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Issues Take a Back Seat in Race for 1st District Supervisor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Issues and ideological differences have been largely drowned out during the campaign for the 1st District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors by the hubbub over the likely election of the board’s first Latino this century.

But since the beginning of the race leading to Tuesday’s election, the four principal candidates have positioned themselves in two ideological camps. State Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) and former supervisorial aide Sarah Flores have adopted a moderate approach expected to appeal to suburban voters such as those in the San Gabriel Valley, while state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, both with proven strength among urban voters, have voiced more liberal ideas.

The differences between the four are apparent in responses to a Times questionnaire on pressing issues facing the county and the 1st District, which stretches from El Sereno and Lincoln Heights, east to Irwindale and La Puente and southeast to Santa Fe Springs.

The positions taken by the five underdog candidates for the seat, meanwhile, provide an often provocative counterpoint to the campaign debate.

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Molina has set herself apart from most of the field by supporting a license tax on businesses in unincorporated areas of the county. The tax has been endorsed by Supervisors Ed Edelman and Kenneth Hahn in order to pay for health and mental-health programs that are threatened with closure. Since most cities already impose such taxes, Molina argues that it is fair that businesses in unincorporated territory also pay.

Her opponents say that businesses in a few unincorporated territories should not pay for programs that are located all over the county. Some also express concern that a new tax would drive businesses out of unincorporated areas, ultimately undercutting the county’s tax base.

On another issue, Molina joins Torres in strongly supporting the distribution of bleach kits and condoms to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus. But Calderon and Flores are more cautionary. Flores warns that such a program “could cause more harm than good” and says she wants to study the results of the city of Los Angeles’ bleach and condom program. Calderon supports distribution of condoms, but says he must be convinced that bleach kits, for cleaning hypodermic needles, will not encourage drug use.

Even with another vote on the board for a bleach and condom program, it would still need more support to gain a three-vote majority. Only Edelman has backed the idea.

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Torres and Molina support the creation of a citizens review panel to investigate alleged abuses by sheriff’s deputies. The county has paid too much money to the victims of excessive force and their families, Torres says. An independent panel would ensure that the Sheriff’s Department is “accountable to the community,” Molina says.

Calderon rejects such a group as “an additional layer of bureaucracy,” and Flores says existing agencies--the district attorney’s office and the grand jury--should review abuse allegations.

Torres and Molina also have been outspoken in their criticism of the current board’s policy of hiring private contractors to provide services. Their opponents express more willingness to consider the use of private firms.

Some observers of county government have suggested that an elected leader, equivalent to a mayor, would be more accountable to voters than an appointed chief administrative officer. Edelman has pushed this concept, but has received little support from the rest of the board.

Calderon and Flores reject the notion of an elected executive as another layer of bureaucracy; Torres and Molina said they would consider the idea, but only after other changes in county government are made.

The four front-runners are in harmony on other topics. All oppose cuts in the Sheriff’s Department’s budget. They say the supervisors occasionally should meet outside of downtown Los Angeles to increase public access to meetings. They all want to expand the board to seven members, saying that five supervisors can’t adequately represent the county’s nearly 9 million residents.

With Hahn and Edelman already in support of adding more supervisors, board expansion seems likely to go to the voters. Because the County Charter must be amended to add to the board, voters would have to approve the change.

The conservative majority that has controlled the board for the past decade has opposed increasing the number of seats, saying it would add to bureaucracy and take money away from services.

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Some of the campaign’s most innovative ideas have come from the five candidates who are considered long shots by most observers.

Paramedic Jim Mihalka says the county should require that local newspapers and periodicals be made of at least 80% recycled paper. He also wants to ban plastic bottles and grocery bags and require that bottles sold in the county be made of recycled glass.

Engineer Khalil Khalil recommends that families, churches and community groups replace the Probation Department in counseling young offenders.

Gonzalo Molina, who teaches English and citizenship to immigrants, is the only candidate to support increased funding for culture and the arts. Lois Chitty III, meanwhile, backs a reduction in law enforcement funding in favor of social programs.

To deal with the county’s budget problems, Joe Chavez has said he would impose a countywide hiring freeze. And both Mihalka and Gonzalo Molina have suggested that they could make do with less than the supervisor’s full salary of $99,297.


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