Issues surrounding fiscal responsibility, combating crime and the fine art of complying with state mandates without sacrificing La Cañada’s unique way of life were put before three of four City Council candidates Wednesday in a forum at Flintridge Preparatory School.
Sponsored by the La Cañada Flintridge Coordinating Council, the event drew a small crowd of civic-minded residents and supporters of incumbent candidate Councilwoman Terry Walker, Public Works and Traffic Commissioner Keith Eich and former Planning Commissioner Rick Gunter.
Mayor Len Pieroni, whose name will appear on the ballot in the March 3 election for three open council seats, announced last month a temporary suspension of campaign activities following a health scare. He was not in attendance.
Walker, a 66-year-old co-owner of the La Cañada Pet Clinic appointed to the council in 2015, spoke of her experience on the City Council to date, as well as the Planning and Public Works and Traffic commissions before that. She highlighted the relationships she’s formed with regional and state officials who often assist the city in its goals.
“I understand how City Hall functions and have demonstrated the leadership roles required to guide our city,” she said. “Public safety and quality of life, fiscal responsibility and support of our schools are my priorities — this is the ongoing business of your city council.”
Eich, a 40-year-old vice president at online tech company LegalZoom, said his serving on the city’s Public Works and Traffic Commission has given him an up-close look at the concerns of residents and increasing safety should be more of a priority.
“Crime was up significantly in 2019. I think part of this is because the city’s focus for the last three years was on buying, remodeling and upgrading the new city hall,” he said. “While 90% of what our city does is going well, I’m afraid we aren’t open to making the small changes and tweaks our city needs.”
A principal of HKS, Inc., the architectural firm overseeing construction of the SoFi stadium in Inglewood, Gunter, 55, said he’s formed working relationships with the regional, county and state agencies whose decisions affect La Cañada.
Combined with his nine years on the Planning Commission, that’s given him a deep understanding of city governance, he said.
“New ideas without the backup of history and hard work and dedication often don’t work,” Gunter said. “I’ve spent many years serving our community, learning more about what makes us great. My personal history has given me firsthand experience with all that makes us who we are.”
Forum moderator and Flintridge Prep Headmaster Peter Bachmann posed questions from the audience regarding freeway sound walls, traffic, transportation and crime.
Candidates largely agreed public safety was a chief priority but had different ideas of how to keep residents safe.
Eich said he’d support more directed sheriff’s patrols on La Cañada streets and responding to crime with a strong show of force. Gunter said an uptick in home break-ins is a countywide phenomenon and supported the city taking advantage of new technology that could be even more effective than increasing patrol deputies.
Walker said a recent agreement by the council to pay $78,800 to install 37 new license-plate reader cameras throughout town and a city-sponsored Ring doorbell camera rebate that resulted in 477 new units were good municipal steps, but she stressed homeowners should safeguard homes and form watch groups.
When asked whether La Cañada Flintridge is in good financial condition, Gunter and Walker agreed the city’s reserves were stronger than other communities and that the new city hall building (estimated to cost $18.3 million) was a good investment.
Both candidates were opposed to the idea of using a portion of the city’s reserves to pay off a nearly $5-million loan on the building.
“The reason we have reserves are for very serious issues,” Gunter said, using the 2008 nationwide recession and 2009 Station fire as examples. “I’m in favor of paying down the loan as quickly as possible, but I want to make sure we maintain our reserves for their true purpose — an actual, real emergency.”
Eich said the city should sell a Montessori school adjacent to City Hall whose rental fees annually generate about $86,150 and use the income to help pay off the loan right away.
“We barely get 1% of money in a year in return from our reserves,” he said. “It’s probably a better bet long-term, as long as we’re keeping cash on hand for emergencies, to pay down the debt faster.”
Walker said the school was an asset generator far greater in value than its $1.37-million sales potential.
“If we invested that at a rate of 2.5% ... we would generate income in the amount of $35,000 a year — that’s a $50,000 gap, just to say we have cash in our reserves,” she said.
Afterward, La Cañada resident Judie Garcia reviewed note cards on which she’d jotted down issues and talking points from the three candidates. She said she planned to do more research and attend a City Council meeting before the election.
“I will see the town differently after this discussion,” she said.