positions. Noll named several commissions and committees on which he served, including the Civil Service Commission and the local historical society.
The two challengers acknowledged that they have not served on major commissions for the city, but they each pointed to other leadership experience they felt was relevant.
Mendoza pointed to his success as a businessman who runs a cleaning contractor company. He also told of a time when he helped defend school employees who were classified as terminated and were going to be disciplined. He said he put together an improvement plan for the employees.
He added that he did ask to serve on commissions and committees, but his applications to these committees were repeatedly rejected by the Council.
“I have been trying to get involved in this city, and the City Council has turned their back on me,” said Mendoza. “So don’t let them tell you that we haven’t asked. Don’t let them tell you that we haven’t applied. I’m in a position where I did apply, and they turned me down.”
Woods readily acknowledged that she had never served on any commissions in the city.
“And that’s what I feel is the beauty of American democracy,” Woods said, “that you don’t have to be a part of, you know, the clique or…the good old boys’ club to step up and serve your community.”
She added that she could help the city change in a way to respond better to the residents. Woods pointed to one example of her leadership abilities as she described how she organized on her own a 60-day campaign to run for office. Offering to show one sample of her creativity in leadership, Woods held out a small, reusable shopping bag that had been personalized for the campaign. She reached into the bag to show a stack of discount coupons for Signal Hill businesses or businesses owned by Signal Hill residents. She also displayed an informational guide that she created for residents.
A controversial charter-amendment initiative also dominated the candidate forum. The measure dubbed “Taxpayers’ Right to Know and Vote” proposes to change the city charter governing taxes, bonds and fees. The initiative is scheduled to be on the ballot in June 2014. All three incumbents have regularly criticized the initiative measure in the past and continued Monday night to point out what they perceived were major flaws.
Among its provisions, the initiative requires voters to approve all taxes, assessments and fees with a two-thirds majority. It also requires taxes and fees to expire within 10 years. Assessments will expire in 20 years. Bonds would have to be repaid within 20 years. Noll had said in the first candidate forum that elections cost about $30,000.
Wilson, who is also an accountant, explained how he thought the initiative would be a problem for economic-development projects.
“A two-thirds vote, though, makes the process of actually creating an economic development almost impossible,” Wilson said, as he further described how developers would have to wait at least a year for residents to vote on a development before a developer could start a project.
“That will kill our economic development,” he added.
Mendoza, however, actively supports the initiative and said that it would largely affect any potential developer.
“I don’t think that there will be any impact at all except that developers will not be able to come into this city and develop and expect the residents to pay the bill,” Mendoza said. He went on to explain his understanding of how the process would work in the case of a developer if he planned to build near the local hospital.
“If a developer wants to come in and develop across the street from Memorial Hospital,” Mendoza said, “he’s going to have to pay the $30,000 for that election to be held, or he’s going to have to wait until the regular election is held.”
Mendoza also said that municipal elections happen every two years.
“So we don’t have that many people developing,” Mendoza said. “It’s not a big deal. Everybody’s all excited about the Know and Vote. It’s really a good thing.”
Woods also painted the intent of the charter-amendment initiative in a positive light, stating that the initiative gives voters a say in the assessments and fees. She acknowledged that there are disputes over the initiative’s details and suggested that the city council and the city attorney meet with proponents of the initiative.
“I think if we go back to the nature and intent of it,” Woods said, “it can be fairly easily worked out.”
Noll, however, disputed whether there could be any negotiation on the intent at this time. He said that the initiative cannot now be changed because the State of California has already certified it.
“So, you’re going to have to start over,” Noll said, explaining that another initiative could be proposed to be on the ballot.
Noll did not discuss the work that it took to get one initiative on the June 2014 election. The movement to get the original initiative on the ballot required a great deal of volunteer effort. Over six months, proponents of the original initiative collected about 871 valid signatures for a petition to get it on the ballot.
Noll pointed out another problem that he perceived with the initiative. He said that the City could not pass on increases to user fees. Ward agreed, adding that dog-license fees and police tickets could be affected.
“First of all, a lot of people were given misinformation,” Ward said. She added that people were told that the initiative was about property taxes. Ward suggested that the police chief could not increase the cost of a ticket.
“If the chief needs to raise a ticket, he can’t do it without going to the vote of the people,” Ward said.
The proposed construction of the library also proved to be a controversial topic. While all of the candidates said that they were in favor of building a new library, both Woods and Mendoza expressed concerns about the library.
“I definitely think we need a new library,” Mendoza said, “but we don’t need one that’s bigger than City Hall.” He noted that the Department of Finance has turned down the library three times.
“It’s dead in the water,” Mendoza added, “We have to think out of the box. We have to do something different.”
Woods stated that she is concerned about ongoing maintenance costs.
“I fear that it could stretch the resources down the road in keeping it, maintaining it and staffing it.” Woods said. “We can always go around the corner for a library book. We can’t go around the corner for a new police officer.”
Wilson, however, stated emphatically that he is in favor of a new library.
“I want to be a premier city,” Wilson said, “and I want to continue moving us forward. And to do that, we have to invest in the city. We can’t shortchange ourselves because someone doesn’t like the size of the library.”
Ward and Noll echoed his enthusiasm for the library. Ward said she felt positive that the City will get the bonds approved for the library.
The theme of experience dominated much of the incumbents’ statements, but for his closing statement, Noll criticized what he called a “hit piece,” a political advertisement that was mailed to some Signal Hill residents. Citing news articles, the mailer blasted the incumbents and criticized City Attorney David Aleshire and City Manager Ken Farfsing, according to Noll. He described how the mailer incorrectly reported large salaries for the city attorney and manager. The vice mayor said that the piece was produced by an attorney in Los Angeles working with an attorney in Signal Hill.
Ward summed up her service as councilmember for Signal Hill by emphasizing her role in creating jobs.
“Because I would like to continue serving the city,” Ward said. “I have the energy. I have the time and the experience. And I will not hold the inexperience or youth of my people competing for the position against them.”