By Cory Bilicko
In their last opportunity to present their platforms and defend their actions in a public assembly before the looming March 1 election, the three candidates for Signal Hill City Council again gathered Wednesday night for a candidate forum, this time hosted by the Willow Ridge Community Association in its community room.
During the forum, which was sponsored by Concerned Citizens of Signal Hill (CCSH) and the Signal Tribune, and moderated by CCSH member Gary Dudley, challenger Matt Simmons and incumbents Larry Forester and Tina Hansen treaded in territory that was familiar to those who had attended the Feb. 7 forum in the City’s council chambers: the City’s budget, how redevelopment funds are being utilized, and plans to construct a new library and an EDCO waste-transfer station. However, since that last forum, a new topic of contention had arisen, mainly as the result of posts that had appeared on Simmons’s WordPress blog entitled “Your Signal Hill Voice” and as an issue he’d raised during the Feb. 15 City Council meeting— whether Signal Hill’s drinking water contains safe levels of arsenic.
Last week the environmental watchdog group The League of Conservation Voters distributed a mailer which criticized Forester as a protector of “big polluters that have made our water unsafe.” It asserts that Forester, as leader of the Coalition for Practical Regulations, has worked with polluters to try and overturn water-quality clean-up laws in the courts. At Wednesday’s forum, Simmons claimed he had had no prior knowledge of that mailer and had nothing to do with its distribution, but Hansen then pointed out that Simmons had nevertheless been quick to post it on his blog.
Forester dismissed the mailer as “misinformation” and said he is a friend to families in Signal Hill. “I would never do anything to hurt those families,” he said. Regarding Simmons’s claim that the city’s drinking water contains unsafe levels of arsenic, which he says is based on a recent New York Times article, Hansen pointed out that that study tested arsenic levels before treatment, not after. “They do not differentiate between pre-treated water and post-treated water,” Hansen said. “We have never been shut down by the California Health Department. We have never been on a ‘boiled water’ order, as other cities have been. We have never been told we can’t drink our water. So, when you look at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) safeguards, yes, our water is absolutely safe. And do you really think that a mom of 6-year-old twins would sit back and allow the City to give water to the residents that does not meet the EPA standard? No, I would not.”
Simmons then claimed that Signal Hill does not have a treatment facility to remove arsenic from the water, as Long Beach does. “I believe we could get better-quality water from Long Beach that is better treated,” Simmons said. Forester rebutted by saying, “I think Mr. Simmons needs to check his facts. We had one of the first treatment facilities for arsenic in our Gundry reservoir facility. It has been written up by EPA; EPA came out and visited. WRD (Water Replenishment District) gave us a no-interest loan to build it. We are within limits. You have to know your facts.”
When Dudley asked the candidates if they think redevelopment funds should be used by the City to fund a new library, Forester and Hansen were in agreement that they should, whereas Simmons disagreed, stating that the City should instead focus on ventures that generate revenue. “By doing the library, we will max out our bond potential for other redevelopment agency [projects],” Simmons said. “The redevelopment agency has a $13-million budget, and so, whatever projects we take on, it has to be able to be paid back. So, if we do the library, we can’t do something else. We need, especially considering our structural budget deficit, considering we’re spending money at a non-sustainable rate, we need to invest in revenue-generators.” He suggested building restaurants in the area just south of the Fresh & Easy market, which, he said, is a blighted area, and hotels near the hospitals on Atlantic Avenue. “Instead, we’re using redevelopment money and opportunity to create a liability (the library) which is going to increase our budget deficit.”
Forester countered by saying, “We should absolutely use it for the library.” He said that all the plans for the facility have been completed and all the mitigation statements are in place. Forester said that if redevelopment funds are indeed dropped by mid-year, the City is already positioned to use that money for the library. “Unless you have a project ready, it can’t go to redevelopment,” he said. “We’re project-ready with the library.”
Hansen used an “apples to oranges” analogy to clarify Simmons’s statement about the City’s so-called structural budget deficit. “It’s general-fund money, which is mostly from our sales tax, versus redevelopment money, which comes from our property tax,” she said. Hansen also explained that, since the governor wants the redevelopment agencies shut down, the City must act quickly on projects that are already in place. “If the redevelopment agency is shut down on July 1 of 2011, and we have not bonded out our remaining future property-tax increase, we will lose that money forever,” she said. “And the only way we can bond out, redevelopment law says, you must have a definable project, and it must be completed in three years. We don’t have a definable set of restaurants by Fresh & Easy. We don’t have a definable hotel on Atlantic and Spring. We can’t bond out and then just hold the money and find something. We have to have a definable project; we use it or lose it.”
When the moderator asked the candidates if they believe Signal Hill’s real-estate values have depreciated, compared to other cities, Forester said they have not. “We have been very wise about what we’ve built and where we’ve built,” Forester said. Hansen agreed with him, saying, “If you look at the assessor’s information from last year, Signal Hill’s property values actually plateaued, and Long Beach property values went down another five percent.” Simmons’s response opened a new proverbial can of worms. “I think this question goes back to our identity,” he said. “Does it make sense to build strip clubs a thousand feet from right here?”
Forester addressed that question by saying he wishes people would understand the two “adult-entertainment” businesses in the city. “Our council had absolutely no choice, by a United States Supreme Court ruling that every city in the United States has to have an adult-entertainment area and it cannot be overtly sexual,” he said, noting that the City has been conscientious about where those venues are located and that the new police station will be positioned across the street from one of them. “By law, I could not stop [the venues from opening.]”
Another issue addressed during the forum included what should be done about the two abandoned homes on Hill Street, which the councilmembers noted are actually located in the city of Long Beach. “That’s where building a strong relationship with Long Beach helps out,” Simmons said. Forester noted that he himself is friends with Long Beach Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell, whose district contains the homes, and that he is indeed working with O’Donnell on the matter.
During another part of the forum in which Simmons bemoaned what he called “voter apathy” in the city, Hansen brought up the fact that Simmons did not vote in the 2009 election. Simmons explained that he did not vote at that time because he and his wife had just moved to Signal Hill and he did not want to cancel out the vote of someone better informed since he did not yet know the issues.
For more information about the March 1 election, call (562) 989-7305 or visit cityofsignalhill.org.
Photos courtesy Signal Tribune