Although voters statewide rejected major environmental measures, a slate of five Sierra Club-backed candidates swept to victory Tuesday in the San Gabriel Valley, winning seats in three water districts where severe ground-water pollution fired a lively campaign debate.
In addition, voters in four western San Gabriel Valley cities elected the first Asian to the board of the Alhambra City and High School Districts, which serve an area increasingly populated with new immigrants from Asia. Monterey Park businesswoman Sophie C. Wong, 53, attributed her victory partly to the use of absentee ballots written in Chinese and English and sent to targeted Asian households.
And voters in two of the San Gabriel Valley's safest cities, San Marino and La Verne, overwhelmingly approved an increase in local taxes to help pay for police, fire and paramedic services.
The victory of environmental candidates in water district races, where 16 candidates sought six seats, irritated some ousted incumbents and members of the San Gabriel Valley water establishment.
"The Sierra Club put on a good campaign," said Robert H. Nicholson Jr., 57, a water company executive who was defeated in his reelection bid to the board of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. "But I'm not sure their interests are in line with the people of the San Gabriel Valley."
But Cal State Fullerton faculty member and El Monte resident Anthony R. Fellow, who beat Nicholson by winning 53.9% of the vote, said he and other environmentalists now can make significant changes in speeding the region's cleanup efforts.
"People know the water quality in this district is not good . . . and that's why Nicholson was defeated," said Fellow, 40.
Likewise, Azusa's Carol A. Montano said her victory over Donald F. Clark, a pillar of the water establishment since the early 1960s, signaled the public's desire for more decisive action on water pollution, which has worried residents since cancer-causing chemicals were discovered in 1979.
Montano, 43, citing a voter mandate throughout the San Gabriel Valley, said: "Water quality is the real important issue, and it can't be ignored." She blamed local water officials for failing to cope adequately with the issue.
Montano will replace Clark, 66, on the five-member San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which serves Azusa, Sierra Madre, Alhambra and Monterey Park.
Also backed by environmentalists, El Monte attorney Marvin Joe Cichy, 50, defeated Baldwin Park incumbent Alfred R. Wittig, 67, and three others for a seat on the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, thus giving environmentalists control of that five-member board.
Wittig, a 10-year board member who was kept from campaigning due to an extended hospital stay that recently ended, said: "I wish I had used the word environmentalist to describe me in the campaign. I actually was the environmentalist on that board."
In the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, environmentalists backed two incumbents, Muriel F. O'Brien, 68, of Claremont and Paul E. Stiglich, 38, of Diamond Bar, who won easy victories. Three Valleys Board Chairman William H. Koch, 71, defeated Nolie E. Glover, 64, in a landslide race in which environmentalists had taken no position.
The environmentalists' victories are just the beginning, according to Wil Baca, a Hacienda Heights environmental activist involved in the campaigns, which stretched from El Monte to Diamond Bar.
"From now on, every water board seat in the San Gabriel Valley is going to be contested," he said. "We have turned the water board seats into something meaningful for the public."
In other local races, Dora Padilla, 56, led the field of five candidates seeking two seats in the Alhambra City and High School Districts. Padilla received 15,874 votes, or 35.5%.
Wong will also join the five-member board.
Wong will replace Charles C. Scanlon, who did not run for reelection. Wong received 10,564 votes, or 23.6%.
Trailing her were Jeff Schwartz, with 7,949, or 17.8%; Ronald Hirosawa, 7,623, or 17.1%, and Charles C. Ling, 2,669, or 6%.
There are 20,000 students in the districts, which cover 13 elementary schools, three high schools and one continuation school. The districts cover all of Alhambra, and parts of Monterey Park, Rosemead, and San Gabriel.
Wong said she received support from Asian voters, especially after her campaign mailed 7,200 absentee ballots written in Chinese and English to Asian households. Forty-seven percent of the districts' students are of Asian descent.
For the second time in four years, Alhambra Councilman Michael A. Blanco easily beat Sonia McIntosh, a homemaker, in a low-key race for the 5th District post that serves the western part of the city. Blanco, a 41-year-old attorney, received 7,219 votes, or 64.7%, and McIntosh, 3,935, or 35.3%