Anaheim’s District 3 City Council race has become a study in the old political axiom that the elemental question put to voters in an election year is whether they want change or to maintain the status quo.
The dynamic was on display Thursday during a candidates’ forum hosted by the Central Orange County League of Women Voters, with incumbent Councilman Jordan Brandman on the defensive for most of the evening.
With voters electing their council members by districts for the first time, Democrat Jose Moreno and Republican Robert Nelson both argued that this election is about ending the city’s focus on Disneyland and its resort district, and beginning to invest in neighborhoods.
“It’s not about electing a council person, it’s about shifting the power structure back to the neighborhoods,” Nelson said.
Nelson and Moreno consistently hammered Brandman, a Democrat who is vying for a second term, for his support of major tax subsidies for Disneyland and other luxury hoteliers.
With Disneyland and major resort district business interests heavily backing his campaign, Brandman is fighting the perception that he’s beholden to corporate interests. It’s a tough sell given his votes for a 45-year moratorium on ticket taxes for Disneyland and tax breaks for three luxury hotel projects worth a total of more than $500 million.
Under the forum’s format, candidates answered questions submitted by members of the audience, who packed an atrium at the Downtown Anaheim Community Center.
Asked about his top campaign priority, Brandman said he would focus on “solidifying neighborhood integrity” by focusing on restoring staffing levels in the police and fire departments, fixing streets and sidewalks, and moving utilities underground citywide.
“Since I’ve been on the council, that’s what I’ve done in Anaheim. We’ve restored police officers and community policing…sidewalks are getting fixed, everything is improving,” Brandman said. “The neighborhood integrity of District 3 has never been stronger.”
Brandman’s opponents however, made the argument that the city’s neighborhoods and public facilities have been neglected, and invoked the hotel subsidies several times in response to questions on topics ranging from the city’s unfunded pension liability to street improvements.
“It goes back, again, to the fundamental issue – where are your priorities,” said Moreno, in response to a question about graffiti and road and sidewalk improvements.
“The Convention Center bonds, millions were taken out to fix our streets. We’re borrowing money to fix our street lights but giving away hundreds of millions.”
Brandman, referring to the City Council’s decision to use bond money make street improvements, said the decision allowed them to accelerate street improvements.
“We have put in more street lights and slurried more streets, 33 new police officers, a new fire station, all this because that is what you wanted,” Brandman told the audience. “I would just like the opportunity to continue that progress.”
Nelson proposed creating a neighborhood improvement council to have staff and residents collaborate on public works projects, tree trimming, parking and other issues. He said the city should explore passing a gas tax to fund such projects.
Linda Lobatos, a Democrat and community volunteer who has not actively campaigned, said street improvements have not been seen in poor neighborhoods.
“If you go into the Colony District, it’s beautiful. And if you go into my neighborhood, you will see the big difference. I live in what they consider the hood, the barrio,” said Lobatos, who proposed reviving mural projects to engage youth and cover up graffiti.
Asked about gentrification and high demand for affordable housing, Brandman said Anaheim has built more affordable housing over the last decade than all other Orange County cities combined. He said he would support building even more.
“What you have in me is a fighter who…[will] continue to grow our budget through economic development and smart decision making so that there will be money to help build more affordable housing,” said Brandman. “You have that commitment from me, because I already have been doing it for you.”
Lobatos, Nelson and Moreno all suggested the city provide down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers.
Nelson said he would be against building any new low-income housing, as District 3 is already too dense in his opinion.
“Building more low income housing in this district is the wrong, wrong approach. We have too much of it now, we have to spread that around,” said Nelson.
Moreno said the city has built new housing that is too expensive for low income families. He brought the conversation back to the hotel subsidies.
“We either ask our corporate partners to pay them a working wage…or you don’t get the $560 million and we give 14,000 first-time home buyers a down payment assistance,” said Moreno.
Brandman, asked about his plans to improve local parks, said that the city has already started to restore facilities at several parks citywide, including La Palma and Little People’s Park in District 3.
Other candidates disagreed.
“It’s sad to see that even though there have been improvements, Little People’s Park still does not have a restroom,” said Lobatos.
Nelson said despite being remodeled, Little People’s Park doesn’t look much better.
“Our parks look like crap. I don’t care what [Brandman] says, they look like crap and people are not safe,” said Nelson. “I’m on the public safety board, and I did a mini-survey and nobody said they felt safe in a park in Anaheim after dark.”
Moreno said simply restoring existing parks won’t be enough, as the housing density of District 3 means increased demand.
“Folks go out to the parks to have their birthday parties because the apartment managers don’t let their kids play in the courtyard,” said Moreno.
Candidates were also asked to comment on home sharing, where a resident rents out a portion of their home, either though long-term sublets or short-term rentals to visitors.
Although the city recently banned short-term rentals in which the owner does not live in the home, they have yet to decide how to approach home sharing.
Moreno, Brandman and Nelson all said they were open to the idea. Nelson brought up concerns about parking and noise.
Lobatos said she would be in favor of home sharing, as she has had to rent part of her home out for income.
“It’s not that people choose to have other people in their homes, but they need to be able to sustain their families,” said Lobatos. “We have a lot of poverty.”
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.