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CITY DIVIDED : La Canada Seeks Clear Direction

February 02, 1989|DREW SILVERN | Times Staff Writer

Nine months after a bitter election shattered 12 years of political calm in La Canada Flintridge, the city's leadership remains divided and has yet to set a clear direction.

While two freshmen councilmen say they are trying to pry open a closed political process and protect the affluent community's dominant residential character, they have yet to commit to a major agenda of their own.

"My only agenda is to open things up to the people," Councilman Chris Valente said recently, much as he did throughout last April's election in which he and challenger Ed Phelps defeated two longtime incumbents. "I just want an open thing. Let the people decide which way they want us to go. I don't want to be their leader. I want them to tell me what they want, and I'll just represent them."

Critics' View

Meanwhile, critics of Valente and Phelps--most vocal among them the two men they defeated--contend that they are avoiding such issues as redevelopment and that the delay is threatening the city's financial future.

"I detect the feeling," said former Mayor J. Bixby Smith, one of the two defeated councilmen, that many residents want to "build a wall around the city. The current council, while not building a wall, has certainly moved to a more reactive government. If it breaks, you fix it. But there is no forward planning."

With its expensive homes, model schools, low crime rate and $10-million reserve in the bank, La Canada Flintridge hardly looks like a community on the brink of ruin.

Yet City Manager Don Otterman warns that the city needs to find new sources of revenue to avoid "serious financial problems in the next four or five years." Furthermore, the $10-million reserve is no longer producing enough interest to balance the city's budget.

That is primarily because the city never levied a property tax and is blocked by Proposition 13 from claiming a share of the property taxes its residents pay to the county. The city is largely dependent on local sales taxes for its operating revenue.

In recent years, the city's budget has increased by more than 30%, far outstripping any increases in sales-tax revenue, Otterman said.

Before the April election, the old council was moving gingerly in the direction of a redevelopment project to brighten the city's upscale, but still rather dull, Foothill Boulevard business district. Had the council made an official declaration that the project was proceeding, it would have allowed the city to collect an estimated $70 million in increased property taxes over the next 40 years.

Increases in Property Taxes

When a city declares an area a redevelopment project, that move enables it to claim all the increases in property taxes in the area.

Nothing in their experience told the council members that the public would disapprove.

Since the city was incorporated in 1976, primarily to stave off threats that Pasadena and Glendale were planning to annex parts of the area, its 20,000 residents have shown little interest in local politics, seldom questioning the actions of the volunteer City Council and small city staff.

But that was changing. The public was becoming aroused apparently by a flurry of changes, including the installation of underground utility cables and revitalizing of medians on Foothill Boulevard.

"I think things were happening too fast," Otterman said.

The issue of change proved sensitive in La Canada Flintridge. And, not long before last year's election season, it got tangled up with an odd symbol, a historic house donated to the city by one of its founding families.

Deeded to the city by Lloyd Lanterman upon his death in January, 1987, the Lanterman house is a huge 73-year-old Craftsman-style structure packed with original furniture, historic photographs, hand-painted wall designs and a 60-year-old pipe organ.

At one point, Otterman proposed refurbishing the mansion as a combination museum and city hall to help ease the crunch at the city's increasingly crowded storefront offices on Foothill Boulevard.

Announcement of the proposal immediately drew the ire of neighborhood residents, particularly the younger, newer arrivals on Homewood Lane, a cul-de-sac of recently built homes in the million-dollar range adjacent to the Lanterman property.

"I've never really been very political at all in the past, but this has been a real learning process," said Ginny Collins, whose luxurious new house on Homewood Lane overlooks the Lanterman house.

'Has Been So Political'

"The whole thing has been so political," Collins said. "It's almost like the old La Canada against the new residents. Sometimes I think the people who have been here for years think they deserve more of a say than the newer residents."

Another Homewood resident was Phelps, who concluded after several public meetings on the proposal that the council was eager to move ahead without regard to the feelings of nearby residents.

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