The five candidates running to fill two open spots on the Norwalk City Council exchanged differing ideals on Monday, defending their records of public service during a 90-minute candidates' forum hosted by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce. Facing an audience of more than 60 community leaders, the candidates addressed everything from redevelopment opportunities and education reforms to public safety and council term limits.
Norwalk native Enrique Aranda began the discussion dubbing himself the "good business, good jobs, and good government candidate."
"Norwalk invested in me and made this possible. I know its people and its promises," said Aranda, who serves as director of marketing and development for a private school consortium. "We need to build consensus and find innovative solutions to these problems."
From a podium placed center of two, eight-foot tables, moderators Tracy Polley of Kelco Sales and Julia Emerson of Southern California Gas Company presented seven questions to Aranda along with community volunteer Candy Martinez, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District Board President Darryl Adams, Councilman Mike Mendez and Mayor Cheri Kelley.
Although his name is on the ballot, Byran Mesinas Perez withdrew from the March 5 election and as a result did not attend the forum.
Adams, a 20-year veteran of the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, touted his years as an educator and board member in the region, exhorting Norwalk business leaders that the time for change had arrived.
"It is now 2013, we have to decide what kind of city we will be," he said. "I have a strong fiscal understanding...I take my job very seriously. You have to know how to lead, follow and get out the way. That's what I'll do if elected."
While Martinez acknowledged she wasn't a career politician like other candidates, the single mother maintained that her 22 years of community service with the PTA qualified her to be in the race.
"I'm not the best public speaker, but I'm a creator of ideas," Martinez said. "I've seen the frustration in my neighbors and the hardships of business owners. If elected, I can help."
While the challengers laid out plans and hopes for the future, incumbents Mendez and Kelley stayed on defense, reminding voters of numerous accomplishments throughout their successive terms.
"I've been in Norwalk for 62 years and fortunate to have been on the council since 1988 - 25 years. When we talk about the future of Norwalk I can't help but think, this building was my idea," said Mendez referring to the Norwalk Arts & Sports Complex. "I know how government works."
Likewise, Kelley highlighted her experience and reputation as an "advocate who will work hard for the community."
"Residents know and trust that I've done my homework," said Kelley. "We've had to do more with less, but the budgets have been balanced, there have been no layoffs or furloughs. We will continue to make Norwalk a community of choice." The candidates struck a similar tone on issues of redevelopment, acknowledging that the city must become more business friendly in order to attract quality businesses.
Kelley insisted much of the slow growth was a reflection of the lack of redevelopment funds after the state ordered municipal governments to shut down their redevelopment agencies.
"We need new strategies. The loss of redevelopment funds continues to impact us," she said. "We don't own the [vacant] properties so we must rely on owners. We don't know their business plans and some that are brought to us are not the quality we want."
Adams, however, took issue with the city for getting in the way of economic progress.
"Front Street...what we have done - or haven't done - is pathetic," Adams said. "We need a master plan. Cerritos, Downey...they have a master plan. By continuing to shoot down business, we're allowing businesses to leave our area."
Aranda echoed Adams stating that a city the size of Pasadena should be retaining more businesses, but also preventing more crime.
"We need to look at the best practices of other cities and invest in intervention and violence programs," he said.
Martinez said she hears the concerns of people in the community regarding safety everyday.
"They're tired of their houses being graffitied on," said Martinez. "It's time we create our own districts and get out there. Crime...how much of it isn't even reported?"
Mendez countered in his response, maintaining that public safety was and is always number one in officials minds.
"The police can't be there all the time. There's not enough man power for the police to be with you all day," said Mendez. "Realignment is creating issues for us so we need to do more work with the churches, but we will continue to do the best we can."
In a final question on council term limits, the candidates split in their responses.
Unsurprisingly, Mendez and Kelley reiterated their opposition to term limits, which they believe stifles experience.
"Term limits are at the ballot box," said Kelley. "The voters can decide. With term limits, council members aren't there long enough and people end up looking for their next seat."
Adams did not disagree, noting his 20 years on the NLMUSD board of education.
Aranda and Martinez agreed that term limits would be good for the city, guaranteeing fresh vision and a new generation of leaders.
"Working in the private sector, I understand having a succession plan for the future," said Aranda. "I support term limits, it's important having them along with spending limits and city districts."
The next Norwalk City Council candidates forum will be held at Norwalk City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 6 p.m.