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Alhambra City Council Discusses City Direction at Strategic Planning Meeting

The Alhambra City Council, city manager’s office and city department heads participated in a discussion about the city’s direction at a strategic planning meeting last Thursday. Photo courtesy of City of Alhambra.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra’s City Council discussed several priorities for the next fiscal year during a special daylong meeting last Thursday in Reese Hall at the Alhambra Civic Center Library.

Facilitated by Patrick Ibarra of the Mejorando Group, which consults various city governments on organizational effectiveness, the five City Council members discussed ways to improve the quality of life in Alhambra with input from the city manager and representatives from each city department. The discussion culminated with each City Council member contributing to a list of priorities that the city manager will organize into a written plan to be reviewed by the Council sometime in May.

“[This meeting] is like a long day at the gym — it’s how do you increase your capacity individually and collectively to build a stronger community,” Ibarra said. “I’m hoping that you leave this session today both exhausted and energized.”

The priorities discussed include increasing language accessibility around city operations, with City Manager Jessica Binnquist saying that assistance in languages other than English is available at each city department counter. The city website can also be translated into multiple languages using Google Translate. Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler asked for more availability of interpreters and translated documents for City Council meetings, while the council members discussed as a whole how to increase this capacity without straining Alhambra’s budget.

The City Council also discussed the urgency of making affordable housing more available in Alhambra, with several Council members bringing up an inclusionary ordinance as a possible way to address this issue. Cities with inclusionary ordinances commonly require developers to set aside a percentage of their housing units as affordable ones, or they can pay into the city’s affordable housing fund.

City Council members also discussed public safety priorities, with Council member Katherine Lee mentioning recruiting and retaining police officers, an issue that Ibarra said a lot of cities find challenging. Andrade-Stadler asked the city to find ways to engage in more community policing, where officers build ties with members of the community and use those connections to promote public safety. She also asked the police department to provide more statistics on youth crime in Alhambra, and use community policing methods to better connect with young people.

She offered the Alhambra Unified School District as an example of effectively taking this approach, with Alhambra Police officers working with the district and parents to engage students on truancy and other issues.

Council member Jeff Maloney asked whether the city could revisit regulations for organizing neighborhood block parties. These block parties would allow neighbors to build community, and encourage them to look out for each other when it comes to public safety, he explained.

Ibarra advised the City Council to think about budgeting and working partnerships to address other issues that Council members want to address. These issues include code enforcement operations to address landscaping issues around people’s houses, as well as trash, graffiti and other aesthetic issues, mainly on commercial properties. Ibarra said that being more proactive on this front could necessitate the city redirecting resources from elsewhere. There was also discussion around drafting a more comprehensive bike plan than the one included in the draft general plan. The city would have to find funding for such a plan, Ibarra noted. Various council members discussed the possibility of applying for more grant funding for various city projects.

The Council also discussed the possibility of persuading businesses to relocate to Alhambra, or asking businesses to offer internships to local students. Ibarra advised the five members to consider how much capacity they have to lead such undertakings, and encouraged them to partner with the Chamber of Commerce or other organizations who could take on those endeavors.

Some priorities that the council members discussed fit in with initiatives that are already underway. Los Angeles County is in the process of transferring an unused building on 614 W. Shorb St., in the southern part of Alhambra, back to the city. The Council discussed possibly bringing a community center with senior services to that location, to complement the senior services provided by the Joslyn Center, closer to downtown Alhambra.

Councilmember Lee also mentioned wanting to revisit certain design standards allowed in the zoning code. She was specifically concerned about certain areas of the city like the Central Business District allowing structures that could go as high as 10 stories, especially if surrounding buildings are of different heights. “It really makes the city landscape very messy,” she said.

Ibarra said that many cities are considering what kind of growth they want in their cities, and looking at their zoning codes is a good way to go about that strategically. Binnquist said that the city would move into a zoning code update after the adoption of the General Plan, which is expected to occur this year. She asked the City Council members to take notes on what they would like to see changed in the zoning code when the general plan comes to them for their consideration.

The City Council also discussed passing a historic preservation ordinance as a strategic priority for the City of Alhambra. Such an ordinance would protect certain historic buildings and homes from demolition or improper modification. Andrade-Stadler said this would help preserve Alhambra’s “incredible history.” She and Councilmember Maloney discussed a Mills Act program, which allows cities in California to enter into contracts with property owners, where the owner would preserve historical aspects of their home in exchange for a lower property tax rate, as a possibility for Alhambra.

Vice Mayor Ross Maza voiced his support of a historic preservation ordinance, but didn’t want it to be “overly restrictive” and respect owners’ property rights. Binnquist said that the city was working on a draft for a historic preservation ordinance and that it was in its final phases. Maloney also discussed a long-term goal of surveying Alhambra’s historic resources, so the city knows what it has.

A small audience of perhaps 10 to 12 people gathered at the library early Thursday morning as the daylong meeting commenced. All city department heads or representatives of those departments were in attendance as well as the council members, the city manager and some of her staff.

The first hour was taken up with public comment from citizens on a variety of issues, not all directly related to the day’s agenda. Cliff Bender, an Alhambra resident and officer of both the Alhambra Educational Foundation and Grassroots Alhambra, addressed the Council and city staff. Saying he was speaking for himself, he urged the council to set goals to work toward affordable housing, a bike plan that takes into consideration the views of longstanding bicycle adherents in the SGV, and he urged translation services at city meetings noting the number of Alhambra residents where English was not the first language. He also urged a more engaged city commission process noting that except for the planning commission, there seems to be a dearth of activity in the many other commissions. “The commissions should be energized and more efficient,” he said. “Citizens with special interest and expertise should be added.”

Li’i Furimoto, youth and parent leadership project director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, also spoke on the need for outreach and translation services as well as affordable housing, noted a housing forum that AAAJ – LA was planning in Alhambra for May 23, which would feature stories primarily from Asian immigrants living in the San Gabriel Valley.

The crowd thinned out after the public comment with only a handful remaining in the mid-morning hours for an interesting primer on the role of council members, and others in city government.

Ibarra urged the council members to be better about discussing achievements in government and engaging with the community in public spaces like markets, or parks.

He then led the council members through a refresher and primer on strategies for creating a more collaborative, effective council, going over points including having clearly defined roles and relationships and separating personalities from the problem when engaging on specific issues. He followed that by leading council members through a discussion of the role of mayor, council members, the city manager, the department directors, staff members and, finally, the role of community members in making city government work.

Later in the morning session, Binnquist led the council members through a review of the strategic plan for the fiscal year ending this June, highlighting the city staff’s accomplishments in several areas.

Read the 2018-2019 strategic plan here.

Jon Thurber contributed reporting.

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