You may have seen the signs popping up around town, signaling that it is once again time to choose the right leaders to run your city. But who are the people behind these names and are they qualified to do the job? Will you know who to vote for come Election Day?
To help you answer these questions, Eastern Group Publication is speaking to city council candidates vying for seats on the Monterey Park and Commerce City elections on March 8.
The first few interviews are published here, while the remaining candidates will be profiled in the next issue. The order in which these profiles are published in no way reflects a greater preference for any of the candidates.
Commerce Election: Two Seats Open
Candidate George Kevanian has a problem with the way most campaigns are run. “The biggest problem is a lack of integrity. It is a popularity contest, and the least qualified people are getting voted in,” he said.
He and slate running mate Jose Acero are not taking any campaign contributions, nor seeking any endorsements. Acero ran in a past election, and for this one decided to recruit Kevanian, a 7-year resident who was not already mixed up in local politics nor involved in the local business community, to join him.
He does not feel financial contributions should be par for the course in these campaigns, rather elections should be limited to just the vote, which is not dependant on someone’s economic background. “Your vote is no more special than anyone else’s,” he said.
It was the recent parks and recreation fee increases, though nominal to most people, thatspurred him into running for city council office. Even the smallest increases will shut out those who need those services the most, he said.
“They’re alienating the segment of the population that isn’t well-to-do, and that’s not right,” he said.
Other solutions should have been considered, such as a waiver system; and the increases should have been secondary to cutting the salaries paid to top officials.
Kevanian is a federal investigator for the IRS and a reserve police officer. He says he grew up in a rough neighborhood in Hollywood where you either joined a gang or stayed indoors. Growing up he looked to police officers and short-lived sports programs as safe havens, and says Commerce needs to protect the accessibility of its services no matter what.
His style on council would be similar to his approach to his job as an investigator, serving as an expert witness in court where he says he has never lost a case. “All we do is state the facts” in order to convince a jury of 12, he said.
Candidate Denise Robles says she is a voice for the people who “will talk and have a cup of coffee on the front lawn,” but are unwilling or too afraid to go into city hall to speak their minds.
“I have spoken many times, and I feel by being there, I am being the voice of the community,” she said.
It was through her experience on the library and community services commissions, and her attendance of the budget meeting and a blue ribbon committee on city fees that has led to her decision to run for city council.
Robles raised her family in Commerce where she has lived for 45 years. She feels that without the businesses, “our city is nothing.”
“It is what has kept our city going for the past fifty years with free services, including all of our recreation programs, our libraries,” she says.
Robles has put a strong focus on taking care of the needs of businesses.
She says her husband is a self-employed general contractor and she is very familiar with the complicated, lengthy process that many businesses go through with the city. One of her goals is to make this process easier for businesses.
Robles is an H&R Block tax preparer and a mobile notary. She has also worked for Southern California Gas Company, as a school district office manager and as a loan specialist.
She says her experience in business helps her see what most consumers don’t see, such as the fees and taxes that businesses must pay, as well as regulations that affect them.
Robles is running on the same slate as Joe Aguilar, and she has garnered endorsements from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the City of Commerce Employees Association, the Industrial Council, Councilman Aguilar and Mayor Tina Baca Del Rio.
Incumbent candidate Joe Aguilar says he is an “individual who thinks things through thoroughly” when he makes his decisions.
“I study things. I know the pros and cons,” he said. He is known for putting in the most hours at the city, between 20-25 hours a week, he says.
Aguilar has had a front row seat to the inner workings of the city of Commerce for close to fifty years, having served for 42 years as a city employee in the Parks & Recreations Department. He says he worked at Bristow Park when it had a gang problem, which they were able to clean up.
Aguilar said he ran in 2006 because he thought he could “do the job just as well, if not better” than the council members at that time.
At the time he promised to keep city services intact and to work with industry; he says he has done so successfully. Aguilar says he has had a part in many of the city’s major successes, including the opening of the new Costco Business Center, the third phase of the Commerce Citadel expansion that brought in 35 new stores, and the development agreement with Craig Realty, which manages the Citadel, to handle the Urban Entertainment Project.
He was especially instrumental in filling city positions that if left vacant would have hampered city services for residents, he says.
He defends the decision to raise parks and recreation fees, saying that the city council kept fees as low as they could. Some top officials did take pay cuts, but their salaries must stay competitive, he says.
“If you’re going to get quality staff, individuals that know what they’re doing, you are going to have to pay for them. If you get wages down so low that candidates go elsewhere, you’re really not going to get quality services,” he said.
But in walking precincts during the campaign, he found that most residents seemed to understand why the city made the fee increases and were more concerned about the upkeep and property values of the homes in their neighborhoods.
See the next issue  for profiles of Shawn Estrada, Ray Gordy Cisneros, Jaime Valencia, Elizabeth Flores, and Jose Acero.
Monterey Park Election: Three Seats Open
Teresa Real Sebastian
“It’s good to vote for somebody nice,” said candidate Teresa Real Sebastian, but people must also make sure to vote for someone who is informed.
