Special session focuses on 2011 goals
Wendy Leung, Staff Writer
Created: 01/15/2011 07:06:35 AM PST

RANCHO CUCAMONGA – The City Council, with a new mayor and two new councilmen, kicked off 2011 with a team-building session last week that got the five leaders talking about their goals for a financially and politically difficult year.

It’s an annual tradition for city leaders to meet for a daylong session in January. On Wednesday, the eight-hour meeting was like a leadership camp that replaced the campfire with PowerPoint presentations.

City Manager Jack Lam briefed the council on the state of the city’s budget and council members griped about Sacramento and how the Bell scandal affected public perception of municipal government.

Mayor Dennis Michael said the controversial salary scandal in the city of Bell, coupled with negative headlines concerning the city and its neighbors, are some of the reasons why the City Council must work hard to maintain the public’s trust.

In December, former Councilman Rex Gutierrez was sentenced to two years and eight months in state prison for his role in the San Bernardino County Assessor’s Office scandal.

“Right now, the image of local government is critically important,” Michael told his colleagues. “We have come through some troubled times by losing one of our previous council members.”

Michael said the controversies in San Bernardino County and Upland do not help the image of local government.

“Now a community west of us is going through troubled times,” Michael said. “We have to make sure we uphold the highest of ethics and standards, that we lead with integrity.”

The mayor had some new ideas for City Council meetings. Michael said he wants to take some meetings on the road – going to senior centers, the equestrian community and other neighborhoods several times a year. He wants to streamline the meetings and suggested that council members not feel obligated to give a speech about their position before every vote.

Chuck Buquet, who was appointed to fill Michael’s council seat, liked the idea.

“I don’t feel like we have to chime in every time we have a vote,” Buquet said.

The special meeting, held at Victoria Gardens Cultural Center, was led by facilitator Bill Mathis, who asked each member to outline a wish list for the new year.

Councilman Bill Alexander said he wants the city to be more business-friendly, perhaps adjusting its fees or taking another look at the sign ordinance.

Councilwoman Diane Williams said the city should be more flexible about its landscaping requirements in light of rising water rates.

“It’s up to us to be not totally hard-nosed,” Williams said. “It could be a more interesting community, as opposed to all green lawns.”

With so much uncertainty concerning the state budget and with such slow economic recovery, the discussion also turned to public safety and where it fits on the priorities list.

Alexander, a former firefighter, said every department, including public safety, has to find ways to be more efficient.

“This is a new era, and nothing is sacred anymore,” Alexander said.

Williams had a different take.

“It’s a real concern when we have to say cut completely across the board,” she said. “Some cities have closed off fire stations. … We would have to be on the edge of bankruptcy and close off all services before we can do that.”

But the city is far from having to make that decision.

The city manager said he “guesstimates” a slight increase in sales tax revenue, the main source of this city’s general fund. Recovery might be on the horizon, but he warned against too much optimism.

“We’re not going to return to the boom years of the past,” Lam said.

By the end of this fiscal year, Lam said the city should reach bottom and be poised to discontinue use of reserves when balancing the budget.

“We’re going to wallow in this bottom for a couple of years,” he said. “We believe this is a positive because it’s better than the other way.”

In the fiscal year that begins in July, the city is expected to face a budget gap of about $1.7 million. That figure is a culmination of the gaps in the general fund, library fund and the fire district budget.

There’s not a lot of money out there, but a number of ongoing projects and other programs will mark the new year:

The Pacific Electric Trail and related enhancements will be completed by December. A regional opening celebrating a trail that links Claremont and Fontana is expected.

The Foothill Boulevard widening project will be finished at the end of the year with the unveiling of a new bridge. The city may reconsider the construction of two arches in the eastern and western entryways to the city.

The Hellman Avenue storm drain project will continue with work to begin on the street from the Cucamonga Creek to south of Ninth Street.

By the end of the year, construction drawings for the Freedom Courtyard in Central Park will be finalized. The city will check fundraising efforts at that time. As of this month, about $31,000 has been generated for a project that will cost about $100,000.

A video surveillance program by the sheriff’s department will be implemented at Victoria Gardens and at Foothill Boulevard and Masi Drive.

By June, the Adult Sports Complex will get new lighting.

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