By Steve Scauzillo
WALNUT >> Traffic, crime, conflicts of interest, development and Mount San Antonio College were some of the major issues discussed Tuesday by six candidates running for City Council.
The crowded field matched the wide range of problems facing this city of 30,000 mostly upper middle class residents, striving to maintain its semi-rural character of spacious, tract homes surrounded by 26 miles of horse/jogging trails yet pinned in by college expansion and development in City of Industry.
Running for three seats in the April 12 municipal election, in alphabetical order, are: Eric Ching, 49, incumbent; Bella Cristobal, 66, challenger; Dino Pollalis, 53, challenger; Andrew Rodriguez, 23, challenger; Betty Tang, 49, challenger; and Nancy Tragarz, 53, incumbent. All six participated in the candidates forum put on by the East San Gabriel Valley League of Women Voters.
A group called United Walnut Taxpayers formed in opposition to Mt. SAC’s proposed five-story parking garage on the edge of the Timberline neighborhood and an 11-acre solar farm on a prominent Walnut hillside. The group has filed a lawsuit and so has the city.
Cristobal and Rodriguez defended accepting contributions from members of the Mt. SAC Board of Trustees and was asked by the moderator whether that was a conflict of interest.
“I don’t think it is a conflict of interest. It is not from the school, it is a personal fund,” Cristobal said. Records show she received $1,000 from Mt. SAC Trustee David Hall. Hall and six other trustees, one who no longer serves on the board, were sued and named as respondents by the city of Walnut. The city is asking the trustees, the college and its president to run its parking garage and its solar farm project through the city’s zoning laws and conditional use permit process but the college says it is exempt. The garage was placed on hold by a judge.
Rodriguez received $500 from Jay Chen, who became a Mt. SAC trustee after winning a seat in November. Chen is not listed on the lawsuit filed in March 2015. He said he’s been friends with Chen and helped him on his campaign. “He knows I do not support the parking structure, nor the solar farm at their current locations,” said Rodriguez.
Pollalis said he avoids conflicts by not accepting any campaign donations. His campaign is self-funded. “So there is no question as to where my loyalties lie: With Walnut and its residents,” he told the crowd of about 85 people. “Sometimes you just have to follow the money.”
Tragarz, a two-term council member, had the strongest reaction to the question: “I think that is definitely a conflict of interest,” she said, adding she has not accepted contributions from any Mt. SAC board members.
Tang said accepting money from Mt. SAC would be a conflict. However, she is raising up to 10 times the amount of her competitors. In her December filing, she raised $64,970 in 2015. Almost all of the contributions are from outside of Walnut, from contributors in Irvine, San Marino, Arcadia, Alhambra, Monterey Park, Rowland Heights, El Monte and Trabuco Canyon, to name a few locations. In her Feb. 27 filing, she lists $5,873 contributions from Jan. 1 to Feb. 27, 2016, for a total of $70,843 so far. No Mt. SAC trustees are listed as contributors.
The issue of development centered on Mt. SAC for the first hour, with all the candidates agreeing that the parking garage and solar farm were not acceptable.
However, development of the Brookside Equestrian Facility within Walnut on the corner of Lemon Avenue and La Puente Road arose as an issue Tuesday night. A developer first proposed 50 homes but through negotiations with the city staff, the number of single-family homes has been reduced to 28, said Tom Weiner, community development director.
At issue is preservation of a historic home as well as Lemon Creek which runs through the property.
Tang said a developer can do anything he wants on private land as long as he follows zoning laws. Candidates Ching and Cristobal jumped on her remark, saying that’s not true. “Even though it is private property, they cannot do what they want,” said Cristobal.
Said Pollalis: “We need to make sure the creek, the hiking trails are preserved for the residents to use.”
Walnut should remain low density, said Rodriguez. Tang said her campaign is focused on green space and parks. Ching noted he’s keeping an eye on City of Industry developments, saying he’s worked with them and members of Congress and the Assembly to work out traffic and development issues surrounding Walnut.
All the candidates said they would increase voluntary patrols and publicize Neighborhood Watch as a way to push back against residential burglaries. Pollalis said he’d ask for more patrols during Chinese lunar new year, when red envelopes of cash given as gifts are lures for thieves. More uniformed patrols are needed, Tang said.
Also on the ballot, Measure A, would impose term limits. An elected official would be limited to serve three four-year terms. Cristobal was the only candidate opposed to the measure.