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Giving Carson the Healing Touch

New mayor hopes to mend the South Bay city's image, bruised by corruption scandals, by working to improve the local economy.

June 10, 2004|Kevin Pang | Times Staff Writer

Carson has no property tax or utility tax. A gleaming new soccer stadium is bringing in much-needed revenue for the South Bay city with an ethnically balanced population that, for the most part, lives harmoniously.

But in recent years, the industrial city of 90,000 gained a reputation for political strife. Since 2002, four city officials, including two mayors, have pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery, extortion and other charges.

One hundred days after winning the mayoral race, middle school teacher Jim Dear is hoping to turn that image around and build on the city's economic prosperity.

Dear, a 51-year-old South Bay native, is pushing for the city to attract luxury hotels, trendy restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. His aim is to diversify a local economy that relied heavily on car dealerships.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 121 words Type of Material: Correction
Carson councilman -- A June 10 article in the California section about the city of Carson incorrectly reported that former Carson Councilman Manuel Ontal pleaded guilty to charges in an extortion case involving former Mayor Daryl Sweeney. Sweeney pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to extort money from waste haulers competing for a city contract. Ontal did not plead guilty in that case. Sweeney's prosecution was facilitated by Ontal, who in 2000 approached federal authorities about corruption in Carson and agreed to work undercover as they investigated Sweeney and others. Ontal pleaded guilty in a separate case in 2003 to accepting a $5,000 payoff from a city contractor and of failing to report $33,000 in consultant's income on his tax return.

"It's going to take years to heal the image of a city that was racked with scandal," said Dear. "But the city is healing, no question."

Carson's population is nearly evenly divided among African Americans, Asians, Latinos and whites. Median household income is nearly $55,000 -- more than a third higher than the Los Angeles County average.

The Home Depot Center, a $150-million soccer stadium and tennis venue, opened in June 2003. The 27,000-seat complex, on Avalon Boulevard south of the Artesia Freeway, is home to Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy and is a training site for the U.S. track and field team.

City and business leaders are targeting the area around the complex for development, despite some concerns about noise, traffic and crime. Advocates point out the center has a goal of hiring Carson residents for a quarter of its jobs, but the present rate is 37%, or 463 of the 1,250 employees.

Other major employers are Cal State Dominguez Hills and British Petroleum.

The nearby South Bay Pavilion mall on Avalon Boulevard is planning an $80-million renovation, and a 146,000-square-foot Target Greatland store is scheduled to open in July 2005 in the south wing.

Dear also revived a nine-member task force last month to try to attract upscale restaurants such as McCormick & Schmick's. Officials are also trying to woo a movie theater, something the city lacks.

The Home Depot Center "certainly changed the face of our community," said John Wogan, president of the Carson Chamber of Commerce. "They have different track meets across the country.... They don't say they're doing it in L.A. They say it's happening in Carson."

Dear said the stadium's economic ripples will overshadow Carson's tarnished image.

After a two-year federal investigation into corruption in Carson, 10 defendants pleaded guilty to a litany of charges. The most egregious case involved former Mayor Daryl Sweeney, who admitted extorting $600,000 from a trash collection company bidding for a city contract.

Sweeney resigned in July as part of a plea agreement and is awaiting sentencing in November. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Former council members Raunda Frank and Manuel Ontal, who formed a majority with Sweeney, also pleaded guilty in the scheme.

Before Sweeney's conviction, Pete Fajardo -- Carson's mayor from 1997 to 2001 -- pleaded guilty to one count of extortion of an apartment landlord and one count of attempted extortion of an engineering company. Fajardo is to be sentenced in August and faces two years in prison.

"I was shocked ... really taken aback," Dear said. "The council members did their best to hide their actions from me. You don't expect that kind of behavior out of them."

Dear ran for the council twice before winning a seat in 2001. He was elected mayor in a March special election to replace Sweeney.

"I truly believe it's a new beginning for Carson," Dear said. "Our city has a history of scandal, but we have now turned a corner on that."

Still, efforts to repair Carson's reputation remain difficult.

When Dear was elected mayor, he vacated his council post and the seat was left unfilled. Lacking a majority, the four council members have deadlocked on nearly a fourth of the motions proposed.

Until the November election to fill the vacancy, political tension could hamper progress in Carson, though council members are optimistic.

"I'm really hoping that we are heading toward a good, clean government," said Councilman Elito Santarina. "We really have to get our act together and not just be bogged down with a whole lot of posturing and grandstanding."

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