Television cameras were rolling as angry protesters marched to Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez’s home Sunday. Residents said they were demanding action because of recent shootings, one earlier that morning that left three people injured, one near Tapia market in which a woman was grazed by a bullet, and another two weeks ago that claimed the life of teenager Michael Cardenas.
The protestors who planned to march to the mayors’ house, however, did not count on her showing up at the beginning of the march to talk and walk with the protestors.
“I heard they were walking to my house to protest and I though that wasn’t necessary,” Rodriguez told EGP. “I’m never going to hide from residents… I am always available to talk with them.”
Protestors accused the mayor of being indifferent to the crimes and blamed her for the violence in the city. Councilwoman Priscilla Flores was present at the march and defended the mayor saying that the event was being used politically to misinform residents.
Marthaane Viurquiz told a KCAL9 reporter “the mayor has all power;” the next day Viurquiz repeated the same to EGP:
“Yeah, I organized it [the march],” said Viurquiz, a Bell Gardens resident who says she ran for the city council about five years ago. “I’m tired of it [the violence].”
Viurquiz cited the four recent shootings as reason for marching to the mayor’s house. She said they wanted to hold Rodriguez accountable for saying public safety is her number one priority.
Viurquiz said she regretted not running against Rodriguez in the last election, but added an after-school fight last year involving her son is her current motivation — to prevent other young people from being victims of violence.
Although she says she is not thinking about running, there are those who accuse her of building her political platform for the 2009 city council elections.
Councilman Mario Beltran told EGP that he welcomes the people’s right to assemble and protest but he said that city hall—and not the mayor’s house—would have been the appropriate place to express concerns. Beltran said that directing attention to the mayor’s house could jeopardize the safety of the mayor and her family.
“It was an irresponsible thing to do,” Betran told EGP, adding he believes the community was being used for individuals’ political gain.
Beltran also said he was confident that the persons responsible for the crimes would be brought to justice by the Bell Gardens Police Department.
Councilman Daniel Crespo was among the protestors, and has since been accused of manipulating residents for political benefit, something he flatly denies. According to Crespo he was called and invited to attend a march against violence, and that’s what he did.
Crespo told EGP that the mayor and his fellow council members should be held accountable. He says there’s been a significant change in council priorities since they were elected. The “very minimum” has been done to make Bell Gardens a safer place, he said. He accuses them, for political reasons, of never taking his ideas seriously.
Crespo said he has proposed various things to the council and sent copies of 11 memorandums (that he has written) to EGP, memos he said show his public safety efforts. But none were recent—four were from 2003, four were from 2004, one was from 2005, and two were from 2006. Of those, five had to do with the Huntington Park “boot camp” program and four of those were requests by parents who wanted their children in the program. That program was very successful, he said. But council members shut it down, and that along with not supporting other programs for at-risk youth has led to the violence seen in the city today, he claims.
Crespo told EGP that the city is a gang “war zone,” and thinks they should hire more police officers. “I wish we could get the National Guard to come,” he said.
“I have good ideas and solutions,” Crespo said and added that dysfunction in the council prevented him from helping more people. “[But every time they think,] Crespo came up with it, Crespo should get credit for it, so lets kill it.”
Crespo said the city needs a publicly elected mayor, and he would propose to put it on the ballot, “I may even run for mayor,” he said.
Rodriguez told EGP that the recent march was just part of a pattern of election time behavior by Crespo. She said that misinformation about crime in the city was causing fear in the community and discouraging police officers.
“He should be embarrassed,” Rodriguez said. “He has been in council longer than any of us…and he hasn’t provided anything.”
The new City Manager Steve Simonian’s first day was Monday. While he didn’t take sides, he explained that Rodriguez, as mayor, has extra administrative duties, but no more power than the other council members.
“There are five people who set policy and direct expenditures,” Simonian explained. “The mayor is not the only one responsible—she was not elected as a mayor, that was decided within council, it is a rotating position.”
Councilman Pedro Aceituno also said he saw the march as a politically motivated event.
“I think there has been a different message [about crime] than what the actual statistics show,” Aceituno said. He said the recent violence has been taken out of proportion.
EGP met with the Bell Gardens Police chief and several other ranking officers last week. They said they wanted to open up the lines of communication with the community, and to reassure residents that Bell Gardens is not in a crime crisis, but rather that the crime rates have gone down this year.
According to Chief Keith Kilmer, over all crime in the city is down by six percent and homicides have dropped 50 percent from the same time last year.
“At this time last year, there were six homicides and they were all gang related,” Kilmer told EGP on Oct. 2. “This year there have been three homicides but only one is believed to involve a gang.” That was prior to the latest shootings in the city.
Kilmer also said that aggravated assaults had gone down by 12 percent and assaults with a firearm had gone down by 24 percent.
The chief said his department is using a variety of initiatives to reduce gang activity and crime, including: undercover narcotics surveillance, curfew and truancy sweeps, and larger scale operations to directly impact gang activity and related crime.
A special city council meeting to discuss crime and gang prevention in the city was scheduled to take place yesterday, the results of which were not available as of press time. Next week EGP will take a closer look at the crime statistics.