By Nick Diamantides
Incumbent 6th District Long Beach Councilman Dee Andrews decided not to attend a candidates’ forum Monday, March 24 and thereby let his challenger Ahmed Saafir field questions from the audience all by himself. Saafir expressed disappointment and anger at Andrews’s absence, but he came prepared to handle the questions asked by the approximately 60 people who attended.
The event, sponsored by the Long Beach NAACP, took place in the Earnest McBride Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just south of Pacific Coast Highway. After brief comments by NAACP officials, Signal Hill City Councilman Ed Wilson, who served as moderator, announced that Andrews was not coming, and he read a written explanation from Andrews.
“I have received countless calls from residents who are very upset with the latest smear campaign tactics that have been waged,” Andrews said in the statement. “I am not going to any meeting where my community is subjected to a public spectacle filled with divisive tactics used for political gain.”
Andrews invited everyone with questions pertaining to policy or community to contact him at his office. “Last May, the voters chose the path of unity, hope, vision and leadership,” Andrews said. “I am working every day to lead my community along that path.”
As Wilson read Andrews’ statement, Saafir frowned, but he showed no other signs of emotion. He had to wait more than an hour before he could speak to the audience. The first half of the forum was reserved for the five candidates vying for two seats on the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education.
Those candidates included Felton Williams, incumbent board president, and Rosa Diaz, his challenger for the LBUSD district 2 seat; Jon Meyer, incumbent LBUSD vice president and his two challengers for the district 4 seat: Karen Thomas Hilburn and Paul Crost.
The school board candidates made many of the same points that they had made in interviews with the Signal Tribune. Those interviews were published in the March 20 and 27 issues, with the remainder of the Meyer, Hilburn and Crost interviews slated for the April 3 issue.
One of their sharpest differences surfaced when moderator Wilson read a question regarding a lawsuit filed last year by parents of Woodrow Wilson High School girl gymnasts. The suit was filed after school officials converted the girls gymnastics gym to an all-purpose sports facility, while moving the gymnastics program to what the parents alleged were inadequate facilities.
Meyer and Williams staunchly defended the Wilson High School decision as well as the LBUSD decision to fight the lawsuit, which the district lost. Meyer said the school was not trying to eliminate the girls program, but had to make a tough decision to meet the needs of the greater student body. Williams agreed, saying the athletic needs of the entire student body were of paramount importance and LBUSD’s intention was always to preserve the girl’s gymnastics program, but the parents who filed the lawsuit refused to compromise.
Hilburn said if she had been on the board, she would have prevented the lawsuit, because the school’s decision—as the presiding judge noted—was a clear violation of a federal law. Diaz agreed, adding that the lawsuit was an example of the school district failing to include parents in the decision making process. Crost said the board should have just admitted that a mistake had been made instead of spending taxpayer dollars fighting a lawsuit that could not be won.
After a little more than an hour of answering questions from the audience, the school board candidates turned the podium over to 6th District candidate Saafir.
Most of the questions from the audience pertained to job creation, affordable housing and gang violence.
Saafir’s answers covered many of the points he made in his interview, which was published in the March 13 issue of the Signal Tribune. He said he would focus on bringing more businesses to the 6th District, which would provide both jobs and revenues that could be invested in affordable housing. He added that he would help direct city resources to teaching children to avoid drugs, gangs and crime, and to teaching parents how to rear their children.
In his closing remarks, Saafir noted that democracy was precious and many people had died to give us the right to vote. He added that elections are established so that the best person can rise to the top.
“I came ready to debate and to answer the questions so that you could make a clear distinction on who you want to be your councilperson,” he said.
Later he picked up the empty chair that had been reserved for Andrews. “There is no way we can have an honest and open election with this chair empty,” he said. “This is very disrespectful to all of you who came and to all of the people of this district.”
Editor’s Note: Readers that missed any of the candidate interviews mentioned in this article can find them online at www.SignalTribune.com