Local Government

Woodcrest Community Candidate Forum

Last Friday, a group of volunteers and community leaders hosted a forum at Woodcrest School for city council candidates running in Fullerton’s newly-created District 5 in the south part of the city—a historically underrepresented area with a large Latino and immigrant population.

The forum provided an opportunity for community members to hear from candidates on a host of issues unique to their neighborhoods–like sub-standard housing conditions, neglected roads and parks, crime, immigration, police harassment, homelessness, and fair representation for a community that has rarely had a voice on council.

This November 6th will be the first time Fullertonians will elect their city council candidates “by district.” This change form the “at large” system began in 2014 when a lawsuit was filed against Fullerton for violating the California Voting Rights Act, and not having fair representation on its council. In 2015-16, the districts were created and voted upon.

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A group of women from the Woodcrest neighborhood organized the candidate forum.

Arriving early to the meeting, I took a walk around Woodcrest Park, adjacent to the school, where all of the grass has been allowed to die in preparation for much-needed, and often-delayed park renovations.

The brown grass contrasted in my mind with the newly-renovated and green Hillcrest Park—which the city recently spent millions rehabilitating.  The brown grass was perhaps a symbol of how the less affluent south Fullerton has not been represented on council, and thus hasn’t received its fair share of city resources.

At the candidate forum there was a palpable sense of hope that a representative from District 5 was finally going to have a voice on city council.

The forum was hosted by Jose Trinidad Castaneda, a very active member of the community. It was a bilingual event (English and Spanish). Translation services were provided by community volunteers.

“We want to promote language justice where everyone can express themselves in the language they feel comfortable, and everyone has access,” explained Castaneda, adding that “2018 will be the first time in Fullerton history to elect our own representative from our neighborhood.”

The candidates present at the forum were Vicki Calhoun, Ahmad Zahra, and John Ybarra. Absent was Sabrina Narain. The forum followed a “Question and Answer” format, in which the three candidates were given the opportunity to answer questions from the moderator and the audience.

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Candidates from left to right: Vicki Calhoun, Ahmad Zahra, John Ybarra.

Here are the questions, and summaries of  the candidates’ answers.

Can you share a little about yourself for those who don’t know you?

Calhoun said she has lived in the district all her life, since 1968.  She attended Maple School and recalls a community group called El Centro, where she learned folklorico dancing as a child. After getting her education in Fullerton schools, she went on to earn her doctorate. Calhoun, who is African-American, said, “The values of the Latino community and the African-American community are a part of me…I live here, I have your values, I know this community, and I will fight for us.”

Zahra said he was born in Syria, and has lived in Fullerton for the past 17 years. He said his spouse is Mexican, so they have a bicultural family. Zahra originally studied medicine and earned his M.D. at age 23. He then came to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker.

“I started from scratch, because this is America—it’s the land of dreams. I worked hard, I waited tables, took night classes, slept in my car…and 23 years later I have a business in film. I do educational films, documentaries,” said Zahra. He also created his own charity called Ahmad’s School Drive to provide school supplies to low-income south Fullerton school children.

Ybarra talked about how his family came from poverty, and built themselves up. His parents bought a house and a little market and now he has become a successful businessman. He is a 54 year Fullerton resident who runs a successful real estate business in south Fullerton. He attended Woodcrest Elementary, Nicolas Jr. High, and Fullerton College. He is a second-generation American and the only candidate fluent in English and Spanish.

Sub-standard housing conditions (such as mold, infestation, and lack of timely repairs) have been an issue for many years in District 5.  What are your plans to address these conditions in a way that protects renters from retaliation (by landlords) or displacement?

Calhoun said that residents who have these problems should first contact their landlords, and then contact the [Orange County] Housing Authority. She gave the example of a friend who got sick from a mold infestation, contacted the Housing Authority, and her landlord put her up in a hotel until the mold was taken care of.

“When you get mold in your house, your children get sick. And that cannot be. Those people who own these apartments have to make sure that our health is first,” said Calhoun.

