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DOWNEY - The buzz at Thursday night's candidates forum at the Gas Co.'s Energy Resource Center wasn't about what the candidates said or promised but rather who didn't bother to show up.
Salvador Franco and Ricardo Perez, candidates for District 5, and Assembly candidate Cristina Garcia were no-shows. Their absences, particularly that of Franco, was disappointing, considering this is certainly Downey's most important election in the last 20 years.
What's at stake? The possible dissolution of the Downey Fire Department. The takeaway of voters' rights. And, to a lesser extent, the future of the Downey Police Department. (If the council disbands the fire department, who's to say the police department isn't next?)
Taking that into consideration, and noting the absence of key candidates, Thursday's debate was sort of a let down, through no fault of the candidates present or the Downey Chamber of Commerce, which organized the event. Because let's face it, the person we all want answers from is Salvador Franco. We want him to answer to the $12,500 he was fined by the state ethics board. We want to know why the District Attorney raided his home. We want to know why his campaign is vastly funded from outside sources.
Above all else, we want to know his motives. Why Downey? Why now? Residents are awfully suspicious of Franco, and when he ducks these types of open forums where he would be asked the hard questions, it forces the citizenry to draw its own conclusions.
All three District 1 candidates showed up to the forum: city council incumbent Luis Marquez, Michael Murray and Mark Vasquez. Voters in this district are deciding between a seasoned political veteran (Marquez) and two small business owners (Murray, who owns Downey Used Cars, and Vasquez, proprietor of Saywell Florist).
All three candidates agreed they would keep the Downey Fire Department, the issue at the forefront of next month's elections.
"Of course," said Vasquez. "We shouldn't even give it a second thought."
"I absolutely support keeping Downey fire and police," said Marquez. "Public safety has to be our No. 1 priority. We need to keep them well funded."
"I'm 100 percent in favor of keeping Downey Fire," said Murray. "If they (the firefighters) don't want to work here, let them go somewhere else."
Asked how they would improve Downey parks, Marquez said the city is developing a master plan and would continue to seek grant funding, as they did for Treasure Island Park.
Murray suggested consolidating municipal maintenance yards, freeing up space for parks. He also floated the idea of charging non-Downey residents an additional fee for use of the fields.
Vasquez said he would try to get a park in District 1, but wasn't specific in where it would be located and how it would be funded.
Vasquez also appeared a bit flustered when asked how the city could recover from the loss of state redevelopment funds. The city has historically relied on redevelopment money to clean-up blighted areas (Johnie's Broiler is a prime example) but that pot of money was eliminated by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year.
All candidates reiterated a need for more jobs and a business-friendly ethos. Marquez touted his four years experience on the council and work with state Sen. Alan Lowenthal.
"I know how funding works and I know how grants work," Marquez said.
Marquez lost points, however, (on my unofficial scorecard anyway) in his answer to an audience member about why he's abandoning his city-wide District 5 seat in favor of District 1.
Marquez should have admitted his reelection chances are obviously better in District 1. For one thing, it's a much smaller swath of area, making it easier to mount a grassroots campaign. And a grassroots campaign is pretty much his only option, considering his campaign treasury is drained coming off two state Assembly defeats in the last three years.
Instead, Marquez said he was switching to District 1 because, "I have that option as an incumbent." That's technically true, but it's not the answer people were looking for.
In their closing two-minute speeches, Murray read off his bio, emphasizing his long roots in Downey. He also pledged not to seek higher office if elected.
Marquez sold himself on his experience and the progress Downey has made in the last four years. The City Council cut off their reliance on reserves and passed a balanced budget this year, he reminded the audience.
"Experience does count and experience does matter," he said.
Vasquez, in his closing statement, was straight and to the point. "I don't need two minutes," he said. "Just vote for me."
The District 5 debate was a showdown in contrasting styles, with Alex Saab - perhaps inspired by the presidential debate earlier in the week? - coming out feisty and aggressive, if not a tad overconfident. Gabriel Orozco was more subdued, speaking in mostly measured tones.
In their opening statements, Saab criticized opponents Franco and Perez for their disappearing act, and said Downey needs a council member "with their finger on the pulse of the community."
"I feel I'm the best qualified candidate," Saab said.
Orozco recounted his family's history in Downey, which dates to 1983 when his father, a Caltrans engineer, moved the family here. His mother operates a daycare facility in Downey.
On the fire issue, Orozco supported keeping the local fire department, saying "our community identity extends to our fire and police departments." He added, however, that he wants to see the results of a L.A. County Fire feasibility study.
"If it can save us $20 million, shouldn't we look at it?" he said. Orozco added that he is against a proposed charter amendment that would take away voters' rights to decide the issue.
Saab has been outspoken in his desire to keep Downey Fire. He reiterated that stance Thursday.
"We are one of the few cities with its own fire and police departments and school district," he said. "It's what makes Downey special."
He said the fire union's endorsement of Franco "should be a huge cause of concern for residents." Saab said he is "appalled" by the proposed ballot initiative to take away voters' rights and that "everyone should be concerned and angered by it."
On Downey parks, Saab pitched a public-private partnership, calling it "a step in the right direction."
Orozco said he would "revitalize the parks through grant writing."
Speaking of grants, Orozco repeated his claim Thursday that, if elected, he would raise $50 million in the next four years through grant writing. Saab dismissed the pledge, noting that the city already employs full-time grant writers.
Grants also won't solve the root of the problem, which is unemployment plaguing the Southeast L.A. County area, Saab said.
Orozco countered, saying state and federal grants are ripe for the taking but city officials are too easily discouraged. "I wouldn't take no for an answer," he said.
Saab and Orozco jousted further on the economy, with Saab suggesting a business improvement district - otherwise known as a BID - downtown.
Orozco lobbed a shot at the Downey Chamber, claiming its membership stands at 400 when there are over 3,500 businesses in Downey.
Orozco took a huge risk in his closing comments, referencing the Michael Nida police shooting and citing it as an example of disconnect between City Hall and residents. And you couldn't help but cringe when he suggested a minor league baseball field at the old Boeing property, in place of the Tierra Luna development.
Saab used his closing remarks to bring the subject back to Downey Fire.
"First goes fire, then goes police and in comes the Sheriff's Department," he said. "Then we're like every other city."