Alhambra canceled its municipal elections for the first time recorded. No challengers chose to oppose the three incumbent City Council candidates and two School Board members, so they will automatically be reelected in November. While in the recent past candidates have run unopposed, never has an entire slate remained empty and led to the election being canceled. (Alhambra residents will still have the opportunity to vote for candidates running for county, state and federal offices and ballot measures.)
Councilwoman Barbara Messina, who was first elected in 1986, explained the lack of interest was in large part because the current leadership is doing an excellent job. "Everything is running smoothly, everything is running well, why would you look to change it?" she said. "We have a balanced budget, we haven’t had to lay off people, we haven’t had to cut programs."
Messina also attributed the lack of interest to a tight fiscal situation where “no one in their right mind would want to jump into this kind of nightmare,” and a general growing sense of apathy. “People just seem not to care,” she said. “Or they care and they figure, ‘What’s the use?’”
California State Law stipulates that cities like Alhambra can forego elections if all seats remain unchallenged by the nomination deadline, and so long as the incumbents receive at least 50 endorsements each.
The empty slate is in stark contrast to the last election, in which the three incumbent City Council members up for reelection, Luis Ayala, Barbara Messina and Stephen Sham, all faced challengers. Ayala was in a crowded field of five, and Sham and Messina each faced two challengers, with Sham winning a narrow victory of 90 votes. Serving on the Alhambra City Council is a part-time job. Members earn a sallary of a little more than $10,000 a year.
Messina said the cancellation would save more than $100,000 in city money, and that City Hall’s success over the last four years offered little fodder for an opposition platform. As a specific example, she provided the redevelopment of Main Street. “I can’t think of one small business that in one way or another we haven’t helped,” she said. “We’ve done a facelift in repainting a lot of the businesses on Main Street to kind of, you know, spruce things up.”
But some businesses on Main Street tell another story. Bob Lee, manager of Yazmin Malaysian Restaurant on East Main Street in downtown Alhambra, said he didn’t receive any support from the city at a time when he could really use it. Lee and his wife Margaret said they had to foot the bill to repaint their exterior, even though they’d been told that the city had paid for other East Main businesses to repaint theirs. “The city asked us to paint it, and if we don’t paint it we will get a citation.”
Across the street from Yazmin, and even right next door on East Main, business is not great. A major residential and commercial project slated to replace an old mall stalled, leaving storefronts vacant. At the same time, further down the street Lee and his family-owned restaurant are competing with successful chains and business along an increasingly gentrified strip of West Main.
Longtime Alhambra resident Shirley Tatsuno said she had seen Alhambra grow over the last four years.
“I have to say, the city of Alhambra, it’s really developed, for decades, now, come quite a ways, business and things, it’s really remarkable,” she said.
But still, Tatsuno was disappointed by the cancellation of the elections and thought it was time for a change.
“I don’t know, people are pretty cozy on that council," she said. "And it wouldn’t hurt to have some new blood, that’s my opinion.”