SOUTH BAY ELECTIONS : Vote Could Tip Council Scales in Manhattan

Times Staff Writer

If 3 plus 2 rarely equals 5 now, will 5 minus 2 equal 3 next week?

Translated into election politics: If council members Jim Walker, Russ Lesser and Bob Holmes almost never agree with council members Gil Archuletta and Jan Dennis on major issues, will the retirement of both Walker and Lesser from city politics next week mean Archuletta and Dennis will get a third ally on the council?

The solution to that political equation lies with an accountant, a real estate broker, two airline stewardesses, an economist, a sheriff's lieutenant and a management consultant.

The seven aspiring successors to Walker and Lesser in the City Council election on April 8 have talked about all sorts of issues in their quest for the two seats, but one concern that follows them wherever they go is the current council division.

Whom do you support on the council? How do you perceive the factions on the council? What will you do to end the bickering and nasty infighting?

All seven candidates profess to be independent thinkers capable of getting along with anyone and everyone. "No one will control my vote"--phrased in various ways--is a refrain common to them all. In interviews, all of the candidates said they disapprove of the sometimes explosive clashes that occur between council members during public meetings, including the most recent incident at a meeting two weeks ago.

At that meeting, the council verbally slugged it out in front of the television cameras over a campaign mailer distributed by Archuletta and Dennis. The battle culminated in an unsuccessful effort by Walker to oust his two political foes from their largely ceremonial posts as mayor and mayor-pro-tem.

"It is just disgusting what is happening," said candidate Gerry Johnson, a real estate agent and part-time airline stewardess who is making her second bid for public office in the city. "Something has got to change."

The rivalry between the two factions, commonly referred to in this affluent, upscale community as the "philosophical split," has nebulous origins. But one thing is fairly certain: It centers on both personality conflicts between council members and the issue of development.

In general, Archuletta and Dennis, relative newcomers to the council who ousted two incumbents in 1984, seem to favor greater controls and imposition of more extensive conditions on new projects, leaning toward what some critics call an overbearing and bureaucratic approach to growth.

Lesser, Walker and Holmes, in contrast, generally believe that growth and new development in the city is being held in check, new projects receive sufficient review and the city should leave a good thing alone. Critics accuse them of catering to the needs of developers rather than residents.

For example, the so-called philosophical split was apparent when the council engaged in a bitter dispute early last year over an unsuccessful effort to place a moratorium on all non-residential construction in the city until the council revised the city's general plan.

Archuletta and Dennis supported the move, arguing that better city planning was necessary and that the council majority was working to stifle dissent on the issue. The other three council members joined to defeat the measure. Holmes argued at the time that the existing building code protections were adequate, and he called the proposed restrictions "ill-conceived, unnecessary and punitive."

Three candidates in next week's election have received endorsements from incumbent council members, two from the so-called majority faction and one from Archuletta and Dennis. Archuletta and Dennis said last week that they also support a second candidate, albeit informally.

Lesser, Walker and Holmes have endorsed Mike Collins, a real estate broker who is vice chairman of the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and Laurence Dougharty, an economist and chairman of the city's ad hoc committee on undergrounding utilities.

With his background in real estate, Collins is seen by his supporters as an ideal replacement for Walker, who is also a real estate broker. Likewise, Dougharty is perceived to be a good swap for Lesser, who is an accountant.

"The council has run very smoothly with us on it, and Larry and Mike are the two most qualified people to replace us," Lesser said. "While I will disagree with lots of things they do, I want the most qualified people on the council."

Dennis and Archuletta, in turn, have endorsed Bruce Ponder, a self-employed management consultant who has worked with various neighorhood groups, but who has never served on a city commmission. Ponder's emphasis on protecting the city's residential character and preserving its small-town atmosphere won him the endorsement. His work on behalf of police officers has also earned him endorsements from the police and firefighters associations.

"His campaign is focused on the issues that face our city," said a letter written by Archuletta and Dennis on Ponder's behalf. As examples they cited his interest in "protecting the residential character of our neighborhoods, reducing traffic and parking congestion, preserving the village atmosphere downtown, strengthening crime prevention, and many others."

Archuletta and Dennis said they would also like to see Connie Sieber elected. Sieber, a flight attendant for Western Airlines and the head of the Assn. of Flight Attendants in Los Angeles, ran unsuccessfully for City Council two years ago.

