12:01 AM PDT on Saturday, October 16, 2010

By ERIN WALDNER
The Press-Enterprise

It’s been more than a year since a proposal to build a sewage sludge plant in Banning died, but with the City Council election nearing, the issue has again bubbled to the surface.

Two men who co-wrote a ballot measure to block the plant, Edward Miller and Lyndon Taylor, are among seven candidates vying for two seats on the Banning City Council in next month’s election.

Both have criticized the council for signing letters of intent with Liberty Energy, which proposed a plant to burn waste to generate electricity. Taylor said the council put residents at risk.

In addition to Miller and Taylor, Chris McCallum, Perry “Rocky” Bray and Victor Edinburgh are challenging two incumbents: Mayor Bob Botts and Councilwoman Debbie Franklin. The top two vote-getters will each win a four-year term on the council.

The incumbents now find themselves on the defensive over the sludge plant as they run for re-election.

Botts, a retired businessman, said Liberty officials wanted a sign of good faith that the city was willing to talk to them about the plant before the company put thousands of dollars into an environmental review.

“In business we used non-binding letters of intent all the time,” he said.

Franklin said, “I think it’s our responsibility as a community to explore all options and the letters of intent were only in the event we decided to go with it. There was never any pre-determined decision that we were going to go that way.”

Taylor has said the City Council also purchased land for the plant. Franklin said her thinking at the time was that buying the land would give the city the ability to negotiate with any kind of manufacturer interested in coming to Banning. She said businesses considering locating in Banning want to know what land is available.

The measure Miller and Taylor wrote with a third resident would have banned the burning of sludge in Banning. Some 4,000 people signed a petition to put the measure before voters. Presented with the petition, the council in August 2009 unanimously adopted an ordinance that killed the Liberty Energy project.

Miller said the issue “made me aware that you cannot ignore what the City Council is doing.”

Two other issues that have emerged in this election are the city’s spending of redevelopment money and economic development.

REDEVELOPMENT MONEY

A 2009-10 grand jury report was critical of the Banning Cultural Alliance, which received city redevelopment money to stage events to promote downtown, and of the city’s oversight of the group. Botts also draws criticism from Miller, Taylor and Edinburgh for supporting additional funding for the organization, over Franklin’s objections.

Botts said it has always been the alliance’s goal to be independent — a goal he supported when he was a board member of the organization and still does. He noted that the Redevelopment Agency’s draft, five-year plan calls for support of the alliance to be phased out. He backs that position.

Botts said he believes, along with four of his fellow council members and city administrators, that the Cultural Alliance has accomplished what the Redevelopment Agency asked it to do: attract more visitors to downtown Banning.

Taylor and Edinburgh are against giving the alliance more money. “The kind of things they’ve done hasn’t changed anything in Banning at all,” Edinburgh said.

Miller and Taylor said any redevelopment dollars left should be spent enticing new businesses to Banning.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

All of the candidates say if they are elected, economic development would be a priority to draw new businesses to town and generate jobs for residents and more revenue for the city.

McCallum said he believes the municipal airport offers business opportunities, such as restaurants to cater to aviation hobbyists.

Franklin said the city needs more incentives to attract people to Banning and enterprise zones where businesses can get tax credits. She also said the city needs to build up a more positive image and have council members serve as ambassadors to prospective businesses.

Miller proposes lowering utility rates and taxes for new businesses.

Bray said he wants existing businesses in Banning to come together with the city and talk about what their needs and wants are, to see what can be done to assist them. He also wants the city to tap into local resources to help with unemployment, including use of municipal buses or church vans to take unemployed residents to job fairs.

Bray said he’s concerned about the town’s youth and wants to make certain the community center, which the city considered shuttering this year to save money, remains open. He believes the city needs to do a better job promoting what’s available, such as the municipal swimming pool, which some residents don’t know exists.

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