The Santa Ana City Council and mayoral candidates gathered Tuesday night to field questions from the city’s chamber of commerce, providing the business community with a glimpse of the candidates’ ideas to help local merchants during a sluggish economy.

The city’s business climate has also been a key issue in the mayoral face-off between 18-year incumbent Mayor Miguel Pulido and City Councilman David Benavides, arguably Pulido’s most competitive challenger in years.

Candidates generally stuck to familiar themes, and at times they answered questions exactly as they had in past forums.

Benavides has consistently argued that Pulido is City Hall’s distant and inaccessible gatekeeper, choking creative project ideas just as they are conceived.

According to Benavides’ narrative, the mayor plays dealmaker at an insiders’ club located at the top floor of City Hall where, if you want a development approved, it’s all about whom you know.

“If you’re a friend of a certain person, you might get your project approved,” Benavides said. “That’s not how it should be run.”

Benavides’ stated solution is to within his first 100 days in office form a business improvement task force with membership from different business groups in the city. The task force would highlight for city leaders what should be done to improve conditions for all businesses, Benavides said.

Pulido referred to his track record as proof that business is steadily improving. He offered as evidence the development of Artists Village, an eclectic downtown hub of restaurants, bars and art galleries. He highlighted the forum’s location, the Delhi Center in east Santa Ana just west of state Route 55, as a community asset that didn’t exist when he was a child. And, he said, the Discovery Science Center would have wound up in Irvine if not for him.

Pulido also talked about meeting with Donnie Crevier, who sold his BMW auto dealership at the Santa Ana Auto Mall last year. The mayor frequently touts his connections to high-profile individuals as beneficial to the city and other Orange County agencies.

“It’s people working to make a difference, working on real jobs, making it a reality,” Pulido said.

Benavides countered that to get a meeting with the mayor, you shouldn’t need a big name.

“You shouldn’t have to have a Crevier last name or a Kennedy last name or a Penske last name to meet with your mayor and come up with solutions,” Benavides said, referring to Penske Automotive Group, which had purchased Crevier BMW.

Pulido pointed out that for Benavides to argue that years of bad decision making has stunted the city’s growth is “disingenuous” given that for the last six years Benavides has voted with Pulido more than 98 percent of the time.

The mayor also took a jab at Monday night’s council approval of a sunshine ordinance to increase transparency at City Hall. Pulido voted against parts of it affecting new developments.

“It’s not really a sunshine ordinance, it’s a red tape ordinance,” he said.

Pulido does have a point on City Council voting trends and on the fact that Benavides has in the past been with him on votes.

In September 2010, with the city’s finances on a fast track toward bankruptcy, the council unanimously voted for a contract with its fire association that guaranteed raises, allowed “premium pay” perks for skills firefighters didn’t use and had firefighters contribute only 0.5 percent more of their salary toward skyrocketing pension costs.

Benavides and other council members have blamed the former city manager, Dave Ream, for not informing them they were heading off a fiscal cliff. The fire department was outsourced this year to avoid municipal bankruptcy.

Mayoral candidates George Collins, a frequent council critic, and Lupe Moreno, a member of the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group, also highlighted Pulido’s image as disconnected from residents. Collins pointed out that Pulido had been texting during the forum. Moreno said that the city’s children, many in destitute conditions, never see the mayor.

“We have to have some common sense, and that’s lacked with Mayor Pulido over here texting during the forum,” Collins said.

Pulido said that the demands on a part-time mayor are “extremely high” and that consideration should be given to changing to a full-time mayor. Collins and candidate Miguel Briseno agreed.

Briseno said that he will focus on building small businesses in the city and keep big-box retailers like WalMart and Target out. He said that Benavides and Pulido rely only on old and flawed solutions, like outsourcing government services.

“Your choice is clear, outsource Santa Ana or strengthen our community,” Briseno said.

Candidate Roy Alvarado did not attend.

Council candidates also fielded questions in a separate forum segment.

Ward 3 candidates Shane Barrows, Brett Franklin, Charles Hart and Eric Alderete and Ward 5 candidate Karina Onofre attended. Ward 5 candidate Roman Reyna, Ward 3 candidates Angelica Amezcua and Stefano “Steve” Rocco and Ward 1 candidates Estela Amezcua and Vincent Sarmiento were absent.

Hart, an Orange County manager, said his managerial experience gives him the right skills to negotiate prudent labor contracts. He said he would make City Hall shop locally for its small purchases, noting that the county purchases trophies in Santa Ana bur City Hall does not.

“That’s keeping money in Santa Ana. We’ve got to help ourselves, ladies and gentlemen,” Hart said.

Franklin, a former council member who said he had previously received the chamber’s endorsement, said he would restore trust in government by starting an ethics commission to be a City Hall watchdog. The leadership and bureaucracy has disconnected from residents in recent years, disenfranchising residents, Franklin said. He pledged to work closely with the chamber and other groups.

“Right now there’s some uncertainty about our leadership. There’s some uncertainty about our future,” Franklin said. “A simple phone call wasn’t being returned. A letter wasn’t being answered.”

Onofre said she would improve the city’s image and bring fresh ideas to City Hall. One of those ideas, she said, would be a central gym to keep residents healthy.

“We are pushing our children into the streets. They have nowhere to go,” Onofre said, referring to the city’s lack of parkland.

Barrow said he would concentrate on the basics like public safety and graffiti removal, which would increase commerce.

“Buildings with spray paint don’t attract businesses. It all goes back to law enforcement,” Barrows said.

Alderete touted his higher education — he earned a law degree from UC Berkeley — his experiences as corporate counsel making high-stakes legal decisions with multi-million dollar implications, and his endorsements from groups ranging from the Orange County Business Council to the Santa Ana Police Officers Association as proof that he has the skills necessary to lead the city. He also said he would focus on public safety.

“The city’s image is not great, … but one of the things that has improved the city’s image is the decrease in crime,” Alderete said.

Most candidates said they would cut business license taxes in the city, which they said are too high. They also supported a two-tier pension system for city employees as a way to tackle unfunded liabilities.

Chamber officials said that after candidates fill out questionnaires, the chamber will announce its endorsements.

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