She said that if issues like this do happen, residents can contact her: “I know the system now that I’ve just went through it with my friend, and I can help you.”

Zahra said that, having been a renter, he knows this neighborhood very well: “I know the buildings that are sub-standard that have been ignored for a long time. This is not a new thing.”

He said that because the city is facing a deficit, we are short on code enforcement officers, and so the burden is on families to report issues. However, many people are afraid to call and complain for fear of retaliation. This fear is especially present for renters who are undocumented.

“I want to take the burden off families,” said Zahra, “I have a plan to implement a policy of a reward system for landlords to keep up their buildings…Santa Ana has implemented something similar, and I think we can do a lot by not penalizing landlords, but by rewarding them for keeping their buildings [up to code], and taking the burden off our residents.”

Ybarra said that he has experience as an apartment owner in Fullerton and Anaheim. He noted that Anaheim has a much stronger code enforcement department.

He said that residents who notice issues should contact code enforcement, and if code enforcement cannot help them, then they should be able to make repairs themselves and deduct it from their rent.

Across district five there are a total of nine parks that face issues ranging from lack of upkeep and renovation, illicit behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, and unsanitary conditions—all of which are uninviting to the community. What is your plan to improve our parks and ensure a safe environment?

Calhoun expressed frustration at how long it has taken to do the Woodcrest Park renovations, especially considering the multi-million dollar renovations the city has been doing at Hillcrest Park.

“These kids need a place to play. These kids are a part of our community,” she said.

As for illicit activities in parks, such as drug and alcohol use, she said that our police department’s drug unit should be doing more patrols.

Zahra said his plan includes streamlining the process of renovations, “making sure everything happens efficiently and we don’t need to wait long periods of time.”

He said the city needs to make sure it is securing grants for parks effectively and then and allocating those grants appropriately and fairly.

“If we receive grants for Parks and Rec, we need to make sure those grants are allocated to not just parks in north Fullerton, but make sure that south Fullerton parks also have adequate funding,” said Zahra. He also said that we need to make sure fees for community centers and after-school programs are affordable to all residents.

As for park safety, he said we should have more community liaison officers, homeless liaison officers, and lighting in parks.

Ybarra also noted the unfairness of the city focusing so much attention on Hillcrest Park, and not on Fullerton parks like Woodcrest. He also said the city should be focusing on grants and looking more closely at the budget.

Regarding illegal behaviors in parks, he said the problem is related to homelessness and is more difficult. He said that after the beating/death of Kelly Thomas, and the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment, there are different laws and lawsuits protecting homeless people to some extent.

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Brown grass at the yet-to-be-renovated Woodcrest Park.

Historically, District 5 has had high amounts of criminal activity, with the most reported crimes being drug sales/use, vandalism, and assault. What is your plan to lower crime rates?

Ybarra said that we need more surveillance in parks, although he acknowledged that this may be difficult given budget constraints. He noted the importance of community liaison officers.

Zahra said that we need to make sure we have adequate staffing of our police and fire departments to improve emergency response times, and to increase patrols in high crime areas. He said he is also in favor of increasing our community liaison officers “to make sure we are communicating these programs with our youth, with our families, and engaging our community in an effective way.” He added that improving our local economy will help prevent crime, as economically depressed areas tend to experience more crime.

Calhoun noted that the previous Monday, someone was shot in south Fullerton, and the police department didn’t update their web site.

She said that when such crimes occur, “I want the police to make sure they put the word out that that’s a ‘hot spot’—that we cannot have our children in that area.”

She also agreed that we need more community liaison officers, and that residents need to report crimes when they see them. She added that if police do not respond in a timely manner, “There’ll be a problem. I will definitely be down there to make sure that our hot spots are being taken care of.”

Some of the recent rhetoric from the OC Board of Suprervisors and the Fullerton City Council has been anti-immigrant and anti-sanctuary. This imperils the relationship that has been built over years between the police and the immigrant community, and drives people further into the shadows. How would you respond if there were attempts on city council or the OC Board of Supervisors to further criminalize the immigrant population in our town?

