Candid candidates discuss city issues at East Orange forum

By Tanner Woodward and Tina Richards

Candidates running for office in Orange weighed in on topics ranging from property rights, partisan politics, and the strength of the general plan, at a forum held Oct. 1 at Salem Lutheran Church.

The forum, sponsored by the Foothills Sentry and Orange Park Association, focused on issues of specific interest to East Orange voters.  Questions asked by Moderator Kim Haman, a Sentry staff writer, specifically targeted inappropriate development and the value of neighborhood input regarding city policy.

Asked about the balance of homeowner rights vs. those of developers, Kim Nichols noted that all property owners should be considerate of each other and the surrounding community. “I liken it to someone buying property next to you and building a Disneyland,” she explained.  “No one would want that.  It’s irresponsible.  That’s why we have a general plan, it takes into account the concerns of all property owners.”

He can’t say “no”

Ray Grangoff noted otherwise. “I believe that when somebody who owns a piece of property has something they want to do with that property, the city has an obligation to work with them.  If we keep saying ‘no, no, no’ all the time, then we are not going to get any interest in any part of our city for development.”  

Incumbent Fred Whitaker told the audience that the Orange General Plan is a reliable guidepost, but is subject to amendments.  “There are times when the General Plan does not fit the community or what is going on with land uses. There are times when there are multiple land uses on one property. When that happens you will see amendments.”  

Mayor Tita Smith, running for her second term, agreed that the plan was a living document and could be changed, but “not while a project was underway.” 

The reach of Ridgeline

Reminded of the painful multi-year battle over the proposed Ridgeline development, now before the California Supreme Court, all, save for Nichols, believed the city handled the controversial project correctly. Tita Smith voted against the development and noted that “even though the city voted one way, the community stepped in and fought back. Nobody is perfect, not even cities.” 

Mayoral hopeful Eugene Fields, who admits he has lived in Orange only two months, had no position on Ridgeline and missed the mark on several subjects.  Asked about privatization of city services, he talked about downsizing at the OC Register. He did not appear to know where the infamous rock crushing facility (site of proposed Rio Santiago development) is, reporting that he was aware of the dust because he “played softball” near there.  There are no sports fields in that area.

A candidate’s personal history and awareness of neighborhood issues is important to voters in “small town/big city” Orange.  Lifelong resident Smith said that “the strength of the neighborhoods and towns is what I love about Orange.” Jon Dumitru, another lifer, said, “I am very proud of Orange and its residents in coming together to influence the city.” 

Life of the party

The last several elections in Orange have been overtly influenced by the Republican Central Committee as well as out-of-town special interests.  Asked if party politics had a place in Orange’s nonpartisan elections, Smith, Nichols, Dumitru and Fields said “no.” Whitaker and Grangoff said “yes.”

“It is important for voters to know where I stand,” Grangoff explained, “and that is the Republican Party.” 

Whitaker agreed, saying, “I represent a broad spectrum of voters but it is important that voters understand my political philosophy.”

Nichols, also a Republican, believes “party politics doesn’t play a role when it comes to what’s in the best interest for our community.”  And Republican Dumitru said “being a part of the party’s endorsement takes away from being responsive to the residents.” 

Audience participation

Of all the questions posed during the two-hour event, those coming from the audience were the most targeted. Jon Dumitru was specifically asked about his financial woes and how his mismanagement of personal funds translated to city finances. He reported that his past financial troubles came from severe medical issues in 1994, and that he stands by the financial decisions he made during his previous eight years on the council and the resulting balanced budgets.

Ray Grangoff, considered to be a politician “passing through” Orange on his way to greater glory in the Republican Party, was questioned about his status as a legitimate resident. Grangoff replied by giving out his home address. “I have lived in Orange since 2008,” he said, “if anyone wants to stop by, feel free to knock on my door and I will answer.” 

The audience challenged Fred Whitaker’s bid to become Republican Central Committee chairman as contrary to the goals of an elected city councilman. Whitaker disagreed with the “premise” of the question, indicating he did not see a conflict.  While he suggested the party “needs to endorse less,” he also, “expects the Republican Party to let its positions be known; that is part of the political process.”