All seven City Council candidates were on hand for the San Marino City Club-sponsored forum at San Marino High School last week, all of whom made the most of the two hours to tout their campaigns to prospective voters.
Taking the stage in Neher Auditorium roughly a month out from the Nov. 7 election, candidates answered a variety of questions that were prepared ahead of time, anonymously submitted to each other among themselves and also from audience members. The auditorium was roughly half full.
The candidates are, alphabetically, Dr. Hai-Sou Chen, Susan Jakubowski, Scott Kwong, Calvin Lo, Gretchen Shepherd Romey, Eugene Sun and Ken Ude.
Topics included historic preservation, combating the rising rate of residential burglaries, promoting business growth, dealing with the unfunded pension liability under California Public Employees Retirement System and the city’s relationship with San Marino Unified School District. Questions from other candidates to each other often were specific to their character and most of the candidates dodged a question as to whom they would vote for if they weren’t running for election.
There was one issue in which everyone firmly agreed: they each opposed mixed-use development in the historically single family residential community.
City Club has posted the full video of the forum on YouTube (or search “San Marino City Club Voters Forum 2017”).
Dr. Hai-Sou Chen
Chen, a dentist, leaned heavily on preservation of San Marino’s look and history, including that of the Stoneman School building that the city bought years ago. He called for community meetings to figure out the best way of improving and using the building while renovating it and bringing it up to code.
“My main focus is to preserve our wonderful San Marino way of life,” he said in his opening statement. “As a City Council member, I will preserve this way of life for our children and our children’s children.”
On other issues, Chen said he would support allocating additional money to allow the San Marino Police Department to acquire the equipment necessary to keep an eye on the town, including cameras to cover the 60 points of entry to San Marino. He cautiously supported the addition of high quality businesses in town and would want to ensure they meshed with the community and wouldn’t overburden its infrastructure.
Asked by a fellow candidate how his small dental practice qualified him for public office, Chen said, “It is so important to not only balance a budget, but also to use the money efficiently and wisely. I think that the City Council members aim to serve the interests of all residents and deliver products and services based on residents’ demands.”
Retired from both an overseas manufacturing business and an administrative role in L.A. County government, Jakubowski has touted her experience in the private and public sector. She currently chairs the city’s Planning Commission and was an adviser to a city-appointed ad hoc committee to dissect city department operations last year.
“I have dedicated many hours working with our city managers, department heads and employees to make our city better,” she said. “[I ask for your vote] so that I may step up and do my part to take our city forward to the next level for all of our residents.”
Jakubowski favored helping SMPD continue its data-driven approach, diversifying clusters of business in town and facing the unfunded CalPERS liability head-on. On top of preservation, Jakubowski focused heavily on solving the financial issues looming on the horizon and talked about implementing ad hoc committee recommendations more quickly and considering whether to contract out some services. Notably, she opined against automatic pay raises for city employees, in favor of incentivized raises.
“We can’t look at Stoneman in a vacuum,” she said. “We have the unfunded pension liability. We have huge infrastructure issues. We really have to put everything together. This is a city that is more than 100 years old and we have to look at those issues.”
For his second election, Kwong said he has diversified the issues around which he is campaigning. On top of preservation, Kwong said this time he is concerned about opening up local government to residents and improving public safety.
“I’m not just a small business owner,” he said. “I am a product of the San Marino school system. Those of you who know me know that I am very active because I can pick the right people to run my business and spend more time in our community. I have a proven track record of yielding a net positive and hope to continue that as a city councilman.”
Kwong, who owns an auto repair shop and emission testing garage, said he would as a city councilman advocate for greater usage of free technology among residents to build a sense of unity, help connect them with City Hall and even help SMPD in tracking suspicious patterns in neighborhoods. He also pushed for actively cataloguing historic structures in town.
“The city’s a living museum right now,” he said. “What I want to do is rank those houses, find the cutoff [of what historic is] and redraft the ordinance.”
Kwong, notably, was the only one who didn’t ignore the question about who he would vote for. His answer: Jakubowski, Lo and a tie between Shepherd Romey and Ude.
