Commerce Council Candidates Zone In On Local Economy

They disagree on the best ways to get it done.

By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer

Nestled along the 5 and 710-Freeways, the City of Commerce already has a casino, a popular outdoor shopping mall and a strong industrial base that are the envy of other cities. However, “The Model City,” with a unique small town feel despite its densely urban backdrop, also has huge untapped potential, according to all six of the candidates running for one of three city council seats on the March 5 ballot.

Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Candidatos de Commerce se Dirigen a la Economía Local

Left, top to bottom: Lilia Leon, Tina Baca Del Rio and Ivan Altamirano. Right, top to bottom: Art Gonzalez, Joanna Flores and Jaime Valencia.

With signs that the economy is improving locally as well as nationally, Commerce voters are facing a decision: elect council incumbents so they can continue where they left off, or vote for their challengers who say they have fresh ideas to bring to the table?

Incumbents Lilia Leon, who currently serves as mayor, and Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca del Rio, have each served more than two terms on the council. Ivan Altamirano, who was appointed to the city council last year to finish out the term of former councilman Robert Fierro, is trying to be elected for the first time. The three current council members are running as a slate.

Challengers Art Gonzalez, a Commerce business owner, and Jaime Valencia, an accounting associate in the city, are also running mates.

Educator Joanna Flores is running alone.

The six long-time residents, who all say they love and have benefitted from living in the city, agree on many topics, including protecting services provided to residents, especially youth, and prioritizing public safety. However, each believes they can do more than the others in the race to restore the city’s once thriving economy.

While the city’s budget is balanced, for the first time in 50 years Commerce was forced last year to lay off employees when California legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment agencies across the state, including in Commerce. The city’s labor force also took a hit, agreeing to pass up salary increases to help the city balance its budget and to avoid even more layoffs.

Last November, voters approved Measure AA, a half-cent sales tax increase which is estimated to bring in $4.5 to $5 million a year for infrastructure and facility maintenance. During a recent candidates forum, Baca del Rio, Gonzalez and Valencia said they opposed Measure AA, placed on the ballot by the city council.

Valencia said a tax measure should have been a last choice, not a first choice. Baca del Rio said she opposed it because the state was proposing a sales tax increase at the same time, but she did not vote to keep it off the ballot. Gonzalez is now calling for an oversight committee to be created to ensure funds are spent as promised to voters.

And while Gonzalez and Altamirano each say they bring a wealth of practical knowledge as business owners, they have competing visions.

Altamirano said the city’s stalled Urban Entertainment Center development — a multi-acre project located between the Citadel Outlet and Commerce Casino that has been in the conceptual and planning phase since the 1990s—should include open space and stunning Las Vegas-style waterfalls which will motivate drivers to get off the freeway and take a closer look.

Gonzalez, on the other hand, says every bit of space should be maximized for retail and parking, to bring more revenue to the city.  “That’s what the city needs,” he told EGP.

Valencia, who says he is also an independent business consultant, says improving the local economy is one of the main reasons he is running.

“I think that Commerce has so much potential, so many empty lots to build here… It should be so [simple and] eye opening to create jobs here …” said Valencia, sounding bewildered as to why that hasn’t happened.

At a Feb. 11th candidate forum hosted by the local chamber of commerce, a number of questions targeted specific spending decisions and future budget decisions. Candidates were not required to answer every question, and in one case, only Leon defended a city council perk. “We’re on call 24-7…I think you should be able to use a city car,” she said, explaining she doesn’t take the city car home and only uses it for official business.

Asked whether the city should pay for Miss Commerce’s attire for events where she represents the city, both Gonzalez and Flores said eliminating the allowance would save the city money. “If you can’t afford to buy clothes, you shouldn’t attend any event,” Gonzalez said, prompting a gasp from someone in the audience.

Altamirano and Baca del Rio defended the city’s spending of more than $20,000 on a consultant hired to help motivate staff and with strategic planning, saying it was less expensive than the seminars staff previously attended. Gonzalez, Flores and Valencia disagreed. “Their salary should be enough motivation,” Valencia said.

Leon says the city council has been thinking “outside the box” and reaching out to businesses for help funding the community events residents “deserve.”

“We went to Camp Commerce,” Leon said about one outreach effort. “They [business owners] were so impressed they gave us $5,000.”

The city is also working on developing an apprenticeship program with the goal of creating jobs, she said.

Flores,said the city must create an economic development plan that outlines ways to bring new businesses to the city, reform business taxes and invest in technology to help prospective businesses more easily navigate the city’s website.

Both Flores and Gonzalez pointed to the city’s “archaic” business codes as a major barrier to attracting new businesses. Both advocated for business code reforms.

Altamirano, who takes credit for creating the new Citadel Express bus that takes consumers from major retail destinations to the Citadel and other stops, said he wants to expand the bus service to bring tourists from major hotels and Disneyland to the Commerce Casino and the Citadel Outlets.

Baca Del Rio said the city is currently working on finding a site for a train engine hood-technology manufacturing business that will offer entry-level jobs to residents. It is unclear if Baca Del Rio is opposed to other kinds of businesses coming in, however, in her campaign statement, she said the city council plans to move forward with environmental efforts, “such as the implementing of the no truck idling ordinance and green zone policy to protect our residents from negative polluting entities.”

The Candidates Forum presented by the Commerce Industrial Council and the League of Woman Voters is broadcasting continuously on Commerce’s Cable Channels 3 and 6 until Election Day.

For more information on the candidates, read their statements on the sample ballot at http://ca-commerce.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/1039

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February 21, 2013  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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