Little Dispute Among Council Candidates

Life is still pretty good in San Marino, it seems. Heart attack victims don’t languish at home waiting for a paramedic, and gangs don’t rule the streets. Cars don’t disappear into potholes. Homeowners have substantial elbow room on their residential lots. And the city’s finances are awash in $145,000 of black ink, with a generous cushion of reserves.
These realities presented a challenge to five candidates for City Council as they attempted to create separation from one another at a City Club forum Monday night at San Marino High School.
All encourage passage of the utility and public safety taxes that will be alongside them on the Nov. 3 ballot. None wants to see homes built that are out of scale for their neighborhoods. All favor fiscally responsible governance, well-maintained infrastructure and a transparent operation at City Hall.
And, of course, each feels he would be the best choice to achieve these objectives in one of the two open seats on the council.
Incumbents Dennis Kneier and Eugene Sun said they are running for third terms on the strength of their experience and accomplishments. The challengers, dentist Dr. Steven Huang, businessman Scott Kwong and lawyer Steve Talt, implored more than 100 people gathered in the Webb Theatre to give them an opportunity to provide a fresh approach to city government.
Kneier, who was the target of a recall bid last year after tossing a bag of dog waste onto a neighbor’s property, preemptively defused that issue by acknowledging the incident at the top of his opening remarks. The retired accountant then cited his track record on the council and said, “I believe I know the city’s finances better than any candidate.”
Sun, a real estate broker and the sitting mayor, maintained that he is “a strong proponent of fiscal responsibility” and noted his push for a new ordinance governing basements, which seeks to reduce the mass of homes above ground.
However, Kneier and Sun both had to answer for their advocacy of the existing limit of two four-year terms for members of the City Council, yet they’re running for third terms (the restriction did not take effect until after they’d begun their second terms).
Kneier said he decided to run again because of “so many people, hundreds of emails, asking me to do this,” and that he’ll leave the matter in the voters’ hands: “If the citizens of San Marino want me, I’m there to serve. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.”
Sun said he was influenced by Kneier’s decision to run again, and added, “I felt with my experience, my track record, my fiscally conservative credentials, I can be more of service to the City Council for the next four years.”
In the course of the forum, candidates generally refrained from taking swipes at other candidates. Talt was the notable exception in this. Incumbency tends to carry considerable weight in local elections, and he wasn’t shy about taking subtle digs at Kneier and Sun.
Speaking about the utility user tax, Talt said, “The problem we all have, when we turn on our lights at home, we may be paying for someone’s desired parklet, or to pay for an expert to come in and tell us we need a bathroom for bike riders at Valentine school.” Later, he said, “We should live with the income we make and not dip into our savings to any extent to pay for pet projects of city councilmen.”
The parklet, proposed for the northeast corner of Huntington Drive at San Marino Avenue, has been pushed forward entirely by Kneier, who was also a strong advocate of a pedestrian and bike master plan that proposed bike lane striping throughout San Marino.
One of the more absurd questions posed in the debate was, ‘Which two candidates would you vote for if you weren’t on the ballot?’ Huang deftly sidestepped the question when it was posed to him. But when it was resurrected for Talt moments later, he took aim at the incumbents again. He said he would vote for Kwong and Huang, adding of Kneier and Sun, “When they asked me for their support on term limits, I believed them, and they obviously have not honored that. I would be left with two choices based on my own principles and principles that I think should be applied with respect to what [Kneier and Sun] told us about term limits.”
At other stages of the discussion, the lack of a thorough familiarity with city issues was evident on the part of Huang and Kwong.
On a question about mansionization, Kwong held up a sheaf of papers that he identified as the city’s Housing Element and “zoning guidelines” and dramatically hurled them over his shoulder onto the stage, eliciting laughter from some in the audience. “We need to change codes,” he said, suggesting the formation of an ad hoc committee “to go out and study the matter and bring it before the council for adoption and enforcement. Only then can we change the codes.”
San Marino’s Housing Element was certified by the state last year for the first time, which is expected to shield the city against lawsuits by housing advocacy groups. San Marino’s building codes, meanwhile, are distinctly different from its Design Review Guidelines, which have been at the heart of approvals for homes believed to be out of scale with their neighborhoods.
Sun countered, “The problem is not the rules, not the ordinances, it is the Design Review Committee members who approved the project. I think with the recent reorganization of the Design Review Committee, the city is already on top of it.”
Since the spring, the five-member DRC has gained four new members, as the terms of two incumbents were not renewed at the end of June and two other members resigned.
On the subject of two controversial cell towers, one adjacent to Huntington Middle School and the other on the campus of San Marino High School, Huang said he would “speak to our legal counsel, [City Attorney] Steve Dorsey, and ask if we made any mistakes when it was built without permits. I would push for it every day so that if it was done illegally, we do have the right to take it down, don’t we? After that, I’d review why we made this mistake in the first place … why the cell towers were built and we didn’t know.”
Actually, the construction of the cell towers was almost entirely out of the city’s purview. Those were matters presided over by the San Marino Unified School District and the Division of the State Architect. Building permits, inspections and approvals were never the responsibility of City Hall.
The city’s finances, and particularly its unfunded pension liability, were popular topics. The city has a $20 million obligation to CalPERS but hopes to reduce that by $10 million through shortening the repayment term from 30 to 20 years.
Sun said he will propose at Friday’s City Council meeting that a citizens’ finance oversight committee be formed to assess the city’s accounting procedures.
For his part, Talt invoked term limits again and said he would bring “a fresh perspective, a willingness to roll up my sleeves on the budget and work with our citizens.”

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