NORWALK - The five candidates in the March 5 City Council election addressed Norwalk's growing homicide rate, economic development and other issues Monday during a candidates forum.
Incumbents Cheri Kelley and Mike Mendez will face challengers Darryl Rodney Adams, a Norwalk-La Mirada school board member; Enrique Aranda, a marketing director with the Los Angeles Catholic archdiocese; and Candy Martinez, a small-business owner, in the council race. They will compete for two open council seats.
Bryan C. Mesinas Perez withdrew from the election, but his name remains on the ballot.
The 90-minute candidate forum was hosted by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and held at the Norwalk Arts and Sports Complex. Members of the audience submitted questions, and the candidates answered seven of them.
The city's double-digit homicide rate was on audience members' minds.
In 2012, 11 people were killed in the city compared with five in 2011. Most of the homicides were gang-related, and suspects were arrested in nine shootings, officials have said.
The candidates were asked to explain their vision for public safety.
Aranda said the city should look at how other cities are addressing the issue and offer gang intervention and violence prevention programs but didn't explain what programs that would entail or how they would be paid.
Adams said the city should collaborate with neighborhood watches, the sheriff's Norwalk Station and the Norwalk-La Mirada school district to look at issues before they result in violence.
Martinez, on the other hand, said she is tired of her home and car being covered in graffiti and is worried about seniors being robbed. She also said she worries about children playing outside and being caught in the crossfire.
Mendez, who was first elected to the council in 1988 and is in the midst of his fifth term, said the city does offer youth intervention programs and does community outreach.
But he said the biggest problem in addressing crime is a lack of funds.
"We don't have the money to put deputies on every street," Mendez said. "They can't be everywhere all the time."
Kelley, who was first elected to the council in 1997 and is in the midst of her third term, also said the city has held several community meetings with residents and reached out to various churches and clergy.
On the question of how to attract new business to the Norwalk, Martinez said the city should put businesses on vacant properties, such as on Front Street.
Kelley, however, said the city doesn't own the land the properties sit on and has to work with the property owners. Sometimes those owners have suggested businesses the city doesn't think are the right caliber, Kelley said.
"We're always looking for quality projects," she said.
Adams also mentioned Front Street. He said the vacancies in that area are "pathetic."
"We need a plan," Adams said, but didn't provide one of his own.
Mendez, on the other hand, said Norwalk has to be a safe place to do business and needs to keep graffiti down.
Aranda offered a five-point plan for economic development, including cutting red tape at City Hall and revitalizing commercial corridors but didn't elaborate on the individual points.
One topic missing from discussion was the city's out-of-date sewer system, which is in desperate need of repair. Adams mentioned it only in passing.
The lines in the city's 151-mile sewer system have not been updated or repaired since it's pre-1957 installation.
The city is in the process of surveying all the lines to prioritize which need to be repaired first.
The cost of upgrading and repairing the system is estimated at $40 million; however, that figure might rise or fall as the surveying continues, Public Services Director Gary DiCorpo said.
Norwalk pays for its sewer system with general fund money, but that amount of capital isn't available, Kelley told the Press-Telegram last week.
One option to pay for the repairs is a ballot measure creating a tax on homeowners' water bills, Kelley and Mendez said last week.
"We don't have the money now," Kelley said. "But sometime very soon there will be a lot of work that has to be done or we will have an issue.
"If we don't do this, people won't like what ends up in their front yards," she said.
The next Norwalk council candidates forum will be 6 p.m. Feb. 20 at Norwalk City Hall, City Council Chambers, 12700 Norwalk Blvd.