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New Era Dawns for Lancaster City Council : Government: Observers predict more discussion and debate after the election of two outspoken activists to the panel.

April 24, 1994|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER — In the wake of a dramatic election, City Council meetings here--marked in recent years by a lack of public squabbling and a lot of unanimous votes--could move into a new era of more vocal debates and split votes.

On April 12, Lancaster voters removed two incumbents, including an eight-year council veteran, and replaced them with two outspoken activists supported by a homeowners coalition.

Council members Arnie Rodio and George Root, who fiercely defended the use of city funds to attract new retail stores, handed over their chairs last week to Michael Singer and Deborah Shelton, who campaigned against such incentives.

Voters returned to office one incumbent, the Rev. Henry Hearns, who has characterized himself as a peacemaker eager to hear all sides of an issue. Hearns may prove to be the swing vote if Singer and Shelton square off against council members Frank Roberts and George Runner, who also support retail incentives, but did not face reelection.

Longtime residents believe philosophical clashes almost certainly will erupt more often on the new council.

"I'm hoping we see a lot more healthy discussion," said Barbara Halley-Merritt, who has been involved in several council campaigns, including her own unsuccessful run for office this year.

She and other candidates charged that the previous council reached decisions as a group, then turned a deaf ear to community protests. That will almost certainly change now, she said.

"I think that all sides of each issue will be aired in public discussion," Halley-Merritt said. "I think Michael and Deborah will force that. I see it as a healthy trend, and I think people will welcome it."

Singer, 41, a county fire captain, and Shelton, 37, who runs an after-school help-line for latchkey children, are former presidents of the Lancaster Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations. The group, representing 23 homeowner associations and about 3,000 households, endorsed both.

In addition, small-business owners, outraged over the previous council's vote to subsidize a large new PetSmart store, supported Singer and Shelton. Small pet-shop owners, in particular, argued that the city was giving money to a large retail store that threatened their livelihood.

Incumbents Rodio and Root steadfastly defended their votes, saying PetSmart would generate far more than the subsidy in needed sales tax dollars. But after finishing fifth and sixth among 13 candidates, the councilmen insisted that the uproar over PetSmart cost them their seats.

Rodio, who helped found the city in 1977 and served eight years on the council, has no regrets. "Every vote that I made in the city of Lancaster I made from the heart, as something that was good for the city," he said.

But Shelton believes Rodio and Root were ousted because "they were not as responsive to the citizens as they should have been."

Shelton and Singer have vowed to vote against future subsidies to large retailers and have pledged to make the local governing process more open to the public.

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In addition, Singer has advocated unification of Palmdale and Lancaster. Shelton wants to eliminate the council's Monday morning meetings with city staff members, saying they are difficult for working residents to attend, and she wants to launch volunteer anti-graffiti patrols.

If a home-building boom resumes in Lancaster, the two will seek growth controls.

At present, however, Singer is uncertain how often he and Shelton will clash with the other three council members.

"At this point, there seems to be a great willingness to work together," he said. "We may see some 3-to-2 votes, particularly with regard to projects that are already in motion. But every indication from the sitting council persons is that they want to work toward the good of the city."

Even so, veteran council members point out that campaign promises cannot always be converted easily into public policy.

Root, a longtime activist for mobile-home residents who won a council seat four years ago, said he quickly learned how difficult it is to change a city's course.

"When I went in, I expected I could make things happen much quicker," he said. "While it appears there's a lot of money sometimes, there really isn't. Much of it is already obligated."

Root said Singer and Shelton must be prepared to compromise and must make sure their proposals are supported by a majority of the five council members. "One of the most important things they need to learn is how to count to three," he said.

But before she starts counting, Shelton said she must adjust to the dramatic leap from gadfly to decision-maker.

"I still feel like an outsider, not an insider," she said after her first meeting as a councilwoman. "That big desk is in front of you, and you're looking out at the audience . . . I felt separated from the public when I was up there."

Shelton said her greatest challenge will be to retain an outsider's perspective at City Hall.

"You get isolated from the citizens," she said. "You get surrounded by the bureaucracy and you become the bureaucracy. I have to find a way not to let that happen."

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