Giving our citizens a louder voice: A conversation with City Council candidate Eric Sunada

Eric Sunada would like to see a change in Alhambra. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer has been an Alhambra resident for 20 years, and in that time has been involved in planning, development, and water contamination issues. This November, he is challenging Councilman Stephen Sham for the 1st District seat on Alhambra City Council.

Sunada (right) with his wife Farida and their dog Chaplin.

Sunada lives with his wife Farida and dog Chaplin — named after Charlie Chaplin — and is the supervisor of the Thermal Technology and Fluid Systems Group at JPL. We spoke to the Alhambra Source community contributor about the upcoming election and what he would like to improve in the city, from increasing transparency at City Hall to implementing a bike plan. Read his answers below.

What would you like to improve in Alhambra?

It seems that the current leadership’s policies focus only on short-term gains. In fact, they focus mainly on increasing retail sales tax revenue at all costs. But with 42 percent of our citizens in lower-income groups, that’s not a sustainable strategy. Essentially, you’re not developing for the people.

I want to invest in our people, and one source of funding is the Community Block Grant Program, which can be in the millions of dollars. Let’s use that money with long-term growth in mind. Whether it’s job training programs, more parks, open space, repairing our Story Park swimming pool, creating incubators for start-ups that pay better wages, helping our education system establish adult school and ESL classes, or forging synergistic relationships with industry and our local colleges.

Have you been involved in local government before?

I have been involved in water contamination issues in Alhambra since 2003. I represented the city in the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which also serves Monterey Park, Sierra Madre, and Azusa.

I then served as an Alhambra Parks and Recreation commissioner and a Planning commissioner. During that time, I realized that some of the city’s policies weren’t serving Alhambra citizens. In 2006, I formed a small nonprofit called the San Gabriel Valley Oversight Group that focuses on environmental awareness and social justice.

If elected, how would you increase public engagement?

Our leadership does not readily make available the information behind the agenda items for City Council and commission meetings. Usually the public is only given a short description of items up for decisions. More information and documents should be put online, and the city should also explain them in ways residents can easily understand.

City Council also makes decisions over millions of dollars that affect thousands of lives with little discussion. We should be encouraging people to voice their opinions. Instead, we sometimes see the public treated in an uncivil manner by the current Council.

Back in 2006, when there were public hearings on the high-density housing plans along West Main Street, every speaker in attendance voiced their opposition to the project but the Council passed it regardless. So even when public participation was occasionally high, it was a demoralizing experience.

Sunada speaks to residents at the Alhambra Preservation Group Ice Cream Social.

Recent studies show that minority voters, especially Asian Americans and Latinos, have a lower turnout rate than other groups. How would you help increase civic engagement?

We have about 85,000 people in the city and only about 39,000 registered voters. We need to do a better job trying to get everyone involved. City leaders should encourage engagement by  making  information and documents more accessible and by holding more public forums and more discussions in simpler language so people understand.

Do you think language accessibility is an issue for city programs and services?

Whether it is the ability to read official documents or participate in the community, language accessibility is an issue. I realize there are limited resources, but the city should do more to translate key documents, provide outreach with multilingual staff, and offer ESL classes, which we sadly no longer have.

If elected, I would make a conscious effort to reach all people who live here. A city really can’t sustain itself unless it truly involves the community. An informed community makes better stakeholders and a better city.

READER QUESTION: Some residents are advocating for an ordinance that preserves historic and cultural resources. Do you support implementing a historic preservation ordinance in Alhambra?

Yes, I’m in favor of both historical and cultural preservation. It’s important to promote our cultural heritage, architecture, and uniqueness rather than simply tearing down character homes and buildings to make way for quickly built new development.  Preserving the character of our neighborhoods grows property value and makes Alhambra a better place to live.

What is your stand on adding biking infrastructure in Alhambra? Do you support a bike plan?

San Gabriel City Council just approved a regional bike master plan, but voiced concerns that Alhambra has not voted to approve the plan nor have staff responded to requests from San Gabriel staff.

Biking as a mode of transportation is the future. The faster we embrace that the better.  I would like to see Alhambra revisit its current plan and make it more robust, but the Council shows little interest in implementing the plan.  

