It’s Decision Time on Taxes, Council for Local Voters

Proponents of two taxes that combine to generate nearly one-fifth of San Marino’s net revenues are cautiously optimistic the measures will be approved by voters in Tuesday’s general municipal election.
No one filed ballot arguments against Measure U, the utility user tax, or Measure SA, the public safety parcel tax. No political action committee opposing the taxes filed papers with the city clerk. And all five candidates for City Council provided written endorsements of the two measures.
And yet, it has been a particularly spirited election season, with the public safety tax coinciding with a contract negotiation stalemate between the city and the firefighters’ union. So it’s anyone’s guess.
“I know there are some people in the city against [the tax measures], due to some reason, because they didn’t like the policy at the city,” said Linda Sun, one of the co-chairs for the committee promoting the measures. “But, in general, the people I talk to are aware of the significance of the measures if they’re not passed.”
The Pasadena TeaPAC group has come out against both measures, and there are rumblings locally that some activist citizens are quietly, informally trying to rally opposition to the public safety tax. One said the actions are motivated by a perception that the firefighters’ union is intractable on any potential cuts to operating expenses. “They’ve got their feet stuck in cement,” he said.
The public safety tax, which has been in place since 1980, will provide nearly $3 million in the current fiscal year, which represents about one-fourth of the city’s budget for police and fire protection. It requires two-thirds approval to pass. In nine previous renewals, the vote never dipped below 71%.
According to the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder’s Office, there are 8,453 active registered voters on the rolls in San Marino. In each of the last two local elections — School Board in 2013, City Council/public safety tax/term limits in 2011 — the turnout was 29%. So opponents of the public safety tax would likely have to muster around 835 negative votes.
Tom Santley, another chair of the campaign committee, says one of his unofficial election barometers is simply to chat up his buddies at San Gabriel Country Club. “They admit that those firemen are darn well paid, and do we really need four on a truck?” he said. “But they all said they can’t imagine it not passing. This is the way things are done in San Marino (citizens coming through to make up funding gaps).”
The utility user tax, voted into existence in 1992, represents a little more than $1.7 million in the current budget, or 6.7% of the city’s unrestricted funds. It requires just a simple majority to pass. The last time it was before the voters, in 2006, it pulled in better than 58% support.
Sun has directed some of her campaign efforts on behalf of the two measures to members of San Marino’s Chinese-American community. After being counseled by her, she said, “they realize this is something that has been passed down from the early residents here, and they understand it should continue. …
“When I explained to them about Proposition 13, a lot were very interested in the story. They said it’s very different than the country we come from. They didn’t realize the citizens have so much power. I said, ‘This is the USA, and the citizens have power to influence issues.’”
In addition to successfully lobbying the council candidates, posting fact sheets at SanMarinoUSA.com and promoting the tax measures through its Thumbs Up San Marino campaign, the committee has also conducted a citywide mailing.
“We’ve tried to run a very positive campaign,” Santley said. “We’re not attacking some of the negativity in the community at this time.”
The race for City Council, by contrast, has been much more contentious. Eugene Sun, the sitting mayor, and Councilman Dennis Kneier are being challenged by businessman Scott Kwong, dentist Dr. Steven Huang and lawyer Steve Talt. (Sun is not related to Linda Sun.)
Early this month, a shadowy, unregistered group distributed a mailer urging voters to unseat the two incumbents, citing issues such as public safety, mansionization, and the decisions by Kneier and Sun to run again.
The incumbents supported a limit of two terms for a council member in the 2011 election but are running for third terms. They were also chided for this duplicity by Talt in a recent candidates’ forum.
In an ad in the Outlook, the re-election of Kneier is opposed by a citizens’ group. This comes on the heels of last year’s recall effort, which followed an incident in which Kneier was caught on surveillance video tossing a bag of dog excrement onto a neighbor’s property.
Voters will be left to sort it all out on election day. Here’s a look at the candidates, in alphabetical order:
Dr. SteveN Huang
His involvement in local politics includes co-chairing the successful campaigns for the public safety tax in 2011 and the utility user tax in 2006. And yet, Huang has joined with the current City Council in raising questions about the rising costs of the Fire Department.
“I will make sure that every single penny is spent wisely,” he said. “Now we have four firefighters [assigned to the engine on calls]. Should we consider going down to three? We want to make sure that the quality stays the same.”
Huang has also identified mansionization as a “major concern,” and he’s expressed concern about the actions of city staff in relation to the two cell towers on San Marino Unified School District property. Huang correctly observed that the city failed to require conditional-use permits for the towers, even though the state was supposed to oversee construction.
Dennis KNEIER
He is the most forceful member of the City Council — generally the first one to speak on any issue and someone who aggressively advocates for initiatives he feels strongly about, including the short-lived farmers’ market last year. Lately, Kneier hasn’t been shy about being the lone dissenter in council votes, such as in late June when he championed property owner rights in opposing a modest historic preservation ordinance.
Kneier insists that his support for controversial projects — bike lanes, the farmers’ market, the parklet — are rooted in his desire to build community in San Marino.
A retired accountant, he said, “I stand for fiscally sound policies. I think I best understand the city’s finances. I know how to control budgets; that will be a high priority. We’ll continue to make pension reform, to do all we can under state law.”
Scott Kwong
What he lacks in political experience, Kwong has made up for in energy. Since declaring his candidacy in February, the 2008 graduate of San Marino High School has methodically walked neighborhoods, talking to residents and attempting to gauge their concerns.
The owner of an auto repair shop in Monrovia, Kwong describes himself as a fiscal conservative who would keep a tight rein on the city’s finances, while also simplifying the budget process and making it more accessible to the public. He also says he will work to prevent multistory homes from being built in single-story neighborhoods.
“San Marino faces a multitude of issues that I wish to resolve,” Kwong said. “The issues include maintaining city services, such as fire safety, and making sure our roads are cleaned, potholes are filled, trash is picked up and our city finances don’t go into a deficit.”
Eugene SUN
Because of Kneier’s decision to step down as mayor in the wake of last year’s scandal, Sun has had an unusually long run as major — 16 months thus far. This has given him increased visibility in the election season but has also focused a brighter light on his advocacy in 2011 of Measure P, which limits council member to two four-year terms. Since the law was enacted after that election, in which he and Kneier were re-elected, it does not prevent them from running for third terms.
“I felt with my experience, my track record and my fiscally conservative credentials, I think I can be of more service to the City Council for the next four years,” Sun said.
In the heart of the recent mansionization controversy, he guided approval of a basement ordinance that sought to decrease the above-ground mass of new home construction.
Steve TALT
A fixture at City Council meetings, Talt has repeatedly suggested courses of action that the council has ultimately embraced. For example, the council early this year considered amending the rear setback requirement for guest houses, so that the city can claim them as second units against its Housing Element allotment. But Talt instead urged the council to present the state with the results of its survey of backyard structures, in the hope that some of them could apply to the allotment. The council narrowly agreed to do so, and the state has since been receptive to the plan.
A San Marino resident for virtually all of his life, Talt identifies the community’s traditional values — among them financial integrity and open, tranquil neighborhoods — and cites what he calls a recent “erosion” of them.
“It’s time for a fresh perspective on the City Council,” he said.

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