BELLFLOWER — Mayor Mike Brassard surprised City Council members and drew gasps from the audience Monday night when he suggested placing a measure on the April ballot to establish a redevelopment agency.
For residents and business people who feared that the city would use its eminent domain powers to take away their property, redevelopment became a dead issue when a similar proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by voters in 1982.
The issue was an emotional one that divided residents and officials into pro- and anti-redevelopment factions and sparked bitter disputes among council members.
But Brassard, who is up for reelection in April, said the city needs redevelopment to boost sales tax revenue. He urged council members to once again put the issue to "a vote of the people."
"We need to encourage investment in Bellflower," Brassard said after an economic consultant had spoken at his request and recommended establishing a redevelopment agency. "I believe this could be a useful tool to help Bellflower compete with surrounding cities."
After the meeting, Councilman John Ansdell, who has vocally opposed redevelopment, said Brassard's comments were "a real shocker."
"It took me by surprise," Ansdell said. "I need to think about this."
One reason for the surprise was that Brassard, a Bellflower real estate agent, had supported the anti-redevelopment movement in 1982. He said he opposed that plan because it placed one-third of the 6.1-square-mile city in a redevelopment project.
Councilman Joseph Cvetko, who also said he opposes redevelopment, interrupted the mayor's presentation and asked City Atty. Maurice O'Shea whether Brassard had violated the Brown Act, the state's open-meetings law, which prohibits city councils and school boards from taking action on non-agenda items.
"This is out of line," Cvetko told the council. "I think the mayor's comments should be disregarded."
Brassard spoke on the issue, which was not on the council agenda, and passed out a written statement to city officials early in the meeting rather than at the end, when council members can bring up non-agenda issues. However, O'Shea said the Brown Act was not violated.
Asked later why he chose that time to bring up the issue, Brassard replied: "It just seemed like a good time. I thought it would be good to let as many people as possible know about this ahead of time."
Councilman Ken Cleveland, another Bellflower real estate agent and a strong supporter of redevelopment, speculated that Brassard wanted to make an impact.
"I really don't know what possesed him to do it," Cleveland said. "But I knew it was coming. I think the city is ready for redevelopment."
Foes 'Haven't Forgotten'
A few residents, including former Mayor James Earle Christo, who won office in 1982 on an anti-redevelopment slate, say the city will never be ready.
"The people haven't forgotten," Christo said. "They made their decision on this years ago. The idea (behind the referendum) was to ensure that no future council could bring redevelopment back."
Christo knows first-hand the friction that redevelopment caused among council members then.
One year after he, Ray O'Neal and Ansdell were elected, O'Neal accused Christo of being a publicity seeker and led a successful drive to have him ousted from his mayoral post. Christo then accused O'Neal of changing his mind on redevelopment and tried unsuccessfully to have him and Councilman Lee Walker recalled. Walker was a strong supporter of redevelopment.
Christo, who plans to run for one of two open City Council seats in April's election, said that if Brassard decides to seek reelection, his pro-redevelopment stance could tip the votes in Christo's favor.
"If they keep this up, I'm going to get elected quicker than I thought," Christo quipped after the meeting.
Brassard, who has not said whether he intends to seek another term, admitted that his redevelopment proposal could cost him political support. He said that if he does seek reelection, he is "going to have to knock on a lot of doors to explain my position."
Like many business owners, Brassard and Cleveland contend that residents made a mistake in voting against redevelopment.
"I went around and talked to a few people in the city--business people and people who worked against redevelopment previously when Christo was elected," Brassard said. "The feeling I got was that this is still a real hot item, but I think the support is there. People say, 'Go look at Hawaiian Gardens; look at Paramount and Cerritos. Look what's happening there and what's happening here--nothing.' "
While these nearby cities rely heavily on redevelopment to boost their economies, merchants along Bellflower's 1.5-mile downtown strip say they have suffered from the absence of redevelopment.
Once considered the commercial hub of the Southeast area, downtown Bellflower is now a hodgepodge of aging and sometimes vacant storefronts. Although many merchants pride themselves on offering personal service that is often lacking at shopping malls in Cerritos and Lakewood, David Ryal, manager of the Bellflower Chamber of Commerce, said they are not able to compete.
Redevelopment, Ryal says, is the only way to stimulate commercial activity and attract new businesses to the city.
"I think this is a good move," he said. "It shows the city's commitment to economic development, and it shows outside developers that the city is committed to growth."
Brassard and Cleveland concede that establishing a redevelopment agency will be a struggle. But with Councilman William Pendleton's support, Cleveland said, the proposal has the three votes needed to put it on the ballot.
"It won't happen overnight," Cleveland said. "But sooner or later, redevelopment will happen."