By Kirsten Farmer for The Beach Reporter. Photo by Kirsten Farmer
The seven candidates vying for two Manhattan Beach city council seats on March 5 sounded off at a private forum Monday morning.
Dozens of people filled a meeting room at the Westdrift hotel to listen as candidates Mark Burton, Joe Franklin, Suzanne Hadley, Wayne Powell, Hildy Stern, Joseph Ungoco and Brian Withers fielded questions from moderator Mark Lipps, a member of the Manhattan Beach Rotary club that sponsored the forum.
Lipps gave each candidate 45 seconds per question to give their views on important community topics such as short-term rentals, the city’s use of consultants, a possible increase in the hotel transient occupancy tax (Measure A), school safety and the potential of transition of municipal fire services from local to county.
On the hot-button issue of legalizing short-term rentals, which the current city council is considering — most of the candidates were in agreement that the city’s 2015 ban had failed.
Some advocated keeping the ban in place, but with increased enforcement. Others said lifting the ban, but with strict regulation would be better.
Ungoco, a realtor and former communications consultant who had an unsuccessful bid for council in 2017, said he had “seen how short-term rentals can destroy a community” and cited the need for heavy regulation.
Stern, who has experience as a program director, trial attorney and accountant, advocated for stronger enforcement of the ban, echoing what many city officials have been calling for—the presence of “teeth” in enforcement.
“I was on council when it was codified,” said Powell, a former councilmember and mayor, of the ban, noting it was “entirely unenforceable” and that the city needed “to keep commercial activity in the commercial zones.”
Withers, a longtime Manhattan Beach resident and dentist in town, said regardless of what the city does, it needs a means of implementation.
“If we’re going to do anything, we need a way to enforce it .. .a ‘how’ we’re going to do it,” he said.
Burton, also a former councilmember and mayor, called short-term rentals a “character assassination on who we are” and said a ban only works if it is enforced, calling for a strengthening of such enforcement.
Franklin, a professional businessman, supports the ban, said he was the “only candidate with a plan to address short-term rentals.”
Hadley, who boasts experience in corporate finance, marketing and small business ownership, said she was “in favor of heavy regulation.”
The city’s use of consultants
Lipps asked what the candidates thought of the city’s spending on outside consultants.
Most of the candidates said there are valuable, untapped resources within the community that could minimize the need for such consultants.
“We have educated, experienced residents,” Stern said, articulating the city should partner with the community.
Powell said he was against the use of outside consultants, while Withers expressed he was against over-hiring such outside resources for “every little problem that comes across our plate.”
Withers likened the use of outside consultants to the phone-a friend-lifeline on famous 2000’s television show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” noting the resource could only be used once.
Burton said there were “times when it’s smart and times where it’s wasteful,” of hiring outside consultants.
“I know a little because I’ve seen a little,” he joked, referencing a Farmer’s Insurance commercial.
Franklin said the city could do a lot without consultants.
“This isn’t about consultants, it’s about track record,” Hadley said, noting the city’s overuse.
Ungoco, who has worked as a consultant, said “consultant’s aren’t the problem, they’re the solution” and “sometimes they are a band-aid to another problem.”
Hotel bed tax
Manhattan Beach may see an uptick in revenue from a potential hotel transient occupancy tax increase.
Voters in the March election will have the chance vote on Measure A, a ballot measure to raise the TOT tax from 10 percent to 12 percent next year, with a potential increase of up to four percent in the coming years.
This increase would bring Manhattan Beach in line with neighboring communities’ hotel bed tax rates.
At the forum Monday, Lipps asked the candidates how they would spend the money if the increased TOT tax were to pass, such as financing further safety personnel.
Powell said it would be important to designate where the funds could be spent.
“The reality is what goes into the general fund can be spent on anything, including management salaries,” said Powell.
Withers said the revenue could be used to cover existing gaps, noting what he called the “least sexy issue” of the storm-water management fund.
He said when the general fund is used to fill such gaps, it can get “messy.”
Burton said the revenue should go into restricted funds and took the opportunity to urge the city to get the new Senior and Scout house built “now!”
Franklin joked he was “definitely not in favor of spending it on consultants” and said the money should go towards public safety.
Hadley, who stressed her professional background in finance, said she was against Measure A, noting the potential to increase “up to 4 percent” could entail a 40 percent increase in one tax.
Ungoco said Manhattan Beach should be in line with the rest of Los Angeles County and said the city needed more “code enforcement.”
Stern said she supported the increase and saw it as an opportunity for the community.
School safety is a paramount topic in all communities in light of gun violence tragedies across the nation.
The Manhattan Beach City Council allocated $1 million in March of last year to help beef up on-campus security, including the addition of perimeter fencing at schools throughout the district.
Lipps asked candidates how they will continue to ensure school safety and most felt the Manhattan Beach school district was addressing concerns effectively.
Withers said he felt the district is “actually doing a good job,” calling the lockdown drills and campus police presence “appropriate.”
Burton said local police should stop into campuses and check in with administrators as often as daily.
Franklin expressed he was pleased to learn the city does pay for safety personnel such as crossing guards and officer resources at Mira Costa.
Hadley said she loved the security fences.
“I’ll do the job (to) keep kids safe,” she said, noting she is a mother of four including a Costa student.
“It is a priority to me that children have a safe place to learn,” Ungoco said.
Stern said the district was responding well to national tragedies by “looking at those emergencies.”
“We got smart. We were listening, we were watching, we were frightened,” said Stern, noting increased police presence should be added if needed.
Powell said he is a strong supporter of public safety.
Transition from local to county fire
Another key topic raised at the forum Monday was the possibility Manhattan Beach fire personnel may be transitioned to combine with Los Angeles County in coming years.
Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hermosa Beach, the city has been examining the potential transition.
Lipps asked what the candidates thoughts were on the subject.
Burton said he is a supporter of the public safety department.
Withers expressed pride in the Manhattan Beach Fire Department, noting he would like to keep it intact, but said county may be the way to go.
Powell noted response times in emergency situations were the most important thing to consider.
Stern said the issue was a matter of balance between “cost and quality of service,” citing the community’s “connection to public safety” in having a local fire department but urging the city to “make sure we are preserving the quality of our service.”
“It is so important to the fabric of our community that we are not separate from (firefighters),” Ungoco said.
Hadley said, if elected, she would do everything in her power to preserve a local fire department but noted there may be some financial trade-offs.
“Of course, we love our Manhattan Beach fire department,” Franklin said, “But there are financial things we have to face.”
Candidates elected March 5 will serve until Nov. 2022, replacing Councilmembers David Lesser and Amy Howorth, who have termed out.
To learn more about the candidates or the election, visit https://www.citymb.info/departments/city-clerk/elections.
A public forum with the candidates is Feb. 14 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at American Martyrs Church.