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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY ELECTIONS: CANDIDATES ENTER HOMESTRETCH : La Verne Campaign Trail Leads to Foothill Freeway

Times Staff Writer

Traffic problems caused by the uncompleted Foothill Freeway appear to be the major concern of the three candidates seeking two City Council seats in Tuesday’s municipal election.

The Foothill Freeway now ends about a quarter-mile east of the La Verne city boundary. Traffic from the freeway feeds onto Foothill Boulevard, which becomes heavily congested during peak times.

Harold Barton, a La Verne city planner, said a drive through town on Foothill Boulevard that would ordinarily take five minutes can take up to 20 minutes between 7 and 9 a.m. or 5 and 7 p.m.

Challenger George Caswell, who served as La Verne’s city manager from 1963 to 1980, is proposing a temporary solution until the freeway is completed.

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Caswell said he would extend Base Line Road, which runs parallel to the proposed freeway route but stops for a short distance just east of La Verne, and divert traffic coming off the freeway to that street. That could be done in three to five years, rather than the 10 to 20 years it might take to get the freeway completed, he said.

But the two incumbents, Patrick Gatti and Robert Rodriguez, disagree. So does Mayor Jon Blickenstaff, who is unopposed in his bid for return to office.All three have voiced concerns that Caswell’s plan would route traffic through a residential area. Their solution is to increase pressure on Caltrans to complete the freeway.

However, the chances that the freeway will be completed soon are remote, the candidates agree.

Caltrans has not finished designing the freeway’s easterly extension, which eventually will carry traffic nonstop to San Bernardino. Caltrans spokesman Thomas Knox said that the Foothill Freeway, also known as Route 30, is just one of several freeway systems with gaps. “We really don’t have any estimate of when it will be completed,” Knox said.

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City’s ‘Hands . . . Tied’

Barton said that the city’s “hands are really just about tied. It’s a matter of when the state comes up with the money and goes ahead with it.”

“Fender-bender” accidents are common on Foothill Boulevard, Barton said, and at times the traffic going west in the morning and east in the evening becomes so bad that drivers become “locked in,” unable to move at all.

Gatti, 43, who is seeking his second term, said he has been working to get the state to act on the problem since 1981, when he witnessed an accident in which three schoolgirls walking along Foothill Boulevard were hit by a car that had come off the freeway.

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“It (the accident) has a lot to do with the energy I’ve maintained fighting for it,” said Gatti, a 14-year La Verne resident and owner of a flower shop.

Rodriguez, 56, described the congestion on Foothill Boulevard at peak traffic hours as “horrible.” The city should place top priority on getting the freeway extended past La Verne, said Rodriguez, who is seeking his second term.

“I don’t think we gain anything from that traffic. Our people don’t even venture out onto the streets at that time,” said Rodriguez, a retired Pomona police captain who is now director of administrative services at the University of La Verne.

“There will be a time when we’ll just have a long parking lot in La Verne,” Rodriguez added.

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Caswell, 66, who now works for a government agency that provides planning on how to deal with disasters and emergencies for 10 cities in the San Gabriel Valley, said that the city should not just sit back and wait for the freeway to appear.

“It will be a long time before we ever see that freeway,” said Caswell, who has lived in La Verne for 23 years. “There has got to be some more immediate solution to alleviate it (the traffic problem).”

Although Gatti agrees that some action is necessary, he does not think Caswell’s Base Line Road proposal is the right solution.

“You’re diverting commercial traffic to residential areas, and if I lived up in that area, I’d come down to City Hall with a hatchet,” Gatti said.

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Caswell countered that although it would be unfortunate that the route would go through residential areas, homeowners there should have realized that potential because of their location.

“When you buy a house facing a 100-foot-wide street, it goes without saying that there’s going to be a lot of traffic,” Caswell said.

La Verne’s nearly 15,000 registered voters will also be asked on Tuesday to decide on a ballot measure that would make the offices of city treasurer and city clerk appointive rather than elective. Another measure, advisory only, will ask voters if the sale of fireworks in the city should be allowed to continue.

Council candidates have said that the ballot measure on allowing the council to appoint city officers was prompted in part by City Treasurer Gerry Peck’s decision to retire early next year. Peck, who has held the office for 18 years, has run unopposed since she won in 1968.

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“This is something that has been talked about and bandied about for about 20 years,” said Peck, 55. “I think my retirement just kind of brought it to a head.”

Both Peck and Kathy Hamm, who has been city clerk since 1978, said they were in favor of the measure because it is important to have professionals in those jobs. Hamm added that unlike other elected offices, the clerk and treasurer hold administrative rather than legislative positions.

‘Might Not Run’

“Not that I don’t believe that the public can choose a qualified individual,” Hamm said. “But one might not always run.”

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Blickenstaff agreed.

“Earlier, when the city was much smaller, those positions were not as important,” Blickenstaff said. “The amount of money handled was much less.”

Although the fireworks measure is advisory only, Gatti and Rodriguez believe that the city should heed whatever the voters decide.

But Caswell said he was uncertain about the measure because many local organizations raise funds by selling fireworks.

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“And I don’t think that simply stopping the selling of fireworks will abolish fireworks in this city,” he said.

Caswell said he is running primarily because he wants to contribute to the city, not because he has significant complaints against the present council.

Caswell said his 17 years as city manager prepared him well for a seat on the council. “Doing it at one side of the council table, versus doing it from the other side, I don’t see much of a difference,” Caswell said.

School Principal

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Blickenstaff, an Azusa junior high school principal who has lived in La Verne all his life, said the council has been trying to improve the city’s finances, which have suffered setbacks, and to improve wages for city workers.

“We don’t talk about doing anything in this city without looking very closely at the financial impact,” he said. “Whether it’s a new park or a new building, we look at the financial impact so that if it is not at least breaking even, we know why.”

The mayor added that pay rates for the city’s 125 full-time employees are now about average for cities of La Verne’s size.

“I wouldn’t say that there aren’t any complaints,” he said. “There are always complaints. But I think the community at large is satisfied.”

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Candidate Gatti agreed that the political climate is calm. “It’s really eerie,” he said last week. “Nobody has put out any yard signs or anything. It looks like we’re going to have a real good, clean election.”


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