MONTEBELLO — A new citizens group led by former City Councilman William M. Molinari is stirring up City Hall.
The group, South Montebello Area Residents Together (SMART), was formed earlier this year as a neighborhood improvement association to tackle such issues as reducing crime and improving youth programs south of Whittier Boulevard, organizers said.
But for now, SMART is waging a growing campaign against a proposal to give the city Redevelopment Agency the power of eminent domain in two areas of South Montebello.
Hundreds of Signatures
The group has collected hundreds of signatures in opposition to the proposal. And at Monday night's council meeting, about 50 SMART members showed up to watch their leaders lash out at the council for not consulting with them on the proposal.
SMART contends the proposal could have a devastating effect by bringing more industry into neighborhoods without properly buffering residents from increased traffic, noise and air pollution--which could eventually force people from their homes.
City officials are listening.
Councilman Art Payan asked the City Council to form a citizens committee to provide public comment as the city moves forward on the eminent domain plan.
"There's not sufficient input from citizens south of Whittier Boulevard," Payan said.
The council is to decide whether to form the citizens committee at its next meeting. The city also has scheduled seven town meetings next month to explain the controversial proposal.
"Public input on that (eminent domain) is critical," Mayor Arnold M. Glasman said in an interview. "One of the most difficult tasks is gauging the minds of the community. SMART assists that informational dialogue."
But while officials are acknowledging SMART's growing strength, they are also a bit wary. City officials say the group may be using scare tactics to generate opposition to the eminent domain plan.
Councilwoman Kathy Salazar said she has received reports that SMART members told area residents their single-family, owner-occupied homes may be taken through eminent domain. The City Council has said the plan they will consider would exempt owner-occupied homes from eminent domain. That plan will not come before the City Council for final approval at least until October.
"I have a very difficult time with accepting the scare tactics that have been used," Salazar said. "I can understand a community group getting together, but not if it's going to be used in a negative way."
Molinari, a veteran community activist and SMART chairman, said the reports are an attempt to discredit a group that is challenging a city plan. Molinari said members have tried to accurately inform residents how they would be affected by eminent domain, which includes increased traffic and other problems associated with development.
"We have never made any attempt to do that (mislead residents)," Molinari said. Why would we be deceitful with people we have to live with. What we're talking about is making sure people understand all the aspects of eminent domain."
Molinari, who lost his bid for reelection to the City Council last November, said he first began discussing the formation of the South Montebello group last January. But the group did not actively begin recruiting members until May. SMART claims about 400 adult members, including 30 who signed up last week, Molinari said. Membership costs $10, a fee the group says will be used only to pay for operating expenses, including SMART's newsletter.
The group has been increasing its visibility in the community in the past few months. It held its first general membership meeting in July. Molinari said it was attended by about 300 people. SMART has been distributing balloons carrying the group's name at city events.
At a recent board of directors meeting at Molinari's South Montebello home, about 15 directors and members discussed the problems facing their neighborhoods and the goals of the group. SMART is a nonprofit neighborhood association, Molinari said.
They talked about large problems such as improving the area's police and fire protection, and of fighting against drug use and gang presence in South Montebello.
They spoke of improving the general appearance of Montebello by organizing youths to paint over graffiti, cleaning up litter and lighting dark alleys.
The SMART directors glowed over a small triumph: the council last month expanded the activities program in Holifield Park in South Montebello after a member complained. The city anticipated expanding services at the park, but the input from the SMART member helped expedite the expansion, said Al King, director of parks and recreation.