READER QUESTION: Alhambra officially supports closing the 710 gap, and is part of a decades-long debate about how and if to extend the freeway to the 210. How do you feel about this issue?

I’m waiting for the Environmental Impact Report due in February. I don’t think we have enough information now to make a truly responsible decision. It also depends on the cost. I’ve heard numbers anywhere from $5 billion to $15 billion.

According to information on Caltrans and Metro sites, it will be a toll tunnel and have no exits for local traffic except at either end. We have to ask whether a tunnel is the best option or are alternatives such as light rail, more buses, and more public transportation.

Why should residents vote for you?

Alhambrans have a choice in this election, an opportunity to vote for change. I will advocate for neighborhood preservation, more green space, safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists, and government transparency. From a fiscal perspective, I will work for a more balanced plan that invests in our community as well as business. Most important, I will work hard to give our citizens a bigger voice in shaping the future of Alhambra.  My goal is more collaboration and greater opportunity for our people.  Vote for me Nov. 4, and together we can make Alhambra a better city for everyone.

Editor's note: This interview was edited and condensed. This piece does not represent the views or opinions of the editorial staff and is not an endorsement.

12 thoughts on “Giving our citizens a louder voice: A conversation with City Council candidate Eric Sunada”

  1. Eric Sunada seems like a sharp guy, if but a little naive about the “monster” he’s trying to take on, but he’s probably too little – too late.

    Alhambra needed 4 Eric Sunada’s 10 years ago. Now the city is too far gone in a direction. And trying to shift it backwards would probably just cause more instability.

    In the biggest picture sense, it’s not even about what specific ideology is implemented (of course it matters but it’s not the whole equation), but rather the execution of that system.

    Did the Alhambra government go “big business”? In a word – YES. Sunada is right about that. However, is the “big business” plan being executed relatively smoothly? Yes.

    There’s no guarantee that Sunada’s idealistic plans would even be executed at a “B-Level”…in fact, I would guess that “B-Level” would the absolute highest cap, even if some unlikely moons align in his favor.

    Sunada is not Chinese – and he cannot understand how the Chinese think. And although I do agree with some his views, he’s ultimately missing the ultra-big picture.

    1. Mr. Montes de Oca

      Thanks for you comments. I suggest you read the Pasadena Star-News endorsement of Mr. Sunada.

      Have you ever been to a City Council meeting? Watch them online. They are very often dismissive of the public and downright rude. Have you tried to communicate with council members? You’re doing well if you hear back from them 20% of the time.

      Yes…the development is an issue. Another very important issue is the attitude the current council has toward their constituents.

      Sunada is not Chinese? Irrelevant. I don’t believe in ethnic politics. We all want the same things: safe streets, good schools and economic opportunities for all. Bike paths wouldn’t hurt.

      I will not vote for anyone who panders to a specific group. I want someone who will represent everyone. While I believe Mr. Sham is a good man, the well-written endorsement of Mr. Sunada by the Star-News gives Mr. Sunada the definite edge in this election.

      1. I don’t know if you guys realize that race, ethnicity, origin, and immigration and the tribalistic side-effects of those dynamics are pretty much the cornerstones of America. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s the way it is and the way it has been. Have you seen the voting demographic breakdowns for Obama vs. Romney? It’s blatant on BOTH SIDES. This is the way the world works – unfortunately.

        But of course – once you step into a majority 1st/2nd generation ethnic Chinese majority city and “your tribe” is looking from the outside-in…you think all of sudden race doesn’t matter? Of course it’s a gigantic, enormous, gargantuan issue. Garcetti will tell you as much.

        Alhambra, and the rest of the SGV west of the 605 is economically dominated by a singular ethnic group with ties to a single country.

        – Do the Chinese invest (time or money) in public infrastructure? In a word – NO (unless they have to).
        – Do they support the Boy/Girl Scouts and similar organizations? NO – it’s not their culture (because Asia & particularly China is extremely different from America).
        – Do the Chinese even lift their head to say “Hello!” to strangers in the street – NO! It’s not their culture. They just got out of a very bad 150 year recession. Being cordial in a Victorian-influenced way is the last thing on their mind. They’re not even going to teach their kids to say “Hello” unless there’s a certain level of assimilation.

        Which leads us to the largest gorilla-in-the-room question…

        Are Chinese (who hail from a vastly different society) fit to lead an American community such as Alhambra (which does NOT want to become Monterey Park so very badly)?

