Laurie Angel, Al Austin and Wesley Turnbow taking questions from a moderator March 9 inside the Petroleum Club. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
The seats inside the Terrace Room of the Long Beach Petroleum club were full, leaving some spectators to line the walls as they watched the candidates for the Eighth District city council seat answer questions on some of the more pressing issues facing the Eighth and the city as a whole.
The incumbent, Al Austin, sat between his two challengers, Laurie Angel and Wesley Turnbow, as the moderator of the event hosted by the Los Cerritos Neighborhood Association dished out questions ranging from code enforcement deficiencies in the Eighth and the moratorium on certain construction permits in the district, as well as hot-button issues like the Long Beach Airport noise ordinance, the Riverwalk construction project and the pending sales tax increase, which was recently approved for the June primary ballot.
There were few instances where either Turnbow or Angel agreed with stances taken by Austin, and on a few occasions, their differing opinions elicited large rounds of applause from those in attendance.
When asked by the moderator if they supported the city council’s decision to proceed with the June ballot measure, one that aims to raise the sales tax by one percent for 10 years and create a “rainy day” fund for new revenue to address mounting infrastructure backlogs, Turnbow and Angel took turns touting their extensive backgrounds in finance and budget management while Austin defended the council’s action as one made out of necessity, but also one that ultimately will leave it up to the residents to decide.
Turnbow was critical of the measure he characterized as “inherently short-sided,” because he believes it will make the city less friendly to businesses, which he said could eat away at any projected revenue expected to be generated by the temporary tax increase, as businesses and consumers seek out less expensive cities.
“When you start raising sales tax for a little while you get a bump,” Turnbow said. “Then all of a sudden more businesses don’t want to be here. They don’t locate here or they relocate somewhere else and then by the time you hit year six or seven, you don’t have that bump anymore.”
Angel, in many respects, sided with Turnbow’s assessment that the proposed sales tax hike would be bad for business, but added that if it does pass, a sort of sub fund needed to be created to ensure that the extra revenue actually goes to the infrastructure and public safety needs that the ordinance proclaims it will address. She said that while infrastructure need is real, there are ways to find funds in the existing budget through eliminating “pet projects” like the Seaside Way pedestrian bridge in downtown.
“We’re building a $9.3 million pedestrian bridge downtown that makes it easier for visitors to get across the street,” Angel said. “How many potholes, how many sidewalks, how many streets could be paved with that $9.3 million?”
Austin was quick to point out that the Tidelands Funds that were allocated for that project are tied to coastal communities, which means that the Eighth District does not have access to it.
“There’s a fund called the Tidelands fund,” Austin said. “I really wish I had the access into tidelands because we could fix a lot of our infrastructure needs throughout the city with that fund, but it’s off limits to only Tidelands.”
Austin had a few openings in the debate, where he capitalized on oversights by his opponents, in terms of policies that were incorrectly attributed to his time on the council. He shot down an implication by Turnbow that past councils hadn't done enough to invest in public safety by pointing out that an additional police academy was reinstated during his time at City Hall. And in the case of Angel’s comment regarding the Seaside Bridge, Austin pointed out that those funds are not applicable to the overall discussion regarding how the candidates would seek out alternate funding to address infrastructure needs without the benefits of a sales tax-driven revenue stream.
In his comment on where he would look for those funds if the ballot measure were to be voted down by the public during the June 7 primary, Austin took a shot at his opponents' promotion of their backgrounds in finance, with his personal dig eliciting some indignation from the crowd, even leading one man to yell out “Donald Trump” as Austin finished his thought.
“You’ve got to get more revenue into the city to hire more police officers, plain and simple,” Austin said. “ That’s a basic math problem and you don’t have to go to USC [Turnbow earned his business and law degrees there] and you don’t have to work for a Fortune 500 company [Angel worked for Hughes Aircraft Company] to understand that.”
Each of the candidates said that defending the noise ordinance was of prime importance, with each revealing their own nuanced ways of how they would continue to defend it. Angel said that she would unite the the rest of the council through her leadership to make them better understand how affected the district is by jet engine noise, while Austin stuck to his long maintained stance that JetBlue was the only entity that stood to benefit from an international terminal, an item he’s consistently fought to prevent.
Turnbow’s comments differed from his opponents in that his message, stating that in order to protect the noise ordinance and prevent the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from forcing more flights, the city and its residents need to work with the airport instead of attempting to stonewall every airport-related item brought before council, as has become custom with some neighborhood groups.
“It doesn’t just happen by just saying ‘we’re against, we’re against, we’re against’, it happens by somebody who knows how to work with all the players and manage that ordinance,” Turnbow said. “JetBlue has been a great citizen, you have to work with them.”
Both Turnbow and Angel have hammered home the idea that they will increase public engagement in the district, something they’ve accused Austin for failing to do during his term on the council. This rhetoric spilled over into their responses from the moderator’s question regarding the contentious Riverwalk residential development project which had an injunction filed against it in late December.
Angel has maintained that the project not only fails to account for several traffic and environmental issues, but that it was more or less “rubber-stamped” when it was presented to the council. She was part of about 250 residents who signed a petition denouncing the project and promised that through her increased community involvement, the Eighth District would be more inclusively and transparently represented at City Hall.
“We have to have the discussion the public beforehand on all these issues,” Angel said. “We have to talk about balance. We can’t let some people suffer for the benefit of others, and that’s citywide.”
Austin though, in what was one of his more impassioned exchanges, denied that he’s failed to include the public’s voice in decision-making. He noted that several community meetings were held in advance of the project’s unanimous approval of the project last year and had previously pointed out that Angel had weighed in on the draft environmental impact report.
“I’ve probably been one of the most accessible council members you’ve had,” Austin said.
The forum was the first that was solely dedicated to the Eighth District candidates. Those vying for the council seat demonstrated that not only do they know the pulse of their neighborhoods, but that the race for the Eighth may not end on April 12, where a winner would need to earn over 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Those in attendance seemed content to vet out the positions of those looking to represent them for the next four years. Mixed into the applause, whistles and occasional outbursts from the crowd were muted whispers of which candidate’s platform was making an impression on them. If the temperature inside the Terrace Room was indicative of what the ballot box will reflect in April, two of these candidates could be extending their campaigns into June.