El Monte Mayor, Council : Challenger Called 'Completely Wrong'

Times Staff Writer

Challenger Jim Marin doesn't mince words when he explains why he wants to defeat Mayor Donald McMillen in the April 8 municipal election.

The mayor, Marin claims, supported spending $6 million to renovate City Hall and has taken his wife on extensive trips at city expense.

But McMillen, backed by city records and the city's finance director, says Marin's allegations simply are not true.

For one thing, only $2.7 million was approved by the City Council last fall for the renovation, according to McMillen and city records. An architect hired by the city had recommended a plan that would have cost $6 million, but the council balked at the cost, McMillen said.

"He was completely wrong," said McMillen, a 63-year-old retired businessman who has served on the City Council since 1980 and is seeking a second term as mayor. The mayor is a member of the council. "The $6 million was for a more comprehensive remodeling program that the city decided not to do."

As for the travel expenditures, "My wife keeps asking me what woman I took with me because she didn't get to go (on most trips)," McMillen said.

McMillen said in an interview last week that he paid his wife's expenses on all but one trip, which was to Rancho Bernardo for a conference of the Assn. of Independent Cities. McMillen said the $300 fee for the conference, which was attended by several other council members and their spouses, included wives. City Finance Director Marv Louie confirmed that McMillen had reimbursed the city for all trips involving his wife, except the Rancho Bernardo conference.

But Marin, a 33-year-old high school administrator, still will not back down, saying he has a source, whom he refuses to identify, who can substantiate the charges.

"His (McMillen's) greatest accomplishment is committing $6 million to remodel and redecorate City Hall," Marin said in his official candidate's statement, which will appear on the sample ballot. The statement also said McMillen's wife, Flo, traveled with him "across the U. S. and to Mexico" at city expense and urged voters to "end this abuse of public trust."

The mayor's position is largely ceremonial, but the mayor does have authority to appoint members of most commissions, boards and committees with council approval. The mayor is elected separately from the council and serves a two-year term. Council terms are four years.

Marin, a former El Monte City School District board member who was defeated for reelection last fall, says that the election is a referendum on the City Hall renovation. Marin acknowledged that his $6-million figure for the City Hall renovation came from a local newspaper story and that he had not checked the public record on the cost.

City Hall 'Last Priority'

Regardless of the amount of money approved, Marin said, the funds allocated for the City Hall project could be better used for street improvements and other community services. "The City Hall is the very last priority," Marin said. "I think the priority is the people and the needs of the people."

McMillen countered that $12.7 million has been earmarked this year for road work, including a new railroad overpass at Peck Road and the complete resurfacing of Valley Boulevard within the city.

McMillen said the city's most pressing issue is economic development, not the City Hall project. He cited several redevelopment efforts he has supported, including the giant Home Club hardware store and renovation planned for the Valley Mall, as evidence that his leadership has helped encourage a rebirth in the sagging retail community. He also hailed the Ramona Boulevard residential project, which includes more than 140 townhomes.

"The only way to increase revenues in the city is to increase the sales tax base," said McMillen, adding that the Home Club store, in a closed Sears outlet, is expected to generate $30 million in sales its first year.

Criticizes Mall Project

But Marin said the city has done too little too late to halt the deterioration of the Valley Mall, the main downtown shopping district. He said the city's Community Redevelopment Agency will have wasted more than $100,000 on designs for renovating it unless new anchor stores can be found to replace the J. C. Penney store that closed last fall and the Thrifty scheduled to close at the end of April.

"The people on the City Council haven't had the vision to see this was going to happen," he said.

Both candidates agree that the city should fight the proposal for a landfill just across the city limits in Arcadia.

Former Mayor Tom Keiser, a supporter and friend of Marin, said he thinks Marin stands a good chance if he can make the City Hall renovation project the central issue. But others active in municipal politics say McMillen seems firmly entrenched because some progress has been made on redevelopment.

Campaign Tactics

McMillen said he plans to spend most of his money to mail campaign literature in the last two weeks of the campaign and meanwhile is meeting with small groups of voters. Marin has mailed some campaign material and said he is walking precincts.

The council race, where incumbents Ernest Gutierrez and Henry Velasco are facing candidates Jeff Marrone and Doris Frank, so far has been quieter than the mayoral campaign.

All candidates stressed the need for economic revitalization.

Velasco, 52, who has been on the council 10 years, also is seeking the Republican nomination for the state Assembly. He plans to oppose Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D--El Monte) in next fall's general election. If Velasco were to win, he would have to give up his council seat.

Velasco Opposed Renovation

Velasco, a radio station engineer, is the most fiscally conservative member of the council; he was the lone opponent of the City Hall remodeling project. But he has supported redevelopment efforts and contends that the city "has turned the corner" on economic development.

Longtime observers of local politics say Velasco probably is the more vulnerable of the incumbents. Velasco barely won reelection two years ago when he ran on the same slate as Frank and former Mayor Keiser. (One council term had to be adjusted to two years in 1984 because McMillen, then a councilman with two years remaining, was running for mayor. So Velasco, the council candidate who came in third in the three-seat election, earned two years, the others four.)

Velasco may have further weakened his political base by alienating Democrats who support Tanner. And, the observers say, because he is seeking two offices, his motives might be questioned. Moreover, Velasco was on the council in the mid-1970s when many business people believe redevelopment should have been initiated but was not.

"We could have done more way back," Velasco said, "but . . . I don't think it's ever too late to improve what you have."

Active in Community

Velasco, long active in scouting and other community activities, said his running in two races is "awkward" but "it's not like I just came along. I've been on the City Council 10 years."

Gutierrez, 51, is touting his pro-redevelopment position in his bid for a second term. "Essentially, we're talking about making sure that the work this administration started four years back can be continued in terms of redevelopment."

Gutierrez, a high school counselor, also stressed his past support for the police and fire departments and street improvements and his opposition to the increase in the number of businesses licensed to sell liquor.

Marrone, a 32-year-old commercial real estate dealer and president of the El Monte Chamber of Commerce, is the only political novice in the race. Marrone said he believes that new leadership is needed on the council and added that he wants the city to step up its redevelopment efforts.

Cites Business Background

"Redevelopment on the scale of Monrovia and Duarte, that's what's needed," Marrone said. "My business background gives me better insight into what's needed."

Frank, 57, owner of South El Monte Disposal Co., said the city should improve its counseling and recreation services for youth. Frank questioned whether Velasco and Gutierrez deserve credit for helping to attract business through their efforts as members of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

She said the Home Club store probably would have located in El Monte without the city's encouragement and criticized the Valley Mall project.

"Why are they trying to reconstruct the Valley Mall and bring the buildings back to their original state?" Frank said. "There's nothing there. There never was and there never will be."

Frank said the city should approach redevelopment "from a whole new angle," although she acknowledged that she is not sure exactly what the new approach should be. "We have sort of taken a back seat when it comes to development in our city," she said. "All of the cities around are developing and our businesses are closing. . . . I've been racking my brain trying to figure out what is left for us."

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