Gardena's longtime mayor says he will take the job if voters choose him for a third term, but he isn't actively campaigning in the March 5 election.
Meanwhile, his primary challenger argues that the incumbent isn't up to the task and that the city needs a change. And a third contender - a write-in candidate - said he wants to be considered even though he passed up the deadline to have his name placed on the ballot.
If it sounds a bit convoluted and confusing, that's because it is.
Incumbent Mayor Paul Tanaka, 54, filed paperwork seeking re-election because he believed no one else on the City Council would run for the office. Unbeknownst to him, Councilwoman Rachel Johnson - who is in the middle of her third term - decided to challenge him.
When the filing period to be on the ballot ended, and the candidates were announced, council members were surprised to learn Johnson had thrown her hat in the ring. Councilman Dan Medina said he would have run, too, if he had known. He took the only option he had left, and filed paperwork to be a write-in candidate.
For his part, Tanaka says he was ready to give up the reins to the city and wouldn't have even put his name on the ballot if he had known Johnson was interested. Once she filed for mayor, Tanaka said he wouldn't campaign for re-election. However, the Gardena Police Officers' Association is raising money and campaigning for him.
"If elected, he said he will be happy to serve out his term," said Sgt. Dave Brock, president of the Gardena POA. "We like what we have now. We're on our way to recovery."
Tanaka's main argument for re-election is his record. Since he first captured the mayor's seat in 2005, the city has added about 35 police officers, balanced its budget, put away $10 million in a rainy day fund, and negotiated an affordable repayment for a crippling $26 million debt racked up from two failed city initiatives in the 1990s.
"My record speaks for itself," Tanaka said.
During council meetings, Tanaka maintains strict leadership on the dais, and says he believes it is important to "act respectfully and hold everyone else accountable to that criteria."
But Johnson, a 53-year-old teacher, argues that things have been a little too quiet under Tanaka's leadership, since the city began its recovery from near bankruptcy about a decade ago. She also said the city needs a more active mayor. Tanaka doesn't attend many city functions because of his demanding job as Los Angeles County undersheriff.
"We're not a proactive body," she said.
If elected, Johnson said she would continue to be fiscally conservative, but would push the envelope in other ways.
"I think the community is disconnected," Johnson said. "We need to come from behind the dais and sponsor open City Hall meetings and newsletters, engage the public - which hasn't been done in eight years."
She also attacked Tanaka's character, as he has recently faced a series of investigations in his professional life. Last year, Tanaka was criticized for his management of county jails, where violent attacks by deputies against inmates seemed to be on the rise. This year, Tanaka was wrapped up in the reopening of a 2002 incident in which Cambodia purchased expired sheriff's Kevlar vests from Los Angeles County, and the transaction was strangely processed through Gardena. Tanaka maintains he did nothing wrong in either case.
"We need a mayor who does not have a cloud over their head," Johnson said. "Who is not distracted by professional and legal challenges."
If elected, Johnson said she would press for more local-hire programs that utilize residents for union jobs. She also wants to seek more partnerships with businesses to bolster senior activities, youth organization and outreach for the homeless.
Medina, 66, is a public relations consultant who won his first council seat in a 2008 special election.
As mayor, he said he would continue to focus on finding ways to improve the city without increasing costs due to the tight budget.
As a councilman, Medina has spearheaded a prescription drug drop-off receptacle at City Hall, which allows people to safely dispose of drugs instead of flushing them into the sewer system, which eventually discharges into the ocean. He also worked to obtain agreements with contractors that the city would be reimbursed for all recyclable materials, such as wood chips and asphalt, that are hauled away. And he has helped to switch the city from using drinking water to irrigate medians. Instead, they will be maintained with recycled water.
"There's no big pie-in-the-sky promises because it takes money to do that," Medina said. "But I've found ways to save us money without having to spend any."
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