Sieber, who is chairwoman of the Public Works Commission and has been a Manhattan Beach homeowner since 1972, said she became involved in local politics because of her concern that new development in the city is threatening its residential character. Sieber, 43, who is married and has two children, characterizes next week's election as a choice between "full-scale development" and "cautious development."

The candidates endorsed or supported by the incumbents have capitalized on their ties to the council to various degrees, but all four of them emphasized in interviews last week that they will avoid joining a council faction if elected.

"I am not advocating that everything is fine right now," said Collins, 42, who is married and has lived in the city for 11 years. "If we want changes, that's fine, but if we change the tune, let's make sure we have somebody on the council who knows a little bit about music."

Dougharty, who finished seventh out of seven candidates in the 1984 election when Archuletta and Dennis were elected and Holmes was reelected, said the council endorsements are just one part of a widespread base of support he has built since his first council bid in 1980.

"The issue in the long term is capability on the council," said Dougharty, 45, who is married and has lived in Manhattan Beach for 15 years. "If we have problems with development, then let's debate the requirements and then allow the developers to build. Now you have people choosing sides on every development, then we have the split and it tears the council apart."

Ponder, 38, who is single and a 13-year resident, said that he shares the concerns expressed by Archuletta and Dennis about development but noted that he has disagreed with the two incumbents in the past. As an example, he said he opposed the moratorium on non-commercial development.

"There is enough blame among all five council members" for the split on the council, he said. "My pledge is to work with all the interests."

The three candidates who have not been endorsed by incumbents--Johnson, Steve Barnes and Tim Lilligren--have stressed their independence from the factional disputes and the contribution that new, unaligned voices can make at council meetings.

"It would be an absolute mistake to perpetuate in any manner the ongoing rift by electing candidates aligned with either side," said Barnes, 41, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a planning commissioner since 1980. "Politics is the art of compromise and unfortunately it is not taking place in our community. The continued split has alienated the community and has created a 'you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us' attitude."

Barnes has lived in Manhattan Beach since 1972, is married and has four children.

Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for city clerk six years ago, said council members need to pay more attention to what residents are saying rather than follow preconceived notions about issues.

"I am sick and tired of every vote on the council being predetermined," said Johnson, 50, who is divorced, has four children and has lived in Manhattan Beach since 1958. "The 3-2 vote is getting to be a joke."

Lilligren, who at 32 is the youngest of the candidates, said philosophical differences among council members often can strengthen the political process. But that hasn't been the case during the past two years in Manhattan Beach, he said.

"The ideal would be to have five philosophies and five points of view," said Lilligren, who is single, a native of Manhattan Beach, and self-employed as an accountant. "Unfortunately, there now seems to be a polarization of points of view."

At a candidates forum several weeks ago, in campaign literature and at personal appearances throughout the city, the seven candidates have focused on various other issues. All have touched upon concerns about development on Sepulveda Boulevard, which is the city's major commercial strip and is often perceived as a high-speed, high-rise corridor that divides the city into two distinct communities on the east and west sides of the boulevard.

Last year, the City Council voted to increase the hours during which parking is prohibited on Sepulveda during the morning and evening rush hours in an effort to keep traffic moving through the city. The move, however, was opposed by businesses on the boulevard.

Ponder and Dougharty have come out in support of the restrictions, saying that the additional lane of traffic during rush hour helps keep communter traffic out of neighborhoods adjacent to the boulevard. Johnson, Lilligren, Sieber and Collins oppose the restrictions, saying they are harmful to area businesses and serve to further divide the city. Barnes said he will take a stand on the issue after Caltrans releases a study about how effective the restriction have been in helping to move traffic.

As council members, the winners will earn $200 a month, receive a $55 monthly car allowance and qualify for coverage under the city's medical plan. In their effort to win a seat on the council, however, some candidates are spending more money than they probably will earn during an entire four-year term.

Based on their own estimates, Collins will spend the most money by April 8 ($12,000), followed by Ponder ($10,000), Dougharty and Sieber ($6,000 each), Barnes ($4,000), Johnson ($2,800) and Lilligren ($1,100).

The candidates will meet for a forum at 7:30 p.m. on Monday at the Joslyn Center on Valley Drive.

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