LAKEWOOD - He's a successful Lakewood businessman and an active philanthropist. Now Ron Piazza will embark on a new role - Lakewood City Council member.
"I love this city. I grew up in Lakewood. I went to Lakewood schools and I graduated from Lakewood High School," he said in an interview last week after his appointment to the council. "Lakewood has been good to me and I've enjoyed it to the degree I have to give back to the community."
The council unanimously selected Piazza on Thursday night during a special meeting to fill the vacancy left by the death of longtime Councilman Larry Van Nostran.
Although new to the council, Piazza, 61, is no stranger to working in Lakewood, a bedroom community of about 80,000 people.
He got his first job at McDonald's in Lakewood more than 40 years ago. Today, he owns 11 McDonald's restaurants and is active in the community - a trait that played a major role in his selection, said the council members.
"We had many great candidates with qualities that would have made them good council members. I was looking for the single best candidate with the most experience who could serve the remainder of Larry (Van Nostran's) term," said Councilman Jeff Wood, who sat on the two-man committee that narrowed a list of 20 applicants to five finalists, including Piazza. "In my mind, Ron's deep civic and business experience provided a great combination of qualities that would immediately allow him to work well with our current council.
Piazza's experiences includes serving as chairman of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern California, a position he will relinquish at the end of the year. This year he turned over his chairmanship of the Long Beach Ronald McDonald's House.
He has also been active with the Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame and the YMCA.
"I believe he's going to be phenomenal. He's got a great amount of affection for Lakewood and a lot of history, and I think he'll bring a lot to the council," said Councilman Todd Rogers. "The one thing I expect him to bring is a lack of an agenda outside of what's best for the city - his only agenda is doing what he thinks is best for Lakewood."
Over the years, Piazza has been instrumental in city issues like serving on the committee that worked to successfully pass Measure L, the Lakewood Utility User Tax modernization measure in 2008.
By state law, the council had to either appoint a Lakewood resident to the council vacancy by Jan. 8 or schedule a special June 4 election. The council chose to fill the seat to avoid the cost of a special election, which the city clerk estimates would cost Lakewood between $80,000 and $100,000.
"I didn't favor the special election, and the expense is one issue, but the other issue is, whoever is elected in the special election is going to have to turn around and run again in a year and a half," said Rogers. "That's kind of a burden to put on somebody in terms of mounting a campaign, the finances and the stress."
Another option the council explored was to appoint a caretaker, a person who would serve out the remainder of Van Nostran's term, and in two years the city would have regular general elections with an open seat, allowing residents to vote for a new council member, said Rogers.
"The caretaker idea would give (candidates) an equal opportunity to state their case to the voters, and then they weigh-in on who they want to be the council member," he said. "I was intrigued by the idea. We had a guy who had no desire to run for the four-year seat, (who) was going to serve out the term, had a lot of familiarity with the city, and I thought that was a good option."
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to appoint Piazza, thus saving the city money, officials said.
"We are getting hammered by the state - constantly they keep asking us for more money," Rogers said. "So, even though we had budgeted for the election this year, which was canceled, that money is still important to us. (It's) general fund money that can be used for other things."
The overall process was no easy task, officials said.
"I believed that we had a strong pool of qualified applicants to chose from, and that by appointing someone to the seat it would ensure continuity without the cost and disruption of holding a special election," said Councilman Steve Croft, the other member of the two-man committee.
"It was a very difficult decision because of the quality of candidates," Rogers said. "We had 20 people apply and almost every single one of them was viable. There were some who stood out as having more community history and involvement, but there's no doubt he's going to be a very effective council member."
As a businessman, Piazza plans to use his experience to foster good business practices within the city, he said.
While he will continue to actively run his restaurants, there will always be time dedicated to council responsibilities, said Piazza, who also uses the little free time he has for boating, gardening and traveling with his wife, Nancy.
"I wouldn't have put my hat in the ring, but for my friend Larry Van Nostran's passing," Piazza said. "Larry and I were close. I worked on all of his campaigns and we were co-chairs of the Lakewood Youth Hall of Fame.
"I respected him tremendously and I thought this would be something I could do - something good for the city and to honor Larry as well."
Van Nostran served on the council from 1975 until his death Nov. 9 at the age of 79, making him the longest-serving council member in Lakewood history.
Piazza will complete the remainder of Van Nostran's term, which ends March 24, 2015. He will be sworn in before Jan. 8 by the city clerk, and there will be a public swearing-in at the next regular council meeting Jan. 22, according to city spokesman Bill Grady.
Though humbled by his appointment, Piazza knows he has an awesome responsibility to fulfill the needs of the residents, he said.
"I want the residents to understand that I will work very hard to prove to them that I will do all I can to make myself worthy of this honorable appointment," he said. "This could (possibly) be one of the best run cities in the state of California, and the council members I am joining are high quality folks who have done a wonderful job managing this city, so I come into a council that has no immediate issues."