I watched the City of Placentia’s council candidates forum. This is what I learned.
When the Orange County voter information pamphlet came in the mail the other day, that was pretty much the first time this cycle that I thought about the city council election for the City of Placentia. I’ve always been flummoxed as to who I should be voting for for city council, and this year is especially bad since there are nine candidates on the ballot running for three seats on the five-seat council.
I like to think that I am a relatively civically aware person, but I really couldn’t have told you anything about the Placentia city council beyond the names of the council members and it’s structure (city administrator model, rotating mayor every year for some reason, every seat is at-large). Also that every single person on the council is probably a Republican (council members are officially non-partisan, but we live in a very red city). But I didn’t know the issues the city was facing. This is in part because there is no dedicated media like a newspaper serving Placentia exclusively. 50,000 people live in the city that only occasionally gets mentioned in the Orange County Register and is pretty much forgotten by the Los Angeles media.
Fortunately for me, the League of Women Voters of North Orange County held a forum with all nine city council candidates recently. Even more fortunately for me, a 2-hour long video of the proceedings has been posted on the City of Placentia’s website (which I only knew about because I follow the City’s Twitter account).
The only one of the candidates I had ever heard of is the one incumbent running for re-election: Jeremy Yamaguchi (two other seats are being vacated by council members Scott Nelson and Connie Underhill, who have been termed out). I had heard four years ago that Yamaguchi was the youngest mayor in California or something when he had been elected at the age of 19. He’s 27 now, still the youngest council member by a few decades, and still the only minority on the council. My impression is that he is focused on balancing the city budget to the exclusion of everything else, and he was the only candidate at the forum to wear a flag lapel pin. He describes himself as “mayor/businessman” on the ballot, but it’s pretty clear that his interests for his entire adult life have been more on the political side of that slash than on the business side.
As someone with eight years of council experience, Yamaguchi sounded understandably quite fluent with the issues the City is facing. Four of the eight other candidates were also well-versed in local politics and sounded intelligent about local matters. Rhonda Shader, the only woman running for city council, had experience through her term on the city planning commission as well as her membership in the local Chamber of Commerce. Robert McKinnell, a retired aerospace engineer and substitute teacher, had obviously spent some time looking into the City’s finances as a member of the citizen’s fiscal sustainability task force. Ward Smith could speak with authority about certain employee compensation and police issues as the former police chief of the Placentia Police Department. And Chris Bunker was also quite well versed in municipal finances, maybe in part because of his experience being a professional CPA.
Three other candidates sounded less well prepared to be a professional politician. Ranked from most to least excusable, these are Fabian Fragiao, Blake Montero and Tom Solomonson. Fabian Fragiao was probably the oldest candidate on stage, the only minority besides Jeremy Yamaguchi (I think Fragiao is of Filipino ancestry, but he also spoke of Hawaiian roots). Fragiao, a military veteran and retired social security administration auditor, spoke like a rambling old man and seemed like he made up policy on the fly. Blake Montero, an “industrial manufacturer executive” according to the ballot, came across as an avatar of an angry Tea Party voter; his first words in his introductory statement were literally “taxpayers taxpayers taxpayers”. I have not seen a yard sign for either Fragiao or Montero, but I have seen several for Tom Solomonson, treasurer of the local Chamber of Commerce and member of the planning commission. Despite having a resume worthy of local political office and a wardrobe and hairstyle to match, Solomonson seemed unprepared to answer certain questions about police costs and civil servant pay.
The ninth and final candidate probably has the most visible campaign judging by the many professional looking yard signs around town and his professional-looking website and Facebook page. Kevin Kirwin may be a political novice, but he was the only one to treat the League of Women’s Voters forum like it was a campaign appearance. He was the only one who read from a prepared speech for his opening statement, and frequently addressed the audience in council chambers rather than just the moderator. For every question asked, he worked in references to his campaign issues of transparency in government and his own lack of ties to special interests: in his opening statement he asserted that every other candidate was running as part of some slate of candidates for unspecified special interests. Yet for all that, I can’t really figure out what Kirwin thinks about the issues. Nor can I figure out how what Kirwin does for a living to be able to fund his robust campaign.
The one thing I was able to find out about Kirwin’s past is that he seems to have been animated to enter politics because of the townhouse development at Schaner Ranch. He posted a link on his campaign’s Facebook page to a video from a 2013 city council meeting. Schaner Ranch is a smallish 80-or-so-unit townhouse complex that was constructed in 2015 and 2016 and is just about finished now; each unit sold for more than $700,000. Back in 2013, the Schaner Ranch developers were talking to the property’s neighbors, owners of detached single family homes (2,000+ square feet homes built in the late 60s, valued between $700,000 and $800,000 currently) on larger lots. The neighbors were generally against the development for the usual property values / traffic reasons. One of the neighbors was Kirwin, who lamented that Placentia was turning into “Lakewood or Bellflower” and was in danger of losing some kind of special characteristics because of “demographics”. So I suspect Kirwin is at the very least an anti-development NIMBYist?
