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Recall Is On - Meet the Candidates PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia Sun Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 13 September 2012 04:38

San Fernando Recall Election Candidates Forum is Held Despite Disruptions


Mayor Esqueda is asked to stop disrupting the candidates forum by securrity.

Jesse H. Avila
Age: 61
Occupation: Retired probation officer
Top Priorities: stabilizing the tax
base, building parking lots and listening
to what people want
Running For Seat Occupied By:
Brenda Esqueda

Gilbert Berriozabal
Age: 37
Occupation: Marketing Director for
Farmer's Insurance
Top Priorities: economic growth,
smart development and adequate
Running For Seat Occupied By: Mario
Joel Fajardo
Age: 29
Occupation: Real Estate Agent
Top Priorities: restoring integrity, balancing
the budget, bringing businesses/
Running For Seat Occupied By:
Maribel De La Torre
Robert C. Gonzales
Age: 29
Occupation: Recreation and Parks
employee for City of Los Angeles
Top Priorities: economic growth, concentrate
on facilities/programs,
Running For Seat Occupied By: Mario
Renato Lira
Age: 32
Occupation: Unknown
Top Priorities: education, safety, business
Running For Seat Occupied By:
Maribel De La Torre
Louis A. Lopez
Age: 63
Occupation: Retired
Top Priorities: budget, safety, and
economic development
Running For Seat Occupied By:
Maribel De La Torre
Bennie Najar Jr.
Age: 48
Occupation: Real Estate Agent
Top Priorities: budget, public safety,
business development
Running For Seat Occupied By: Mario
Victoria S. Mojica
Age: 63
Occupation: Retired, retail
Top Priorities: Budget, full capacity
for police department, programs for
Running For Seat Occupied Brenda
Danitza Pantoja
Age: 36
Occupation: School psychologist
Top Priorities: budget, economic
development, restore integrity/transparency
Running For Seat Occupied Maribel
De La Torre

Nine people running for three possible seats that could be left vacant in the San Fernando recall election put their best foot forward and stated their positions during a candidate forum held at the Valley Family Center.

The Sept. 10 forum was the first meeting to provide the public an opportunity to hear from candidates running for office in the city wrought with turmoil and controversy. On Nov. 6, residents living in the City of San Fernando will be voting on whether to recall three members of the city council, and at the same time vote for the candidate of their choice to fill that seat.

The targets of the recall election are Mayor Brenda Esqueda and Councilmember Maribel De La Torre. Former mayor and councilmember Mario Hernandez's seat is also up for grabs. Hernandez resigned from the council last month amidst a scandal over a physical altercation with De La Torre, a situation that is still being dealt with in the courts.

Residents have complained about the trio – referred to as the "council majority" – for a variety of issues. But the flashpoint for the recall came last year, when Hernandez revealed his romantic relationship with De La Torre and caused a media firestorm. Esqueda's relationship with San Fernando Police Department officer Sgt. Alvaro Castellon has also been questioned.

Esqueda, De La Torre and Hernandez are blamed for a series of financial blunders and litigation that have the city on the brink of financial disaster, and facing possible layoffs and furloughs.

As in a previous recall forum to discuss the upcoming election, Mayor Esqueda showed up and caused much disruption. At the candidates forum she went as far as to try to sit at the candidates' table facing the audience, but was stopped by Recall Committee Chairman Julian Ruelas.

"I told her she couldn't sit there because she wasn't one of the candidates. Her track record's done, these people (candidates) have to prove theirs," Ruelas said. "She was here to be a distraction." Esqueda said she was being denied her place despite the event being held in a "federally funded location." A center spokesman told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol the center is a privately run, nonprofit facility.

However, two off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officers who were in charge of security for the event quickly approached her, and she sauntered to the back of the room to join the group she had arrived with.

Esqueda remained in the room for most of the forum, and the group she was with was seen taking pictures and videotaping the event.

Esqueda, who was later joined by City Administrator Al Hernandez, often shook her head when things being said didn't seem to please her and later interrupted the proceedings when a candidate answered a question on trying to obtain business liquor licenses in the city.

"You can now get a liquor license in the city," Esqueda said, who was then "booed" by the crowd. As she continued to speak, former state assembly member Richard Katz, the forum moderator, quickly intervened.

"Mayor, I don't come to your meetings to interrupt, please don't interrupt mine," Katz told her, as the two offduty officers took places on each side of Esqueda. A few minutes later, she and her group left the room.

