By Jennifer E. Beaver
Three contenders for the Long Beach 9th District Council seat battled it out March 3 at the second of seven “Debates at Da Beach” hosted by the Long Beach Press Club. About 50 attended the match at El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant while others watched the competitors bob and weave via live telecast.
Sparring candidates included: termed-out incumbent Val Lerch, conducting a write-in campaign for a third round on the city council; challenger Steve Neal, a union-backed social service director and assistant pastor who lost to Lerch in 2006 by 132 votes; and contender Brad Shore, a flight attendant and psychotherapist who also has union support. Candidate Dan Pressburg is still in the race but was unable to attend for medical reasons.
Using a press conference format, local media representatives Bill Pearl (LBReport.com), Dave Wielenga (District Weekly), Karen Robes Meeks (Press-Telegram) and Neena Strichart (Signal Tribune) took turns asking questions. Paul Eakins of the Press-Telegram served as moderator.
Over the course of 90 minutes, candidates tackled city-wide issues like public safety as well as close-to-home issues such as freeway expansion and job creation. Nicknamed “Northtown” and “Top of the Town,” the 9th District’s roughly eight square miles are bounded by 70th and Greenleaf, Downey Avenue, South Street, and Susanna/Delta streets. The 710 freeway slices across the west side.
Not surprisingly, all championed public safety. Referring often to his endorsement by former Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts, Lerch said he would continue to “stay the course” in making public safety his “number-one priority.” In what became a recurrent theme, Neal called for public/private partnerships and said they could help offset law-enforcement expenses. In his first jab of the evening, Shore pushed Lerch to explain why he had not convened a meeting of the public safety commission for 270 days while serving as its chair. Lerch said commission meetings were unnecessary during that time as budget reviews brought the council in frequent contact with police and fire officials.
Individual differences surfaced when candidates addressed the potential expansion of the 710 freeway to 14 lanes, including four raised decks. Neal, the only one to favor elevation, drew a murmur from the crowd when he said, “If it goes up rather than outwards, I could support that.” Shore disagreed, saying “Adding more lanes will not solve the problem. We must modernize, not expand.” He suggested on-dock loading and better use of the Alameda Corridor to reduce truck traffic. Lerch supports a council-approved alternative to use an SCE right-of-way to expand the freeway outward by one lane with no elevated decks.
Regarding job creation, Neal said, “We have to do a better job of making North Long Beach more business friendly.” He called for better-paying jobs and proposed using stimulus funds to jumpstart the process. Shore wants to encourage residents to shop in the district but said, “Our neighborhoods are fragmented – people don’t feel at home there.” He supports neighborhood-friendly mom-and-pop businesses, small business enterprise zones, full-service grocers and sit-down restaurants.
Lerch pointed to 2,000 jobs created in his eight years in office and mentioned the “huge success” of a Big Saver and “one of the highest producing Targets in the region.” To attract higher-paying jobs, he said he was trying to get 850 acres of unincorporated Los Angeles County industrial land included in the 9th District.
Shore threw a second direct punch at the incumbent concerning $440,000 in redevelopment funds that Lerch redirected to the 8th district. ”If I lived in some flourishing area, I might feel that it was okay to give away money,” said Shore. “But I live here. We need every penny of it, and I don’t like seeing it go to other districts.”
Lerch countered, explaining that the money was used for improvements that helped the 9th District. “My neighborhood does not stop at South, and my city does not stop at Wardlow,” he said. “We are all one community.” Lerch also said that the 9th received $500,000 for infrastructure. The three concluded by saying what they would do first if elected. Shore referred to the 10-point plan on his website. Neal said he would “pick Val’s brain.” Lerch explained that even if he doesn’t win, he will be available to support the next councilperson.
If no candidate walks away with a majority in April, the top two will face a run-off election in June. If Lerch is one of these contenders, his name will appear on the run-off ballot.