But back to the forum. The first question was about the only city-wide referendum on the ballot this year, the proposition to form districts for city council seats. This is a story that starts with a police shooting in Anaheim in 2012, when a police officer shot an unarmed Hispanic man named Manuel Diaz. Protests by the citizens of Anaheim brought to light the fact that the Anaheim city council at the time was structured like Placentia’s in that there were five at-large council seats, and the council members tended to come from the mostly white and mostly affluent neighborhoods like Anaheim Hills. Latinos protested that they didn’t feel represented in the community despite making up more than half of the population of Anaheim. A group of activists sued Anaheim under the California Voting Rights Act of 2002, which made it illegal for cities to hold at-large elections for city councils if the process diluted the voting power of minorities, regardless of intent. The success in changing Anaheim’s law led to a string of lawsuits by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) against southern California cities like Placentia, where Hispanic people make up 36% of the population but 0% of the city council. As part of the settlement with MALDEF, the City of Placentia agreed to place the districting measure on the ballot in 2016, and if it fails, they will try again in 2018. If the districting measure passes, the overwhelmingly Hispanic southern part of Placentia and the downtown Placita Santa Fe district will probably form at least one and maybe two districts, assuming they don’t get gerrymandered by whatever mapping consultants the City decides to go with (not a safe assumption at all).
The city council candidates were asked what they thought of the districting ballot measure. No one but Fabian Fragiao supported it, and even Fragiao’s support was pretty tepid, as he said he was “coming around” to it. Taxpayer advocate Blake Montero said there was no reason for it, retired aerospace engineer and financial mansplainer Robert McKinnell cited unknown legal fees for potential redistricting fights as a reason to not support it, and political novice Kevin Kirwin liked the system as-is, where citizens could have a backup councilman if their own district’s guy was being a jerk (my words, not his). Others recognized that what they thought didn’t matter and that they needed to prepare for districting to happen anyways. This was the position of incumbent Jeremy Yamaguchi, who was clever enough not to reveal his personal opinion of the measure. Rhonda Shader opposed districting, but recognized that it would have to be dealt with, and that she would want to workshop the future district maps with the community. Tom Solomonson too opposed the measure, but he speculated that maybe Placentia was in need of more engagement with its citizens. Chris Bunker, CPA, and retired police chief Ward Smith both laid blame for the city council’s lack of diversity at the feet of Hispanic voters. Both Bunker and Smith claimed that if Hispanics in Placentia actually voted, they would have attained representation by now.
The next question at the forum concerned the plans, already in the works, for the Metrolink station downtown, and the adjoining parking garage, and whether the candidates favored spending from the City of Placentia to assist in development there. This was the question to determine which candidates are pro-development and which ones were anti-development. Incumbent Jeremy Yamaguchi, decidedly pro-development, pointed out that downtown development had not just been good for business but also resulted in crime and safety improvements downtown. Chris Bunker, CPA, Tom Solomonson and Ward Smith all echoed Yamaguchi’s pro-development points. Rhonda Shader took it a step farther and pointed out that not only was the downtown development good for residents and businesses but also for commuters; she seemed pro-development and pro-public transportation. Taxpayer advocate Blake Montero, as expected, came down against further spending for downtown. Retired aerospace engineer and financial mansplainer Robert McKinnell also was not in favor of further downtown development. Political novice Kevin Kirwin, suspected NIMBYist, was concerned about the costs, but also concerned about development’s effects on people who already lived downtown. And Fabian Fragiao used his 60-second response to talk about how much parking at the VFW downtown sucks and how everything needs to be torn down so they can start all over again.
The third question, and I feel the one everyone was waiting for, was a question about marijuana dispensaries. This summer, the city council narrowly approved an ordinance that would have legalized one and only one medical marijuana dispensary within the city limits. The ordinance would have required abundant security measures and liability waivers. Jeremy Yamaguchi was one of the three “yes” votes for that ordinance. But the way the city works, the ordinance needed to be approved a second time in order to become law. After the first passage, a protest movement against legal marijuana in Placentia got organized. Fliers were passed out and city hall was picketed. By the time the resolution came up again a couple of weeks later, every council member had heard the message, and the ordinance was voted down 5–0.
At the candidate’s forum, every single candidate was now against marijuana in Placentia. Jeremy Yamaguchi, as the only person in the council chambers that evening to have ever voted in favor of a marijuana dispensary in Placentia, got off surprisingly easy with his answer. He said he was now against the state’s recreational marijuana ballot measure, calling it “a bad law.” Yamaguchi pointed out that there are already illegal dispensaries and grow operations in Placentia. However, he would do “everything possible to assist public safety in keeping marijuana out of the city.” Which is funny, because at the May 17 council meeting, Yamaguchi very carefully made his argument in favor of the marijuana dispensary ordinance, including the argument that elected officials who say they’re keeping marijuana out of the city are ignoring the fact that “if there’s not a dispensary or a grow in their city, they can get it delivered, probably half an hour. … It’s already here.” Yamaguchi’s speech that night made it clear that even with all the security mandates and liability releases attached to the ordinance, he had been on the fence at what he perceived as “one of those votes that’s a career changer, a life changer, a city changer.” But he also made it clear that he was casting a vote in favor of the ordinance because he wanted to help wind down the war on drugs. Yamaguchi said people are “becoming victims of the drug war. I’m not saying this [ordinance] is going to fight the drug war. But I think moving forward, this is one step in the right direction.” Yet four months later, Yamaguchi was calling the California recreation marijuana ballot initiative a “bad law” and vowing to help police in “keeping marijuana out of the city”.
