HUNTINGTON PARK — It took some of the venom out of the campaign for City Council when Councilman Herbert A. Hennes decided not to seek reelection, clearing the way for a Latino to win a seat for the first time in the city's history in next Tuesday's election.
But candidate Luis Hernandez will just not let the race for the three council seats be a tame, gentlemanly affair.
The 29-year-old financial analyst has been shocking some community members and pleasantly surprising others with his attacks on Councilmen William P. Cunningham and Jim Roberts for the city's financial problems.
"It is a failed venture on their part," Hernandez said during a recent candidates forum.
As a result, Cunningham, 50, and Roberts, 55, say they are campaigning more heavily than ever before. Theirs is mostly a defensive campaign because financial problems forced the city to lay off 25 employees and to make service cuts last October. Those cuts, combined with a planned $15-million bond issue, should keep the city out of financial straits, they contend.
"The city has resolved its financial condition," Roberts said. "I'm very hopeful and optimistic about its future."
Said Cunningham: "We've been through the downside, and I'd like to be here on the upside."
In contrast to Hernandez, candidate Raul Perez has not strongly criticized the incumbents. A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, Perez is stressing his ability to understand and communicate with Huntington Park's large Spanish-speaking population.
The 47-year-old loan officer says Latino representation on the council is essential, given the fact that the city's population is more than 90% Latino.
"Unity means strength and we need to get together and face (our) problems," Perez said.
The two Latinos are strong candidates while the third challenger, Alan Kartsman, a perennial candidate who has not been actively campaigning, is given little chance of winning. Kartsman did not return calls for comment.
Evidence of the race is everywhere in Huntington Park. Campaign signs have sprouted from lawns. Residents have received numerous mailers from the candidates in recent weeks. Local observers say the race is likely to end up as one of the closest ever.
Cunningham and Roberts have been trying to shore up their image in light of the city's financial problems in recent years.
Huntington Park's redevelopment program has contributed to those problems. The agency, which is governed by the five council members, fell too deeply into debt and was forced to borrow more than $15 million from the city's general fund.
The problem came to a head last October, when the city laid off the 25 workers, cut vacant positions and virtually eliminated recreational programs at two city parks. The city is trying to replace those programs with volunteer workers, Roberts said. New fees for tree trimming and other services also have been imposed on residents.
But Roberts and Cunningham counter that the redevelopment program has brought scores of new businesses and homes into the city, and that it has dramatically increased property values. They say the city's general fund money eventually will be paid back with future property tax revenues from the redevelopment program. Those revenues also are projected to cover payments on the $15-million bond issue, city officials said.
"We spent a good amount of general funds," Roberts said. "You could have seen that money as an investment in our community."
But Hernandez counters that the community would have been better served if the Redevelopment Agency had not overextended itself and drained city coffers of millions of dollars.
"Redevelopment, although successful in many respects, is a failure in this community," Hernandez said. "Had we had these monies . . . we would have had more police."
Hiring more police is something on which all the council candidates agree. Crime, especially gang-related crime, has been increasing in Huntington Park in recent years.
But again, Hernandez is at odds with the two incumbents and Perez on how to pay for more officers.
Cunningham, Roberts and Perez say they would support some type of tax--probably a utility tax--to pay for additional officers. A 7% utility tax to pay for more officers, among other things, was overwhelmingly defeated by voters last September.
Hernandez opposes a new tax but has not offered a specific plan to pay for the new police officers he would like to hire, if elected.
Latino civic leaders had been meeting for months to sort out which Latino candidates to back. The Latino civic leaders figured the city's financial problems would weaken the incumbents, providing the best chance ever for a Latino to be elected.
Among other complaints, council critics said that none of the city's nine top administrators are Latino, and just two of Huntington Park's 18 appointed commissioners are Latino.