CERRITOS — To find clear distinctions among the City Council contestants in the April 12 election, voters must look beyond the political brochures spilling out of mailboxes.
The candidates' positions on the issues are much the same. Indeed, they often echo elections past, reflecting the self-satisfied prosperity of a community that perennially worries not about painful deficits or blight, but about getting a cable TV system.
When the nine contenders look at City Hall, they see either a soundly managed organization in need of little more than tinkering, or a chilly corporate structure more interested in image than humanity.
Yet, the candidates--ranging from a hair salon owner to a physician, and including trans-Pacific immigrants as well as natives of Southern California--have backgrounds that are considerably more diverse than their political promises.
Mayor Daniel Wong is the only incumbent in next month's election for two council seats. Two-term Councilman Donald Knabe has decided to turn his attention to running for the state Senate rather than another term on the council.
The candidates have varying degrees of political experience. Wong has been a councilman since 1978, when he won a seat in a special election. Perry Barit and Sherman Kappe are planning commissioners hoping to take the next step in local politics. George Marsh was a councilman in neighboring Bellflower before moving to Cerritos in 1984.
Faith Michaels Rizzotto is making her political debut. Paul Bowlen and Alan Ulrich ran in the last council election, finishing in the top half of a field of 15. Bernard Einson and Chris Fuentes are running for office for the first time, although Fuentes has worked in many campaigns and both have been involved with the same local citizens group.
On the topic of city government, Einson and Fuentes have the tartest tongues.
At a recent candidates' forum, Einson accused city leaders of having "fallen under the spell of out-of-town developers." A 67-year-old businessman who was a member of the local Redevelopment Agency in its early years, Einson on another occasion complained that "the council has been so involved with the plans of developers that they've bypassed the needs of the people."
He says the council needs to devote more attention to fostering programs for teen-agers, the elderly and children. He advocates increased sheriff patrols--Cerritos contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services--and wants to strengthen the anti-crime Neighborhood Watch program. And he argues that the occupants of City Hall have to become "human, caring, considerate."
Fuentes, 27, sounds similar themes, condemning local politicians and commissioners who have accepted contributions from developers. "I just think it's been a votes-for-sale mentality," charged Fuentes, who regularly attends council meetings and, just as regularly, attacks council actions.
City Hall, he contends, is ruled by a philosophy of "image over substance" that compels it to spend thousands of dollars on a gazebo for the local auto mall while neglecting park equipment. The city should spend its ample sales tax income on such projects as the construction of a senior citizen and teen-age activity building in Towne Center, giving young people some place to go besides the mall, he says.
Like virtually every other candidate, Fuentes also says the city needs to acknowledge that it is not immune to the gang and drug problems that trouble less affluent communities.
"I want a gang commission," says Fuentes, who works in political consulting and public relations but is devoting all of his time to campaigning. At latest count, the hefty candidate says he had shed about 40 pounds walking door-to-door in search of supporters.
Despite a bare-bones campaign budget, Bowlen finished fifth among 15 in the last council election, and he expects to keep his spending to no more than $4,000 this time around. What he lacks in campaign mailers, he makes up for in name recognition. He has taught at Cerritos High School since it opened 17 years ago and coached local youth athletic teams for an even longer period. When the high school football team competes at home, it is Bowlen's resonant voice that floats out of the loudspeaker, announcing the plays.
Rich as Cerritos is in parkland, Bowlen, 47, says youth teams are plagued by a shortage of playing fields, a situation the city needs to correct. The council also needs to work more closely with the ABC Unified School District board on youth issues, he says.