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Local Elections : Zoning Stand Is Focus in South Gate Election

Times Staff Writer

The April 8 City Council election here may be a referendum on city officials’ recent attempts to clean up the community and fight illegal garage conversions.

On one side of the issue are three council members seeking reelection to four-year terms. They are Mayor Bill De Witt, 44, Del Snavely, 67, and Herb Cranton, 62.

The incumbents said they support a property maintenance ordinance and a second ordinance that requires mandatory pre-sale inspections of city houses for possible violations of city building and health codes.

The councilmen say the two ordinances prevent the conversion of garages into illegal residences and businesses. The garage conversions, they say, are responsible for overcrowded city schools and overburdened city services such as water and sewers.

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On the other side is Dorothea Lombardo, 62, a veteran City Hall critic who has run unsuccessfully for City Council three times. Lombardo, a candidate again, opposes the ordinances.

She said the measures infringe on the rights of taxpayers and duplicate services provided by the county and federal governments. She is leading a petition drive that asks the council to rescind both ordinances. In response, the five-member council is supporting a rival petition drive by another group of residents that supports the ordinances.

Lombardo is a free-lance author who has written a cookbook titled “Some Like It Hot.” The book includes recipes for “Hot Pink Pickled Eggs” and “Hot Ice Cream,” which calls for mixing vanilla ice cream with Red Hots and a dash of Tabasco sauce. In an interview, she promised to spice up the campaign.

The property maintenance ordinance was passed in 1960, but it was enforced on a complaint-only basis until 1984, when city officials decided to become more aggressive in the war on illegal garage conversions.

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The ordinance requires residents to paint houses, mow lawns and keep screens on windows. It also prohibits parking cars, trucks and other vehicles on front yards. The section of the ordinance that has drawn the most objections, however, prohibits conversions of garages into residences or businesses.

To enforce the property maintenance ordinance and other building and health code ordinances, the city this year budgeted $335,000 in federal money to pay for five inspectors. The inspectors drive around the city looking for violations. Usually, the inspectors attempt to convince residents to voluntarily comply with ordinances, city officials said. But the inspectors also have the power to issue citations carrying a penalty upon conviction of up to six months in jail or a maximum fine of $1,000.

Sweep of Hollydale Area

The battle over the property maintenance ordinance began Nov. 16, when city inspectors swept the Hollydale area, one of the city’s better residential sections, and cited 40 residents for various infractions. The citations noted 11 illegal garage conversions, unpainted homes, cars parked on front lawns and rummage sales that were held without a license, a violation of the city’s business code. The sweep provoked numerous complaints from residents, city officials said.

The pre-sale inspection ordinance, approved last March, gives the city the power to inspect all residences before they are sold. After objections were raised to a proposed $50 inspection fee, the council agreed not to charge residents for the inspection.

In an interview, Lombardo said both ordinances penalize current property owners for violations that frequently were committed by previous property owners.

Lombardo also objected to a section of the property maintenance ordinance that gives city inspectors the right to walk on private property without residents’ permission. Also, she said residents should be allowed to convert garages into such uses as darkrooms, which are prohibited under the ordinance.

“It’s a beautiful way (for the city) to make money,” she said of the property maintenance ordinance.

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$400 in Fines

However, Mark Sutton, the city’s director of building safety, said the city has taken in only $400 in fines in the past two years. He also said there is no fine if residents voluntarily reconvert their former garages.

About 90% of the residents who are cited for illegal garage conversions voluntarily comply with city laws, Sutton said. The remaining violations are referred to a lawyer hired by the city for prosecution, Sutton said.

Lombardo also argued that the ordinances should be repealed because the city’s crusade against illegal garage conversions is unnecessary. Rather than rely on city inspectors, the city should use the county Health Services Department and federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to crack down on illegal residences and businesses, Lombardo said.

The incumbent candidates disagree.

“When we campaigned for office we promised that we would clean up the city,” Cranton said. If the two ordinances were repealed, “we’d have wall-to-wall roofing all over the city,” said Cranton, a community relations representative for the Southern California Rapid Transit District who has been a council member since his 1982.

‘We Have to Have Rules’

“The county health department and immigration service haven’t taken care of this problem in the past,” said De Witt, owner of General Veneer Manufacturing, who has been a council member since 1980, when he filled an unexpired term.

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“We have to have rules and regulations that everybody abides by,” said Snavely, owner of Del’s Gifts and Toys, who has been a council member since 1979, when he filled an unexpired term.

The incumbents cite city statistics which say that from January, 1984, until January, 1986, the city found 550 illegally converted garages, of which 288 were used by owners and 262 were rented. The illegally rented garages were inhabited by 1,300 people, including 655 school-age children, city officials said.

City schools are so crowded that 400 high school students are being bused to schools in the San Fernando Valley and Watts. In 1984, the city of 74,800 residents used enough water for 95,000 persons, costing the city an extra $143,000, city officials said. Figures for 1985 could not be obtained.

Another issue that those elected will have to grapple with in coming months is what to do when the federal government eliminates revenue sharing funds to cities this September. This year, the city, which has a $14-million general fund, received $1.2 million under the federal program. The money, as in previous years, was used to help pay for the city’s $7-million Police Department. To offset the cuts in federal money, the city may have to cut services, city officials said.

In interviews, none of the incumbents, who earn $400 a month, could suggest where to cut the city budget to compensate.

“At this point, I wouldn’t want to say” what to cut, De Witt said. Snavely and Cranton also said they had no idea what services to trim.

Lombardo, however, had a suggestion.

“We may have to cut salaries” of city officials, she said.


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