AZUSA — As two City Council candidates argued vehemently over who had wasted more city money, and a third candidate offered intermittent gibes, Councilman Bruce Latta asked Mayor Eugene Moses if the council meeting could return to more pertinent matters.
"Could we please get back to city business," asked Latta, Moses' only opponent in the April 12 election for mayor.
"This is city business," responded Moses. "Do you see anything here that isn't city business?"
After a month of relative calm, matters had regained their usual stridency at Monday night's council meeting. Charges of misconduct have been so common this election season that the city clerk called a meeting last month to plead for fair play in the races for mayor and two council seats.
Decorum returned at a candidates forum Tuesday night. Bitter adversaries the night before, Councilman James Cook and challenger Harry Stemrich joined others in saying the council desperately needs unity after years of infighting and backbiting.
On a council often rocked by monumental debates over minor issues, the need for unity seems to be the sole area of agreement.
But disagreement surfaces the minute council members start to talk about how to achieve unity.
For Moses and his backers, cohesiveness could come if incumbents Cook and Lucio D. Cruz are unseated. Cook and Cruz are generally allied with Latta to form the council majority. For Latta and his supporters, unity could be achieved if Moses is ousted from a post he has held for three two-year terms. The five other council candidates believe their selection would tip power away from both sides by providing a more independent vote.
"It could all change, or it could all stay the same," said Latta, who echoed Moses in saying the election offers an opportunity to upgrade the city's image. "We've become somewhat of a joke."
Moses, 54, a retired businessman, repeatedly asked voters at the forum to elect candidates who would not oppose his ideas. Moses said Latta, Cruz and Cook have stymied his efforts to refurbish the blighted downtown area and fulfill an old campaign pledge to make Azusa more competitive with surrounding cities.
"If you give me a council to work with, you'll see a lot more get done," Moses told voters.
Moses, Stemrich and candidate Tony Naranjo are running for the council on a slate backed by Azusans for a Better Community, a group that supports prudent city spending and controlled growth and claims a membership of 200. In running together, the three seek to bring a new majority into power.
"I can work with anyone," Moses said, "but they (Stemrich and Naranjo) are my preference."
Conflict between Moses and the majority came to a head in 1986, when Latta, Cruz and Cook voted for an ordinance that greatly curtailed the mayor's powers and barred him from using the employee refrigerator at City Hall. In January, Latta persuaded the council to rescind the ban, saying it caused friction at City Hall and gave Moses a campaign issue.
Moses complained that he usually faces three votes against most of his proposals.
"I'm fighting for what I believe in and what's best for the city of Azusa," he said. "Give me somebody I can work with."
By contrast, Latta said unity starts with the selection of the right mayor. Latta, who lost the 1984 mayor's race to Moses by a 2-to-1 margin, was reelected to another four-year council term in 1986 and will keep that seat if he is defeated for the mayoral job.
Latta, 37, an operations manager with the Los Angeles County Fair, has pledged to use town meetings to get residents more involved in city government.
"That's the kind of leadership that this city needs," he said. "Getting people together; working with them."
Latta has proposed a program under which members of the city staff, elected officials and citizens groups would meet to study issues such as development proposals, the future of Azusa Greens golf course and a proposed moratorium on the construction of apartments and condominiums.
'We Can Do Better'
The town meetings, Latta said, would bring government closer to the people and allow politicians to hear citizen concerns on important issues.
Latta is backed by United We Stand, a group seeking changes in city government and unhappy with Moses as mayor. The group was formed in January, according to Garry Whipple, the group's campaign coordinator.
"You look to the point man, and we are not pleased with the way the administration is going," he said. "We are not getting the leadership the city needs from Mayor Moses. We think we can do better."
Whipple said the group decided to endorse Latta after screening several candidates and deciding he had the best chance to oust Moses.
The group has not endorsed candidates for the two council seats. But Whipple said members think Councilmen Cook and Cruz and candidate Mike Falletta are the most qualified.