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Time to Reflect in San Gabriel

May 19, 1988

With the San Gabriel city election one month in the past, and the city building moratorium 5 months old, it seems a good time for reflection.

I supported the moratorium, not because I felt it was a perfectly constructed legal epistle, but because I believed something had to be done. In my neighborhood, most residents were concerned about the rapid growth of population density within the city, and were frustrated by the lack of consideration such views seemed to get from the City Council. Anyone who attended council meetings last year observed the widening gap between the homeowners and city government.

Concern over the negative impacts of population density on the day-to-day life within neighborhoods is widespread. There are scores of towns throughout the state where the public cry for preservation of neighborhood quality has taken a number of forms. One has only to read the newspaper to confirm this. Whole counties are trying to protect the very qualities that attracted home-buying families in the first place.

City governments, though, rarely initiate these "let's control growth" ideas. They are too caught up in the fiscal mechanics of growth, and developers are a persuasive group. "Slow growth" movements almost always arise from clusters of homeowners who see the quality of their life slipping away.

In some cases, the city government reacts quickly and firmly to address these concerns. In others, like San Gabriel, the city government has fought the controlled-growth concept tooth and nail.

When this occurs, incumbents may be quickly voted out of office and replaced by more sympathetic challengers from citizens groups. This happened in San Gabriel. The conflict of views between the "pro-growth" and "slow-growth" supporters is pretty much a developer/builder vs. homeowner contest.

When a city government takes sides, it is usually on the side of the developers. The homeowners' weapons are the petition and the ballot box. Both were used in San Gabriel, and these elemental democratic tools have put new faces on our City Council.

There has been much media attention paid to San Gabriel since the election. The main reason is that what has happened here may well foreshadow what will occur in other California cities. Experienced, established local politicians were replaced by "controlled-growth" challengers because the majority of voters here no longer felt represented by the incumbents.

San Gabriel's freshman councilmen were immediately presented with an emergency when they learned that the embattled city attorney, Graham Ritchie, resigned just before the new councilmen were sworn into office. They pressed forward with an emergency plan to install an interim city attorney, which was disquieting to many, and he has since been replaced.

An awkward transition period was probable, given the bitterness of the election. It was made certain by the fact that these new councilmen were elected with the mandate for a clear goal: to direct and slow the pace of growth in such a way as to preserve the quality of what we have, without sacrificing fiscal security. That, combined with the fact that city staff members loyal to the old administration may, at first, find it hard to work for a smooth transition, may have further increased the difficulty of the change.

In the long run, I think San Gabriel will be glad it made The Big Change of '88. But a high level of resident involvement and support will be important in directing this process. Each community must relearn that voter interest and input must not be limited to election time. When that input fades away, the gap between a city government and community views begins.


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