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Cityhood Vote Divides Hacienda Heights

The election is far more heated than two earlier incorporation attempts. At issue are the same themes debated for three decades.

June 01, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Residents in the east San Gabriel Valley community of Hacienda Heights are trying something that has fallen out of vogue in the last decade: cityhood.

To lessen the blow inflicted on counties through the loss of land, facilities and tax revenue, a 1992 state law requires communities that wish to incorporate to pay the host county a "revenue neutrality" fee, better known to cityhood proponents as "alimony."

Only nine California communities have incorporated since the law was passed, compared with 39 in the 10 years before its enactment. The last two cities in Los Angeles County to incorporate were Calabasas and Malibu, both in 1991.

That has not discouraged the cityhood faithful in Hacienda Heights, which has twice attempted to incorporate and failed. The first election in 1982 was called off when a city council hopeful fabricated signatures needed to make cityhood eligible for the ballot. The second campaign in 1992 was defeated by several hundred votes.

"We have become a city of 53,000 people," said Barbara Fish, 74, a longtime advocate of incorporation and one of 17 council candidates on Tuesday's ballot. "More people means more problems. As you mature, needs get greater.... It's as if we're still saying to the county, 'Papa, may I?' "

At issue are the same themes debated for three decades: taxation, municipal services, local representation and regional clout. But this year's campaign is complicated by a stronger anti-cityhood contingent, two of whom are council candidates. Pro-city candidates have found themselves defending themselves against accusations of power-grabbing and racism.

Many residents say this year's election is far more heated than the previous two, and most intersections in the hillside community are plastered with campaign posters. What the cityhood opponents lack in lawn signs, they make up for on the Internet. Their dense Web site includes an unflattering dossier on each pro-cityhood council candidate and criticism of a county-approved study released last year that said Hacienda Heights had enough tax revenue to support itself as a city.

The "No on Cityhood" committee doesn't want residents to have to pay the projected $19 million that Hacienda Heights would owe the county over the next 10 years. The committee's message: Life is already good in Hacienda Heights, it doesn't need to be fixed.

"It's going to be a financial disaster," said Jim Crabtree, 45, a leader of the anti-cityhood movement who has lived in Hacienda Heights for most of his life. "We fear that inexperienced, amateur politicians will get involved in corruption and display general incompetence that we've seen in other cities like Compton."

Crabtree also pointed to the controversy last month surrounding a meet-the-candidates forum that was initially billed as a Chinese-language event for the five Chinese American candidates on the ballot. In response to complaints, the meeting was later opened to all candidates, and was conducted mainly in English.

Soon after, council candidate Norman Hsu was criticized for an editorial he wrote in a Chinese newsletter for seemingly advocating a majority of Chinese on the five-member city council.

"We need to elect the most qualified people to be our city council," Hsu wrote. "Yes, you certainly can vote for five, but when you vote for the Chinese American candidates, please remember: Three is more than enough, five is too many!"

Such comments are prompting some residents to ponder the direction of their community's future. "People start to think, this is not the community I bought into," Crabtree said. "Do I like where it's going?

Hacienda Heights' growth spurt, which peaked in the 1980s, has resulted today in near racial parity in population among Asians, Latinos and whites. Some Chinese candidates say they are uncomfortably fending off fears that the community will become the next Monterey Park.

Candidate Tom Chang, 47, said anti-cityhood advocates are falsely spreading fears to homeowners about eminent domain and building racial tension where there is none. He doesn't agree that Chinese residents can dominate the election, and points to the fact that there also are six white council hopefuls, five Latinos and one black. In addition, whites and Latinos each represent about 40% of the community's registered voters and Asians make up 20%.

"The whole campaign is going in the wrong direction," said Chang, a Los Angeles Department of Transportation planner. "Instead of debating the issues that will impact the community, they're pushing racial buttons."

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