Lo, a Realtor and owner of a real estate management company, was focused on enhancing what makes San Marino unique and continuing being a “premium city” for its residents. This, he said, began with keeping the city’s aesthetic and preserving its history, and he said his work renovating homes in other cities gives him familiarity with that.
“We will balance the needs of the owner to update the homes and also keep their homes in harmony with our community,” he said, speaking on historic preservation. “Those areas with preservation zones, property in the long run tends to keep a higher value. Please keep that in mind.”
Lo said he hoped to address areas of deferred maintenance — including on Stoneman and carefully support the schools on a fiscal basis. Asked by a fellow candidate whether his business would conflict with decision-making, Lo said he owns only his home here in town and no other investments.
An alternate member of the city’s Traffic Commission, Lo said he supported changing parking regulations to promote business and would endeavor to attract more businesses to town.
“San Marino is a residential town, so our businesses are here to serve our residents,” he said. “That will further enhance our sense of community and also increase our tax revenue.”
Gretchen Shepherd Romey
Ever involved in a variety of nonprofits and other organizations, Shepherd Romey says her budgeting experience would serve her well as a city councilwoman, both in planning and making tough decisions.
“My understanding is that cost estimates range from $2.3 million and $9.3 million,” she said, speaking on Stoneman. “This is just to bring it up to fire code and seismic code. We have to weigh that against what we do with the property.”
Shepherd Romey said she would advocate using a consultant for long-term planning to address the unfunded pension issues, and also work to tap into the $9 billion allotment for the San Gabriel Valley for the shelved 710 freeway tunnel for local projects. Asked about allegedly spending twice as much as any other candidate, she defended her advertisements as reaching out to the community and pledged to donate leftover money to the Hill-Harbison House and San Marino Heritage.
In the business realm, Shepherd Romey acknowledged the city could do more to stimulate business — like cutting back on parking or display regulations — and add to the 9% of revenues each year.
“Which is a significant sum,” she added. “I think we should take into account. Perhaps that is something the City Council can address. We can’t change how much space we have on Huntington Drive. It’s very hard to open a business here and keep it vibrant and growing.”
Sun, armed with two prior terms on the City Council, reiterated his calling for the renovation of Stoneman and the selling off of its surrounding land, which he believes could be the first step for generating extra revenue for the city.
“I think we could rent the Stoneman to a reputable, responsible tenant and get the income to help pay down the pension liability,” the Realtor said, adding he believed the sold-off land could net $5-$7 million.
In addition, Sun advocated using a variety of measures to help pay down the pension liability, including borrowing money for the purposes of generating more return in the city’s general fund and establishing some sort of trust fund. In city operations, he advocated hiring more cadets for SMPD to free up patrol officers and detectives and appointing retired first responders to help make operational decisions with the departments.
On preservation, Sun called for a measured response that strongly protected property rights against the imposition of historic designations.
“We have to have a distinction between historic preservation and ‘mansionization,’” he said. “I’m against ‘mansionization,’ but I think preservation is a slippery slope. I am against using a broad brush. I think it’s too draconian. I think we need to respect the rights of the homeowners.”
A lifelong businessman, Ude called on his business experience in taking questions and has taken up the slogan of running the city like a business.
“When I look at the composition of the City Council, I feel like I would be unique because I have 40 years of experience running corporations,” he said. “I’m running because I think I can really fix things and help give back.”
With that in mind, Ude said he was in favor of taking a hard look at how departments are structured and making changes accordingly. He said too many decisions from the Design Review Committee and Planning Commission are finding their way to the City Council for appeals and would work to strengthen building guidelines and bolstering those panels. Although adding he would personally support the schools financially, Ude said he did not think the city had much money to set aside for them.
On crime, Ude blamed several state laws granting early release to nonviolent offenders in part for the local rise in crime.
“That’s No. 1 to go after,” he said. “No. 2, we have to make San Marino a harder target. I think we support the police department, but when people are in and out in four minutes, we’re going to have to rely on our neighborhood watches. We’re going to need to rely on our grassroots movements.”