The seven candidates vying for three City Council seats up for grabs in the March 8 election took to the Flintridge Preparatory School auditorium stage Wednesday night in public appeals for voter support.
In personal statements and in answers to a number of audience-generated questions, the first open debate of this year’s council race focused on topics of fiscal responsibility, support for local education, condemnation of the proposed 710 Freeway extension, prospects for freeway sound walls and commitment to preserving open space.
The forum, which ran nearly two hours and drew a small but deeply attentive audience of about 90, was sponsored by the La Cañada Flintridge Coordinating Council and both of the city’s Kiwanis organizations.
While incumbents Laura Olhasso and Mayor Don Voss tended to emphasize their breadth of experience in local government and accomplishments of their previous terms, challengers James Hill and Jacqueline Harris were critical of city government’s responsiveness to residents and promised to forge a more customer-friendly tone if elected.
“Why am I running? A need for responsiveness and presence in the community by city council members,” said Harris, a nurse.
While voters can’t be certain how non-incumbents would perform on the dais, said Hill, an attorney, “We do know one thing: you don’t have is a responsive City Council.”
Planning Commissioner Michael Davitt and businessman Charlie Kamar took more optimistic views on the current state of civic affairs.
“Everyone agrees this is a great community. I also believe we can make it better,” Davitt said.
Robert Richter, a retired scientist, was harshly critical of the city’s handling of the sewer issue and other projects.
“We need somebody who has some background in engineering and science [on the council],” said Richter, who spent significant time explaining his professional background but appeared to come up short on questions about crowded parking conditions and ranking city priorities.
Richter was the only candidate to oppose installation of bike lanes and voice criticism of the city’s trail system. And while others voiced lockstep opposition to 710 extension, Richter focused instead on calls to expand the 134 Freeway in order to mitigate its effects.
Randy Strapazon, a member of the La Canada Flintridge Trails Council who wasn’t pleased with Richter’s remarks, said afterward that the debate “showed the different candidates’ range of experience in city government.”
And though she acknowledged that the candidates often communicated similar answers to audience questions, YMCA of the Foothills Development Director Kim Beattie said candidates had plenty of time on stage to distinguish themselves.
As for differences, only Harris expressed outright opposition to construction of sound walls, saying it appeared fiscally irresponsible to tie up city funds in such a massive project until economic conditions improved.
Only Hill emphasized a need for greater disaster preparedness at the city level.
Kamar repeatedly hammered home a need to be business-friendly.
“There are a lot of empty stores. We have to speed up [business] applications and improve parking to help the merchants,” Kamar said.
Olhasso and Voss countered criticisms of the current council by pointing up accomplishments — among them the city’s enviable rainy day fund, expansion of city recreational opportunities, including its joint-use programs with LCUSD, improvements along the Foothill corridor and efforts already underway to plan and fund construction of sound walls.
“Sift through the rhetoric and find those who have proven leadership with effective results,” Olhasso urged.
But judging by the night’s relatively small turnout, the YMCA’s Beattie wondered how much of that sifting residents appear willing to do.
Among the double-digit crowd, some two dozen appeared to be candidates’ friends, family or campaign volunteers — there less to decide how to vote than to show support for their candidate of choice.
“I would have like to see a lot more people from the community for something as important as this,” said Beattie.