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Rotary Forum Features City Council Candidates

Jan 28, 2019 02:28PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

City Council candidates, from left: Mark Burton, Brian Withers, Wayne Powell, Hildy Stern, Joseph Ungoco, Suzanne Hadley, Joe Franklin, and moderator Mark Lipps

In what is turning out to be a hotly contested March 5 election for two open seats on the Manhattan Beach City Council, seven candidates are working hard to distinguish themselves from the pack. The candidates' differences - and similarities - were on display on Monday morning at a Manhattan Beach Rotary Club breakfast, the first forum to feature all seven candidates.

The city council candidates include Mark Burton, Joe Franklin, Suzanne Hadley, Wayne Powell, Hildy Stern, Joseph A. Ungoco, and Brian Withers. They are running to fill seats vacated by Amy Howorth and David Lesser, who are both termed out.

Burton is a retired city attorney and prosecutor, as well as a longtime resident. He touted his experience as a former city councilmember and mayor, and for his "strictly non-partisan" approach to city politics. "I have a passion for public service; and I have a passion to serve a second term," he said. Given the importance of this election, he said, "Now is not the time for on-the-job training."

Franklin is a businessman and 34-year resident of Manhattan Beach who serves on the Parking and Public Improvements Commission. He cited the endorsement he has from nine current and former mayors of Manhattan Beach. "Manhattan Beach is special and I want to keep it that way," he said. 

Hadley, a 23-year resident of Manhattan Beach, has an MBA and experience in corporate finance, and is a longtime community volunteer and activist. She said her campaign was focused on four "S's" - small business, spending ("cutting the bloat in City Hall"), safety ("I'm a law-and-order gal"), schools - as well as a fifth "S" for service.

Powell is a 23-year resident of Manhattan Beach who has served two terms on City Council and nine years as a city commissioner. He said that he is running on public safety, government transparency, and fiscal responsibility. "As a financial controller and CFO for 30 years, I look at city finances like it’s coming out of my back pocket," he said. 

Stern, a 24-year resident of Manhattan Beach, is an attorney/accountant who holds a degree in business as well as a J.D. and and L.L.M. She is a familiar face around town who is known for her extensive community and school volunteer service. "I'm ready to step up and serve our whole community," she said.

Ungoco, a former management consultant, has lived in Manhattan Beach for five years and has taken an active role in neighborhood and leadership activities. He is running on a campaign of "FIT - Fair, Inclusive, and Transparent," and says he hopes to bring "diversity" to the board in terms of representing newer residents.

Withers is a Manhattan Beach native, born and raised in town, where he now has a dental practice. "I feel that there is a voice in Manhattan Beach that is not being heard on city council, - I want to bring Manhattan Beach back to the city that I knew," he said. "I will not use Manhattan Beach as a political stepping stone. I am only here because I love Manhattan Beach so much."

On Monday, the candidates each had a chance to respond to a series of questions on hot-button issues in Manhattan Beach, ranging from the issue of short-term rentals, to the proposed transient occupancy tax increase (Measure A), to , to the city's hiring of outside contractors.

Regarding ongoing city discussions about a ban on short-term rentals, candidates came down on both sides. 

Powell said he supports the ban. "[Short-term rentals] destroy the fabric of our community. The city council is proposing regulations that sound good but are going to be unenforceable. We need to keep commercial activities in the commercial zones, not residential," he said.

Franklin also supports a ban, and pointed to his "specific and detailed plan" that he has laid out on short-term rentals, including the hiring of two additional code enforcement employees. "It's about quality of life – it’s a worthwhile investment to get that code enforced," he said. 

Withers said he would vote in favor of a ban with enforcement, but not for the old ban, which he felt was ineffective. "It’s still the Wild West out there. We need to have a way to enforce it. We shouldn’t be talking about what we’re going to do until we have the 'how' of how we're going to do it," he said. 

Hadley agreed on enforcement: "I’m in favor of highly regulated, strictly enforced short term rentals," she said. "As a parent, I know that if you don’t enforce something it won't work. We must have enforcement first, then have the policy."

Regarding Measure A, the ballot proposal to raise the hotel Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) to 14 percent (from 10 percent), candidates were also divided.

Hadley said that she was a "no" on Measure A. "If you go up to 14 percent – that’s a 40 percent increase in one tax," she said. "Fourteen percent is not going to fly."

But others expressed support for the measure.  

"We should bring our TOT in line with the rest of LA County," said Ungoco. "The increase is not the same as the rack rate. The income should be earmarked toward that industry. Perhaps some of those funds should be directed toward enforcement of short term rentals."

Burton called for the revenue to be put in a restricted fund. "Focus on public safety and security. Get the scout house built. Otherwise the money will be frittered away on salaries and employees."

"I support TOT - It’s an important way for us to have parity in this industry with our neighboring communities," added Stern. "We clearly have needs in our community that we want to spend this money on. If we have a concern about how the money is spent, we need to make sure we are addressing it in the budget."

Candidates were then asked about the hiring of outside contractors, for which the city has come under criticism in past years.

"We have a community of incredibly educated and experienced professionals in many areas," said Stern. "We should be reaching out to our community, our residents who have so much passion and knowledge, not using outside consultants."

Franklin said that he had overseen several commission projects for which local experts donated their time. "We have to go ahead and do that before hiring consultants," he said. 

Powell said, "When I was on the city council, I was always against using outside consultants. If our city staff didn’t have expertise, my response was, 'Let’s get them trained.'" He added that some of the figures mentioned include reviews such as audits and environmental reviews for which the state requires outside contractors.

Burton added, "There are times when it’s smart to hire a consultant, and there are times when it’s wasteful. For example, a lobbyist contract is not necessary. Is it useful or is it waste? I’ve have the experience to tell the difference." 

As Franklin noted in his closing remarks: " I don’t envy the voters of Manhattan Beach. We have a great selection of candidates.

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