        The answer: I don’t know. Nobody does. But believe me we are talking about the group that will lead not just Alhambra but THE WORLD into the next century (for better or worse) – and they will lead it and no amount of hand-wringing or head-in-the-sand tactics is going to change it.

        So the Dragons are here for good. Let’s concentrate on how to WORK WITH IT rather than FIGHT IT.

        BE THE WATER – BRUCE LEE (who ironically would have been slightly embarrassed by the way some of his fellow Chinese and their attitudes about community and public living in America)

      2. As cliche as it sounds, change does not happen until someone stands up for it. As a recent immigrant to the city, I have grown suprisingly accustomed to the apathy and indifference of the residents here unless it directly involves their well-being. That being said, it's not an excuse for the local government to completely disregard them in the democratic process even if they don't want to participate. Now that there is a growing number of people who have voiced out their opposition to the status quo, I would call that significant progress in encouraging civic engagement around the community. While we can only reach a number of people who are interested, it is at least our obligation to keep reaching out and educating to those who have closed their minds.

        We only have local elections every two years, so my question is: would we rather accept that unregulated development and racial politics take a hold in our city or can we stand up as few but determined individuals advocating for sustainable planning and cross-cultural interaction?

        Also, it's “Be LIKE Water,” not “Be the Water.” And why take the shape of the glass when the water inside it is filthy?

      3. By all means – you should always fight for what you believe in.

        And if you can’t win, then you’ve got to move to South Pasadena or something. The last SGV city (of note) where white-nativists still have a strong grip on infrastructure control. Is that unfortunate? Yes. But it’s life.

        I just think it’s ironic that we’re going through a 2nd or 3rd cycle of “white flight” now. 1st it was actual Anglo-Saxons leaving for “less colored” cities…next it will be “Asians who adopted white-culture” who will leave because new Asians (who do not wish to assimilate as much) will dominate the city.

        You can’t change the cards you’re working with in terms of voter population. And like I said – do I wish it was this way? No. Obviously I’d love every community to be filled with people who really care about the entire group. But that seems awfully optimistic.

    2. Thanks for your comment, but it appears you have given up, and that's not acceptable to me.  It also sounds much like what I hear from our current city leadership:  “the past is the past, and we might as well stay the course and hope the old guard does a better job.”  These words often come up during election year in order to duck the issues.

      Let's stick to the issues and engage in productive dialogue here.  The fact is that the current leadership has done significant damage its residents' quality of life.  And you are kidding yourself if you think it's going smoothly–much more damage can be done and it needs to be addressed.  It's not idealistic, it's raw and pertinent to everyone who lives in this city.

      And please do not bring race into this.  Because if you do, you are selling out the Chinese.  Our incumbent says that the highly dense living structures being built are ok because Chinese people want this.  That's a cop-out:  there hasn't been a single person I've talked to, especially the Chinese, that don't want more open space, less traffic, more parking, and a better standard of living.

      Looking forward to your continued engagement.  This what it's all about, and I appreciate your input.  I only wish the existing council were as open.

    3. Sunada got the official endorsement of the Democratic Party. With Sunada in office, it will be just the beginning. Alhambrans, let’s take back our town!

      Vote for change, change starts now.

      1. I’m voting for Stephen Sham!

      2. I’m with you. Sham is our man!

  2. As one of Eric’s volunteers, I can tell you Eric is a straightforward, kind and concerned citizen and wants to make his community better – period. His ideals are aligned with many Alhambrans’ and he’s NOT the politico-sort that Sham is. We are all volunteers, in fact, and we are helping Eric get elected for the good of our city.

    Please go to http://www.sunada4alhambra.org to donate, sign up to volunteer/help us, or get a lawn sign to put on your lawn.

    AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, don’t forget to vote, whether by absentee ballot or on Nov. 4. WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE TOGETHER!

  3. I have seen his signs in my neighborhood. Thank you Alhambra Source for keeping us informed about the election. You provide a valuable service to the residents.

  4. This guy’s impressive—intelligent, visionary, conscientious, insightful…everything our current council isn’t (and hasn’t been in the 18 years I’ve lived here).

    Can we multiply this guy and just replace the entire bunch?

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