Opinion: The problem when City Council votes to not let us vote

The Source asked, "Did you know that local elections were cancelled?" No, I didn't!

Indeed, I was disturbed to discover that City Council voted to reappoint three members up for reelection with no discussion on an August evening. The cancellation of the election was an unprecedented move in Alhambra’s history. As a relatively informed Alhambra resident, I wondered why I wasn’t aware of the decision.

What I discovered was that the election was cancelled when no candidates challenged the five incumbents who were up for reelection in City Council and the Board of Education. True, no challengers ran for office, but the Council had other options as well: invite public comment, delay the nomination process, or proceed with write-in candidates.

By doing none of the above, the City Council did not provide adequately for local residents to hold elected officials accountable to their promises. It is a more difficult route, but elected officials should not be comfortable with the political apathy of their constituents. To avoid an election is to avoid answering hard questions.

"'Everything is running smoothly, everything is running well, why would you look to change it?'" Councilwoman Barbara Messina, who, along with Councilmen Stephen Sham and Luis Ayala was up for reelection, asked the Source. This was her primary explanation for why she thought no challengers had chosen to enter the race. She further reflected, "'[N]o one in their right mind would want to jump into this kind of nightmare . . . People just seem not to care . . . Or they care and they figure, ‘What’s the use?’”

In my experience, people do care, and everything is not running smoothly. Local businesses are conspicuously closing throughout Alhambra. Recent college graduates are returning home unemployed. City recreational facilities are closing early. School programs are being cut.

Councilwoman Messina also told the Source that cancelling the election saved the city around $100,000. Great. Not quite enough for another Arc de Triomphe, but we're getting close. While some, like Messina, may argue that the cancellation of the election is fiscally responsible, I would argue it is insular decision-making and undemocratic governance.

City politics is foreign to most Alhambrans, which means elected officials have a special responsibility to promote engagement. Without this, details of public employees are often overlooked. For example, I came across this little known perk of being a council member. Ordinance 2.04.280 provides council members who have served 12 years to receive the same health care benefits for the remainder of their lives at the same rate as their last year of service. That means council members are part-time employees receiving full-time benefits. We should have oversight in how our money is appropriated, and should be active in correcting misaligned incentives to serve in public office.

When people know, people care. The responsibilities of elected officials are to respond to constituent needs, and when constituent participation is visibly absent, responsibilities entail re-engaging their people. City Council's decision to cancel this November's municipal election highlights the lack of accountability and participation in our local city government. The historic election cancellation was a first and hopefully a last. How about a call for a special election?

Helen Tran is a student at USC Gould School of Law

11 thoughts on “Opinion: The problem when City Council votes to not let us vote”

  1. Alhambra Resident,
    I have also followed Alhambra politics very closely for many years, and while I believe your comments are well beyond the scope of my criticism towards the article, I will address them anyway. I know it may seem like a convenient excuse to claim that a seat on the City Council or School Board is unattainable due to some dubious “power structure”, but the reality is our officeholders worked very hard to win their seats. They spent entire summers walking door to door campaigning (most of them visited me personally) and familiarizing themselves with their constituents. Yes they had to fundraise well, but believe it or not that is a very positive and necessary trait of a politician. Fundraising is a reality of the American political system and if you take issue with it at the local level I cant imagine how you feel about our state and federal representatives. Even given this reality, all contributions to our elected officials are public record and if you took the time to look I’m confident you would find that 1) most contributions came from a very diverse group of residents and local businesses 2) There is no evidence to support your concerns of “developer bankrolling” (which is a analytical cop out equivalent at the local level to calling all our federal politicians “fat cats”). There was however, a candidate that ran in 2008 who received what has been estimated to be over 50,000 dollars in support through independent expenditures from a single public employee union. Now that’s a textbook example of an interest group trying to buy a seat on the City Council and thankfully the residents of Alhambra were scrupulous enough to reject his politics and such practices. Lastly, the comparison of Alhambra to the City of Bell is completely ludicrous and I take great offense to it as a proud resident of Alhambra. If you cannot properly discern the difference between a corrupt city like Bell with numerous city officials under indictment , and one like Alhambra that can be accused of nothing other than having very strong and experienced candidates continually run for its elected positions, I hold your opinions and insights (or lack thereof) towards city politics with very little regard.

    Omair,
    I am confident you would be hard pressed to admit what we need as a community is more poorly informed opinions and misrepresentations of facts polluting the debate on local issues. I believe it was truly irresponsible for the the Alhambra Source to publish even an opinion piece that contains such grave misrepresentations for one simple reason. The original study sponsored by USC found that the “lack of common media coverage was one sign that Alhambra residents may have difficulties collectively imagining their community”. It is my understanding that the Alhambra Source was created to fill that void. Every hard piece I have read on this site has contained a blatant and irresponsible slant against the city or its leaders, despite the fact they believe there is no true alternative for local news or debate. Is this the way the staff at the Alhambra Source wants us to imagine our city? As a place with leaders that are undemocratic, wasteful, and corrupt?. Putting “opinion” in front of an article does not give you license to negligently misinform a group of people when you believe there is already a lack of information available. I found it amusing that merely days after Ms. Tran made the suggestion that the city was not doing enough to help local businesses, Alhambra won an award for being the most business friendly city of its size. This is a excellent example for why I again simply call for some discretion with the angles and charges that seem to be carelessly thrown around in many of these articles. The credibility of the Alhambra Source depends on it.

