By: Cory Bilicko
All nine candidates vying for three open seats on the Signal Hill City Council were on hand for a forum on Feb. 9, presenting their visions for the city and differentiating themselves on issues ranging from the council’s need for some new blood, to taxing recreational pot smokers to having a directly elected mayor.
No matter who gets elected March 7, the new city council will include at least one person who isn’t currently serving as a councilmember. The council, which is a five-member body, of which one councilmember serves as mayor for a one-year term, on a rotating basis, will soon have an open seat because of Michael Noll’s retirement. Incumbents Lori Woods– who is currently serving as mayor– and Ed Wilson are both seeking re-election. One of their opponents has already served on the council, two are currently serving as elected officials in other capacities and another is serving as an appointed commissioner.
Woods and Wilson joined Jason Aula, Tom Benson, Larry Blunden, Carol Churchill, Robert Copeland, Maria Harris and Keir Jones for the event, which the Signal Hill Chamber of Commerce hosted in the council chamber. Melissa Guy, president of the chamber of commerce, opened the event by stating a clarification on a matter of endorsement.
“This forum is a public service brought to you by the chamber,” Guy said. “We would like to make it clear that the chamber has not, cannot and will not endorse any candidate, which is why we can host tonight’s event. We apologize if there has been any perception of such, and we want to clarify that before we begin tonight’s event.”
Bart DeLio, a local insurance agent and former two-term chamber president, moderated the event, which included four segments. In the first segment, each candidate had two minutes for an opening statement. In the second part, each candidate had one minute to answer a question DeLio presented. In the third, each candidate was given one minute for closing remarks. Lastly, because time allowed, each was given the opportunity to ask any other candidate a question.
For opening statements, the candidates spoke in the order in which they were seated, from left to right, which reflected the order in which their names will appear on the ballot.
First to give an opening statement was Harris, who said she holds a Ph.D. in public administration from USC.
“I have held various academic and managerial positions within the university system and the Cal State system, as well as nonprofit organizations,” she said. “I’m now retired. My husband and I have lived in Signal Hill for 20 years. We are homeowners and are both active in local political and community affairs. Now, as we all know, there has been only one change on the council in the last 20 years, and my husband and I were instrumental or played a part in creating the one change, which occurred in the last election cycle. Now is our chance to do more. We have the opportunity to get new faces on the council and, importantly, more new energy on the council. We need to break out of some old habits. I think we need to develop ways of thinking that are more modern and forward-looking and create a forward-looking lifestyle.”
Harris said two key goals of her campaign are: to stimulate the local economy to include products and services that appeal to modern consumers by creating pedestrian-friendly places to shop with appealing landscapes and a promenade area for sitting and dining; and “robust community policing” that would provide freedom of movement and sense of security to allow for such consumer experiences.
Jones spoke next and said his three priorities are to stimulate economic development, improve public safety and improve quality of life.
“As a small-business owner running an award-winning insurance agency, I will bring my creative and pragmatic leadership style that earned us the best insurance agency the last four consecutive years, to the Signal Hill City Council,” Jones said, adding that he has served in leadership positions in nonprofit and chamber of commerce boards as well as having been recognized by elected officials at the state and national levels of government.
“The biggest challenge we face in Signal Hill today is maximizing the opportunity we have right now to shape the future of our city,” Jones said. “I would help facilitate a master development plan to address our remaining vacant lots, incorporating plans to connect our city from the north to the southeast, creating public spaces and adding new commercial and retail and residential options for our city, to make it a city of the future– a place where we can all live, shop and play.”
He said Signal Hill’s government has been fiscally responsible and must remain so, while improving communication and safety for residents. He stressed the importance of building partnerships between residents, City staff, police and the business community.
Aula, in his opening remarks, said he is a new resident to Signal Hill and that his agenda for the city is “a little different” from some of his opponents.
“After surveying the voters in town, I discovered there were two big issues that I felt that were identified as needing to be changed, and that was reforming pension and term limits,” Aula said. “And those are two initiatives that I want pushed based on what I’ve heard from the voters and what they’re upset with and want changed.”
Aula explained that he would push for two four-year term limits on city councilmembers– “just how Long Beach does it,” he said.
“I know we have had some pension reform in town, but my strategy for pension reform is a little bit different,” he said. “Some folks like to cut stuff to save or borrow. I want to create use taxes to further fund pension because I think a pension is such a rarety in society now, unless you’re working at a law office or a bank or a government organization… if someone is lucky enough to have a pension, we should preserve that.”
Aula explained that he is in favor of the City implementing a marijuana-use tax, since California voters in November approved a measure to legalize recreational cannabis use. He said he also believes the City should impose a tax on sugary drinks, “just as Berkeley’s done it.”
Carol Churchill, who described herself as “a proud geek,” encouraged residents to scan the QR code on her campaign signs.
“I found it useful to get a third-grader to help me,” she joked. “If you scan the black box on my neon signs, the scanner will open up to my Facebook page, where you will read about my 30 years of community service in Signal Hill. Please take a look at the photos first. You will see why I am excited about the future. I am a regular person, just like everyone here. I get up every Wednesday, and I take my trash out. My three-pound Chihuahua thinks she’s a 140-pound pit bull. I worry that my health insurance will be cancelled before I reach Medicare age. I hope my IRA funds do not run out before I do. The only trophy I ever got was for perfect attendance in high school. I graduated from college with honors. I worked at a law firm during the day and attended law school at night. I’m licensed to practice law in California and Washington State, where I also own a home.”
Churchill also said her business office and home are in Signal Hill, where she’s resided for 30 years. She added that she has traveled the world and experienced diversity, which she embraces.
“I believe the future is bright and exciting and waiting for proud geeks like me to lead,” she said.
