by Kenneth Todd Ruiz
La Verne voters will decide March 4 who will navigate the city through an imminent economic crisis, while maintaining services and balancing the books.
While candidates push full-tilt to convince voters why they are best qualified for City Hall, the lack of any hot-button issues or scandals has resulted in a campaign with little visible enmity. In fact, the largest issue facing the city – the state budget crisis – finds most candidates on common ground.
“Almost all the services the city provides depend heavily on the fiscal support of the state, and then they threaten to take it away it is a direct threat,” La Verne Mayor Jon Blickenstaff said.
Voters expecting some electoral melodrama with their democratic process may find the lack of rancor a little dry. A lack of high-profile conflict is no reason to ignore an election, however.
Although the seven candidates have not sparred over vastly incompatible roadmaps of the future, they bring their own philosophies, backgrounds and approaches to the table. Only three will make it to the big table in City Hall.
Five candidates are vying for two open council spots, while two contenders seek the mayor’s seat.
Blickenstaff hopes to secure a 12th term in the office he has held since 1980. A retired school principal, Blickenstaff grows animated discussing the day-to-day intricacies of running a city.
“I’m proud of our teamwork and the network of incredible partnerships we have cultivated,” Blickenstaff said.
Among numerous projects, Blickenstaff is most excited about further developing a partnership between the city, corporate sponsors, private donors and county agencies to implement a beautification program for Bonita High School’s centennial.
Such partnerships will be critical, Blickenstaff said, in light of the expected shortfall of state funds next year due to the budget crisis in Sacramento.
Since 1984, the city has built up a $3 million fiscal reserve, which is 17 percent of the annual budget.
“We’re taking a proactive posture to prepare for a shortfall,” Blickenstaff said. “We’re planning on no layoffs, and no cuts to public services.”
Challenging Blickenstaff is Jean Hefler, manager of Health Information at Cedars-Sinai cancer treatment center.
Working in compliance of strict state and federal medical regulations, Hefler believes her professional background would be a valuable asset to city leadership.
Hefler has been active in community youth sports programs as a school volunteer for almost 20 years and served as parent-teacher association council president for two terms.
While La Verne provides excellent youth sports programs, she would like to see the city coordinate efforts with the University of La Verne and other volunteers to develop music, theater and art programs for children who are not athletically inclined.
“Community involvement is the key. There is an untapped wealth of strengths and abilities in our city that would be invaluable,” Hefler said.
Patrick Gatti is one of two council incumbents seeking re-election.
Gatti has enjoyed the aroma of roses and baked fudge in his downtown florist shop for 26 years.
After 21 years on the city council, Gatti said the biggest compliment is “that these candidates want to live in the house we’ve built.”
He considers the business development of Foothill Boulevard a stand out among the council’s accomplishments.
“From Denny’s to Kohl’s, I’m proud of how Foothill Boulevard has added to our vital and vibrant town,” Gatti said. “Our revenue from sales tax has surpassed what we derive from property tax.”
A sentiment echoed by all candidates, he agrees the biggest challenge for the council will be dealing with the state’s threat to take money away.
“Prudence, hard-headed business tactics and fiscal experience are what is needed,” Gatti said.
He will face Steven Johnson, one of the challengers making a bid for the council.
Civic involvement is a family tradition for Johnson. Son of former mayor Frank Johnson and nephew of the current mayor, he works as an insurance broker at the business he owns in La Verne.
Johnson has been active in local schools and was involved with a Rotary Club teacher “mini-grant” program that disbursed $12,000 in $300 grants to local teachers.
With the looming cut in state funds, Johnson believes the city should hold off on implementing any new programs.
“I will work to maintain the programs we have, with an emphasis on education and opportunities for youth,” Johnson said.
Robert Rodriguez rounds out the list of incumbents defending their seats, and like the others, has served in city government for many years.
Now retired, voters originally elected Rodriguez in 1982 when he still worked as a Lieutenant in the Pomona Police Department.
He is pleased with the council’s historical preservation and redevelopment efforts for the downtown area.
“It’s beautiful. The tree-lined streets and attractive storefronts look great,” Rodriguez said.
One contribution Rodriguez considers important is a hillside ordinance passed by the council to prevent fires.
“During the Williams fire the Mountain Springs Road area was written off, but because of the ordinance, there was not a single loss,” Rodriguez said.
If re-elected, Rodriguez said he would keep an eye on the Foothill Boulevard business environment and engage in marketing efforts to counteract any negative impact from the completion of the Foothill Freeway.
Michael Sanchez said he is running for the council to “bring a new generation of leadership to reinvigorate the city.”
“Twenty plus years makes one comfortable and complacent,” said Sanchez, a corporate officer at a money management firm. “I will bring professional experience, common sense and perspective to the council.”
Sanchez believes the city will have to make some hard choices because of the budget crisis in Sacramento.
To avoid layoffs in a city that spends 70 percent of its budget on public safety, Sanchez would like to promote business development, and get every vacant storefront filled.
Sanchez also lists protecting La Verne’s small town feeling and conserving land for public use as priorities.
Rounding out the list of candidates is Lucas Vinci, who narrowly lost a 2001 bid by 50 votes.
Vinci, who works in his family’s insurance business, is passionate about the community he has always known as home.
“I have new ideas to bring to the table,” Vinci said. “I have some differences with the way the council has done things, but believe that through our differences come our strengths.”
Vinci said the council has done a good job of building a financial reserve, but that it will take some innovative approaches to survive the shortfall without cutting services.
“It’s not a ‘rainy day,’ it’s a hurricane,” Vinci said. He wants the city to consider remedies such as sending all contracts out to bid, rolling back operational expenditures and even offering a city credit card that will generate revenue.
Vinci also advocates moving city elections from March to November, estimating that consolidating them with the general elections would save approximately $60,000.
Voting instructions and poll locations for next month’s election are included in the green and white sample ballots mailed to registered voters.
A series of public candidate forums are being held in the city to give voters an opportunity to learn more about the candidates.
At 6:45 p.m. on Feb. 25, Hillcrest Homes will host the next forum at 2705 Mountain View Drive.