By CJ Dablo
Three candidates vying for the two available seats on the Signal Hill City Council found few places for common ground when they debated the future of the city Monday night. The two current council members defended their records and disputed facts presented by a contender during a candidate forum.
More than 50 people packed into the Signal Hill Council Chambers to listen to real estate businessman Matt Simmons challenge City Councilmember Tina Hansen and Vice Mayor Larry Forester for a council seat.
Hansen and Forester have each served on the Council more than a decade. Hansen has been on the Council since 1994. She works as a deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Forester, a retired technical sales engineer, was appointed to City Council in 1998.
Monday’s debate, an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters, centered on economic priorities. While the incumbent candidates emphasized a record of successes during their terms on the Council, Simmons stressed the need for immediate change.
“I think change is healthy,” Simmons said. “It reminds everybody that the city council works on behalf of the residents.” But Simmons also criticized the current administration and its financial decisions. “We are spending money at a non-sustainable rate,” he said, adding that the city formerly had $8 million in operating reserves but now has $4 million.
Both Hansen and Forester acknowledged that although the City has already made efforts to cut spending, they are still reviewing the budget for more places where Signal Hill could save money. They prioritized the need to analyze personnel pension funds.
“We need to continue to review everything in the budget against income,” Forester said, adding that the City has already reduced spending by $1 million.
Forester stressed that the City should apply a crucial test when considering an item on the budget– “Is it nice or absolutely necessary?” “And, believe me, everything is on the table to be reviewed,” Forester said.
Hansen did not agree with Simmons’s assertion that the City Council needs a new perspective. “This is not time for change,” Hansen said, adding that the city leaders have overseen several positive changes over the years. She highlighted the number of new businesses that have moved into Signal Hill.
“You need council members like myself who understand the complete picture of the issues facing our cities, who are not just looking at this year, but are looking at five years down the road to make sure that we plan effectively,” she said.
Simmons challenged the financial decisions of the current city leaders, targeting personnel budgets.
“There’s a property planner getting paid $160,000 a year,” Simmons said, explaining that the city paid full-time salaries for this employee and another city worker who served as a property inspector. “After they retired, we hired a part-time contractor who is able to do this job in about three hours.”
Hansen took issue with Simmons’s statement, explaining that he was referring to two employees who have since retired after they had served the city as a building inspector and a building official. Hansen said that these employees had other job functions that involved code enforcement, inspections and handling issues with the abandoned oil wells.
“And it’s absolutely crazy to think that our building inspector and our building official each worked 20 hours a week or three hours a week and then sat at their desk the rest of the time and collected their full pay,” Hansen said. “That is absolutely not true.”
The candidates addressed the future of the city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) projects. Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown announced his intention to end RDAs as part of an aggressive plan for budget cuts.
The candidates acknowledged the RDA’s contribution to Signal Hill’s success. Since 1974, redevelopment initiatives transformed the city’s blighted areas into projects that benefited the community. Projects included the development of affordable-housing units and the clean-up of abandoned oil wells in the city.
But while the RDA’s achievements were praised, Simmons expressed specific concerns about one new potential RDA project. At the City Council and RDA meetings earlier this month, council members voted to recognize construction of a new library as a possible future redevelopment project. If plans for construction move forward, the City would need to seek approval for an $11.3-million bond to pay for the project.
Simmons criticized prospective plans to build a new library since this project could not generate revenue for the city.
“I love libraries, but that’s a liability,” said Simmons. “But if we invest in revenue generators, like whether it’s restaurants or things like that, that will help us afford to purchase libraries. So, I think we’re doing things a little bit backwards. Instead of issuing a new bond for $11.3 million for a new library, we should be looking at revenue generators to help out our overall budget.”
Both Hansen and Forester argued in favor of future plans to construct a new library, indicating that if the RDA does indeed build one, the city would keep local property tax dollars for a local project. Hansen further explained that projects out of the RDA funds would not affect general funds.
“I think we need to keep our property taxes in Signal Hill and use the economic engine we built to give a gift to the city in the way of a library,” Hansen said.
Later in the debate, Simmons noted that the intersection at Cherry and Pacific Coast Highway has a severe traffic-congestion problem. Both Hansen and Forester explained that a project to widen the street is already in progress. The City of Long Beach is in the process of acquiring the property needed to complete the project. Forester said that he was told that the project may take place within the next six months.
The candidates also debated the EDCO transfer station, water rights and term limits. Simmons opposed nearly all of the positions taken by Hansen and Forester. Candidates could only agree that the police force services should not be contracted out to the LA County Sheriff’s Department.
Hansen and Forester stood united on all topics presented in the forum. Following the debate, Forester was asked whether he worried if he would have to distinguish himself from Hansen.
“Tina and I are running as a pair,” Forester said. “Tina and I have worked well together. We haven’t always agreed. Legal issues I leave to Tina. Engineering issues I take. And that’s the beauty of our Council and the diversity of the various members. It takes three votes to get anything done. If Mr. Simmons gets on Council, it’s Mr. Simmons. He has no other votes that are going to join him. A council member of one is worthless.”
After the debate, Hansen continued to criticize Simmons’s lack of experience.
“I think what we took away from this is that he doesn’t know the history of this city. He hasn’t been involved in this city,” Hansen said, explaining that Simmons did not understand the issues confronting the current administration. “We need leaders that understand the history, that understand the issues, that are looking at the big picture and that can see us through this.”
Hansen said she hopes that voters will conclude after this debate that she has both the knowledge and experience needed for the job. Forester also stressed his record.
“I’ve served for 12 years,” he said, during the forum. “And I still firmly believe we are the little city that could and did.”
Following the debate, Forester voiced concerns about his opponent’s arguments.
“Mr. Simmons has some facts,” Forester said, “but they’re all out of context. They’re not used properly. And he really needs to spend some time educating before he decides to try to run for Council.”
Simmons continued to dispute the need for experience after the debate.
“My feeling is the Council has done a great job during good times. My concern is that they have not adapted to the economic realities,” he said, stressing that the city needs someone new with a new perspective.
“During not-so-good times, we need somebody who could adapt and live within our means today,” Simmons explained. “That is not happening today.”
With only a few weeks left before the March 1 election, and no future scheduled debates, the candidates are also facing a traditionally low voter turnout. About 16.6 percent to 17.3 percent of the registered voters in Signal Hill turned out to cast their votes in the last two Council elections, according to City voter reports, which included both absentee and election-day ballots.