Copeland, who currently serves as city clerk, said he is running for council because he’s passionate about the city and is aware of how impactful local government can be on residents’ lives and how impactful residents can be on local government.
“My wife and I have lived in Signal Hill since 2002 and are raising our two children in the community,” Copeland said. “I’m an environmental engineer with the Boeing Company. I’ve been with them for 18 years. My formal education consists of a B.S. in chemistry, an MBA and a law degree. I have a track record of service to the city, and I’ve been ratcheting up my involvement over the last eight years– first, as a chairperson of the Sustainable City Committee, and second, as the elected city clerk, which I continue to serve in both capacities.”
Copeland said he would have four goals as a councilmember: to enhance our focus on public safety, work to reduce opportunities for crime and examine budding traffic issues; working toward a comprehensive development plan that takes into account residents’ and property owners’ needs; continuing to maintain the City’s budget discipline; and improve communication to residents and facilitate communication from residents back to the City.
He added that now is a crucial time for the council, considering the departure of outgoing councilmember Mike Noll and “the planned departure” of councilmember Larry Forester, because the newly elected councilmembers should be willing to be mentored by those who will be retiring.
Benson also mentioned that he would “probably take a different approach than some of the other candidates.” He said he has worked very hard to have enough qualifications to earn the votes of Signal Hill residents.
“Not slick mailers. Not high-gloss platitudes,” he said. “Actual accomplishments and results. Qualifications inside of Signal Hill. I’ve lived in Signal Hill for nearly 30 years. I’ve worked in Signal Hill for almost 20 of those years. I’ve been an active leader and entrepreneur during that time, owning a business. I have a strong history of service and commitment to the city, and I’ve explored that through the Planning Commission, on which I proudly serve, the Civil Service Commission that I served on previously, the Sustainable City Committee… the Library Design Committee. I think it’s important that a candidate– and a councilmember– be aware of the actual realities of this city […] If I win, I will be part of five people in a council. I will do my best to influence that and set the direction of this city over the next several years.”
Benson added that he has gone to landfills, reservoirs, the water district and the sanitation district– “all to learn about what our city influences are and the things that are impacting our city.”
Blunden, who serves as the City’s treasurer, said he is proud of the City’s fiscal responsibility. He said he has lived in Signal Hill since 1984.
“In 2000, I moved up to the Bixby Ridge community on the east side of town, and then two years later, I bought a home on the very top of the hill as the community grew,” he said, adding that he had a small business in the city for 28 years.
“In 2007, we sold our business, and I retired– or so I thought,” he said, explaining that he now spends much of his time volunteering.
“I’m a volunteer for the Signal Hill Historical Society,” he said. “I’m the president. Of the Friends for the Signal Hill Library, I’m the treasurer. For the Promontory Crest Homeowners Association on top of the hill, I’m the president for that as well. And the Carlsberg Business Park here in Signal Hill– I’m also the president of the association.”
Blunden said that being involved has allowed him to see how the City serves the community.
“And I’m here to maintain and improve the quality of life in our city,” he said. “I would like to be the next councilperson and be the voice of you, the people.”
Woods, who is in the final month of her first term as mayor, said that four years ago, she was “a virtual unknown in Signal Hill.”
“I campaigned, I got my message out that, while I didn’t know everything there was to know about conducting city business, I pledged to learn it,” she said. “And you, the Signal Hill voter– all 621 of you– decided to make a vote for me. That vote was an investment of your trust, and I took that investment of trust very seriously. I’ve made myself a student of all aspects of municipal government. I’ve made a concerted effort to study all aspects of how our city operates.”
Woods thanked her fellow councilmembers and City staff for their patience during “the steep learning curve” she has been on.
“And I have more to learn, I’m sure,” she said. “I hope you feel that you have begun to see a return on your investment of trust, and I look forward to another council term to keep proving my dedication to you, the voter, and to bring you a higher and higher return on your investment.”
Woods said she would like to continue the citywide emergency-preparedness plans, grow the citizens’ emergency-response team and further expand the Map Your Neighborhood program.
“There’s a theme going on here, and I don’t mind being the councilmember of disaster, as long as we’re prepared for it,” she said, adding that she would also like to focus on completing the new library and continuing to add to the City’s savings and additional operating reserves.
Wilson, a current councilmember, said he was first elected in 1997.
“I moved into the city 24 years ago, when my daughter was 1,” he said. “She went through Long Beach Unified School District public schools– Alvarado [Elementary], Hughes [Middle School] and then Poly [High School]. She then went on to Chapman and got her degree. I believe in public schools. I believe in our youth. I believe in Signal Hill. This is a great city– now. We’ve changed a lot of things over 20 years, and yet we still have things to do, things to accomplish. It is important to have vision and to be able to see things differently and where we want to go versus where we currently are at.”
Wilson said that when he first joined the council, the City’s general reserves were at less than 5 percent and that, by the end of the current fiscal year, they will be close to 90 percent or more. He said that reserve was used to address the economic downturn.
Wilson added that there are still several things he would like to see accomplished, such as making the new library solar-powered and changing the structure for how the City’s mayor is determined.
“When the City proposed that our city clerk and our city treasurer go to appointment versus being elected, I was the councilmember that fought to make sure that they maintain to be elected officials,” Wilson said. “I believe it is time for Signal Hill to go to a directly elected mayor, and we will talk about that a little bit later.”
However, a discussion about changing the City’s bylaws to allow the electorate to decide directly who will serve as mayor never transpired. The topic did not resurface during the forum– even when Wilson was later given the opportunity to pose a question to any or all of the other candidates. In that moment, he chose to ask no question at all.
This story– including the questions asked and how the candidates responded– will continue in next week’s issue.