Talt, Huang Elected; Taxes Pass

The last couple of years have been tempestuous in San Marino, with residents fretting over newly built homes that are out of step with their neighborhoods, the potential outlay of millions to reconstruct Stoneman School and the perception of a loose rein on city expenditures.
Concern was expressed that the City Council might be getting out of step with the wishes of the community. Against such a backdrop, perhaps sweeping change was inevitable.
San Marino got exactly that on election night Tuesday, as challengers Steve Talt and Dr. Steven Huang overwhelmed two-term incumbents Eugene Sun, the sitting mayor, and Dennis Kneier, in a vote that repudiated the status quo.
In a preliminary count by the Los Angeles County Registrar, with all precincts reporting, Talt led all candidates with 1,634 votes, followed by Huang, who polled 1,185. Sun finished a distant third with 597 votes, followed by Kneier with 420 and young businessman Scott Kwong with 344.
But the two new councilmen will not be fiscally handcuffed in their efforts to chart a steadier course for the city. Two taxes that combine to account for nearly one-fifth of the city’s net operating revenues also were approved in Tuesday night’s election, despite indications that forces of discontent were conspiring to defeat them.
The public safety tax, on the ballot as Measure SA, achieved 74.6% approval when it needed 67%, meaning the police and fire departments will not have to absorb a one-fourth cut to their operations. The utility user’s tax, which needed a simple majority, got 72.6%, meaning the city government will not have to absorb a 6.7% slash to its unrestricted funds.
Talt and Huang, who grew up here, graduated from San Marino High School about 10 years apart and then returned to raise their families, vowed during the City Council campaign to fight to uphold traditional standards in San Marino.
“I think the people were a bit tired of the lack of focus on the protecting of our neighborhoods and the financial integrity,” Talt said of the current council. “… They wanted to see greater restraints on what some people would call mansionization, what I would call overbuilt lots and the failure to maintain the open space and tranquillity of our neighborhoods. In terms of financial integrity, a lot of people were upset with [the council] passing a budget without discussing it. I think they know I’m going to open that up.”
Huang said that he heard similar laments regarding teardowns of homes, the budget, public safety and transparency in government. “While I was walking, I heard that they wanted to see some change,” he said. “They wanted to make sure San Marino returned to what it was before.”
Sun and Kneier, as members of the established order that presided over some of these issues, faced uphill battles, particularly as they sought third terms. Both advocated for a limit of two City Council terms during the 2011 election. Though they were legally able to run again, because the provision was enacted after they began their second terms, they nonetheless faced questions during the campaign about this apparent change of heart.
Sun and Kneier ran low-key campaigns, spending little or nothing on advertising and running instead on their reputations. Kneier hoped his record of service to the city would overcome the scandal in which he was embroiled last year, when he tossed a bag of dog waste onto the walkway of a neighbor, then changed his explanation of the incident when surveillance video contradicted his story. A subsequent recall effort failed, but his opponents simply waited until he came around for re-election, then zeroed in.
The election campaign wasn’t particularly civil. One mysterious organization sent out a mailer urging voters to unseat the two incumbents. Another group specifically targeted Kneier in advertisements.
The tax measures weren’t exempt from this, either. Officials offered anecdotal reports about members of a TeaPAC group in Pasadena and other local factions asking voters to reject both initiatives.
“I think it just shows that the voters in San Marino recognize the importance of this funding and have done so for 35 years,” said Tom Santley, one of the co-chairs of the campaign committee. “Clearly, regardless of intrusions from outside the city, like the Pasadena Patriots, [the measures passed]. We don’t have the retail tax base that other cities enjoy, so this is the way we do it in San Marino, and we’ve done it for a long time.”
The public safety tax, in particular, was targeted by local activists because of a perception that the local firefighters’ union was intractable in its contract negotiations with the city, which bubbled into public view at the end of September. The union has been insisting on around-the-clock staffing of four firefighters on San Marino’s fire engine, while the city staff and the City Council have been holding out for an occasional reduction to three firefighters, in the interests of cutting costs. That ruffled some feathers locally.
“It was definitely a concern,” Santley said. “We talked about it in our committee and recognized that it was this challenge, and we hoped that people would stay with the facts.”
The public safety and utility user’s taxes, which have long been in place in San Marino as responses to Proposition 13 cuts in the 1970s, will combine to account for $4.64 million in the current fiscal year, or 19% of the city’s net revenues of $24.4 million.
The public safety tax has been renewed for four years, the utility user tax for 10.

Leave a Reply