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Our View: Mercado-Fortine, Harte and Weste for City Council

Posted: March 16, 2014 11:04 a.m.
Updated: March 16, 2014 11:04 a.m.

In a little over three weeks, registered voters in Santa Clarita will go to the polls — if they haven’t already mailed in their ballots — to select as many as three new members of the five-member Santa Clarita City Council.

This is one of the more critical elections in the city’s nearly 27-year history. Having achieved the status of Los Angeles County’s third largest city and topping 200,000 in population, Santa Clarita is at a crossroads.

Our city crisis has little to do with common problems facing other California cities. Unlike Bell, Santa Clarita is not hampered by gross corruption. Unlike Stockton, it’s not impoverished by poor money management. Unlike Oakland, it’s not riddled with crime.

Rather, Santa Clarita has a crisis of leadership. We’re a grown-up city with leaders who sometimes act like children squabbling over a toy truck in a sand box. And while the city hums along on its fiscal prudence and competent staff, it won’t continue to be well run without leaders who are dedicated to serving the public and treating each other and the public with respect.

The Signal Editorial Board conducted one-on-one interviews with each of the 13 council candidates who made time to talk to us. We agree there are important specific issues facing the city, but we believe the overriding one at this point in the city’s history is leadership, which we believe is built on a foundation of relevant experience, forged by a history of giving to the community, and displayed through an attitude of collegiality — the cooperative relationship of colleagues to achieve common goals.

Good leadership values transparency because it’s not hiding anything from those it has been elected to serve. True leadership listens to the concerns of constituents; it doesn’t pick fights with them.

We are not adverse to council members who are on the short end of a 4-to-1 vote. We just don’t want them to take pride in the positional pattern of it. We expect the efficient use of the council’s and the public’s time; we don’t like long, rambling diatribes that are more about the speaker than the outcome of the issue.

At the same time, strong leadership is not demonstrated by council members more concerned about getting home in time than in ensuring details in complex contracts offer the best for constituents. When the council indicates it has made up its mind before an issue is put before the public, we have a serious problem.

We like transparency of public discussion by respectful participants. Compromise often creates a middle ground where most of the citizens are. Denying transparency — or even appearing to deny transparency — leads to public distrust, and we believe distrust is what we see among angry constituents at many recent council meetings.

We are not in favor of term limits, but we believe turnover is healthy on a body of citizen servants. Stagnation on such a body can lead to imperiousness and an attitude of entitlement. We believe both are displayed by some current council members.

Most of all, we’re concerned with the dynamic on the City Council. We want it functional again.

With these qualifications in mind, we recommend voters April 8 cast their ballots for:

Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who has a long record of service to the community. Mercado-Fortine has served four terms on the William S. Hart Union High School District, three terms on the Castaic Union School District, and has also served on the Castaic Area Town Council. As an educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District and a board member for the Hart district, she has overseen budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. Her leadership has shown through during time of severe criticism, which she has weathered with grace and composure without stooping to the level of her attackers. She has demonstrated a willingness to be an independent thinker.

Duane Harte, who has longtime experience within city culture and an impressive list of contributions to his name. Harte serves on the Santa Clarita Parks and Recreation Commission and also as treasurer of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Veterans Memorial Committee and director of the SCV Man and Woman of the Year Committee. His volunteer service to the community is extensive and he is a 42-year business owner who recently retired and is ready to go to work for the city full time. Harte is a consensus builder and we believe he could become a lynchpin member of the City Council.

Laurene Weste has a tremendous track record of service to the city since she was first elected in 1998. Among the projects she’s helped accomplish is passage of the city’s Open Space District, which has dedicated 8,000 acres of buffer zone around the city; creation of the Veterans’ Historic Plaza in Newhall and completion of the cross-valley connector; master planning the city’s 74-mile trail system; and balancing the city’s budget while building its reserves. As a council member, Weste has lobbied in favor of legislation to stop the proposed Cemex sand and gravel mine and has been involved in many neighborhood issues such as establishing community gardens and promoting the annual Cowboy Festival.

We do find ourselves troubled, however, about Weste’s denial that the city has a problem with transparency. We understand that the 2011 arrangement to take over the Los Angeles County libraries within city boundaries and create a Santa Clarita Public Library faced a deadline and had to be rushed, but we don’t see the big rush in the agreement with Metro over billboards that is currently before the city.

We have trouble with Weste’s contention that the community needs no more than 30 days to publicly consider an issue that the city has spent three years negotiating. When the public loudly opposes a project or contract, City Council members need to hear the public out and explain their actions. If that means more time, so be it. That’s transparency, and that’s leadership.

Still, we believe Weste’s track record earns her one more term on the council, and we’re aware that chaos sometimes results when a majority of a governing board is suddenly made up of inexperienced leaders.

We do believe, however, that the election of two new council members is necessary to change the dynamic on the council. For that reason, we don’t recommend the re-election of Marsha McLean. We appreciate McLean’s long and tireless work for the city, but we believe a change in council dynamics is of paramount importance.

But should the reader be convinced that a clean sweep is needed at City Hall and both incumbents need to go, we are confident in recommending Newhall County Water District board member Maria Gutzeit for the third seat.

Gutzeit has demonstrated leadership on the water district board, where she has served since 2003. The Los Angeles Local Agency Formation Commission considered the district for dissolution in 2004, but during the 10 years since then its board has improved the district’s efficiency through updated technology, streamlined staff duties and eliminated some positions, overhauled the public pension system by working with employees, and moved its headquarters to a new, environmentally “green” building. The district has won the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Associations of the United States and Canada.

Gutzeit has identified small business concerns as a priority if she is elected. We believe that is one of the issues the city needs to prioritize for review and improvement after the April election.

The Santa Clarita City Council election every other April traditionally draws embarrassingly low voter turnout as residents, complacent in the belief the city is well run, don’t bother to request mail-in ballots or to go to the polls.
This year the city needs everyone’s voice. Find your sample ballot — it came in the mail last week — or look up The Signal’s voter guide printed on the front page last Monday. Cast a ballot for leadership on Tuesday, April 8.


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