"It was sad and pathetic to see the Mayor of San Fernando taking pictures and filming for the purpose of intimidation, instead of working on her campaign to stay in office," said Edwin Ramirez, one of the approximate 100 residents who attended the event. "That gives me more reason to vote her out."

Despite the interruptions, the night was devoted to nine men and women wanting to fill three seats.

Jesse H. Avila and Victoria S. Mojica are competing for Esqueda's seat. Joel Fajardo, Renato Lira, Louis A. Lopez and Danitza Pantoja are trying to take De La Torre's seat. And Gilbert Berriozabal, Robert C. Gonzales and Bennie Najar Jr. are vying for Mario Hernandez' seat.

Katz asked the nine candidates various questions, dealing with their knowledge of the budget, the likelihood of contracting out services if the city goes bankrupt, how to prevent bankruptcy, and how to help struggling businesses and attract new ones.

When asked how this recall would bear different results from the previous one held in 2009, when Jose Hernandez and Julie Ruelas were removed from office and Esqueda joined the council along with Ernesto Hernandez, Lira said, "We need to elect the right candidates that are going to work for the City of San Fernando. We need to get involved and work with other cities."

Mojica agreed, saying, "We need to pick the right candidates so people don't laugh at us," something she said hap-pened to her twice after mentioning she lived in San Fernando.

Pantoja said the difference would be "restoring integrity and transparency to the council, going in there independently and putting aside special interests."

Avila contended the new council members "must be open and not in conflict with their personal beliefs." Meanwhile, Fajardo offered that the difference between this recall effort and the last one was "a much better organization and better understanding of the process, and a better crop of candidates."

Lopez suggested establishing a two-term limit, where the second term would be used to start grooming the person to replace that particular candidate. As to the question of contracting out for services, all of the candidates responded negatively to the idea except for Avila, who noted that "not everyone is going to be safe, even administration." Berriozabal added, "If we cut spending on stuff we don't need, we won't have to go into bankruptcy."

Another question was how to improve the business climate in the city.

Mojica said, "I don't know when we became the 'bridal city,'" and suggested the city needs to attract other businesses to the mall.

Pantoja said she would set up a "business/economic advisory board" made up of nonprofits and other individuals to help attract new businesses. She also recommended updating the city's website to give more detailed information about the city to businesses, and create a new marketing plan.

Najar Jr. said, "You need to cut the red tape and expedite projects."

And Avila proposed "a smart business plan" for the mall, and to "rethink" the city liquor licenses.

Gonzales also thought the liquor license process would have to be addressed as well as updating the city's website. "When you click into the business section, it sends you to Yahoo," he said.

Fajardo said the key to economic development has to be "getting stable government and fixing ethics challenges and budget," as well as building new parking facilities.

And while they all claimed to be running independently, Berriozabal and Pantoja were called out for walking the city together in search of votes. "Yes, we are walking together, but we ran against each other in 2005," said Pantoja, claiming, as well as Berriozabal, that each kept their independence.

Another question to candidates was what would they do to keep the city from falling into bankruptcy.

Pantoja said she would give up the more than $500 monthly stipend council members receive for their services. "I have my benefits, so I don't need health benefits from the city," she said.

Fajardo offered to "cut the city administrator [position], which would save us some money while we look for someone better qualified." He also suggested to "broaden the business selection" in the city, and "give up naming rights to the pool to generate revenue."

Lopez said he would follow what other cities have done and "have the Olympic swim team take over the pool." He said he would also "charge $300 a month to put advertising banners on the side of trolleys running in the city" to generate revenue.

And he suggested "putting a parking structure where JCPenney was with eateries on the top floors."

Residents leaving the twohour event said they enjoyed the forum, and came out informed and much better prepared to make a choice on Nov. 6.

"Everyone was very impressive," said resident Michael Remenih.

However, Remenih was less convinced that any of the candidates would be able to quickly fix the financial problems burdening the city.

"That has yet to be seen. It's not going to get fixed overnight. I'm not looking for a quick fix, but at least to get stable," Remenih said.

Patty Lopez, a longtime council critic, said she's also looking for someone to "stabilize" the city.

"I'm looking for a candidate with economic stability, their qualifications, education, that they be able to read a budget," she said, adding their "ethics and values" was something else to consider.

Loretta Seltzer, another resident, said she would have a hard time deciding whom to vote for.

"There were a lot of good people. I'm sure there's somebody there that can fix the problems we have," Seltzer said. In the end, perhaps candidate Najar Jr. best summarized the residents' feelings about the recall election and how to vote.

"There's a lot of good people here. Whoever you vote for, you'll replace poison," Najar said

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 September 2012 06:01