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City Hall News : EL MONTE : Police Try to Oust Mayor Who Opposed Beefing Up Force


El Monte police officers are going door-to-door in a citywide search for votes to oust the mayor in the April 12 election.

In a ballot with three candidates for mayor and six candidates for two seats on the five-member City Council (which includes the mayor), the crowded political agenda is dominated by the El Monte Police Officer's Assn.'s attempt to remove Mayor Patricia A. Wallach from office.

"An election campaign of intimidation and fear is being waged in this city by the police officers' association," said the embattled mayor. "People are scared to tell the police they can't put a sign (for Wallach's opponents) in their yard."

Of two slates for the three offices in El Monte, a city of 106,000 residents, one is endorsed and financially supported by the police union, which has donated $3,600 to the three candidates collectively, as well as untold hours of volunteer work.

The other slate consists of Wallach and two of her supporters.

Caught in the middle is Councilman Ernest G. Gutierrez, who is bidding to become El Monte's first Latino mayor.

The power struggle between Wallach and the association stems from the mayor's opposition last year to hiring 10 more police officers and to raising the utility tax from 3% to 7% to maintain the public safety budget. Both measures were approved by the council.

"Mayor Wallach has consistently voted against public safety," said George Hopkins, association president. He said the mayor knew the city had among the lowest number of police officers for its population in the state when she rejected an increase in officers last year.

The police association maintains that the average Police Department in California communities has 1.7 to 2.2 officers per 1,000 residents, and El Monte has barely 1 officer per 1,000. City officials consider the figures valid.

The association is campaigning for mayoral challenger Terry Keenan, 53, a sheriff's deputy and vice chairman of the planning commission, who deems himself a law-and-order candidate. "The city is like most cities in tight financial straits, but we've got to have safe streets," Keenan said. He said that he will try to unify the divided council and that although he is backed by the police, they will get no favors from him.

Running with Keenan are council incumbents Marie F. Avila and Jack Thurston. Both council members voted for the tax hike and for increasing the number of officers.

"It's like the tail wagging the dog," said Wallach, contending that police officers are trying to run City Hall instead of the other way around.

Last year, the association paid for a billboard proclaiming that Wallach was endangering public safety and for a newspaper advertisement seeking candidates to challenge her.

Wallach said she wants a utility tax for public safety put on the ballot. She did not vote for extra police officers because the city cannot afford them, she said.

The mayor's slate includes civil engineer Gregory B. Griffith and planning commission Chairman George Williams.

Here is a look at the mayoral race:

* Gutierrez, 59, is a three-term councilman and school administrator. He favors a balanced budget, attracting major retail stores, and cutting the number of liquor licenses, to make El Monte safer.

* Keenan, 53, is a 25-year sheriff's deputy, planning commissioner and 33-year resident. He promises tougher law enforcement and more city planning, and to attract businesses. He hosts a cable television show.

* Wallach, 56, is a school instruction aide in a local school district and a nine-year local school board member. She vows to oppose additional taxes, favor growth projects and bring accountability to City Hall. Her husband, Edwin, is on the Mountain View school board, which includes El Monte.

These are the council candidates:

* Avila, 68, an incumbent, is ex-president of the local school board. She says police and fire protection are her top priorities, along with improving El Monte's image.

* Arthur G. Barrios, 43, is a barber and parks and recreation commissioner. A 23-year resident, he promises to oppose the utility tax and higher license fees and be independent of political fights.

* Donato (Don) Garcia, 31, is a manager at the county executive's office. He is a lifelong resident who favors revitalizing the Valley Mall, attracting large retailers and building a rock 'n' roll theme park based on the city's role in its history. Garcia, an independent, maintains that Ritchie Valens and many other well-known early rock 'n' roll artists performed frequently in El Monte.

* Griffith, 37, is a civil engineer born and raised in the city. He opposes the utility tax, saying it is an obstacle to attracting new businesses.

* Thurston, 58, an incumbent, is general manager of a West Covina drapery store. He promises safer streets with a stronger law enforcement program, vows to fight the city bureaucracy and says he favors no new taxes.

* Williams, 47, is a carpenters union representative and chairman of the planning commission. He vows to seek new revenue sources other than taxes.

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