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Slow Growth Is Off to Slow Start in San Gabriel

July 24, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

SAN GABRIEL — Three months ago, a new era appeared to have dawned in this garrulous little city of neat one-family homes and bustling commercial strips. After a hotly fought election, three new "slow-growth" councilmen were sworn in, and a fourth was appointed to fill a vacancy. All of them were committed to halting the unruly proliferation of condominiums and strip malls that have begun to clutter once-tranquil neighborhoods.

San Gabriel was one city, everybody said, where slow growth had won.

But things kept going wrong. The newly elected councilmen were barely in office 30 minutes when some of their own supporters were accusing them of violating the Brown Act, which prohibits a quorum of elected officials from meeting in private. That was after they had whisked in a surprise "transition team"--a lawyer and a consultant, both with ties to development-minded Irwindale--with no public discussion.

Since then, James Castaneda, Frank Blaszcak and Mayor John Tapp have been slow in revising the city's General Plan (the "road map" for development in the city, as one councilman described it), stumbled over a $640,000 budget deficit and lapsed into petulant squabbles among themselves. Some former supporters from the grass-roots Citizens for Responsible Development have even accused them of abandoning their slow-growth principles.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 31, 1988 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 2 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in the July 24 San Gabriel Valley section incorrectly said San Gabriel City Councilman Frank Blaszcak had made unauthorized late-night visits to City Hall. The visits were authorized, City Administrator Robert Clute said. The story also referred to Blaszcak's office as being in Los Angeles; it is in Whittier. And the City Council has not established an architectural review committee; such action is being considered.

"They always fight like cats and dogs down there," said one elderly voter, pushing an antiquated motorized lawn mower in front of his Grand Avenue home, as the late afternoon sun danced over rose-colored blossoms on a row of crepe myrtle trees nearby. "Let 'em strangle themselves. Give them enough rope and they'll do it."

The councilmen themselves say their current difficulties were inevitable. "When you go from a campaign mode to a policy mode, your perspective changes," Tapp said. "It's not like you wave a magic wand and things happen. There's a process of government that exists."

And critics concede that some major difficulties, such as the budget gap, are not of the present council's doing.

Nevertheless, progress in this beleaguered city of 33,000, tucked among Alhambra, Rosemead and San Marino, has been slow in coming. "Given the lack of experience of the three new councilmen, things are not proceeding as quickly as we would have hoped," said Greg O'Sullivan, chairman of Citizens for Responsible Development, which supported the new councilmen in the April election.

As a longtime member of the Planning Commission, Councilman Ted Anderson, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in May, has considerably more experience than Tapp, Blaszcak and Castaneda. Councilman Sabino Cici is the only holdover from the previous council.

"One thing you can say, though, is that they all truly support the platform on which they ran," O'Sullivan added. "In time, hopefully, their personalities will mesh."

One sign of increasing frustration has been the heated debate over Blaszcak's city-financed car telephone. Depending on whom you talk to, the phone is either a petty detail or a symbol of the kind of political arrogance that, critics contend, voters thought they were putting behind them in the April election.

Blaszcak says he needs the telephone to conduct city business. As a public affairs director for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, Blaszcak is prohibited from making personal calls from his office, he said. The car telephone, for which he has billed the city $2,100, is portable, allowing him to make calls not only from his Mercedes-Benz or his pickup truck but from his Los Angeles office as well.

Two weeks ago, the council voted to require its approval for personal expenses exceeding $200, and last week the council grudgingly authorized payment for Blaszcak's phone.

"It's an embarrassment," said Cici, who has joined Tapp in criti cizing Blaszcak. "We're being ridiculed by other cities."

Tapp said that two weeks ago, he was the target of considerable ribbing from other officials attending a conference of the Independent Cities Assn., an alliance of Southern California municipalities. "A lot of people were wondering why a small city like us needed a sophisticated communications system for a councilman," he said.

The phone flap was followed last week by a spat about Castaneda's expenses at a San Diego conference. The city paid $610 for registration, fees, meal tickets and two nights at the Rancho Bernardo Hotel so Castaneda could attend the annual conference of the Independent Cities Assn. two weeks ago. Critics say the money was wasted, charging that Castaneda did not attend.

Didn't See Colleague

Castaneda insists that he attended one day of the three-day conference, although Tapp, who was also at the conference, said he did not see his colleague.

Meanwhile, other city business lumbers along.

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