“I’m not just another ‘yes’ person who just stamps it and looks the other way,” she says. Some council members look like they have not even read the agenda reports prior to voting, she says.
She enjoys getting into the nitty-gritty details of city issues and has attended almost all of the city council meetings in the past year. She regularly researches agenda items and takes advantage of the public comment period to question city policies.
She doesn’t consider herself a politician, but rather a “resident representative.” A city council seat is nothing less than a full-time job, she says, so she is putting her regular job on hold to be on council. She is someone who throws herself into everything she does “full throttle,” she says.
Sebastian’s family has been in the city since the 1970s. She runs a small commercial real estate financing company Sebastian Partners, Inc., located outside the city, and has past experience working as a real estate attorney at major Fortune 500 companies.
Given her real estate background, Sebastian says her strong suit is in understanding economic development issues, which will be useful in moving redevelopment projects along and getting nationally branded stores into the city.
She thinks that not only are residents fed up with the lack of transparency and corruption that seems to go on in cities everywhere, businesses are also unhappy about it, and she aims to clean up the city for all stakeholders.
Candidate Hans Liang first became “fired up” when he began tuning in to city council meetings two years ago, only to find “infighting and bickering,” with “a lot of personal attacks” getting traded. This behavior, he felt, was at the expense of getting real city work done.
He says issues like the budget seemed to drag on while council members asked for audit after audit of the numbers, even though those audits came up with the same answers.
He wants to put city projects or goals – whether it is implementing policy or increasing city revenue – on a schedule, with a requirement that measureable outcomes be presented at the end of each stage in the process.
Liang, a probation officer, said four years ago he was asked to bring the nearly defunct Asian Pacific Probation Officer’s Association back to life, despite being initially apprehensive about taking on the leadership role there.
But the experience, which involved building relationships with union leaders, exposed him to the important role of public officials, he said.
It is an opportunity to “make things work,” he said, adding that “after you start paying attention you find there are inequities. Those are things that motivate me to contribute to make things better.”
Candidate Walter Sarnoi, better known as a boxer, has joined the political ring because his mother told him one day that he should stop complaining and “do something about it.”
He also wants to give back to the community where he was born and raised. “I’ve been to 14 countries, but I still come back to Monterey Park,” he said. He loves the food, running every morning in the hills, and the diversity. He eventually wants to raise his family here.
Getting more redevelopment projects off the ground and national chain stores into the city are important goals for him. Other cities like Arcadia have malls that are attracting people from everywhere, including Monterey Park, he said.
Sarnoi said his MBA degree from Azusa Pacific University and BS in Finance from Northern Michigan University has prepared him to tackle the city’s budget deficit.
He would be the first Thai city councilman ever in Monterey Park if he is elected, and the second in California, so he has supporters in the local Thai community. He also has supporters in the Latino community because he speaks fluent Spanish after being raised part-time by close family friends, he said. He also speaks a little Chinese from traveling to China for three months.
Sarnoi took an early hit in his campaign when Sheriff Lee Baca retracted his endorsement after the local media reported that he faces pending battery charges following an altercation with his former girlfriend. “They’re false allegations… when the trial comes, I will be exonerated from all of the allegations,” he said.
“Politics is a tough business,” he said and there is a perception that “it’s a bunch of people who lie.” But he says it is a chance to change things, and he considers a politician to be a “public servant.”
Incumbent Anthony Wong says he wants to “bring back tourism” to Monterey Park. An ordinance prohibiting tour buses that was put in place in 2005 has hampered the local tourism business, he says.
He says allowing tour buses back to Monterey Park would bring back immediate revenue through the hotel use tax. Wong believes there is immediate interest from the tourism industry to fill the local hotels.
A 24-year resident, Wong also owns and runs Concord Realty in Monterey Park. This means he spends almost all of his time in the city, he says.
“I work hard, spend at least 10 hours a day for city business, and I know the real estate business,” he said.
Wong’s business presence in the city has caused some fellow council members to become suspicious, however. He recently ran into potential conflict of interest issues when one of his clients decided to locate at the Atlantic Time Square mixed-use project. The city has referred these accusations to the District Attorney’s office.
Wong at the time said there was never an intention to benefit from the project, and he and the client, whom he said he had been helping as a friend, have since backed out of any kind of agreement that was made, intentional or not.
Calling the accusations “nonsense” and a twisting of the truth, he said he would never pick on his colleagues, and says “Every council member has resources that we must capitalize on for the benefit of the people.”
Wong is insistent about sticking only to the positives, directing much of his attention to economic development issues and making suggestions for increasing city revenue.
He says he is interested in sprucing up the facade in downtown Monterey Park, attracting nationally branded stores to the cleaned-up Operating Industries landfill site, and transforming the obsolete industrial area on Monterey Pass Road into a regional commercial center.
See the next issue  for profiles of Luis Estrada, Mitchell Ing, Joe Ray Avila, and Bob Gin.