The entire slate of recall election candidates who are set to challenge the seats of Commerce city Mayor Tina Baca Del Rio and Councilman Robert Fierro on Nov 4 were no shows at last week’s candidates forum.
At the Oct 1 forum sponsored by the Industrial Council, the public posed a wide variety of questions ranging from broad issues like the environment to specifics like city programs for the handicapped to a panel made up of Del Rio, Fierro, and a row of empty seats and unclaimed name cards.
“I think it was a greatly missed opportunity,” said Industrial Council Executive Director, Eddie Tafoya. “I think if you’re ready to become a great city leader, this is a great opportunity for any individual to showcase their platform and their beliefs, and their overall goals for the residents and the entire community.”
The Industrial Council’s interest in holding the forum is to keep the Commerce business community informed about the upcoming election, Tafoya says. “What happens in city hall ultimately has an effect on our industrial community…” he says.
But four of the five council hopefuls boycotted the forum, claiming Tafoya has an unusually close relationship with the two council members who are defending their seats. The challengers claim the forum would be rigged against them.
The four candidates sent a letter to the League of Women Voters, which facilitated the forum, and to the Industrial Council claiming the event is an inappropriate and self-serving use of public funds and would unfairly favor the two incumbents being recalled. The letter ends with the candidates stating they would not participate in a forum they considered to be a “blatant misuse of public funds for the political benefit and gain of Mr. Fierro and Mrs. Del Rio.”
Tafoya says the League of Women Voters is a highly regarded, non-partisan organization. “Their main purpose is to encourage and inform, and to promote active participation of citizens in their own in government. They don’t support candidates and they don’t endorse people,” he says.
“The industrial council went before the city council to ask to have it videotaped… and it was [Mayor] Tina [Baca Del Rio], [Councilman] Robert [Fierro], and [Councilman] Joe [Aguilar] — the three of them who went ahead and approved the $1,750 to spend to video tape this forum and to have it at a city facility and then running it on city cable,” Lilia Leon, one of the candidates who signed the letter, told EGP the night before the forum was to be held.
“If the Industrial Council wanted a video tape, why isn’t the industrial council paying for it? Why is the city paying for it? And why are we having it at a city facility? And why are we putting it on city cable? … We’re not going because it’s going to be another abuse to put it – if it’s a candidate’s forum, it should have only the candidates,” she says.
The four candidates also took issue with the inclusion of Fierro and Del Rio in the forum. In explaining this point, Leon suggested the playing field would not have been equal between the council members and their challengers. “How do you ask one question to five candidates running for city council versus the two people being recalled? What are you going to do for our community?’ The five candidates could answer that, but the incumbents can say what they’ve already [done] … you know we’ve never had a recall forum so we weren’t sure what the criteria was… “ she said.
Most of the candidates are running for their first council seat, except for Leon and Jesus C. Cervantes who have both served as mayors for the city.
Art Gonzalez also signed the letter stating he would boycott the forum. He rejects the idea of Del Rio and Fierro being included.
“The forum was for the candidates, not for the constituents [sic]. It’s kind of like saying George Bush will be attending [the U.S. presidential debates]. It’s like saying he should attend, when he’s on his way out. If the recall goes through [Del Rio and Fierro] are automatically out of the picture. They’re not eligible to be elected instantly on the same ballot…”
However, the League of Women Voters’ facilitator Margo Reeg says the current council members have the right to defend their seats. “In the case of a recall, it is only fair that the city council members have the opportunity to represent themselves in the forum,” Reeg told the forum audience.
Gonzalez added that while he signed the letter and agreed with his fellow candidates that the forum was unfairly set up, he also had a scheduling conflict that prevented him from attending.
Cervantes was the only candidate who did not sign the letter, and he told EGP on the night before the forum that he would be participating.
“I said I was going. I gave my word and I’m not afraid of whatever they can say,” he told EGP.
However, Cervantes ended up not attending. He told EGP that he “realized the whole thing was being done illegally because the two council members, because they vote in this case and the local channel is paid for by the city, this is against the California law for council members to do that. That’s why I decided not to be part of that,” he said.
