By Nick Diamantides
The race for the 7th District seat of the Long Beach City Council landed in an unusual place Monday night: the South Pacific-style Puka Bar on West Willow Road. Sponsored by the Long Beach Press Club and moderated by Press Telegram reporter Paul Eakins, the forum allowed the four candidates– Incumbent Tonia Reyes-Uranga, Jill Hill, James Johnson and Jack Smith– to present their positions on a variety of issues.
About 60 people sat in rapt attention as the candidates took turns answering questions fired at them by a panel of four journalists: Dave Wielenga (District Weekly), Bill Pearl (LBReport.com), Neena Strichart (Signal Tribune) and Kristopher Hanson (Press Telegram).
Early in the forum, Wielenga noted that a voting block of five council members usually seems to dominate the policy-making decisions of the council. He asked the candidates how they would deal with that situation. Smith replied that he would remain independent of the “gang of five” and seek to make decisions that would benefit the 7th district. The other three candidates echoed his comments. Reyes-Uranga noted that 90 percent of the time the council acts unanimously and there is not as much disagreement as some people think. She added that she has never been part of the “gang of five.”
Pearl mentioned an incident that took place a few months ago, when City Manager Pat West declined to apply for federal stimulus funds in order to hire additional police officers for the city. Pearl explained if the city received federal grant money for additional hires, the federal government would require that the LBPD not reduce the number of its sworn personnel after the one-time grant money had been spent. He then asked the candidates if such a decision should have been made by the city council instead of the city manager.
Johnson said all policy issues should come to the council. “I would hate to pass something up because our staff said it is not good for the city,” he said, but added that if the city could not afford to keep paying for something after the grant money ran out, he probably would not vote to accept money that required the city to keep the position after the money ran out.
The other candidates echoed Johnson’s comments, but Reyes-Uranga said she would have seriously considered voting to apply for the grant anyway because public safety should be the city’s top priority.
Hill disagreed. “I think he (West) made the right decision,” she said. “We can’t keep doing things that we don’t have money to pay for.”
Strichart asked the candidates what, if anything, they would do to get the proposed sports park back on track and to mitigate such problems as trash dumping and standing water. The park was proposed for a contaminated former oil field and refinery property between California and Orange Avenues from Spring Street to almost Willow Road, but city budget woes have caused officials to shelve the plan for the foreseeable future.
Reyes-Uranga said she was outraged a few months ago, when a majority of the council agreed to shelve the sports park and try to trade the land for wetlands. She said the park would have provided much needed recreational opportunities and open space for Westside Long Beach residents. “If we are going to change the plan, we need to go back to the community and get input,” she said.
Hill said that as much as she would have liked to see the sports park developed, she had accepted reality. “The city does not have the money,” she explained. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Johnson suggested that since the city already owned the property, the land could be developed as a park in incremental phases.
Smith said that the city’s lack of money should not stop the park from being developed. “Private sponsorship is one solution that can get this thing moving forward,” he insisted.
All four candidates agreed that Long Beach needs to get more aggressive in removing standing water and litter from the property.
Hanson referred to West Long Beach as the “diesel death zone,” noting that it has the highest cancer rate in the city, which can be attributed to the diesel fumes spewed out by trucks and locomotives hauling freight to and from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. He asked the candidates if they supported the expansion of Union Pacific Railroad facilities and the proposed Burlington Northern intermodal facility. All four candidates said they opposed both projects. Hill said she would push for on-dock railroads to move freight more efficiently and with fewer emissions. Smith said the city and port need to get more serious about an electric-powered Mag Lev system for moving freight. Reyes-Uranga noted that as much as she opposed railroad expansion in the vicinity of West Long Beach, the city of Long Beach does not have much of a say in the matter. She said the Joint Powers Authority and the Port of Los Angeles are the two agencies that have jurisdiction over both rail projects.
The forum lasted almost two hours and covered a wide range of issues– some of which were discussed in a recent Signal Tribune article on the Wrigley Association’s candidates’ forum.