Residents running for the San Fernando City Council would traditionally do a heavy amount of door knocking and talking one-on-one with people at small events. But this year campaigning is very different.
Candidates are doing their best to get the word out as LA county health guidelines are currently not allowing this type of contact because of the health pandemic.
“It’s a tough season,” said City Manager Nick Kimball, adding that county health officials are still working on potential guidelines that may loosen up restrictions about close contact with voters.
But for right now, candidates are restricted to reaching voters through mailers, social media, lawn signs, phone banking and word of mouth to get their message out about why they should be elected to the council.
Three of the five council seats are up for election on Nov. 3. Four candidates — Magaly Colelli, incumbent Joel Fajardo, Cindy Montañez and Celeste Rodriguez — are running for two available four-year terms. The top two who get the most votes will be elected to the council.
There is another race for a two-year term on the council. David Bernal is opposing incumbent Mary Mendoza for that seat.
Tyler J. Hughes, an associate professor of political science at California State University, Northridge who studies campaigns, said that in a local election it all comes down to voter turnout and name recognition.
“It’s about getting your name recognized and getting it recognized very early,” Hughes said. “It’s getting people to recognize who you are and that you are a presence.”
He said that direct contact with voters has been very effective for decades but the pandemic has made things more difficult this year. Phone calls are an alternative to face-to-face contact, Hughes said.
“Any kind of direct contact whether it be face-to-face or by phone has a significant impact on people voting but also on voting for people who contacted them,” he said.
Contacted by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, the candidates elaborated about what they would do for the city if elected.
Colelli, who co-owns and operates Magaly’s Tamales and Mexican Grill, is seeking office for the first time. She said her campaigning has been by mostly word of mouth. Her husband is retired San Fernando Police Lt. Chris Colelli, and she said that she supports a strong police budget.
She said she has spent her entire life in San Fernando, and wants to strengthen the business climate in the city.
“We have a lot of potential. We are a very united city,” Colelli said, and believes this “needs to be expressed” to potential businesses who may want to move to the city. She said that City Hall needs to better guide prospective businesses through the permitting process not only for the city but for other permits they need from the county or state.
She said the city needs more parking and proposes a parking structure possibly be built.
“I’m not talking about a 10-story-tall structure,” she said, clarifying that she means a structure that would go underground and perhaps two levels above ground.
Fajardo is the city’s current mayor and has been on the council since 2012. He said he’s getting the word out that he is running again by “collaborating with the many community members I’ve come to know over the years.”
Fajardo said he believes his biggest accomplishment since being in office is helping bring about more financial stability to the city, which has been struggling over the years. He said the city ended the 2019-2020 fiscal year with $1 million in reserves and believes that the city is meeting the economic challenges caused by the pandemic.
He added that he has been spearheading the city’s efforts to meet the long-term economic challenges caused by employee pension and health benefit retirement costs.
As for support of business, Fajardo said he would like the city to create a program where the community development department contacts every business in the city to make sure its needs are being met.
Fajardo is a real estate agent.
This is not the first time that Montañez has run for the San Fernando City Council. She was on the council from 1999-2002. She left the council to run for higher office and was elected to the state Assembly representing the 39th District. She ran unsuccessfully for the Los Angeles City Council and state Senate. She has also been assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Montañez, currently the CEO of the nonprofit TreePeople, has said that she wants to help revitalize the downtown area and believes that with her experience she can garner additional resources for the city to help businesses and residents.
Rodriguez said that she is disappointed that she can’t meet voters one on one during this campaign but said she is working hard to fundraise so that she can send out mailers to give voters more information about her candidacy. She said she is also hosting virtual coffee meetings with residents.
Rodriguez has worked in public service for more than 10 years, five of them with the administration of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in Community Development Strategies tackling issues such as homelessness, housing, poverty and veterans affairs. She is currently a deputy director in the Economic Opportunity Department.
“I have experience advocating for resources, managing budgets, working with communities to write effective policies and implementing programs and projects to meet needs. This experience enables me to deliver for the City of San Fernando,” Rodriguez said.
She advocates better partnering between the city and business community and supports community oversight for Measures A and SF sales tax hikes.
Rodriguez said officials must listen to the needs of its constituents concerning what they believe the city should spend money on. At a recent town hall concerning Measure A, several constituents said the city should spend more money on sidewalks and streets. Rodriguez said she agrees with that.
Rodriguez is current Councilmember Robert Gonzales’ fiancée. Gonzales has decided not to run again.
Mendoza was appointed by the council in 2019 to complete the unfinished term of former Councilmember Antonio Lopez who resigned. She is running on her own in this election and said she is getting the word out through her website, phone banks and lawn signs.
Mendoza’s family has lived in San Fernando for five generations and she believes that the city “continues to be the quaint hometown everybody loves.”
Before being appointed to the council, she was a regular in the audience at council meetings to comment on city matters. Now that she is on the council, Mendoza said she has the opportunity to speak with more residents and businesses than she did as a private citizen.
“My vision for the city is to have more retail, restaurants and entertainment, paved streets and sidewalks repaired,” she said and added that she wants to “have an environmentally friendly place to live in — a prosperous city with a balanced budget.”
She said she keeps an eye on city finances and said that although the pandemic will result in a loss of revenue to the city, a retirement incentive offered to staff will save the city $600,000-$800,000.
Mendoza is retired.
Bernal ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2018. He said that campaign consisted of traditional door knocking and phone calls but this year he is using phone calls, mailers and social media to get the word out about his campaign.
Bernal, who works full time as an AT&T technician, said the last time around he thinks he underestimated the amount of time it takes to run a successful campaign.
“Time management is one thing that I learned,” he said.
Bernal is a former city transportation and safety commissioner as well as planning and preservation commissioner. He said that those experiences gave him a better understanding of the details about what it takes to run a city and what residents want from their city.
He believes that the city’s total sales tax rate (10 percent) is too high.
“We’re going to have to be a little more creative if we need money,” he said.
Bernal added that the city needs to make it cheaper for businesses to operate in San Fernando.
“I walk through our city often and I can see the potential San Fernando has to be the destination city it deserves to be.”
Also on the Nov. 3 ballot is a measure to increase the local sales tax rate to 3/4 percent from ½ percent. City officials say it will be used for such things as street and sidewalk improvements, public infrastructure, public wi-fi, long-term debt reduction and to add staffing. It is expected to raise $1.1 million annually, according to officials.