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COMMUNITY NEWSMAKER

'I believe that if you care enough about where you live, get involved and change it. Don't simply stand on the sidelines. . . .'

May 15, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

Chris Fuentes is a chip off the old block.

His father, Robert, was a well-known local Democrat, managing field offices for several lawmakers before running for statewide office himself in the mid-1970s. And Fuentes' older brother Chuck is also a local politico of some note, most recently helping engineer Grace Napolitano's upset win in last month's Norwalk council race.

So it's not surprising that with those bloodlines, Chris has developed a taste for politics and public service.

And he has set out to make a difference in a tough arena--Cerritos.

A financially successful, seemingly well-run city of 55,000 residents, Cerritos has few obvious shortcomings when measured against surrounding municipalities. Yet Fuentes is organizing a grass-roots group called Active Citizens Together, or ACT, to monitor City Hall and the five-member council. He contends that Cerritos is run by a small political elite that has grown increasingly smug about the city's future.

"This city has become unresponsive to the needs of its citizens," said the 25-year-old Fuentes, who is sharpening his political skills by working for Gordon Hahn, a candidate for Los Angeles County assessor. The council "sits in its pristine chamber and passes policy for the rest of us without knowing our views. That must change."

The group has mobilized in less than three weeks. A 24-hour hot line has been set up to record citizen complaints. The group has also decided to work for passage of a city Charter amendment that would limit the number of a consecutive terms council members can serve. A signature drive to qualify the two-term-limit measure for the November ballot is due to begin next week, and Fuentes said his group will circulate petitions to help gather the necessary 2,500 names.

"We are not attempting to be power brokers," said 17-year resident George Medina. "We simply want to motivate people to get involved. . . . Some people are intimidated by City Hall. We want to help carry their problems to the decision-makers."

Formation of the group signals a change of sorts in the political guard of Cerritos. Fuentes and the group's publicist, Randy Economy, come from longtime Cerritos families who were involved in the late 1960s in the move to wrest control of City Hall from the dairy farmers by electing a homeowner majority to the council.

Said Economy: "In a way, this is like a second generation of Cerritos residents taking an active interest in their city."

On paper, Fuentes' game plan seems simple: Find one person in each of the city's 43 precincts who will attend city meetings when an issue surfaces affecting their neighborhood. They then inform residents in that area about the issue. The aim, Fuentes said, is to alert residents early in the decision-making process. All too often, he said, residents hear about issues too late to influence the outcome.

A prime example, he said, is the nine-story office building under construction behind the Best Plaza on the city's west side. "By the time residents got wind of that project," Fuentes said, "it was almost impossible to organize effective opposition." The office tower, which is adjacent to several housing tracts, will be the city's tallest building when completed in December.

Fuentes said the idea for his watchdog group surfaced during the recent city elections. Concerned that the council was ignoring the problems of neighborhoods west of Pioneer Boulevard and the Artesia city limits, he set out to organize west side residents. But as Fuentes, a west side resident himself, talked to people elsewhere in Cerritos, he realized that complaints about crumbling sidewalks, potholes and errant city sprinklers were common throughout the city.

"Listen, I'm not a saint," said Fuentes, who was has lived with his family, including nine brothers and sisters, in Cerritos for 18 years. "From the start, my interest was to help the west side. But it became apparent that the concerns of the west side were shared by all Cerritos residents."

The recent council election, Fuentes said, is proof that residents are dissatisfied with the status quo. Fifteen candidates, including 12 challengers, ran for three council seats. While two incumbents, Diana S. Needham and Barry A. Rabbitt, were reelected, a newcomer that Fuentes campaigned for, Ann B. Joynt, also won. She was the second highest vote getter and became the first non-incumbent to win a council seat in six years.

"Challengers should get a great deal of credit because they put their money and reputations on the line," Fuentes said. "There is a faction in this city, a ruling class, that automatically brands you a troublemaker if you say anything negative about their solar-heated pools, parks or future. This is a good city. . . . but we do have problems."

Some, like Councilman Daniel K. Wong, have speculated that Fuentes is organizing the citizens group to pave the way for an eventual council run in 1988. Fuentes political pedigree is obvious. His father was a front-runner in the Democratic nomination for the 63rd Assembly District in 1976 when he died of a heart attack. And brother Chuck ran for the same Assembly seat two years ago but lost in the primary.

"People have the right to organize, but why in Cerritos?" Wong said. "This city has a national reputation. . . . This city is very responsive to its residents. I just wonder if Fuentes and the others aren't building name recognition."

Despite his family's legacy, Fuentes denies he is interested in elective office at this point.

"This is not a Chris Fuentes-wants-to-get-elected vehicle," he said. "I believe that if you care enough about where you live, get involved and change it. Don't simply stand on the sidelines and complain."

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