Calhoun said that America needs broad immigration reform, to make sure everybody is safe, and to give immigrants a pathway to citizenship. She noted Fullerton’s diverse population, with immigrants from Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, and other places around the world.

“I’ve seen some of my friends get picked up by ICE, and then they left their children. So, there’s got to be reform nationally—not just locally,” she said.

Zahra said that he’s an immigrant, and he remembers the fear he felt before becoming a citizen.

“I had my green card, and I was always afraid. I was afraid to complain about the building I lived in, or afraid of just being stopped for a ticket, and I used to carry my green card with me, just in case. I know that feeling—I know the fear. And this experience I’ll take with me to council,” he said.

He said that our city should be open to everyone because “we are not in the business of immigration. We are in the business of providing good services, and a good quality of life for everybody who lives in our city. I will not be approving anything for our police force to be involved with ICE.”

Ybarra said that, as a Mexican-American, he’s had incidents with the police department where they were been rude to him because of his appearance.

“In this city, the police should not be immigration [officers],” he said, “They should do the job that pertains to a police officer. They should have no jurisdiction over undocumented populations.”

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A member of the audience asks a question.

What do you plan to do about illegal marijuana dispensaries?

Ybarra said that everything that is illegal should be shut down. He noted that if the city should decide to allow dispensaries, they should be in industrial areas, away from neighborhoods and schools. He also noted the potential sales tax revenue from dispensaries.

Zahra said that the city has banned dispensaries, and the danger of unregulated dispensaries is customers don’t know what they’re getting, and they pop up in neighborhoods close to schools.

“I believe that if this is something that’s regulated, that’s out in the open, we can control it much better, and we will have better public safety to manage it in a more efficient way,” he said, adding that should dispensaries be allowed, they should be away from neighborhoods and schools.

Calhoun said that dispensaries are not legal here, so they should not be allowed. She agreed that if dispensaries do become legal, they should be away from neighborhoods, schools, and children.

We’ve seen a lot of scandals in the Fullerton Police Department in the past decade or so. What are you planning to do to add some kind of oversight in the department?

Calhoun said we need to have an oversight committee for each neighborhood, to prevent police harassment.

“I see so many African-American kids who come from all over the United States to play football at Fullerton College stopped [by the police]. Why? Our Latino kids stopped. Why?” She asked.

Calhoun said she’s been stopped by the police for no reason before, even when she was a board member of the library.

“We need to have a [better] relationship with the police department,” she said.

Zahra said he favors a professional oversight committee, comprised of people who are experienced in law enforcement.

He also said he favors more community liaison officers who understand the neighborhoods, because that translates into better community policing.

“We also need to make sure we have good solid programs for sensitivity training, making sure that the police are fully trained in issues of homelessness, issues of minorities in our city like Latinos, African Americans, LGBT people and others,” he said. We have to make sure they’re well-trained and well-equipped to be part of the community.

Ybarra said, that given scandals of police brutality across the state, “We have to have better accountability with our police department because they are sometimes very aggressive…We need to have a lot more training for our police department.”

He also agreed that we need more community liaison officers, because they are “a part of the community and they don’t come with that pressure, that attitude.”

Would you be willing to re-negotiate with the police union how we staff our department?

Ybarra said he would be willing to take on the police unions, which are strong and good at using their position to their advantage. He also noted the issue of pensions obligations to retired officers and its impact on our budget.

Zahra said that, due to his business, he has a lot of experience with negotiations. He said that the police department is currently understaffed by 25 officers, so we need to hire more officers. He also noted that the police department is having a hard time recruiting officers because “the pension package we have right now is no longer lucrative.”

“There’s no need to take fights on with anybody,” he said, “let’s just look at the numbers to see how we can improve their budget and their staffing needs.”

Calhoun agreed that our department is down 25 officers, but that grants are also available to help fund our department.

“I do want to get more officers on the street, and I think we’ll have a better response time,” she said.

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At left: Community leader Jose Trinidad Castaneda moderated the forum.