Commerce’s public information officer, Brian Wolfson, said however that city attorney was asked to determine if the city municipal channel could be used to video tape their forum, if the channel could be used to air the finished forum. He determined there was no misuse, and that it is an appropriate use.
Cervantes disagrees. “Those are the laws. Council members cannot vote in anything that can benefit him or herself. The council members can’t vote for anything that would be a conflict of interest,” he says.
Reeg said that while they would have preferred a full dais, the League decided to allow the forum to go on.
The 200-person capacity meeting room at Rosewood Park was nearly packed during the forum. Questions from the public were collected from the audience and filtered by the League of Women Voters volunteers.
In their opening statements, the incumbents took the opportunity to reacquaint voters to their biographies.
Fierro spoke of his 35 years as a resident in Commerce with roots in the Veterans Park area. From his childhood involvement in a variety of athletics, he moved into careers as a city employee, later becoming a probation officer, and settling down as a teacher. He stated his dedication to keeping the city “corrupt free” and said his goal is to promote fiscal responsibility.
Del Rio says she is a 45 year resident of Commerce where she was born and raised. Her family has been in the city for five generations. “We’re deep-rooted in the city of Commerce. It matters, the city really does matter to myself and my family,” she said.
“It’s very hard to be up here defending my seat and my honor, because when I came in, I came in with integrity, and if I go out, I’ll go out with the same thing.”
The public was interested in a variety of issues. One of the early questions was about programs for the handicapped, which both Fierro and Del Rio embraced, saying the city should work to bring more of the city’s many community services to people with disabilities.
Residents also sought details on how the panel would address trucks parking or idling illegally in residential neighborhoods. Both recommended more enforcement, with Del Rio referring specifically to code enforcement measures and resources that could be strengthened as part of the city’s Keep Commerce Beautiful campaign.
The council members were asked how they propose to make good use of the city’s environmental justice task force and how it views the proposed power plant in Vernon. Both council members have long been outspoken about their opposition to the power plant, which the city recently protested through a candlelight vigil. In order to further the environmental justice policies in the city, Del Rio and Fierro recommended keeping channels open with local environmental groups.
The two incumbents addressed the economy in one question that asked how Commerce would work regionally to “restart the economy.”
“You know, it’s hard because I don’t know if a regional effort is exactly what we need at this point. I think what we’re trying to do locally is making sure our budget is balanced and so forth,” Del Rio said.
Fierro said much of the city’s stability comes from the revenue it gets from the Commerce Casino. “Fortunately the city of Commerce because of our budget and the way we structure it and the way we emphasize and put our moneys, and of course, thanks to Commerce Casino we’re able to balance and make the appropriate decisions for you guys, the residents,” he said.
The incumbents both spoke about preserving the residential community in the city. “I don’t see a big issue especially with this city being so small and so family-oriented… We’ve got to support our families… and housing is one of the keys to keeping family here in Commerce for many years,” Fierro said.
The incumbents were accused by the recall proponents of abusing the city’s car privileges. One of the perks granted council members is a car to drive between city events. Del Rio said such perks, as well as the medical benefits and stipends are approved by the entire city council.
In his closing statement, Fierro lamented that “special interests” are interested in their seats. “The city is going in a different direction, but we will fight. We care for you guys,” he says.
Del Rio says special interests want to take over the city. She summed up her feelings about the recall election, saying “The community deserves who they elect. And if we are removed, you will be faced with individuals who are going to change our city. You better believe the city is going to be changed in a big way. And it’s not going to be the comfortable city that you know now…“ she said.
Commerce Candidates Forum – Airs on Commerce’s cable Channel 55 and streams online at http://www.ci.commerce.ca.us until November 4:
Mondays at 2 pm; Tuesdays at 1:30 & 10 pm; Wednesdays at 4 & 8 pm.; Thursdays at 8:30 pm; Fridays at 9:30 am & 9:30 pm; Saturdays at 6:30 pm; Sundays at 9am & 10.