As part of an ongoing series, the Quaker Campus sat down with Whittier City Council member Fernando Dutra to talk about civic engagement and what it means to work in local government. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Madison White (MW): Can you give me a little bit on your background?
Fernando Dutra (FD): I got into local politics in 2000. My background is as a builder; it’s what I love. I get to create everyday. Because of my design background, I was asked to join the city of Whittier’s Design Review Board and served on the Review Board for six years. That led to an opportunity being available on the Planning Commission, and I worked there for eight years. In 2012, one of our local councilman decided to retire and I put my name in as an application. It’s been a series of steps; I didn’t just step into the number one position in the city.
MW: What would you consider your greatest achievement since you have been in elected office?
FD: I think the Whittier Boulevard Specific Plan, and how that has evolved into the numerous projects on Whittier Boulevard. It’s been very, very successful.
MW: Let’s talk about improvement projects going on in Uptown Whittier. The City Council just approved a plan for a sidewalk streetscape, for outside dining. What is that going to look like?
FD: There are four proposals for the Uptown enhancements. By the way, I was the only one that voted no on it, because I felt that we needed to have a blend of several of the options that would allow for us to keep some of the trees. I think we have an urban forest in the city of Whittier, and we should be proud of that.
MW: The Groves development off of Whittier Boulevard will bring lots of foot traffic to Uptown, as well as some shopping of its own. Do you have any idea what kind of commercial development will be at the Groves?
FD: Having built 11 master-planned communities of my own, you’re going to have roughly 750 new homes. A retailer looks for demographics, what kind of people are going to be buying in my shops. I think the demographics are going be young professionals and some active adults, and those demographics have certain expectations of nicer restaurants, convenient shopping, some of the things they’re used to seeing.
MW: You represent a very diverse population, in your own City Council district; as well as the fact that when you vote on the Council, the decisions affect the city as a whole. Even in the time that you’ve been in elected office, the demographics in Whittier have changed significantly. How have you adapted as a leader?
FD: I live in my district and have for 30 years. I know the people that have been there for a long time, what they like and do not like. The young families, I connect with them as well because my kids grew up here. I try to connect with my residents. There are always going to be unhappy people, and there’s nothing I can do about that, but for the most part I try to make everybody in my district happy.
MW: Let’s talk about oil drilling in the hills.
FD: [Laughs] There’s drilling in the hills?
MW: Maybe, what’s going on there?
FD: We’re currently doing our fact gathering, kind of finding out what our options are. Oil is a big deal; it’s a tough discussion because you have so much passion on both sides. You have the side that says, “My God, you’re not gonna drill in our hills; we love our hills.” Our standard of living is increased by the fact that we have great hills. Oil has always been here, it’s been a part of our history since day one. The question is, and I’m sure [Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri] mentioned we have some budgetary issues. That’s a no-brainer. We have budgetary issues, but you have to ask yourself, what would we do if we had all this money? We could build better parks, better schools, great homeless programs with this money that is readily available, so what are the risks? The risks are that someday, maybe, an oil line breaks up. Let me say this, there are existing oil lines under almost every street in Whittier. The risks are that something goes wrong, keep in mind that the technology we have for oil is not what it was, even ten years ago. I think this is a big enough issue that it should be up to the people.
MW: Are you talking about putting it on the ballot?
FD: Maybe. I think this is such a large issue that we really have to look at all the options, and I would not be opposed to putting it on the ballot.
To read more about oil drilling in the Whittier Hills, visit thequakercampus.org. In early October, the Supreme Court of California decided not to review the case, meaning that it will be up to the Whittier City Council to decide how to proceed. The Quaker Campus will continue to report on the story as it develops.