WALNUT >> On April 12, residents of this upper middle class bedroom community surrounded by the San Jose Hills will go the polls to vote for three members of the City Council and whether to impose council member term limits.
Since the last election, several issues have arisen, leading many to say this year’s voter turnout could be a record.
A group called United Walnut Taxpayers formed in opposition to plans at neighboring Mount San Antonio College for a five-story parking garage on the edge of the Timberline neighborhood and an 11-acre solar farm on a prominent city hillside.
The group has filed a lawsuit and so has the city. Though the issues aren’t decided, the effect has been a near total collapse of relations between City Hall and the college, which is entirely in Walnut, spread over 411 acres and with an overall student population of close to 60,000.
A Feb. 19 candidates forum sponsored by United Walnut Taxpayers and the Chinese American Association of Walnut drew 200 people. A second forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Walnut Senior Center. “We’ve raised the level of participation in this city,” said Layla Abou-Taleb, founder of UWT.
Second, 16-year Councilman Tony Cartagena is not running, meaning at least one new member will be joining the five-person City Council.
These are just some of the factors raising the stakes for the election in April.
The six candidates in alphabetical order are: Eric Ching, incumbent; Bella Cristobal, challenger; Dino Pollalis, challenger; Andrew Rodriguez, challenger; Betty Tang, challenger; and Nancy Tragarz, incumbent.
In 2012, Ching won his seat by 32 votes. Victory was declared only after provisional ballots were counted. Ching called the experience “a roller coaster ride.”
He ran on removing the red-light cameras from the city, something the City Council agreed to do in May 2014.
This year, he pushed for ballot Measure A that allows for a person to serve a maximum of three, four-year terms or 12 years, consecutive or not. The measure needs a majority of “yes” votes. It would not be retroactive.
Of 31 San Gabriel Valley cities surveyed by Walnut staff, 22 or 71 percent have no term limits. Nine cities or 29 percent have term limits. Those with term limits are: Arcadia, Azusa, Baldwin Park, La Puente, Montebello, Monterey Park, San Marino, Sierra Madre and Temple City.
On Mt. SAC, Ching, 49, said his concern extends to 60 different projects that could add traffic and congestion to Walnut streets. He also supported the recent decision to hire a new city attorney.
He’s received $30,764 in campaign contributions as of the Feb. 27 filing. He added $10,000 in 10, $1,000 contributions, according to an addendum filed March 16.
The retired financial analyst worked for Los Angeles County for 32 years and is a 30-year Walnut resident. Cristobal is on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
She is one of two candidates endorsed by incumbent council members Cartagena, Mary Su and Robert Pacheco. The other is Dino Pollalis. The three incumbents who often vote together on a frequently divided council did not endorse the two incumbents running for re-election.
Cristobal, 66, also received endorsements from Republican leaders: Rep. Ed Royce and Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang.
She is opposed to Measure A, the term limits measure.
She mentioned two issues specifically: Improving public safety by increasing volunteer patrols and adding amenities. “I want to move on with our project of the aquatic park,” she said.
She received $18,974 in contributions as of the Feb. 27 filing. She received $250 each from Robert and Gayle Pacheco and Mary Su. She received $1,000 from Mt. SAC board trustee David Hall.
In 2014, Pollalis, 53, ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign in which he picked up 196 votes for 2.8 percent.
This time, the retired electrical engineer is on the ballot. He says he’d like to see more emphasis on public safety. He is a volunteer at the Walnut Sheriff’s Station.
The 17-year resident of Walnut said he moved to the city to enjoy the semi-rural atmosphere. “Walnut is truly unique. Walnut is the place due to its open spaces and great family environment,” he said. He also serves on the city’s Mt. SAC task force.
He has not accepted any campaign contributions. He has funded his campaign with $5,100 of his own money as of the Feb. 27 filing.
Rodriguez, 23, is a product of Walnut Valley schools and earned a degree from Rutgers University. He works as a youth counselor at a nonprofit helping students qualify for college.
He is in favor of reducing the number of students at Mt. SAC in Walnut by adding satellite classes in other parts of the district. “I am against the parking structure and I would prefer the college decide to move it somewhere else,” he said. He lives in Timberline, adjacent to the proposed parking structure site.
Rodriguez also said he’d work to improve the look of Valley Boulevard and re-zone some parcels as commercial.
He’s been endorsed by Mt. SAC trustee Jay Chen (who contributed $500 to his campaign), and Walnut Valley school board member Cindy Ruiz.
As of the Feb. 27 filing with the city clerk, he’s raised $4,872.
Tang, 49, is on pace to raise the most money in the campaign. So far, she’s raised $70,000, she said. <URL destination=”http://www.sgvtribune.com/government-and-politics/20140404/walnut-city-council-race-expensive-negative”>She spent close to $100,000 in 2014 and lost, coming in third behind Su and Pacheco.
The co-founder of CCI Corp., a custom automobile manufacturer and exporter, Tang has once again taken on the incumbents, saying in a mailer “the City Council members have become distracted by personality conflicts and petty arguments. Videos of their embarrassing behavior have made the Walnut Council the laughing stock of the San Gabriel Valley.”
The comments are partly directed at Tragarz, who as mayor in 2014 and 2015 spent hours at each meeting criticizing City Attorney Mike Montgomery’s legal advice, credentials, lack of malpractice insurance and his invoices. Also, a July meeting over who should be appointed the ceremonial position of mayor caused more fighting among the council. Ching, mayor pro-tem, was passed over for mayor by Pacheco, Su and Cartagena who voted for Pacheco. The meeting ended with jeers from the audience.
Tang, a 20-year resident who is serving as the president of the Chinese American Parent Association, said: “I think Walnut needs an independent voice to protect Walnut residents.”
She, as well as Pollalis and Tragarz, mentioned stemming a recent 40 percent spike in burglary crimes in the city.
She’s endorsed by Democrats Rep. Judy Chu and State Treasurer John Chiang, as well as Republicans, including Sen. Bob Huff and Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang. She has numerous endorsements from members of the Diamond Bar and La Puente city councils but not from members of the current Walnut City Council.
As a 43-year resident of Walnut whose involvement spans schools, regional boards such as Foothill Transit and the San Gabriel Valley Council of Government and community groups, she is the candidate most vested in Walnut and its government.
Tragarz, 53, an attorney, recently took on the city attorney in some of the fiercest meetings in this small, normally quiet city government. As mayor, she spoke for hours about Mike Montgomery until just recently convincing the rest of the council to put the city attorney spot up for bid.
Barbara Leibold, of the law firm Leibold McClendon & Mann in Irvine, became the new city attorney and began serving this month.
“The Council can see I was right about all those things,” Tragarz said last week.
Montgomery said he and the city agreed to part ways. He had served 36 years. “One of the council members had been attacking me on my billing. So I got tired of that,” he said. He has recently taken a job as city attorney of Maywood, he said.
Tragarz attributed a spike in burglaries on the early release of prisoners as prompted by a federal judge, and on Proposition 47, which downgraded some nonviolent drug felonies to misdemeanors. Law enforcement officials said the new law added criminals to the streets and drove crime up.
She and Ching are running on their record. She said the city is still one of the safest in California. Tragarz is endorsed by Royce, Huff, Ling Ling Chang, Councilman Ching as well as Helen Hall, Walnut Valley USD board member.
As of the Feb. 27 filing, she’s raised $5,387.