By all accounts, Joan Milke Flores has been tested during her first term on the Los Angeles City Council. Her district, the southernmost in the city, has faced problems on every front: toxic-waste issues in Wilmington, high crime rates in Watts, cannery closures in San Pedro.
Homes stand next to garbage dumps, and streets are crumbling under industrial truck traffic. The charm of old neighborhoods and port-side restaurants has only led to heighten the outcry over proposed new treatment plants for raw sewage and toxic wastes.
The situation has reached a point where other council members even joke about what will be next, Flores said. "If somebody is saying, 'Where can we put something undesirable?' somebody else will say, 'San Pedro, Wilmington. . . .' And it's a joke," she said.
"I hope it's a joke."
Alone on Ballot
So now, as Flores bids to defend her seat in Tuesday's city elections, she is facing her first public report card on four years of grappling with community problems. According to her supporters, it is a review Flores will pass with ease. The 48-year-old incumbent will be the only candidate on the 15th-District ballot--a testimony, supporters say, to her popular and effective leadership.
"We are not only satisfied, but extremely pleased with the job she has done," said Leron Gubler, executive director of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, which has worked with Flores to try to revive dying commercial areas. "I think her main concern has been with the district. She is well-respected in the community and has proven herself in her first term of office."
But others hold a different view. Advocates of write-in candidate Joe E. Collins Jr., a 21-year-old computer operator, charge that Flores has not gone far enough to address tough toxic-waste issues and to aid troubled areas like Wilmington and Watts. Although Collins faces overwhelming odds with a write-in campaign--he missed the Feb. 2 filing deadline for being placed on the ballot--his followers say he should not be overlooked.
They say a vote for Collins will be a vote for change.
'Not Everybody's Pleased'
"I think if he would come out with 400 or 500 votes, that would be quite significant," said Lilio E. (Leo) Gattoni, a Collins supporter and president of the San Pedro-based Progressive Democratic Club, a 40-member group that has not taken an official position in the race. "It would . . . tell the councilwoman she should be more vigorous in certain areas, take more definite stands in the future. It would show that not everybody's pleased."
Collins, who vows to "run to win," in spite of Flores' edge on the ballot, also acknowledges sizable disadvantages in political experience and campaign financing. A high school graduate who lives with his wife and 9-month-old daughter west of Watts, Collins said he is making his first bid for elected office and has never worked in city government. He said his cash donations for the campaign will total about $1,100--"nowhere near what she has."
Flores spent the first 25 years of her career--eight of them before Collins was born--as a City Council aide. She worked for 13 years as chief deputy to former 15th-District Councilman John Gibson. Her campaign fund exceeds $330,000.
But Collins has managed to draw support among opponents of a hazardous-waste treatment plant being planned for Wilmington, where chaotic growth has placed many residential areas side by side with heavy industrial zones.
Critics say Flores has done little to fight the plant and that she voted against it only because of heavy pressure from community residents. They say her attitude has illustrated a greater concern for developers and big business than for the interests of the community.
"She has totally accepted the fact that Wilmington is . . . on a path to becoming non-existent," said Ernesto Nevarez, owner of a Wilmington insurance agency. "She is not out to represent the voters. She is out to secure her position, which is guaranteed by who you know and who gives you (campaign) money."
Flores, who is an acknowledged supporter of business and property-development rights, responded by calling herself the first elected official at any level to oppose the plant. "I believe I represent the citizens," she said. "I believe I need to hear from them before I make decisions." She held community hearings to study the issue, Flores said, adding: "There will always be people who feel you didn't do enough."
The toxic-waste plant, proposed by the BKK Corp. of Torrance, would be one of the largest such facilities in Southern California, occupying a 4.5-acre site on I Street between the Terminal Island Freeway and the Long Beach city boundary. The multimillion-dollar facility would handle 70% to 80% of the industrial wastes produced in the South Bay area, BKK president Ken Kazarian said last week.
Issue Taken to Court