ALHAMBRA — Barbara Messina will succeed her husband on the Alhambra City Council Dec. 1 after winning a narrow victory in Tuesday's election.
Voters also reelected two incumbent council members and retained the city utility tax.
Messina polled 5,823 votes, defeating Doug Peake, who drew 5,524 votes. The third candidate in the 2nd District race, James T. Richetts, received 3,217 votes.
Incumbents Michael Blanco in the 5th District and Mary Louise Bunker in the 1st District won reelection easily. Alhambra council candidates are nominated by district but run citywide.
Close Vote on Tax
The vote on repealing the 5% utility tax was close, with the outcome in doubt until final returns came in at 3 a.m. Wednesday. Returns showed 7,476 in favor of repealing the tax and 7,758 against.
Mark Lockman, who heads All We Can Afford, a taxpayers group that circulated petitions to put tax repeal on the ballot, said an all-out campaign against the repeal by city police and fire employees turned the election around.
Steve Perry, a police detective who was one of the leaders of the effort to keep the tax, said employees raised $12,000 to finance mailers, signs and other campaign efforts.
He said 45 police officers and firefighters walked door to-door while off-duty to warn residents that the loss of $2.7 million a year in revenue from the utility tax would have a drastic effect on police and fire services.
City Public Safety Director Joseph Molloy, who heads the police and fire departments, said repeal of the tax would have forced the city to shut down a fire station, lay off seven police officers, stop paying for school crossing guards and make numerous other cutbacks.
Lockman said Molloy's statements and the police-fire campaign "scared the hell out of voters."
He said his group's argument that growth in sales taxes and other revenue could offset repeal of the utility tax was drowned out by emotional appeals, including a claim that children would be killed if the city could not pay for school crossing guards.
No Scare Tactics
Molloy said policemen and firemen did not employ scare tactics, but persuaded voters with a realistic assessment of what would happen if the city lost what amounts to 15% of its general fund revenue.
He said the city's ability to provide adequate police and fire protection would have been impaired.
"This was not a money issue, not a job issue, but a quality-of-life issue," Molloy said.
Lockman said his group raised $5,000, but did not collect as much money as had been expected from businesses, which pay 60% of the tax. Many businessmen told the group that repeal of the utility tax would just lead to other taxes, he said.
Repeal Efforts to Continue
Lockman said efforts to secure repeal will continue, but that may not be necessary. All three newly elected council members said they favor phasing out the tax.
Blanco said the tax should be repealed for residential customers. Messina said she favors an immediate reduction for both businesses and residents. Bunker said she believes voters want the tax phased out but not abolished at the price of reduced city services.
Blanco, who had campaigned hard to elect Peake over Messina, said Messina's victory almost surely means that a new general plan now pending before the City Council will be approved.
The current plan envisions an ultimate Alhambra population of 120,000. The new general plan reduces the number of housing units that can be built, cutting the ultimate population to 93,000. Both Peake and Blanco wanted further limitations that would have kept the population near the current 71,304.
Blanco and Peake plastered the city with campaign signs that carried their names and the single phrase: "Stop condos." And they sought to portray Messina as an advocate of unchecked growth.
Messina said it is clear that voters are unhappy with the heavy development of condos.
"I have never said I am for rapid growth," she said. "I'm for sensible planning."
Peake's showing was remarkable, she said, considering that he was virtually unknown in the community when he entered the council race.
Peake, a teacher who has lived in Alhambra five years, said he, too, thought he did well to get more than 5,500 votes since "there probably weren't more than 25 people in town who knew who I was" when the campaign opened in July.
The centerpiece of Peake's campaign was an initiative effort to rezone all residential areas of the city to block construction of condominiums and apartments. The city clerk is checking initiative petitions submitted by Peake to determine whether the proposal will qualify for a special election ballot.
Peake said the initiative effort will continue despite his loss in the council race. "We will trudge forward,' he said.
Messina, 46, will take the seat held by her husband, Michael, who decided against seeking reelection. Michael Messina currently serves as mayor, office that is rotated among council members.
Blanco, a 37-year-old attorney, won his second term on the council, receiving 8,453 votes to finish ahead of Sonia E. McIntrosh with 2,307 votes, Joe Harrison with 1,891 votes and David S. Smith, with 1,379 votes.
Bunker, 62, a health educator and savings and loan director who generally has been allied with Blanco and against council members J. Parker Williams, Talmage V. Burke and Messina on residential development issues, got 8,637 votes. He defeated Ralph Gilliam with 3,821 votes and Stephen T. Hearn with 1,156.
Four minor amendments to the city charter passed easily, capturing from 65% to nearly 80% of the vote.
The amendments will allow the City Council to put urgency ordinances into effect immediately, enable the city to pool resources with other cities to obtain liability insurance, remove antiquated language from the city charter and shorten Civil Service Commission terms from four years to one.