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ELECTIONS WHITTIER CITY COUNCIL : Quake's Effects Hit Politics as Candidates Make It Issue


WHITTIER — Shock waves from the earthquake that jolted this quiet, conservative city in 1987 are still being felt by the 10 candidates running for council seats in next Tuesday's election.

Most of the candidates said that the Administration has botched the job of rebuilding the city, and is unresponsive to residents. They are competing for two seats on the five-member council.

Gene Chandler, 66, who is seeking his third term, is the only incumbent running for reelection. Mayor Victor Lopez, on the council 12 years, is retiring. The other candidates are Bob Henderson, an insurance broker who was a councilman from 1976 to 1984; Helen McKenna Rahder, 38, a teacher and local activist who rose to local prominence during a fight to save the Whittier Theater; Fred Bergerson, 48, a political science professor at Whittier College; David Todd, 50, a savings and loan executive; Francois Pellissier, a real estate appraiser and member of the Whittier Planning Commission; Thomas Barnes, a private investigator; Vicky Kroes, 39, a repairwoman; Donald Hawkins, an electrician, and Joseph Marsico, a Whittier resident who is making his sixth attempt at a council seat.

In a city where elections generally pass unnoticed, this campaign has been the hottest in recent memory because some candidates say its outcome will determine whether Whittier will remain the quaint town with Quaker roots, or become just another Los Angeles suburb with too many gas stations and strip malls.

Candidates have presented their criticism and plans for Whittier during at least five different debates, signs proliferate throughout the city, some candidates are broadcasting commercials on the local cable television stations, and nearly all are taking potshots at the current City Council. Most candidates have limited spending to $5,000, though, according to campaign expenditure statements, Henderson has spent about $15,000 on mailers, signs and newspaper ads and commercials in his bid to be reelected.

Though all 10 candidates said they want to preserve Whittier's character, they disagree on how it should be done. A lopsided division among the candidates has emerged: eight candidates who champion slow-growth, more historic preservation, and the preservation of the La Puente Hills, and two candidates who want careful development to bring more goods and services into Whittier without compromising the small-town atmosphere.

Todd, who is viewed by some of the slow-growth candidates as a member of the Establishment, said that despite differences between the two camps, the goals are the same.

"How we achieve those goals is the issue," he said. "Everyone agrees we need to have quality, attractive development. Nobody questions that we need to have more owner-occupied homes. Everyone wants to figure out a way to allow apartment buildings to exist compatibly in neighborhoods with single-family homes. But do we continue to change cautiously and carefully or do we go through with a meat ax?" Whittier residents, Todd said, want a cautious change.

"This community has met change with progress, but progress on an evolutionary basis, not a revolutionary basis," he said. "We don't make sharp left and right turns in direction."

But other candidates said residents are disgusted with the city's policies, evolutionary or not. They said the policies are outdated, and based on the philosophy that the development means business and all business is good. The problem, some candidates said, is that not all business is good when it creates increased density, traffic and pollution. These candidates said it is time for the council to sit down and do some long-range planning for Whittier.

"This is a special town, but it cannot be isolated from the outside world," said candidate Bergerson. "The earthquake forced the city to face reality. If it chooses to ignore it, then this wonderful groove can become a rut."

Henderson said if the council continues in the same direction, Whittier's charm will be lost.

"We are losing the ideals that make Whittier unique," he said. "People came here because they were reminded of the Midwest. We are now losing that special touch. There has been a proliferation of apartments and strip malls, and the council has been unable to find a way to decide where its priorities are. "

Part of the problem, said the camp of eight candidates, is that the council refuses to listen to the residents it is supposed to represent. Instead, it indulges in its own whims without a word of explanation to residents, they said.

The council's passage of an ordinance banning assault weapons last year, and its more recent refusal to consider buying and renovating the historic Whittier Theater are most often pointed to as examples of what candidates said is the council's arrogant attitude that it knows better than the residents.

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