Council candidates Sam Engel and Edith Fuentes take heat at forum

City Council candidates on the campaign trail have lobbed critiques at city employees, bashing their pensions and salaries, and, at a campaign forum Wednesday, their ability to serve on the council.

Two retired city employees, Sam Engel and Edith Fuentes, are running for a seat on the City Council dais in the April election. Chahe Keuroghelian, a former city employee, also is vying for a council seat.

While Engel and Fuentes say their decades of experience at City Hall would give them an edge in office, other candidates at the Chevy Chase Homeowner’s Assn. forum Wednesday night said being an insider isn’t always desirable.

“Being a retired employee of the city gives those candidates a very quick learning curve. They hit the council and they know how everything works,” said Councilman Ara Najarian after the forum at the Chevy Chase Country Club, which lasted almost two hours. “But I think they’re also coming in with baggage and preconceived notions.”

The last time a former employee was on council was in the early 1990s. Rick Reyes retired from the Glendale Police Department in 1993, shortly before he was elected. He served as mayor in 1995.

Herbert Molano, a City Hall critic who often rails against the city’s pension obligations, said after the questioning that a long-time public employee may be closed off to new ways of thinking.

“When you have an employee whose whole adult life has been spent working for government without working in private industry, I believe they do not bring in the experience of holding people accountable,” Molano said.

His sentiments were echoed in one of the questions posed by moderator Will Rogers: “Virtually no mistake, wrong choice, legal position or boondoggle is significant enough to warrant an employee termination or demotion,” he said, then asked if the candidates would do anything to change that practice.

While Councilwoman Laura Friedman said she has seen employees disciplined in her four years on council, some demotions or firings have led to lawsuits against the city.

“I can tell you every department head has that in their minds when they choose to demote or fire,” Friedman said during the forum.

Engel, the city’s former neighborhood services administrator, admitted that he had been told by upper management to pass “sub-standard” employees on their annual reviews.

“I want to change that,” he said.

After the forum, Engel added that he was disheartened by what his profession has come to represent.

“It saddens me at the end of my career, people look at public employees as takers and not the professionals who they are,” Engel said.


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.