Poor air quality and the fight against waste-to-energy plants in general, and one proposed in nearby Irwindale in particular, are the dominant concerns of the five candidates running for three open seats in the April 8 City Council election.
The three incumbents who hope to retain their offices--John Van Doren, Carlyle Falkenborg and J. A. Montgomery--defend their records in opposing the Irwindale plant. But challengers John Hitt and Terry Michaelis complain that the City Council did not move fast enough in coming out against the controversial plant proposed by Pacific Waste Management Inc. on a site within a mile of Duarte's boundary.
"We've been a little bit unhappy with the response initially from the council on the trash-burning issue," said Michaelis, 41, a certified public accountant who is seeking his first elective office. "It took a little bit of convincing to get the council in opposition."
They Waited for Public Outcry
Hitt, 41, a founder of Citizens Assn. for a Safe Environment who has lived in Duarte five years, said that although members of the council had been aware of the proposed plant for some time, they waited until there was a public outcry before making any official move to oppose the Irwindale facility, which would burn 3,000 tons of household trash a day.
It was not until an angry crowd of 400 residents showed up at a Duarte City Council meeting last August that the council took a stand against the project, voting to oppose waste-to-energy plants in general and the Irwindale project in particular. It was at that meeting that the council also asked the state Energy Commission for intervenor status in the Irwindale project.
That status allows the council to obtain all documents, scientific information and other correspondence the Energy Commission, the major licensing agency for large-scale waste-to-energy plants, has in its files regarding the plant.
"I don't question that their opposition now is sincere," said Hitt, a certified financial planner. "I just use that as an example of them not anticipating the city's needs. They should have seen the risk and created some opposition on their own."
In explaining the delay, Van Doren, 42, who is seeking his third four-year term, admitted that city officials had known about the proposed plant for some time.
"But I guess there wasn't the sense of urgency until the citizens made their feelings known."
Falkenborg, 65, a retired customer service representative for Pacific Telephone Co. who has served on the council 12 years, said that although it may have seemed that council members waited too long to take a stand against the plant, they were using that time to gather information needed to make a decision. He pointed out that Duarte was the first city to ask for intervenor status.
Montgomery, 63, a construction consultant who is seeking his fourth term, defended the council, saying: "Our council and our staff are doing as much as anybody in opposition to this. We're looking for alternatives." He added that the city is investigating the possibility of transporting its trash to an isolated area outside the San Gabriel Valley so it could be burned without endangering anyone.
Take Trash to Desert
"If we have to burn garbage, let's put it on a train and take it out to the desert," agreed Michaelis, who has lived in Duarte six years. "It may cost us $5 or $10 more per person a month, but it's worth it. They (trash incinerators) shouldn't be built in a metropolitan area."
Falkenborg said that the idea of a waste-to-energy plant in the area might be acceptable to him if he could be certain the plant would be safe. "If they could prove that there would be no damage to the environment, we'd be all for it. But they haven't been able to do that," Falkenborg said.
Van Doren said that in addition to smog, he is concerned about the danger that the Irwindale plant or any of the other trash-burning facilities might release dangerous emissions into the atmosphere.
"It goes beyond the issue of the San Gabriel Valley being filled with smog," said Van Doren, an insurance salesman. "It is the possibility of carcinogens, such as dioxins, being released into the air. Whatever goes into the plant is going to come out of that smokestack."
Falkenborg, who lives only a mile from the proposed Irwindale plant, echoed Van Doren's concerns.
"They will be burning garbage and they don't know what is going in there," Falkenborg said. "If they don't know what is going in, how do they know what is going out?"
Appeal to Younger Set
Hitt and Michaelis said they entered the race at the last minute when it appeared that no one would run against the three incumbents. Both said they hoped to offer a fresh perspective to the council, one more "in tune" with younger families who have moved into Duarte in the past few years.
Hitt said that current council members, some of whom have been in office for 12 years, have "almost deliberately avoided establishing links with the newer families."
Michaelis said he is sharing campaign signs and literature with Hitt. "We feel we can be more effective picking up seats on the council together," he said. "If I get elected, or if just John gets elected, it's still one against four."
Falkenborg and Montgomery also are running together, as they have done since they first ran successfully for seats on the Duarte school board in 1967.
"We've always done it," Montgomery said. "He and I have always been involved in community activities."
Michaelis and Hitt expressed concern over what they view as a glut of condominiums and a helter-skelter method of city planning. Hitt said that the two-mile stretch of Huntington Drive between Mt. Olive and Buena Vista streets, for example, would have been better suited for commercial use.
"They so overbuilt that they are not able to sell a great number of these condominiums," Hitt said.
Falkenborg said that although there are some unsold condominiums, it is not an unusual problem. "Sure, there are some condominiums that are still for sale. There are also houses that haven't been sold," he said. "How much is too much?"
Van Doren, who has lived in Duarte 14 years, said he hopes to have the council write an updated city master plan every five years, rather than wait for up to 15 years, as has been the case in the past. He added that he will seek the opinions of Duarte residents in planning matters.
"Whoever is on the council will have to make some hard decisions on land use," Van Doren said.