  2. This site has clearly become a hot spot for those who have some pent up animosity towards the city or an individual official, so I will not attempt to reason with them any further. However, I will keep current with the political commentary published by the Alhambra Source and provide an alternative viewpoint when necessary, for the sake of those who still maintain some objectivity and come here for information.

    Best,
    Ryan James

    1. Ryan,

      Thank you for being an active participant on the site. If you believe there are inaccuracies or misrepresentations, I’d like to know about them. Please write me at editor@alhambrasource.org or post them here. In the meantime, if there are stories that you think the site is missing, please let us know of those as well. And if you (or anyone else reading this) would like to write an opinion story on a specific issue, please write editor@alhambrasource.org. You should know that these stories do go through an editing process.

      I also want to take this opportunity to say that the comments space is an open space that ideally should serve as a space for discussion on issues raised in the site. It should not be a space for personal attacks or accusations without justification, and that type of comment will not be tolerated. Readers, I need your help in making sure this policy works. I’d appreciate if contributors could identify themselves. If you catch something that seems appropriate, please flag it and bring it to my attention. And if you have any other concerns, please let me know as well.

      Sincerely,
      Daniela Gerson
      Managing Editor, Alhambra Source

  3. 1) I’ve been a resident of Alhambra for about 27 years. 2) Went to Marguerita & Alhambra HS. 3) Own a small business in Alhambra. 4) Hispanic 5) The 10 Freeway runs by my backyard so I oppose the High Speed Rail. Yes I am a proud NIMBY. 6) I return my calls and e-mails

    That has to be good for something no?

  4. Another Alhambran POV

    I’m a resident of Alhambra who used to attend city meetings to be better informed.
    For some years now i have become dismayed at the lack of public interest and apathy when seeing a nearly empty council room manyt times. It makes me wonder what has caused this and whether we have a “chicken or egg” scenario here?
    While overall the tone and demeanor by elected officials has been respectful and courteous, I have been witness to many incidents where certain council members who publicy berate or belittle any questioning by residents. I will not single out or name anyone other than a current council member (with a nasty attitude) who i simply refer to as “Napoleon.”

    Have Alhambra residents become apathetic due to having fear of being publicly belittled or — feeling that you really ” can’t fight city hall?”
    Or have city officials become so brazenly confident that their backroom deals and less than scrupulous activities will go unchecked or noticed?

    I know it works both ways. I imagine it must be tough if I were an elected official and had to take attacks from a misinformed resident. And i do give credit to the hard work and efforts some officials have made to improve/better our city. But something has been seriously wrong in our city for many, many years. I hear it from too many older, long-time residents who I consider intelligent, insightful and well-informed.

  5. Thank you for so eloquently voicing the concerns of Alhambrans! It’s future lawyers like you who are going to make sure the system works better in the future.

  6. Ryan,
    To run against the incumbant city council is very difficult. Most of the current council was funded by PACs that were bangrolled by outside developers under the names of Friends of Alhambra etc. Both Mark Paulson and Paul Talbot contributed lots of money to their campaigns through these PACs. To think that an average citizen could come up with this kind of money is naive. The political power structure in Alhambra does not allow for the average citizen to participate in the elections. This political gaming has been going on here for many years. This is a City of Bell situation that has not been exposed because no one has a clue. Sorry to burst your bubble but this is Alhambra politics 101.
    Been here and seen it for 25 years.

  7. For all of those who feel the cancellation of our local elections was done irresponsibly, perhaps you should be more concerned no prospective candidates were personally responsible enough to follow the simple process and meet the clear deadlines necessary to qualify as a challenger. The idea that nominations could have simply been delayed to encourage others to participate demonstrates a lack of understanding with how a charter city like Alhambra is required to run. As does the suggestion that the money saved by canceling our elections is somehow offset by the money spent on beautification projects like the Arc on the corner of Fremont and Valley. In fact, the Arc was largely funded by an earmarked grant from the SGV Municipal Water District and the well over 100,000 dollars that the city would have spent on an election is still sitting in the general fund. I hope future contributors to the Alhambra Source will be more thorough with their research and use more discretion before accusing our local leaders of “insular decision-making and undemocratic governance”.

    1. Although I agree with the first half of your comment I do not agree with your attack of the article and call for discretion. If you notice the word “Opinion” clearly appears in the title which should tell you that there is some matter of personal opinion commentary involved about the facts that are being disclosed. The entire purpose of this project is for public correspondence and it is outspoken opinions like this which promote discussions and enable our society to think better for the future. If we start dismissing opinions and articles from here just because someone doesn’t like it then the Source would become no better than the useless news outlets that choose to talk about puppies being born than issues that really affect us.

  8. You’ve hit the issue spot on with your claim that Alhambran elected officials should have a special responsibility to promote cvic engagement in a city where politics is unfamiliar territory. To cancel local elections is to abandon this responsibility.

    Thank you for your piece, Helen.

  9. You took the words right out of my mouth. Council members robbed the citizens of Alhambra from participating in the governance of their community. Sometimes leaders only emerge when they are needed and end up bringing great progress. But these new voices will not be engaged this time around. What a shame.

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