The candidates running for three Manhattan Beach City Council seats generally agree that their town is a safe place to live, with top-ranking schools and high property values.
Just last month, in fact, news broke that the city logged 372 sales of million-dollar properties in 2012, up from 328 the year before. That reflects the second-highest total in the state.
But there's a sentiment that City Hall has room for improvement - some candidates feel more strongly about that than others - whether it be creating a more open and accessible government, reassessing public safety resources or planning for infrastructure projects.
With Councilmen Nick Tell and Richard Montgomery termed out this year, voters on March 5 will choose among six candidates for three seats on the five-member council.
Mayor Wayne Powell is running for a second term. Joining him on the ballot are former Councilman Mitch Ward, a small-business owner; Tony D'Errico, a downtown business owner; Mark Lipps, a retired TV executive who recently launched a business focused on sustainable building practices; Mark Burton, a retired municipal attorney; and Viet Ngo, a civic activist and frequent council critic.
Campaign contributions this year have been fairly low, according to the most recent records available at the City Clerk's Office, filed Jan. 19. Powell led the field with $17,194, including a $10,000 personal loan, followed by D'Errico, $3,099; Ward, $2,246; Lipps, $1,588; and Burton, $1,560. There were no records for Ngo.
The 60-year-old Powell, elected in 2009, said he's proud of various accomplishments, including his push to do away with the 15-minute time limit on public comment at the start of council meetings, and efforts to quash a Malibu group's plan to dredge sand off Manhattan Beach to shore up an eroded section of coastline.
He also persuaded his colleagues to extend the city's smoking ban in recreation areas to include The Strand.
Powell said he's running for re-election to continue some of the initiatives that got under way during his tenure, including expanding residents' ability to participate in government - potentially through interactive emails and Skype. He wants the city to continue refinancing bonds and certificates of participation to cut costs.
Another goal is to grow the local Community Emergency Response Team program, of which he serves as a board member.
The mayor surprised residents and fellow candidates last week when he announced at an election forum that the city was close to finalizing talks with city bargaining groups that will result in pension reform - a topic that came up repeatedly during the last council race.
Powell is a retired chief financial officer and current member of the Los Angeles County Beach Commission.
Besides Powell, Ward, 51, is the only other candidate who's had a seat at the council dais.
An actor and small-business owner who runs a technology company, Ward served on the council from 2003-11 and said he would have run for re-election had it not been for a city law requiring a two-year hiatus after two consecutive terms.
During his tenure, he said, the city maintained a AAA financial rating and balanced its budgets yearly with surpluses.
A new goal is to create a 10-year plan for Sepulveda Boulevard.
Ward said residents urged him to enter the race - a decision he didn't make lightly. But he valued his time as a public servant: "It's in my heart," he said.
"It was not like there were things I felt were left undone," Ward added. "The drumbeat became more and more."
Maintaining the town's quality of life and safe neighborhoods has been a common thread during the campaign, with some candidates calling for more police resources in the city's downtown. But Ward said he supports the current service levels along with the department's practice of having officers make regular rounds through town.
"I don't necessarily want to see police officers walking all over town," he said, "especially when we're in the middle of pension reform."
Among those calling for more of a police presence in the downtown business district are D'Errico, a 64-year-old downtown store owner and former international business executive, and Burton, a retired senior assistant city attorney for Los Angeles.
"I believe in beat cops," said D'Errico, who with his wife owns Bella Beach and Bella Beach Kids. "That sends a message."
D'Errico, a Downtown Business Association board member, said he meets regularly with local police and has been concerned about some recent crimes, including a break-in at the trendy True Religion store and a residential burglary forcing area schools to go on lockdown. Both he and Burton said they're worried about the effects of the state's realignment program to reduce the number of prison inmates.
Although Manhattan Beach has seen a 1.8 percent drop in crime overall, Police Chief Eve Irvine said crime has increased in certain categories, including motor vehicle thefts, up from 33 in 2011 to 43 in 2012, and robberies, up from 10 in 2011 to 29 last year.
The city also is tracking the effects of the new state realignment law; since October 2011, 20 people arrested for crimes in town were identified as former state inmates who were transferred to county jails as a result of realignment, Sgt. Paul Ford said.
But Irvine said it's important to understand 2011 crime rates were exceptionally low. And in the categories that saw spikes, she added, the numbers were mostly comparable to years prior to 2011.
D'Errico said public safety is not his only focus in the campaign; he also supports strategically planned economic development, enriching senior programs, and striving for more transparency and public participation in the budget-making process.
Burton said he'd support a downtown "foot beat officer," even if only on a trial basis. If the change made a difference, he suggested forming a public safety nonprofit group to help fund the position and other initiatives.
Burton, too, has emphasized more than policing and crime rates while running for office - a move he decided to make following his retirement from the city of Los Angeles.
While working in the City Attorney's Office, he said he provided advice to city leaders, department heads, supervisors and others. He said he's dealt with local risk managers and understands state open records laws.
And Burton points to his work negotiating and drafting collective bargaining agreements - experience he believes would translate well at Manhattan Beach City Hall.
Burton, 59, believes the city could do more to get residents involved and informed about important issues. The status of union contract negotiations, for example, is one issue that could have appeared more frequently on council agendas, even if just for status updates, he said.
"I've got 30 years in public service. Public service is what I know, it's what I'm good at," he said. "I'll bring a passion and breadth and depth of experience second to none."
Like D'Errico and Burton, Mark Lipps, 56, is making his first run for elected office.
But he has a long resume as a community volunteer, having just returned from a Rotary trip to Guatemala, where he handed out textbooks to schools. He's a graduate of Leadership Manhattan Beach, serves as a Neighborhood Watch captain and has coached his sons' club baseball teams.
If elected, Lipps said he'd support the addition of a police substation east of Sepulveda Boulevard, such as at Manhattan Village mall, to help with response times.
"I think public safety is a top priority. ... I say protect what we have and enhance what we have."
Not surprisingly, the owner of a newly launched company called Sage - which promotes eco-friendly building practices and alternative energy sources - wants to focus his attention on public facilities. For example, he said he would want to explore leasing solar panels as a way to cut utility costs and reduce energy usage.
"That's discretionary income that our city ... can use on other things," he said.
Ngo, 62, is a frequent presence at council meetings, where he is often critical of current and former council elected officials and staff, making allegations about corruption and attempts to keep information from the public.
He is particularly critical of the way the former council handled the resignation of prior City Manager Geoff Dolan. An open-government group sued the city over the incident, seeking records tied to his departure. Once they were released, Dolan also sued for breach of contract and privacy rights violations.
Ngo, who made an unsuccessful run for council two years ago, decided to enter the race "because of ongoing corruption and waste and abuse in City Hall by City Hall officials."
"I believe this is the last chance for me to help this community," he said.
Ngo settled in Manhattan Beach following the Vietnam War in 1977. A native of South Vietnam, Ngo said the South Bay beach community reminded him of his hometown, Vung Tau, where his family owned commercial properties.
Also on March 5, city Treasurer Tim Lilligren, elected in 2005, is running unopposed.
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