For most of its history, the Downey City Council has taken a kind of Hippocratic oath approach to governance: First, do no harm. It made sense. The shift from a rural community to a professional class residential area, built on the affluence of the aerospace industry, was gradual. The city's infrastructure was sound, its fire and police departments exemplary. It had good schools and parklands, relatively stately homes, places like the Regency Room for dining and dancing, and a regionally admired children's theater. There wasn't much need to do any more than fine-tune the oversight of city services.Much of that has changed. The economy, immigration, white flight, shifting demographics, language, culture, have all created a dynamic that has moved faster than the city's ability to cope. A lot of its civic virtues have remained intact, and a lot of the changes are societal rather than municipal. But the general perception-you'll hear it among people who use the word "identity"-is that some kind of urban sepsis is happening to Downey. The one-time Beverly Hills of the Southeast region has become the place where, as one city official put it, "there's no there there." That's why the past few election cycles have been more crucial than ever. What the city needs right now is a vision. Boosterism, photo ops, discussion of variances and the water table--though important--aren't enough. Last week's forum featuring the candidates for Anne Bayers' 4th District seat should have proven critical to understanding who'd bring what to the table by way of proposals on the future of Downey. It didn't. Just when you thought you could get faces to fit lawn posters and hear for yourself what these people were about, all you got was a steady gaseous release of punishing clichés and useless generalities. The occasion was underpublicized-if you blinked before reading the announcement in the Patriot, you'd have missed it. The format was overcontrolled; written queries from the audience were collected by Chamber of Commerce personnel and passed on to a Chamber of Commerce moderator. Candidates were allowed ludicrously brief comment. A man sat in front and waved a STOP sign before each speaker if he or she spoke too long. The Chamber had no business moderating. There were no followup questions, which means the candidates couldn't develop their ideas. No verbal questions were allowed from the relatively small audience, which means there was no give-and-take. The speakers were not permitted to challenge each other. The entire discourse sounded like four variations on the same public service announcement. The candidates themselves, already overcautious, were further inhibited therefore-except for Mario Guerra, running unopposed in the 2nd District, to whom the word inhibition appears foreign. My colleague Christian Brown will give the particulars of who said what elsewhere in these pages. But it seems to me-I've had no prior knowledge of any of the 4th District candidates-that Alex Saab came off slightly the best. He seemed the most humane and sympathetic to people's needs (in addition to business needs), and his mention of bringing culture and art to the city addressed the question of life beyond commercial life in the dead zone that characterizes downtown Downey at night. Fernando Vasquez came in and out of bureaucratic focus. His bumper sticker slogans, such as making Downey "a great place to work, live and play" weren't exactly electrifying insights, and he can't dodge the shadow of conflict-of-interest impropriety in his role with National Core, the company at the forefront of downtown development. He claims to have severed ties with it-and Guerra threw his considerable weight in Vasquez' support. But Dick Cheney's split from his old employer didn't keep Halliburton from raking in billions in government contracts in the war in Iraq. You just know National Core will have a special friend at court if Vasquez is there to lend ear. Poor Lee Ann Sears. The less said, the better. Chances are she already feels so miserable about her wretched performance that further comment would be tantamount to piling on. She showed no grasp of the issues a Council member would need to know about. She forgot questions, and at one point confessed to having "a brain freeze." She seems a nice lady. Voters will decide if nice alone can cut it. If Guerra hadn't been there, those few hours would've felt like purgatory. But he remains a puzzlement, a garrulous, oversized personality in an oversized body, formidable in his energy and cheer, a potential star. But when he gets it wrong, he really gets it wrong, and he gets it wrong a lot. His ideas lock in place and stay there, impervious and even hostile to contradiction as he rolls you. His greatest weakness, bombast, was heightened by a format that made his audience a silent captive, unable to challenge his statements. I just wish one of these candidates had articulated an understanding of how society works, and what kind of practical and specific measures he or she would take to breathe life back into the city. Everybody says they want to bring in more business, but business alone won't do it. Neither will generic spot development. Identity is an intangible, not a brand image slapped on the side of a bus. The perfect symbol of Downey right now is the notion the Council has been floating recently about Downey as the Gateway City. They say it and you look around and wonder, gateway to what? Lawrence Christon is a former staff writer for The Los Angeles Times who has lived in Downey for over thirty years.
********** Published: October 28, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 28