Many Protests, 1 Vote Kill Bell Gardens Renewal Bid

Times Staff Writer

After listening to protests from hundreds of residents opposed to a redevelopment proposal, the City Council killed the plan this week.

But the defeat came on the slimmest of margins, with the council split 2 to 1 to approve the plan, with 2 abstentions. Three votes were needed for approval.

Residents at the longest and best-attended council meeting in the city's history said it will be a long time before they forget what some council members tried to do. They vowed to mount a recall against the two council members who favored the project--Councilmen Ronald Bird and Roger McComas.

'Won't Be Forgotten'

"What the city put us through will not be forgotten soon," Sandra Thornton said. "Now we know what kind of people are running our city and we're going to make sure something like this never happens again."

The plan was being touted as a "way to clean up blight in the city, encourage home ownership and provide attractive, moderate-income housing," in the words of City Manager Claude Booker. No specific project had been proposed for the area.

But Thornton and more than 500 residents and property owners who attended a public hearing Monday night were angry because the plan would have placed one-third of the city in the redevelopment area and could have displaced as many as 11,000 of the city's 38,000 residents.

Some spoke at a podium, others shouted angry words from their seats, and a few raised their fists. But that they said anything at all was a surprise to those accustomed to seeing only a handful of residents at council meetings. The five-hour public hearing was the longest and best-attended in the city's 26-year history, according to City Clerk Leanna Keltner.

"You have accomplished on this day something I've never seen. . . . You have united Bell Gardens," Peter Utrevas told city officials. "And for that I congratulate you."

'I'm Scared Like Hell'

City officials sat expressionless as a steady stream of residents went to the podium at Ross Auditorium in Bell Gardens Park to oppose the project.

"I'm scared like hell," one resident said. "I fought the Germans in World War II . . . I fought the Koreans, too, but you people are going to kill me right here. You want to take my home away."

No action was taken at the public hearing.

At a special meeting the following night, the council split 2 to 1 to approve the plan, but three votes from the five-member council were needed, said City Atty. Peter Wallin. Mayor Marvin Graves and Councilman Allen Shelby did not participate in the meeting because they own property in the project area.

Opposing the votes of Bird and McComas, was Councilman Robert Cunningham. His vote drew a standing ovation from the smaller crowd at the special meeting Tuesday night.

"I can guarantee you you will continue to (be) a councilman in November, Mr. Cunningham," Utrevas said. "The people of Bell Gardens thank you."

After Tuesday night's meeting, resident Al Wantuch said he plans to take up a petition to recall McComas and Bird. Cunningham, Shelby and Graves are up for reelection in November.

"There's no way they will be reelected after what they tried to do to the people," Wantuch said. "The plan may be dead, but it's not over." Bird said he did what he thought was best for the city. "I still think this is a good plan," he said. "I think people got carried away with emotion."

McComas said the city needs to revitalize housing and encourage more home ownership, and said the redevelopment plan would have helped.

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