Times Staff Writer

The lone challenger for the City Council has chastised three incumbents seeking reelection because they opposed a referendum, later approved by the voters, that prevented construction of 18 condominiums.

When they opposed the 1985 referendum, the incumbents showed that they were “out of touch with the people,” charged James Mike Slemmon, who is seeking one of three council seats in Tuesday’s municipal election.

“The whole council campaigned against it and we won it,” said Slemmon, 37, adding that he ventured into politics when he joined a citizens group that successfully campaigned for the referendum to stop the condominiums.

But Councilwoman Mary Lou Swain, 54, who is running for a second term, said the council’s opposition to the referendum “was only an indication that perhaps we were not in touch with that group of people. The fact that the City Council occasionally makes a decision that is not pleasing to all of the people in the community is not an indication that we are out of touch.”

Tom Atkins, also seeking reelection, said one of the reasons he opposed the referendum was that the condominiums would really have been single-family homes because they were not to be connected. “They were condominiums in that they shared a common ground, a front yard, but otherwise they were single-family homes,” said Atkins, a 55-year-old roofing contractor.

Councilman Ken Gillanders, who is seeking a third term, said he opposed the referendum because it ignored an almost identical proposed condominium development across the street. “It was a challenge against one individual,” he said. The other development is yet to be built.

The referendum, approved by 51.7% of the voters, was the first special ballot measure in the city’s 25-year history. About 20% of 16,462 registered voters went to the polls, the highest turnout ever for a municipal election.

Before residents gathered more than 1,600 signatures and forced the measure onto the ballot, the council had refused a request by the homeowners to construct a cul-de-sac at the north end of Golden West Avenue, cutting it off from Lower Azusa Road and separating their homes from the condominiums. The condominiums were to be built on 2.2 acres at the corner of Golden West and Lower Azusa.

Opposed Cul-de-Sac

Gillanders said he opposed the cul-de-sac because it is necessary to feed traffic from Golden West onto Lower Azusa to avoid traffic congestion between neighborhoods.

Swain said the special election showed how concerned residents are about an increase in the density of the city. “Our people are very concerned that we maintain a single-family residential area,” she said, adding that in the coming years the council should be careful in controlling development and growth.

Slemmon, a framing contractor who lives on Golden West, said the response to the condominium referendum is an example of how little opinions differ on the council. “I don’t like the single-mindedness,” Slemmon said.

But Gillanders, 53, an insurance claims manager, said, “We don’t share opinions by any stretch of the imagination. . . . We have disagreements, but it doesn’t mean we don’t work together.”

Differ on Issues

Atkins and Swain both said that the council’s voting record shows they have differed on many issues, but they declined to cite examples.

One way the incumbents are working together is by sharing some election expenses and posting some signs that display all three of their names.

“I’m surprised all five of them aren’t on there (the signs),” Slemmon said about the five-member council. “The council is just one mind.”

“We’re not actually campaigning together,” Swain said. “I’m running a very independent campaign. We are just supporting each other because we feel the incumbents are the best candidates.”

Atkins also said he is running an independent campaign but that he is supporting the other incumbents, “given the choices.”

Slemmon said that there are not a lot of choices because people are afraid to run against incumbents, and that if the number of terms for council members were limited, more people would run.

“I called some qualified people and asked them to run, but they said they thought they couldn’t win,” said Slemmon, whose platform calls for limiting council members to two terms.

Oppose Term Limit

All the incumbents oppose limiting the number of terms for council members.

Atkins, who first took office in July, 1977, when he was appointed to the council because of a resignation, is running for a third elected term. He said that Arcadia’s two-term law is an example of how limiting the number of terms can be detrimental to the city.

“As a result, in Arcadia, at critical times, excellent people have been lost and there have been times when people have gotten on the council who have been a real problem,” he said.

Swain, who agrees, said, “We have had some fine council members who have done a good job for more than two terms.” Swain also said that cities where the number of terms is limited have regretted it because “a fine council member would go out and someone wishy-washy would go in.”

Gillanders said that when he first took office he thought that two terms was enough, but has changed his mind. “I had never been a councilman and had no idea what it entailed,” he said.

Gillanders said that the idea of limiting terms has been discredited “because the communities are losing people they really need.”

One problem newcomers face is not being known, Gillanders said. As an example, he cited his work with other elected officials in the San Gabriel Valley on a study about taxes. When he began work on the plan, he said, he realized he “wasn’t well-known enough and it was extremely difficult to influence people without (having) a track record.”

Slemmon, however, said that Gillanders changed his mind because he is on the council now and does not want to leave office.

While Slemmon calls for change, the incumbents believe there are no major issues plaguing residents.

“As far as the three incumbents are concerned, we feel everything’s going just fine. . . . We really don’t see much in the way of issues,” Gillanders said.

Agreeing, Atkins said, “There are no burning issues like there was in the Proposition 13 year.”

Swain also agreed, although she said that there is concern among the residents about high density.

“I don’t see anything very dramatic happening in the next four years,” she said.