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Wide-Open Council Race Boils Down to Battle of Business Leaders, Activists : Election: Ten candidates are running for three seats on the City Council. There is only one incumbent.

March 12, 1992|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WHITTIER — A struggle for control of the City Council pits longtime business leaders in a wide-open election against activists who want to preserve unspoiled hillsides and neighborhoods of single-family homes.

Voters will choose from 10 candidates to fill three of five council seats April 14 in an election that could reshape Whittier's power structure and the city itself.

Only one-term incumbent Robert F. Woehrmann seeks reelection. Mayor Thomas K. Sawyer and Councilman Myron P. Claxton are retiring. Woehrmann, a prosperous businessman with a record of service in charitable organizations, typifies the leaders who have directed Whittier's course for the past 40 years. Candidates Lee Strong and Larry Haendiges boast similar credentials. But such candidates are no longer shoo-ins.

In the four years since Woehrmann joined the council, local activists have grown in number and strength. They formed organizations such as the Whittier Conservancy and Friends of the Whittier Hills, and mounted efforts to save historic buildings, oppose apartment construction in neighborhoods of single-family homes and prevent development of the hillsides that stretch north and east of this town of more than 77,000.

Support from preservation groups was instrumental in the 1990 election, when Bob Henderson and Helen McKenna-Rahder won council seats. The 1992 election could bring a preservationist majority if either Michael Sullens or Allan Zolnekoff win seats. The result would be a city government concerned with enhancing the quality of life by placing strict limits on development, supporters say.

A third group of candidates hopes to slip into office while the two main factions grapple. Candidates include Charles Burt, Scot Connolly, Walt Dinger, Joe Marsico and Eugene Orrico.

However, the preservationists seem poised to start a City Hall revolution, which worries Woehrmann.

"It's the first time in my 37 years here I've seen a special-interest group attempt to acquire control of the City Council," Woehrmann said.

In their efforts to preserve hillsides, old buildings and houses, preservationists are willing to restrict the rights of property owners and stagnate economic growth, he said.

The election winners will join Henderson and McKenna-Rahder on the council. The two have lost many 3-to-2 votes while opposing apartment complexes and strip malls on the grounds that the projects were either low quality or did not fit into existing neighborhoods. They also spearheaded a last-minute attempt to save the historic Whittier Theatre, damaged and vacant since the 1987 Whittier earthquake. The theater was demolished last year.

Henderson and McKenna-Rahder have endorsed no candidates, but would like to work with a like-minded council member. "I'm not pursuing a third council vote to take over the town," McKenna-Rahder said. But "we have an opportunity to put the brakes on some poor decisions."

Members of preservation groups say their biggest battle looms ahead: the struggle over the future of 4,000 undeveloped acres of hillside stretching north and east of town.

Although most of the land is privately owned, residents for years have climbed past the No Trespassing signs to hike through a carpet of mustard flowers, sagebrush and dried grasses to explore sandstone caves and glimpse deer and bobcats.

Major landholders, including Chevron USA, are planning to build homes in the canyons.

Preservationists want the hills to become a regional wilderness park. Much of the territory is unincorporated county land, which will hinder any Whittier attempts to influence what happens. But preservationists say they need council members who will make saving the hills a top priority and take the battle to the County Board of Supervisors if necessary.

The preservation groups do not officially endorse candidates, but many members are campaigning for Sullens and Zolnekoff. Both are officeholders in the Whittier Conservancy. They were undisputed crowd favorites at a recent candidates' forum sponsored by Friends of the Whittier Hills.

"Our hills are threatened with total destruction," said Sullens, who owns a flooring company. "The hills must be preserved."

Zolnekoff sounded a similar theme. Both also hope to win votes on the issue of neighborhood preservation.

"The neighborhood was there first, and any development that comes into a neighborhood should fit the neighborhood first and not the other way around," Zolnekoff said at the recent forum.

Sullens and Zolnekoff, an accountant with Southern California Edison Co., resist being labeled no-growth candidates. They say they support quality growth. They also discuss reducing crime and gang problems and bringing new businesses into struggling commercial areas.

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