The advent of district elections has drawn new faces to Garden Grove politics, with five first-time candidates competing for four open seats on the City Council.

Four of the newcomers, plus three other candidates, gathered at a forum Saturday afternoon hosted by the Garden Grove Neighborhood Association and Downtown Business Association.

Moderator Ric Lerma asked candidates how they would approach issues like rising crime rates, the city’s $4 million budget deficit, homelessness, and the city’s hotel-centered development strategy.

There was a lot of talk about crime in Garden Grove, which jumped 40 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the the Orange County Register. 

Nearly all the candidates voiced support for hiring more police officers and agreed they could be paid for with anticipated hotel bed tax revenue from the Great Wolf Lodge Waterpark Hotel, which opened early this year.

Clay Bock, a candidate for District 3 who owns a custom jewelry business and has drawn controversy because he is a member of the Church of Scientology, challenged every city council member to establish 10 neighborhood watch programs in each district.

Kim Nguyen, a 25-year-old candidate for District 6, suggested looking for “alternative methods,” like state grants, to pay for city programs, which would free up money for public safety.

District 6 candidate Rickk Montoya said the city should repurpose certain public properties, such as the Willowick Golf Course, to uses that would generate more revenue.

Demian Garcia-Monroy, a candidate for District 5, said the city should explore crime reduction methods such as “working with nonprofits and mentorship programs…and reducing homelessness.”

Councilman Steve Jones, who will be the only mayoral candidate appearing on the ballot, said no amount of cutting and trimming would be enough to fund additional police officers.

“We’re a lean and mean operation, we do more with less resources than any other city does, so we can’t cost cut our way to make more resources,” said Jones. “So we’re focusing on economic development.”

Lerma also asked candidates if they felt the city’s focus on developing hotels and attractions on Harbor Boulevard would be the key to the city’s financial future.

Montoya said that despite the revenue coming in from hotel projects, he would not support additional subsidies.

“We cannot no longer fund these private hotels at taxpayers’ expense,” Montoya said. “That’s not a fair way to spend our tax dollars.”

Both Klopfenstein and Bock  said they strongly support the focus on Harbor Boulevard and other development projects left over from the city’s former redevelopment agency.

“We’re kind of in the shadow of Disney but we aren’t now, because we have places where people will come to Garden Grove for a weekend – and maybe they won’t want to go to Disney,” said Klopfenstein, referring specifically to the Great Wolf Resort.

Tony Flores, a community activist and write-in candidate for mayor, was skeptical about whether the city’s projections for room occupancy and revenue would pan out. “We’re running to catch up with the projections,” he said.

Moderators also asked candidates if they would support something similar to the labor union-backed  ballot measure in Anaheim that is asking residents to revoke a 20-year, 70-percent tax rebate for a luxury hotel project because the project’s developer is not using union labor.

Garcia-Monroy and Montoya were both in full support of the union, while Nguyen said she would support unions if they make efforts to engage developers from the start of the process.

Bock and Klopfenstein both said they were “not against all unions” but do not think a project should be blocked just because it does not use union labor.

Both mayoral candidates, Jones and Flores, said the city should not force hotels to use union labor.

“I think it would be problematic to try and take that concept to the operational side of hotels,” Jones said, referring to Great Wolf’s 732 employees. “They don’t do that across the country and if we try to demand that on them they would take their show somewhere else.”

Candidates were also asked how they would tackle the issue of homelessness, which has become a hot-button issue countywide during this election season.  

Bock pointed to a program in New Mexico, where homeless people are recruited for day jobs and provided services.

Flores questioned whether the city has done enough to squeeze cost savings out of its contracts, and said money saved from making better deals with contractors could go to community groups that fight homelessness. He added that money used for free community events should instead go toward efforts to reduce homelessness.

“Our homeless are now leaving messages on the dumpsters…and defecating and urinating in the dugouts where the girls play softball,” said Flores “I would vote for cutting back on Concerts in the Park [to] getting some people out of shopping centers and streets.”

Two candidates did not appear for the debate: Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, who is running for the District 3 seat; and Planning Commissioner John O’Neill, who is running unopposed in District 2.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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