Citing the city’s negative image and dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency as the primary reasons why Montebello has not fully recovered from the recession, candidates running for seats on the Montebello City Council at a forum last week said they would help the city address its economic challenges by bringing new businesses to Montebello.
They said they would highlight advantages for locating in the eastside city.
Four of the seven candidates vying for one of three council seats on the November ballot participated in the candidate forum held at the Armenian Center and hosted by the Armenian National Committee San Gabriel Chapter.
The seats of two current council members —mayor pro tem and business owner William M. Molinari and councilman and business owner Art Barajas — are on the ballot along with a third seat currently held by Councilman Frank Gomez who decided not to seek reelection. The top three vote getters from the pool of seven candidates will win.
Molinari and Barajas were joined at the forum by challengers Anna Arriola, a retired financial technician and long time community activist and businesswoman and chair of Montebello’s Culture & Recreation Commission, Vivian Romero.
The forum quickly turned to the topic of money and the battering the city’s image has taken in recent years amid allegations that it improperly handled its finances, including federal housing funds, that resulted in a dive in the city’s credit rating among other financial problems. By the end of the 2009-2010 Fiscal Year, Montebello was grappling with a $6.7 million budget deficit, a situation that has since improved.
Some candidates said claims that Montebello was on the verge of bankruptcy and owed a lot of money to the state due to misuse of funds were false. Arriola said blame for the city’s negative image belongs to the current council, which has failed to be straightforward with residents.
“I don’t beat around the bush or try to hide things and pretend that what’s going on is not the truth,” she said.
Incumbent Molinari said he was running for one more term because he feels he still has something to contribute to the city and betterment of the community, but asked residents and fellow elected officials to stop “playing the blame game” and move forward.
“Its important to put an end to the negativity that has permeated this community for the last three years. It has served no beneficial purpose,” he said. Rather, “It has hurt the city’s image and discouraged business.”
“We need to start making Montebello what it once was,” Barajas said. “Montebello certainly has the meat on its bones to turn the city around.”
Romero agrees that Montebello needs to restore its reputation to the level it once had.
“We were once known as the Beverly Hills of the eastside,” she recalled. “I’d like to see that happen again.”
Montebello’s current operating budget is balanced and the city has over $3 million in reserves, but more revenue is needed to cover the city’s $1 million in annual bond repayments.
Bringing more businesses to the city or taking more drastic actions such as raising taxes is what’s needed, Arriola said. She said her finance background, which includes playing the stock market for years and never going “broke,” will help her figure out what financial options the city has to move forward.
The greatest challenge in Molinari’s eyes was the dissolution of the RDA, which he identified as a “major economic engine in California” that helped recruit businesses to cities across the state. Barajas agreed, saying the dissolution of RDA took away funding that helped generate tax revenue for the city.
Nevertheless, Molinari says the city is “embarking on an era of economic development.” He cites new condominium developments, a hotel, restaurants and a new Chase bank location coming to the city as examples of the progress being made. His focus, however, will continue to be the revitalization of the downtown Whittier Boulevard corridor, he told forum participants.
“We owe it to the local business community to get the same considerations that we gave to the major businesses,” he added.
A local business owner himself, Barajas said constant negativity and false rumors of impending bankruptcy and the transferring of the city’s police and fire service have made it hard to attract new businesses or be a property owner in Montebello.
He said the city is “turning a corner” and should focus on marketing itself to entice developers to the city.
Vivian Romero agreed that changes are needed if the city hopes to successfully draw new businesses. She said Montebello should relax some of its ordinances and open city hall on Fridays to make it more conducive to business.
A self-proclaimed “foodie,” Romero said she would like to see more restaurants move to Montebello and fill some of the numerous empty storefronts.
“I would like to see Montebello turn into something like South Pasadena,” she told the 100 or so forum participants, drawing applause.
Candidates, each of whom elaborated on why they think they are the best choice for the council, also discussed the pro and cons for allowing the Montebello Hills Project to move forward, and took questions regarding their stances on public safety and getting more youth involved in the city.
The three candidates who did not attend the forum are Operations manager Emma Delgado, teacher and school administrator Flavio Gallarzo and Montebello city clerk and quality control supervisor Daniel Hernandez who said he could not attend due to a scheduling conflict. However, statements from each of the missing candidates, which sounded remarkably similar, were read at the forum. In each case, the author identified the city’s budget as a top priority of their campaign.
Armenian National Committee San Gabriel Chapter member Levon Kirakosian responded to their absence during the forum.
“We believe that democracy means that those that are asking for the vote and support of the people that they are transparent and open and be present at all events to present their viewpoints so voters can make an informed decision on who they would vote for,” he said.
Residents have until the Nov. 5 Election Day to decide who they will vote for.