LANCASTER — Voters in this high-desert city must decide Tuesday whether to remake almost their entire city government or to endorse the status quo.
Candidates aligned in two camps with widely divergent views over how to handle the city's explosive growth--whether to encourage or restrain it--are contesting four of the five council seats, including the mayor's position.
In the most high-profile contest, incumbent Mayor Frank Roberts is facing off against political rival and fellow council member Michael Singer, each candidate the unofficial leader of rival factions in the city's political and commercial life.
Incumbents Henry Hearns and Deborah Shelton will try to hold off bids by two challengers in a race for two council seats with four-year terms. Hearns, a minister, and challenger Michelle Idleman, a gang prevention officer, are loosely allied with Roberts. Shelton and the other challenger, businessman George Salas, are tied to Singer.
Also, five candidates are vying for the council seat with a two-year term.
The one-time-only election for the two-year seat was part of an ordinance adopted by the council that made the mayor's job an individually elected position. Before that, as in many smaller California cities, the five council members elected the mayor each year from among themselves.
The candidates for the two-year seat are businessman Marvin Crist, aerospace worker Andrew Visokey, retired administrator George Root, college instructor Walter Briggs and Rich Brown, a recording studio president.
Councilman Jim Jeffra has two years remaining on his term.
City officials said they were expecting a slightly higher voter turnout this year than in the 1996 and 1994 elections, in which 20% and 23% of eligible voters respectively cast ballots.
As Lancaster continues to recover from the downturn in the aerospace industry in the early
1990s that sent the housing market and much of the local economy into a steep decline, politics in the city of roughly 125,000 residents has centered around two groups with different ideas about how to manage civic resources.
Local attorney and Antelope Valley native R. Rex Parris said that Lancaster residents are still getting used to the tremendous growth of the city in the 1980s.
"It was like one day you went to the store and you knew everybody you saw and the next day you went back and you didn't know anybody," Parris said. "It was culture shock for people out here. They're just now beginning to realize that it will never be like it was before.
"The issue now is not so much how can we stop growth but how can we manage it," he said.
Roberts, a businessman and a former dean at Antelope Valley College, has been the leader of a council majority that has taken on ambitious projects like a new $10-million minor league baseball stadium.
Even before becoming Lancaster's first elected mayor in 1996, Roberts was an advocate of using the city's redevelopment agency to spur job growth in a city where "people are tired of spending four hours in their cars to get to a decent job."
"Redevelopment is the mother's milk of development for cities. Without it, cities don't have a way to do anything for themselves," he said.
Roberts, whose campaign slogan is "Let's Continue the Progress," said that job creation and public safety would be his top priorities if reelected. Singer, he said, would impede the city's progress.
"I have an opponent that is especially cantankerous," he said. "His whole term has been marked by an overriding negativeness about things that most people feel are in the best interests of the city."
Singer and Shelton, who represent the council minority, have fought Roberts every step of the way. They argue that most of the development promoted by the council has benefited a small group of City Hall insiders and that Roberts is placing the city in jeopardy by borrowing against its future tax revenues.
"I demand quality growth. I will not approve projects that benefit a small group of individuals with special interests," said Singer, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "If we have a beautiful stadium and lousy roads, then our priorities are mixed up."
Singer said he would like to require that all bonded debt be approved directly by the city's voters.
He characterized the struggle for control over the council not so much as a battle between opposing philosophies as a contest between the disenfranchised and the empowered.
"We're trying to put an end to 'good ol' boys' syndrome and level the playing field for everyone else," he said.