Now that we have district elections, how would you ensure an equal amount of resources in the city budget to be allocated to district 5.

Ybarra noted that this area has never had representation on the council, and now with the creation of district 5, this representative will be able to make sure to push that the money and resources are allocated in a fair and equal manner.

Zahra said that we need to make sure that the resources for things like roads and parks are being allocated in an equitable way. He also said that fees for resources like community centers should not be too expensive for residents of south Fullerton.

“It’s about efficiency and making sure the budget works for all parts of our city,” said Zahra.

Regarding overall budget, Calhoun said, “I’m going to fight for us. We have been neglected for so many years.”

She also noted the unequal allocation of road repair funding between north and south Fullerton, saying she wants to make sure bumpy roads like Orangethorpe and Lemon get their fair share of repairs.

With so many residents concerned about deteriorating roads, potholes, insufficient lighting, unsafe crosswalks, and bad pedestrian walkways, how will you improve our roads and infrastructure, including lighting and crosswalks?

Calhoun noted that she would fight to get better lighting for crosswalks by schools. She said that Orangethorpe needs repairs, and that funding could also come from the state and the county for that.

Zahra said that neglected roads are a longstanding problem, and are a symptom of our budget deficit. He said that if the “gas tax” is repealed by Prop 6, the city will lose $2.5 million in road repair funding annually.

“The only way we can solve this is by economic and business development and growth,” Zahra said, “We need to make sure the city is making money, and the only way to do that is by improving our business development.”

Zahra said that he wants to look at the selection process for which roads get repaired to make sure District 5 gets its fair share.

Ybarra agreed that the city needs money to do road repairs, and that the solutions include bringing in more business, and budget cuts.

Due to aging water infrastructure, there are miles of pipes that are in need of repair. In order to keep up with the repair, the city is looking to increase the water rates of south Fullerton residents. What is your plan of action to better water infrastructure and water quality?

Calhoun said that water should be our first priority, over even things like parks, because water is “a precious resource.”

Zahra said that there are two main water issues: aging infrastructure and pollution [the North Basin contamination]. He said that when he first learned about this pollution, he proposed a “Clean and Green” resolution to city council, to make sure the city is committed to protecting the environment.

He said that the infrastructure issues, like the roads, are a symptom of the budget deficit. He added that if Prop 3 is passed, it will create a bond for water infrastructure improvements.

Ybarra said that the city needs to be on top of the water contamination every month, to make sure both council are residents are better informed about what’s going on.

How do you plan to be accessible to the community if you win? What is your plan to civicly engage as a resident if you don’t win?

Ybarra said that he is very accessible because his office is in the district, and he is there from 8am-8pm mostly every day.

“You can come to speak to me any time,” he said.

Zahra said he wants to start a social media platform where residents can engage with and contact their representative. He said he has attended, and will continue to attend, community meetings. He also proposed an annual district Town Hall meeting, as well as monthly “walk and talk” events.

Calhoun said, “I am your neighbor. I’ve been here all my my life…I’ve been a part of this community all my life.”

She said her history in the community ensures that she will be available and will “fight for us.”

What are you planning to do about homelessness?

Zahra cited a shocking statistic that we have 170 kids who are homeless in our district.

“My priority is going to be to help homeless kids first,” said Zahra.

He said we need to make sure we are educating people on the solutions to homelessness, putting pressure on our county to allocate money, and creating regional partnerships to make sure every city does it’s fair share.

He added that one way to prevent homelessness is to provide more jobs and economic activity in Fullerton.

Calhoun said, “It’s gotta be a county situation—it just can’t be city to city. All the cities and the county have got to come together.”

She said these resources should focus on all the different aspects of homelessness: drug rehab, mental health, veterans disabilities, and “people who are just down on their luck.”

Ybarra said that the city needs to find a space for homeless housing away from neighborhoods, in an industrial area.

He added that the whole region, and all the districts of the city, need to share this responsibility.

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Woodcrest community leaders discuss Fullerton’s newly-created District 5.

 

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Categories: Local Government

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