By Christian L. Guzman, Community Reporter
On Sept. 28, the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment hosted a candidate forum and selection to enable the Wilmington Neighborhood Council to continue to function.
This action of “exhaustive measures” was taken by DONE because of the Wilmington council’s inability to approve expenditures or hold meetings due to lack of quorums within the past several months.
It also allowed for the reforming of the elected board outside of the original by-laws of Wilmington Neighborhood Council. Those laws restricted greater community involvement based upon a uniquely odd formula that allowed for businesses and the Port of Los Angeles to have designated seats.
As previously reported in Random Lengths News, an election for the council took place this past June. Only three board members were elected and only 47 people voted. This was not enough to make a quorum for the council. Therefore, a selection of 10 additional board members in September was necessary for the council to conduct meetings.
The selection took place at Phineas Banning High School’s auditorium. Some 347 ballots were cast for more than 30 candidates. It was quite unlike the elections that took place earlier this year for the nearby Central and Coastal San Pedro neighborhood councils. There were no rival groups of politically polarized candidates. No campaign supporters were assertively placing slate cards in people’s hands before they crossed a line to vote. And there was no pseudo-militia men marching with American Flags or shouting from megaphones at traffic.
Some candidates did campaign before the forum, either individually or in small groups. However, their demeanors were casual and they talked about themselves, rather than the failings of others.
Each candidate had two minutes to speak. Stephen Box, director of Outreach and Communications for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, presented the candidates in groups according to the category they ran for. There were three seats available for residents, three for property owners, three for people who worked in Wilmington and one seat for a community interest stakeholder.
Out of more than 30 candidates vying for a seat, four of them were board members of the previous Wilmington Neighborhood Council.
The candidates addressed similar issues. They demanded cleaner air and a better environment, more economic development, and increased safety for children and the rest of the community.
Despite the common themes, certain candidates resonated with the crowd more than others.
Sylvia Arredondo described herself as an eco-feminist and social justice activist. She has been a board member with the Wilmington Neighborhood Council multiple times. In this election, she ran for a seat in the residency group.
Arredondo said that quality of life starts with health; she went on to say that Wilmington’s industries, such as auto shops and refineries, are not doing all that they could to mitigate negative health impacts for residents.
“Children are playing baseball at John Mendez Park and later dying of leukemia,” Arredondo said. “There are oil fields throughout Wilmington. My young nieces use inhalers and my friend has endometriosis. I want to be a voice for all of them.”
Arredondo also wants more resources for Wilmington’s schools. Her own experiences with Wilmington schools were sobering. She couldn’t take textbooks home. In class, she had to share them with up to four people.
“Our schools shouldn’t oppress us,” Arredondo said. “They should allow for people to become successful.”
Monica Garcia-Massey works as a real estate agent in Wilmington for local historic properties. She told the audience that she wants to change the way investors perceive Wilmington.
Garcia-Massey said potential investors once told her they would not invest in redeveloping he Grenado Theatre because they didn’t believe Wilmington “was ready for revitalization.”
“The millionaires are not willing to take a chance,” said Garcia-Massey. “So I want to help restructure the business [environment] and maximize local funds for current residents.”
Garcia-Massey also sees great potential for the arts community in Wilmington. She co-founded the Avalon Arts and Culture Alliance, an organization that puts on the Wilmington Art Walk on Avalon Boulevard. She said that she would use her position on the neighborhood council to support additional arts and culture programs.
By far, the most well-received candidate was Ignacio “Nacho” Ortiz, co-founder of Hojas Premium Teahouse. He told the crowd of the pride he feels from starting a business with his wife in their hometown. Since its founding Hojas has won awards and expanded to a second location in San Pedro.
Ortiz has become active in improving Wilmington’s infrastructure.
“Along with my wife, I sat in Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office … pushing to get the Avalon lights installed and adding solar trash cans in the city.”
Ortiz’s success comes from asking himself and others, “Why can’t we?”
“Why can’t we have a successful family business in Wilmington?” he asked. “Why can’t we have beautification projects like other parts of Los Angeles?”
He said that on the council he will continue to ask those questions and work to improve the city.
He received sincere applause when he finished speaking.
There was also a notable apathy toward a couple of candidates.
Janet Grothe and Robert McCoy have both supported the youth in Wilmington. Grothe helped contribute to the International Trade Education Program and the Gang Alternatives Program. McCoy is opening a sailing center that will incorporate math and science applications.
But by stressing their experience with the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Phillips 66, the Port of Los Angeles and other companies, Grothe and McCoy seemed like they were reading their resumes for a white-collar job interview. There was no personal connection.
Once the forum ended, the ballots were collected and counted in another room by a team of volunteers. After about an hour the winners were announced. The new board will include Arredondo, Garcia-Massey and Ortiz, along with: Ernesto Aguilar, Nancy Anaya, Valerie Contreras, Catherine Familathe, Ernesto Aguilar, Socorro Fimbres, Carlos Sanchez and Margaret Hernandez.
This board breaks from the status quo.
It used to be comprised of 24 board members. Now it has 13 in total.
Box said that the board can choose to leave it at 13 or appoint board members up to 24.
Historically the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce had obvious influence and representation on the neighborhood council. The previous council had five members who were also on the board of the chamber. This included the current chamber president, Janet Grothe, and the previous president, Pat Wilson. The new neighborhood council board has not a single chamber board member.
Arredondo acknowledged the change.
“Before there were some board members who could be considered community leaders, but who were beholden to businesses and industries,” Arredondo said.
Arredondo’s peers represent more diverse and community-grounded interests such as advocating for nonviolence, supporting better legislation to help veterans, uplifting arts and businesses, and improving the environment.
Several board members do have ties to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. However, that is unsurprising. Wilmington is the “heart of the harbor.”
The Wilmington Neighborhood Council meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month at the Wilmington Senior Center, 1371 Eubank Ave. in Wilmington.
The next stakeholder meeting is scheduled for Oct. 26.