MONTEBELLO — Registered voters are coveted and courted these days outside a Ralphs market on Whittier Boulevard.
Activist Larry Salazar asked a shopper to sign petitions aimed at recalling City Council members Arnold M. Glasman, William Nighswonger, Art Payan and Kathy Salazar (who is not related to the activist). "They're not interested in listening to the people," he told the shopper.
But supporters of the council members did not let that pass. "You should go (to a council meeting). You'd learn firsthand," said passer-by Maria Rodriguez, who assured the shopper that the targeted politicians are sensitive to residents.
The shopper walked away without signing Salazar's petition, saying she needed to consider the matter further.
Decision Polarized Activists
Community activists seldom have been as polarized in Montebello as they are now over a Nov. 28 decision by the council majority to give the city's Redevelopment Agency condemnation power to spur redevelopment in two areas of South Montebello.
Just a few weeks ago, the South Montebello Area Residents Together group used the same parking lot to gather signatures for a successful petition drive that prompted the City Council last week to schedule a special election. Voters will decide the eminent domain issue May 2. In the meantime, the two eminent domain ordinances have been suspended.
"With all of the controversy that's taken place, . . . I want the people to decide," Payan said last week.
Both sides say the city's future is at stake, but they could not disagree more over how the condemnation power would affect that future.
The four council members, most of their supporters and city staff members said the measures would give the city the tools it needs to attract modern, cleaner industry and business that would provide tax revenue needed to pay for adequate public services, including police and fire protection.
Residents Together and a recently formed coalition of businessmen and residents called Montebello Cares oppose the ordinances.
Residents said the use of eminent domain would make their neighborhoods unbearable because the city has not planned properly to protect them from increased traffic, noise and pollution that would result from increased development.
Businessmen who belong to Montebello Cares said it could be financially devastating and unfair if they are forced to give up property so another business can move in, even if that business would provide more revenue for city government.
Zones Mostly Industrial
The two redevelopment zones, which cover about 620 acres, are mostly industrial, with some commercial businesses and spots of residential areas. In some cases, homes abut such industrial operations as truck yards. Modern buildings are mixed with aging industrial and residential structures.
Recall proponents said they have long been dissatisfied with the four council members, but the issue of eminent domain triggered the drive.
But many Montebello residents seem to be split on the recall and eminent domain issues.
Some members of Residents Together, such as Larry Salazar, are participating in the recall bid organized by activist Shirley Garcia, also a member of the group. Others have chosen to work only on the campaign to invalidate the eminent domain ordinances.
On the other side, prominent local developer Phillip Pace has joined anti-recall forces, while strongly opposing the use of eminent domain for redevelopment. "They're two completely separate issues," he said.
At first, the eminent domain foes consisted almost entirely of residents of South Montebello. But recently, business owners in the affected areas joined the fray. They supplied most of a $95,000 legal war chest for Montebello Cares, the recently formed coalition of Montebello business people and residents.
The group has sued in a bid to block the eminent domain ordinances even if the city's voters do not strike them down May 2.
"In 30 years, this has probably been the most intense issue," said Councilman Edward C. Pizzorno, who opposes the bid to give the redevelopment agency condemnation power and is the only council member not targeted for recall.
Forces both for and against using eminent domain have not completed plans, but they have pledged strong campaigns that could rival those waged for City Council seats.
Councilwoman Salazar, the council's most vocal advocate of the ordinances, said she will do "whatever it takes" to get voter approval.
Raymond Broguiere, chairman of Montebello Cares and a member of Residents Together, said he was busy last week arranging for posters to be made to urge a vote against the eminent domain measures. He said eminent domain foes will put out flyers describing their position and may hire an election consultant.
More than 60 people, mostly businessmen, have contributed to the Montebello Cares legal fund, said Broguiere, who owns Montebello Sanitary Dairy.