And yet, no other candidate called him out on this. Chris Bunker, CPA, was sitting right next to Yamaguchi and spoke right after him. Bunker had stated that the entire reason he was running for city council was to vigorously keep Placentia’s laws free from the scourge of marijuana, for the sake of the kids. He didn’t mention Yamaguchi’s flip flop. Retired police chief Ward Smith emphasized for the assembled audience that “it’s going to bring criminals and bad elements to your neighborhoods.” The no-spending wing of the council candidates, Blake Montero and Robert McKinnell, both gave an emphatic no to the prospect of pot shops in Placentia, and Rhonda Shader said her vote would be “to continue to ban it in our city”. Kevin Kirwin’s reason for wanting to ban pot shops was because everyone he talked to while campaigning emphatically wanted to ban it, but also that it shouldn’t be done behind closed-door sessions (though the reason we don’t have the ordinance right now is because the public learned about the ordinance.) Even Fabian Fragiao was against pot shops, starting his argument with the anecdote “I lived in San Francisco for nine years. … I smelled so much dope.” Tom Solomonson had probably the most pro-marijuana response, glumly saying “I work for the citizens, so no is the answer. If you want it, you can just pick up the phone and order it and they’ll deliver it to you in 10 minutes from Anaheim. It’s that easy.” That’s 20 minutes faster than Yamaguchi’s guy.
The next two questions related to spending on city staff and on the police. Apparently salaries for Placentia employees are lower than for the surrounding cities, employees haven’t received a cost of living increase in three years, and they’re not budgeted to get one for another ten years. Apparently morale is low, turnover is high, and the police department in particular has sued the city over low compensation. But if any public employee union members were looking for heroes on the city council, they were probably disappointed. About the most they could hope for were statements recognizing the problem. Rhonda Shader gave the strongest statement in this regard, stating that “retention is important” to have “competent people” running the city, and that therefore she would try to help them out. Incumbent Jeremy Yamaguchi said he was in favor of “better motivation for our employees going forward.” Does that mean a pay raise? Retired Placentia police chief and former public employee Ward Smith first recognized that “city employees have made long and great sacrifices”, but also said that the City would have to improve fiscal sustainability first. Political novice Kevin Kirwin, who had to speak first about this issue, gave some Club for Growth-like pablum: “I think government ought to run more like business and less like government.” Okay Kevin. Chris Bunker, CPA, taxpayer advocate Blake Montero, and retired aerospace engineer and financial mansplainer Robert McKinnell all asserted that there was no problem. Bunker said Placentia wasn’t doing so bad when factoring in benefits. McKinnell said Placentia was still able to attract quality people. Montero said “I do not believe our city staff is underpaid. In fact I think if you look at the numbers the raises are just outrageous compared with what other people in the private sector are getting in these years.” Even Fabian Fragiao was in favor of setting up a committee to cut labor costs in every department. Tom Solomonson checked himself out of the debate, stating that he hadn’t spent much time on the issue.
Then the question was asked that if it was clear that disbanding the Placentia Police Department and contracting police services with Orange County Sheriff’s Department would save 10%, would you vote for it. Incumbent Jeremy Yamaguchi laid out the history of this question, stating that Yorba Linda did this already, but the services they got in return kinda sucked. Yamaguchi was absolutely in favor of this hypothetical as long as the services were exactly the same, and he later said he was in favor of forming a regional police force with other cities in order to attain cost savings. Retired police chief Ward Smith was very much against it, understandably, and even Fabian Fragiao recognized that having your own police force is “a badge of honor” even if there are savings in doing it another way. Rhonda Shader, Chris Bunker, CPA, and Tom Solomonson were somewhere in the middle, stating that it wouldn’t hurt to get bids for services from the Sheriff’s Department and evaluate them. Political novice Kevin Kirwin, in a moment of grandstanding, berated his fellow candidates for not saying that they’d take it to voters and ask “what does the community think?” He did not offer up what he thought. Besides Ward Smith and Fabian Fragiao, the voices least in favor of replacing the police department with the county sheriff’s department were (surprisingly) taxpayer advocate Blake Montero and retired aerospace engineer and financial mansplainer Robert McKinnell. Montero reasoned that “having our own police department is good for our property values”, and McKinnell was skeptical that savings could ever be realized because of the cost of switching pension plans. Both tempered their response by saying wasteful spending is bad, and McKinnell wanted to trim the SWAT team.
No questions were asked about the recent embezzlement from the City’s financial services manager of 5 million dollars, nor were there questions about the City’s long term fiscal sustainability, which has been poor for all the years I’ve lived here.