Seven Anaheim City Council candidates gathered Wednesday night to field questions from West Anaheim residents in what could be the only council candidates forum this election year.

The forum’s organizers, the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council (WAND), had not publicized its forum, fearing a repeat of the riot that occurred outside City Hall on July 24.

Their fears turned out to be unfounded. Only about 50 residents attended the forum, hardly filling the room at Magnolia School District headquarters.

Though many of the candidates hold similar views, each delivered a unique pitch. And they tackled the big issues facing the city, such as the downtown riot, controversial room tax subsidies for developers and moving to council election by districts.

Steve Chavez Lodge, a retired Santa Ana police officer backed by the city’s business community, said fighting the city’s gang problem was a major priority. He defended his proposal to add 54 more police officers on the streets, saying that they need to protect the city’s tourism, which is vital to funding city services.

“The cost is quite high, but the cost not to hire them is even higher,” Chavez Lodge said.

Candidates Lucile Kring, a former council member, and Linda Linder also said tackling gangs was a high priority.

John Leos, a Republican and former labor leader, billed himself as the City Hall transparency and accountability candidate. He touted months-long efforts to implement an ordinance that would require disclosure of council communications with outside parties. The council has yet to adopt Leos’ proposal.

“We as residents and as a city deserve accountability from our government,” Leos said.

School trustee Jordan Brandman — backed by the business community and an influential, Disneyland-sponsored group known as Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) — pointed to his track record at the Anaheim Union High School District as evidence of solid leadership.

He said that graduation rates were up, and he highlighted economic progress, community policing and ending prostitution as his main priorities. “I understand the connection between strong leadership and property values,” Brandman said.

Blogger Duane Roberts said that his primary goal is to “end corporate welfare as we know it.”

Defusing the Downtown Riot

One questioner noted that the riot started after angry protesters – fuming at a pair of police shooting deaths — were turned away from a City Council meeting because the chambers had filled to capacity with construction unions who had had attended for another issue. The resident asked what the candidate would have done to defuse the situation.

Chavez Lodge said that “hindsight is 20/20” and that the council did what it could. The city’s police force, he said, did a good job of quelling the demonstrations, which he blamed on “outside agitators.” News outlets have questioned this claim from the city’s police department because most of the individuals arrested that night were Anaheim residents.

Kring said that, far from being a matter of hindsight, “everybody knew that situation was coming.” She faulted city leaders not placing televisions and chairs outside as other city halls have done in such situations so that the protesters could be engaged with their government.

Backfilling Transportation Funds

Another resident asked how the candidates would replace revenue from Measure M2, the countywide half-cent sales tax used to fund transportation, that will be used to buy land to build the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. The funds are typically dedicated to road maintenance.

Kring said she would require that a portion of room-tax revenue, the city’s largest source of revenue, be dedicated to neighborhood improvements.

Brandman said city leaders will have to devise creative ways to fund the improvements. He highlighted the city’s undergrounding of public utilities as an example and said a combination of different funding sources would be needed.

Leos and candidate Brian Chuchua said that when the current council awarded a $158-million room tax subsidy to a hotel developer in January, the city ensured that its largest revenue source wouldn’t be able to replace the transportation funds.

Under the controversial deal, the developer of two four-star hotels near the GardenWalk center will keep 80 percent of the room tax revenue generated during 15 years.

“Our current council gave it [room tax revenue] away. It’s gone,” Chuchua said.

Chavez Lodge argued that Chuchua had mischaracterized the subsidy. The development can’t go forward without the subsidy, Chavez Lodge said, and the tax revenue can’t be generated without the development. The hotels would generate revenue over the long-term, Chavez Lodge said.

The ACLU Lawsuit and Council Districts

A resident asked whether the council should stop fighting an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit seeking to transform the city’s at-large council member system to election by council districts, which would require that council members live in the areas they represent.

Chavez Lodge said city leaders shouldn’t let the ACLU force council districts. The downside to council-districts, he said, is they create warring kingdoms. “This city has a 150-year history of governance, and it’s done pretty well as an at-large system,” he said.

The city’s Latino activists sharply disagree with Chavez Lodge, a self-described Hispanic. Many Latinos argue that the city’s at-large system has left Latinos – more than half the city’s population – disenfranchised and with fewer resources than areas like Anaheim Hills, the city’s affluent eastern quarter.

Brandman said that it’s time for the city to move to council districts and said he supported a citizens review commission to study the issue. He said the commission could have a recommendation ready for a June 2013 ballot measure. “Maybe everything will work out,” he said.

The decision to form the review commission instead of placing council districts on the November ballot enraged some Latino activists, who argued that the commission is merely a stalling tactic.

Kring said while she disagrees with the council districts system, she thinks state law mandates it. She said she wants to keep the number of districts limited to four quarters. “I think they’re inevitable,” she said.

Leos said council districts would break the city loose from a group of “insiders who think they’re kingmakers,” a reference to business groups like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and SOAR.

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