Attitudes trump issues in council election

No single silver-bullet issue defines Tuesday’s La Cañada Flintridge City Council election.

When it comes to big questions, such as the proposed extension of the 710 Freeway, moderation in government spending and support for local public education, most candidates offer the same basic positions: freeway = bad, fiscal responsibility = good and let’s help the schools all we can.

Instead, candidates have worked to position themselves in front of the city’s 14,158 registered voters as either voices of experience in public affairs or critics of the current climate at City Hall.

It’s a dynamic that divides candidates into three distinct groups: incumbents Donald Voss and Laura Olhasso, who are running on their records; Planning Commissioner Michael Davitt and businessman Charlie Kamar, who would largely keep the status quo ; and attorney James Hill, registered nurse Jacqueline Harris and retired scientist Robert Richter, who accuse City Hall of failing to communicate with residents or adequately respond to their concerns.

By the time polls close at 8 p.m., voters will have chosen three — guaranteeing at least one new face on the council to replace retiring Councilman Greg Brown.

Among non-incumbents hoping to assume the mantle, Davitt and Kamar have run the most expansive campaigns.

Davitt, a real estate executive and the race’s most successful fundraiser, boasts dozens of endorsements, including all five sitting council members, state Assemblyman Anthony Portantino and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Kamar, a longtime supporter of the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation as well as local chamber of commerce and merchant association activities, also comes to the race with a formidable level of community support.

The critics

As Harris sees it, council incumbents don’t get out from behind the dais nearly enough.

“You don’t see City Council, unless it’s a parade or there’s something traumatic going on,” she declared early in her campaign, which has stuck to a mantra of improved council-constituent communication.

In line with her call for more fact-to-face contact, Harris has foregone campaign mailers and other traditional campaign activities to pursue a doorbell-ringing effort that she says has reached more than 2,600 homes.

Hill, a former Planning Commission member, argues it’s not so much that council members are unapproachable but that they aren’t responsive when citizens do reach them.

“I’ve been hearing it more and more that people’s concerns aren’t getting addressed. Instead of representing people, they’re marching to their own drums,” he said.

Hill believes council members too often rely on consensus-building to avoid making tough decisions — for example, the city’s middle-ground, compromise approach to addressing concerns about wild peacocks and a drawn-out permitting process that kept Dr. Phil Merritt and his Flintridge neighbors battling it out at City Hall for nearly five years.

Richter, who entered local politics after becoming outraged by the city’s sewer assessment process and made an unsuccessful bid for council two years ago, has gone so far as to accuse city leaders of being dishonest and describe City Hall as dysfunctional.

Having a retired engineer on the council, he argues, would improve City Hall’s technical decision-making.

Familiar faces

While council critics have run campaigns without fundraising efforts, Olhasso and Voss point to broad bases of supporters and expansive outreach efforts as evidence they’ve always been listening to constituents.

“I can’t cite a single example when the council hasn’t responded to a resident’s inquiry or comment,” said Voss. “It’s an issue invented for the sake of the campaign, just to have something to talk about.”

He and Olhasso point to city progress during their recent terms as proof that council members remain in touch with constituent needs.

Both cite falling crime rates, stronger development standards, increased recreational opportunities, improvements along Foothill Boulevard and collaboration with schools officials — all while maintain a healthy fiscal reserve — as evidence that the city is on the right track.

That fewer than 100 residents turned out to hear candidates speak during a community forum in February might also suggest that voters are largely satisfied with current city leadership.

“Things are going well in this city, and if you’re a candidate you need to find some issues,” Olhasso said.

New ideas

Though Davitt and Kamar hesitate to find fault in incumbents’ records, they do suggest some improvements.

Davitt believes City Hall could be more responsive to the public by revamping its Web presence. He also thinks officials should redouble current efforts to make the city’s commercial corridor more pedestrian- and customer-friendly.

“I want to expand upon the good that has happened here and try to take some of the things that haven’t been as good and make them better,” Davitt said.

Kamar, who would expedite the permit process for those seeking to build homes and start businesses, said responding to the needs of public schools and local merchants would remain his top priorities if elected.

“I’ve been serving this community, which I love, for 23 years. I’m trying to raise my service to a higher level,” Kamar said.

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