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NORWALK - The five Norwalk city council candidates clashed over the city's role in community redevelopment and economic growth during an hour-long candidates' forum Wednesday night hosted by the Norwalk Coordinating Council and Norwalk Woman's Club.
With an audience of more than 100 residents inside the city council chambers, the candidates addressed several questions from voters on various subjects ranging from public safety and community homelessness to the lack of recreation space and state budget woes.
The most glaring difference between the candidates, who are vying for two open seats on the council, came when moderator Steve Richardson of the Cerritos College Foundation asked how each candidate would fund city redevelopment projects in the absence of state funds.
Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District Board President Darryl Adams, who has publicly criticized the city for disallowing a night club on Front Street, used the question to reiterate his support for eliminating regulations that obstruct redevelopment in blighted areas.
"Front Street is a ghost town," he said. "We all know how tight the economy is, but cities of comparable size are continually growing. Downey, Whittier, Cerritos - they don't think 'if it's not broke don't fix it,' but [instead] 'if it isn't broke, improve it.'"
Norwalk native Enrique Aranda similarly promised to make property redevelopment a priority if elected on March 5.
"Norwalk is a city the size of Pasadena. I've said this before, we have to maximize our land use," said Aranda, who serves as director of marketing and development for a private school consortium. "It is criminal that we have to go outside the city to eat or shop."
Councilman Mike Mendez and Mayor Cheri Kelley, however, defended the city's decision to reject the proposed development at 12186 Front Street.
"It was a great project. It's tough to say to someone you can't come in due to lack of parking," he said.
"But parking is an issue," added Kelley. "They were 87 spaces short. If it was allowed, none of the other businesses would have parking. We're open to solutions, but we have to take into consideration all of the businesses - not just one."
Adams, who received a $2,500 campaign contribution from the property owner, Palmilla Mex, LLC, maintains the city chose a no growth solution when a suitable parking agreement could have been arranged.
During the course of the forum, the candidates also disagreed over the Little Lake Park usage agreement between the cities of Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs.
While Adams, Aranda, and candidate Candy Martinez called the arrangement one-sided and expensive, Mendez and Kelley reiterated their support for the agreement, which they believe provides needed green space for north Norwalk residents.
"We don't have enough park space for a city of 110,000 people," said Kelley. "It's just across the street from the city limit. We must keep recreation open to all our kids."
The candidates' responses grew more congruous throughout the evening, especially when asked about homelessness and matters of public safety.
"As far as the homeless, we need to find out where they originated from," said Martinez who proposed the city work regionally to end the problem. "We need to help them and show that we care."
Mendez, a Norwalk councilman for nearly 25 years, acknowledged that many veterans and families have been discovered on the streets recently.
"It doesn't matter where they're from, if they're in our city we need to help them," he said. "It is a regional issue...we've got to find housing for the people with medical issues and work with churches."
All of the candidates committed to make public safety a priority if elected, calling on law enforcement to work more closely with neighborhood watch groups, churches, and the four school districts that serve Norwalk students.
"We must strengthen our Norwalk station and put more deputies on the street," said Aranda, who's spoken out against the recent rash of shootings around the city. "We need prevention and intervention programs."
Kelley encouraged the entire community to get involved in public safety.
"I know it's difficult, but if you see something, say something," Kelley said. "Everybody should be participating, if you have an idea let us know."