SAN GABRIEL — It has been going on for a year now, like a marathon fencing match. Thrust, counterthrust, parry. With legal actions, ballot measures and quantities of blame and derision as their weapons, City Council and Citizens for Responsible Development have been slicing heatedly at each other's ideas about running the city.
Now, there finally is a chance for a clear-cut winner to emerge in this fiscally troubled city. With three of five council seats up for grabs, the April 12 election could produce a new majority from the ranks of the slow-growth citizens group.
"It's probably the hottest election in the San Gabriel Valley," says Frank Blaszcak, one City Council candidate, despite some evidence that the campaign has yet to stir large numbers of voters.
Pounding away at the current council's support for a controversial hotel project and its resistance to a one-year moratorium on development, the Citizens for Responsible Development (CFRD) has endorsed a three-man slate from its own ranks to oppose the incumbents. A candidate endorsed by the citizens group has also weighed in against the city treasurer, and, complicating the council election, Arthur Almaguer is running for council as an independent.
The rancorous campaign has ranged all across the San Gabriel landscape in scattershot fashion, covering everything from the response time of local ambulances to the amount of toilet paper in restrooms at San Gabriel High School.
"The City Council is basically out of control," says challenger James Castaneda, a highway contractor. "They're making it up as they go along."
Though the headlong pace of development in the city in recent years has been the subject of countless confrontations at council meetings, the issue is not as clearly drawn in the election. The three incumbents--Jeanne Parrish, Edward Lara and Michael Falabrino--have sought to appropriate the slow-growth position as their own.
"To look at some of their election material, you'd think they were charter members of our group," sniffed a skeptical Greg O'Sullivan, chairman of the citizens group.
But the incumbents point to measures adopted by the council as early as November, 1986, before the formation of Citizens for Responsible Development, placing restrictions on multi-unit apartment buildings.
"We were the first to do something to decrease the density when we saw what was happening in our city," said Councilman Sabino Cici, a point man of sorts for the three incumbents, although he is not up for reelection.
Falabrino, an investor who has been on the council for 24 years, supports placing an annual cap on the number of residential units that could be built. But he objects to existing restrictions--a result of the one-year moratorium approved by the voters last December--on commercial development at a time when the city is facing deficits.
The city, which has lost four large businesses and a major share of its sales tax revenue in the past two years, will dip into reserves this year to cover a budget gap of $250,000, said City Administrator Robert Clute. Next year, the deficit is expected to extend to $350,000.
"They (the citizens group) have authored a moratorium that is very, very restrictive," said Falabrino.
But the challengers backed by the citizens groups--Castaneda, John Tapp and Blaszcak--contend that their adversaries are Johnnys-come-lately to the slow-growth cause.
Playing 'Simon Says'
"There's a game of 'Simon Says' being played in the city," said Blaszcak, a county public information officer. "It appears that we, the CFRD candidates, are Simon. Whatever we do, the City Council does."
The citizens group contends that council-imposed development restrictions have done nothing to slow the pace of growth in the city. For example, within four months of a council-approved measure to tighten the requirements for multiunit construction in January, 1987, the city approved building applications for 180 apartment units.
"Actions speak louder than words," O'Sullivan said.
A random check with voters this week showed only desultory interest in the campaign, which also pits incumbent treasurer Helen Achilles against the Citizens for Responsible Development-endorsed John Janosik.
"If it doesn't hit television or the radio, I don't pay much attention," said David Sanchez as he watered his lawn on El Monte Street.
"The only thing that has stirred any interest is the moratorium," said Doug Brown, who lives on California Street. "I go along with that. I can imagine what it must feel like to spend 30 years paying for a house, then having somebody build a big three-story building next door."